BERKELEY, Calif. — A mile from one of the most famous liberal campuses, Rand Paul is sipping coffee in a packed college café and answering a question about Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.
He stops mid-sentence.
The Republican senator is focused on someone on the other side of the coffee house.
“I don’t know if we’re being filmed or not,” the Kentuckian says, lowering his voice.
Some unknown patron — slyly hiding behind a dividing wall in the coffee shop — seems to be using a camera phone. He’s pointing it at us.
After a few more seconds, Paul brushes it off. “NSA’s got people everywhere,” he jokes.
That gets Paul back on the subject he flew across the country to talk about. It’s Wednesday afternoon, an hour before Paul — dressed casually in jeans, a white buttoned down shirt, red tie and cowboy boots — is set to deliver an anti-government spying speech here on the campus of the University of California.
Paul is seated on a couch in the corner of this coffee house. The Shattuck Avenue joint is just how you would imagine a Berkeley café: students staring at laptops; posters advertising poetry classes; drinks with mint leaves; a compost bin for waste.
The likely 2016 presidential candidate is not shy about why he ventured here. “I think the Republican Party will not win again until we figure out how to expand our base,” Paul said in an interview at Philz Coffee. “So my goal in being here is to say that, ‘look, maybe I’m the Republican that can attract votes even at Berkeley.’”
Paul is convinced one way to do that is to talk about issues like government surveillance. “The message of privacy is something that may be able to attract kids of all walks of life — whether you are a liberal at Berkeley or a conservative at Berkeley or an independent at Berkeley,” he said. “It is an issue that unifies the youth.”
Paul said he is disturbed by the new claims made by Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein that the CIA illegally searched her staffers’ computers.
Asked if he’s worried something like that could happen to his office, considering his outspokenness on the issue, he replied: “I worry it could happen to anybody generally. I don’t have sort of a particular paranoia about it happening to me.”
He announced during his Berkeley Forum address on Wednesday that he plans to call for a special committee on Capitol Hill to investigate the domestic spying by government agencies. This comes after filing a class-action lawsuit — with the help of former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli — against President Obama over the government’s collection of telephone metadata.
During the coffee house conversation, Paul said: “When you sign up with a phone company or an Internet company, I don’t think you’re giving up your right to privacy.”
Paul’s remarks on Wednesday even drew interest from liberals like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and California Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom, both of whom attended the campus event and stood in the back.
“This is a vexing issue,” Newsom said of privacy issues after the event. “A challenging issue. And I think it’s important conversation. And that’s why I took the time to come over.”