Kentucky black leaders v. Rand Paul – By KATIE GLUECK 12/5/14 5:32 AM EST

Did outreach begin only after his presidential prospects bloomed?

Sen. Rand Paul is shown. | Getty

Over the past year-and-a-half, Sen. Rand Paul has spoken at historically black colleges, gathered with African American leaders in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown, and criticized a justice system he says unfairly targets minorities. His message is unmistakable: I’m a different kind of Republican who’s not afraid to engage with communities that typically vote for Democrats.

Yet in 2010, when he was a long-shot tea party candidate for Senate, and during his first two years in the job, Paul was rarely seen or heard from in Kentucky’s African American community, according to interviews with more than a dozen black leaders in the Bluegrass State, including seven of the eight African American state legislators. Indeed, his much-publicized courtship has occurred almost entirely as the Republican began plotting a potential run for president.

The officials, almost all Democrats, largely agreed that Paul deserves credit for spending time in minority communities and addressing issues that haven’t been high on the GOP’s priority list. But many were skeptical that Paul is acting out of long-held beliefs about racial injustice, given his earlier absence and his controversial 2010 remarks questioning whether the Civil Rights Act should apply to private businesses, which he’s sought to surmount ever since.

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“I see Sen. Paul as really being an opportunist here,” said Democratic state Sen. Reggie Thomas. “His actions over the last couple years, now that he wants to run for president, really belie his feelings he’s expressed.”

“For him or anyone else to think he can show up in our community, smile, shake a few hands, take a few pictures, and that represents something significant in terms of him conveying a message that answers the questions or addresses the issues we are concerned about,” added state Rep. Reginald Meeks of Louisville, “to me that’s being pretty callous and pretty shallow.”

Aside from attending Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations, dispatching field representatives from time to time and working with a tea party-affiliated African American pastor, Paul barely registered in Kentucky’s black communities during his first few years in office, according to the interviews.

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