On the morning before attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch would face Congress, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul re-introduced a bill that would tie her hands. Paul and a crew of congressmen—Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, Michigan Representative Tim Walberg—had resurrected the Fifth Amendment Integrity Act. If passed, it would restrict the government’s ability, from the Department of Justice on down to local cops, to seize property from criminal suspects.
“We’ve had protests across our country, and people think it’s about one or two instances,” Paul said from the rostrum. “No. It’s one thing after another. Let’s say you’ve got a poor family in a neighborhood in a big city, and grandmother owns the house. The 15-year old son is selling marijuana. They catch him. They take the house! The house was the only stabilizing thing in a family that was having trouble.”
Ellison, a black Democrat who was the first Muslim elected to Congress, stood by Paul as he summoned the ghosts of the Civil Rights movement.
“Martin Luther King talked about there being two Americas, where one America was treated in a just fashion and one wasn’t,” Paul said. “At one point it was based on color, and it was awful. Now it’s not so much based on color on purpose, but there is an inadvertent sense to the war on drugs that has allowed people of color to be caught up in this.”
This was Rand Paul, national figure and likely presidential candidate, and Democrats needed him. And this was still somewhat new to them. Paul had begun his Senate career in 2011 by slicing up red meat, introducing a doomed bill to ban abortions and a budget proposal that zeroed out foreign aid. He’d started the second Obama administration with a campaign of outreach to black students and black leaders, and a vocal campaign to restore the voting rights of felons. Democrats could say this and the media shrugged; Rand Paul said it, and the notebooks came out.
As 2014 dragged on, the violent news cycles gave Paul new chances to find a libertarian-liberal consensus. He took those chances. After the shootings of black teens by police officers, Paul wrote that it was “impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.” He’d introduced some bills to rectify that. The Democratic Senate had slept on them. So here he was, in 2015, starting what most people see as a nascent presidential campaign with an effort to erase harsh laws—to the joy of Democrats who have no power to pass any bills on their own.
“I’m glad when my colleagues start waving around the Constitution,” said Ellison. “I think the constitution is offended by civil forfeiture.”
Last year, Paul’s bills were written—and introduced with Democrats—at a staggered pace. This year, the senator expected “to get all those bills introduced in the next few weeks.” They include a bill that would give judges more flexibility in sentencing (with Pat Leahy), a bill that would allow felons to more easily restore their voting rights (with Harry Reid), and a bill that would reduce sentencing disparities in drug crimes (with Cory Booker).