Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) met with Ferguson, Mo., community leaders Friday. Civil unrest there came to a boil after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.

“I came to Ferguson today to listen to leaders in the community and to learn more about how we can fix the problems of criminal injustice together,” he said in a statement…

Since the shooting death in August of Michael Brown, 18, Paul’s emerged as a vocal defender of minority rights within the criminal justice system. In an op-ed piece for Time just days after the incident, he declared that, “we must demilitarize the police.”

“Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention,” Paul wrote.

Paul joined the leaders in the conference room of a real estate office across the street from an art installation Friday, where residents had tied ribbons to a metal fence with messages commemorating the protests that began in August after the shooting of 18-year-old African-American student Michael Brown. Paul arrived in town Thursday for a round table discussion at the Show Me Institute, a conservative think tank in St. Louis. That event, like the discussion with local and civil rights leaders in Ferguson, was not open to the press.

Friday’s discussion was free-ranging, less a speech than a question and answer session. People at the event said that they remained concerned about the GOP’s opposition to federal funding for job training and education and other social programs. Paul said that he would support increases in federal spending for job training in urban communities that could be paid for with cuts to the costs of incarceration. “I think there would be money for job training if you greatly lessened criminal sentencing,” he said…

Paul’s trip to Ferguson—the first by a 2016 candidate—is a reminder of how his position on criminal justice reform can make a Republican more palatable to the African-American community. As riots turned violent in Ferguson, Paul distinguished himself among Republicans by striking a more forceful tone in addressing the root of the protesters’ anger and putting forth potential solutions.

“He is stumping like he should be trying to stump if he wants to run for President,” said John Gaskin II, who participated in Friday’s event.

One person at the session asked Paul whether diversity on police forces should be mandated by the federal government. Paul, noting that two-thirds of the city’s population is black, told them it’s best to push for such change through elections.

“My opinion is they have a great deal of power and if they wanted an African-American police chief they’d get it in one election if they just go vote for the mayor and register people,” Paul, wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots and a black turtleneck, said afterward. “They were not too antagonistic to that. Some of them still want some kind of federal intervention here, but they have a great deal of power and could do anything they want if they register people to vote.”…

Kimberly Jade Norwood, a professor of law and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, wondered whether federal dollars could be used – as a carrot or stick – to improve local police training “so that officers keep bullets in their guns a little bit longer.”

“I think he got it,” she said…

“Most police are good people,” he said. “Probably just like the general public – 98 to 99 percent of policeman are good. That’s why I don’t this to be that I’m coming here to be against police. I’m pro-law enforcement, pro-law-and-order.”

It’s a risky move for the potential presidential candidate: While his visit bolsters the argument that he is the type of Republican who can appeal to black voters, he also runs the risk of alienating conservatives who think liberals are demagoguing the events in Ferguson for political purposes

John Gaskin III, a spokesman for St. Louis County NAACP, said after the meeting: “Senator Paul’s decision to meet with the St. Louis county NAACP and local leadership in Ferguson speaks volumes about the NAACP’s strength and influence in the civil rights community.”…

Paul aide Doug Stafford said of the visit: “Given the over-militarization of our law enforcement and the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for minority communities not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them. Senator Paul will continue to work to fix the broken system and in the meantime, let us continue to pray for the people of Ferguson, citizens, police and officials alike.”

“There’s a sense of tension and unease that goes beyond just the shootings. I think the shooting has brought this to the surface, but there’s a sense of unease in the country,” Paul told Blitzer.

“Black unemployment is twice white unemployment and has been for decade after decade,” he added. “I know this president cares about trying to improve it but it hasn’t gotten better.”…

Asked by Blitzer if Paul thinks he could garner African American support in a run for president, Paul said Republicans “won’t ever win again” unless they start competing for minority voters.

“We will not win again in our country because the country is a diverse country now,” he said. “And we can’t have one party that monopolizes the various ethnic group votes.”

“I am a politician, and I do recognize that [Republicans] haven’t done very well with people who live in cities — primarily African Americans — and I do think we need to do better,” he said in a phone interview from Ferguson. “The thing I found is that you might interview 20 people, and you find that they are not ready to vote for a Republican yet, but they are interested in Republicans competing for their vote and showing up in their communities.”…

“I think I’ve discovered more of urban America from being elected than not being elected. I grew up in a small rural town, so from a firsthand experience, I wasn’t as aware,” he said. “But as a senator … I’ve tried to learn about problems that I frankly didn’t know as much about. And as I met with community leaders, I’ve discovered that there were things like … many people didn’t have the right to vote, and I wasn’t aware of that. And since that time, I’ve become more active in those issues.”…

But in steadily talking about race, about hopelessness and a sense of powerlessness — as well as what the federal government can do to help — Paul is up to something entirely different. He is becoming the closest thing the Republicans have to an Al Sharpton or a Jesse Jackson, a comparison that prompted laughter from the man himself.

“I will leave that to others I don’t know,” he said. “I am trying very hard to show that Republicans do have policies and plans and do care about trying to fix problems in our nation’s cities.”