Rand Paul sat in the office of his Bowling Green ophthalmology practice just before lunch on a Friday last month. He was on the phone, talking about his opposition to the cap-and-trade legislation that was defeated earlier this year in the U.S. Congress. Talk of the Environmental Protection Agency overreaching its authority peppered the conversation. The theme of government overreach is woven into just about everything Paul says these days.
Right after he hung up, he briskly walked to the waiting room, where a poster of the Boston Tea Party hangs. He checked his patient schedule, then walked back toward his office to handle another demand of his U.S. Senate campaign.
After a day at the office switching between roles as eye doctor and Republican Senate candidate, Paul had to shift again, this time to dad, when he headed to watch his youngest son, Robert, play in a soccer game.
“It’s a juggle,” Paul said.
Robert’s game was to be the only sporting event Paul could attend for at least the next week. The rest would fall victim to the pull of Paul’s campaign against his Democratic challenger, Jack Conway.
In previous years, Paul was able to make almost all of the games. He might have even been on the sidelines, arms crossed, right hand to his mouth, eyes squinting as he called out directions as “Coach Paul.”
“I’ve been a coach for many, many years. (The media) has asked me every question known to mankind, but the one thing I will not answer is my win-loss record,” Paul said.
Critics might say Paul would be better off revealing that tidbit of information instead of some of his controversy-sparking views on civil liberties. Then again, those same views have propelled him into the national spotlight and made him a local celebrity.
Paul, 47, hammered Trey Grayson, the Kentucky secretary of state and the Republican establishment’s pick, in the GOP U.S. Senate primary in May. A darling of the tea party movement, Paul’s message of fiscal responsibility resonated with an electorate worried about a recession that started in 2007 and has no end in sight.
The day after the primary, Paul made controversial statements to National Public Radio and to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow about the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act that rocketed his name out of political wonk circles and into the national conversation.
In Bowling Green, the comments and campaign made Paul the most recognizable, if not elusive, face in town.
“Obviously, unfriendly people probably don’t come up to you, but you get a lot of friendly people coming up and recognizing you. … People now recognize me in the grocery store,” Paul said. “People do want to chat and talk about things, but that elicits responses from people so I can know what they are concerned with.”
Still, he’s not always talking to crowds and groups of supporters. Sometimes Paul moves through the community unnoticed, or at least unbothered.
Craig Widener, who helps coach Paul’s middle son’s soccer team, said he’s seen Paul at a few games, but hasn’t noticed any crowds bombarding Paul.
“I know he came to some earlier stuff, but I did not notice anything out of the ordinary,” Widener said. “I have not paid much attention to the situation since then, though.”
Originally from Texas, Paul - the son of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a two-time presidential candidate - moved to Bowling Green in 1993 with his wife, Kelley, after finishing his medical training. Kelley’s family is from the Richardsville area, and the draw of family lured the Pauls to Bowling Green. Once they were here, Bowling Green reminded Paul of home.
“I’ve always been a small-town kind of person. I grew up in a town of 13,000. Bowling Green was kind of like coming to a bigger city,” Paul said. “I could have gone anywhere in the country … but I chose Bowling Green because I wanted to raise my kids in a small town.”
Before the campaign, Paul was known in the community through his medical practice, his involvement in the Noon Lions Club, his sons’ sports and church.
John Carr is a fellow member of the Lions Club and has known Paul for more than a decade. Paul is committed to community service, according to Carr. He was instrumental in helping set up the Lions Club’s Southern Kentucky Lions Eye Clinic, which helps low-income people. Paul estimates he’s treated about 2,000 people through the program, and he was awarded the Melvin Jones Fellowship by the club.
“He’s been a great asset to our Lions Club,” Carr said.
Since the primaries, Paul has been scarcer at the weekly Tuesday meetings at Cambridge Market and Cafe, said Carr, who is responsible for greeting all the members as they come in.
“He comes whenever he can now, but back when he was an officer he was there for every meeting,” he said.
It’s just another thing that’s slowly squeezed out as Paul tries to balance his life as a Senate candidate. One of the Lions Club meetings Paul did make recently was shortly after his controversial statements. It was his first public appearance since the debacle, and he used the opportunity to try to put out the fire he set a few weeks before.
It was a friendly crowd, and most seemed quick to forgive Paul, if they were even offended to begin with. To most, it was the same Rand Paul as before, just a few more people knew his name.
The a-ha moment in Paul’s decision to run for Senate came while speaking to another Bowling Green crowd more than a year earlier. What happened was the start of Paul’s struggle to balance his personal and political lives.
It was April 15, 2009. Tax day. He was supposed to be coaching a son’s baseball game.
“I asked the assistant coach to take charge of the team that night because I was going to go give a speech to the tea party,” Paul said.
More than 700 people crowded the square that evening. It was fairly unorganized and spontaneous, according to Wesley Leake, co-chairman of the Bowling Green/SOKY Tea Party.
“I wouldn’t say we’re close or anything, but we know (Paul),” Leake said. “We share a lot of similar values.”
The event was steeped in the anxiety of the federal government’s growing deficit. Speeches given by participants, including Paul’s, echoed this sentiment.
It was an opinion Paul had been espousing in conversation and in letters to the editor for a while. It was the energy of the crowd, though, that Paul said finally convinced him he needed to run for the Senate.
“I know something enormous was going on,” Paul said.
Paul’s grass-roots approach to politics has its origins in other aspects of his life. Much like the early stages of his campaign, Paul said he’s grown his medical practice through word of mouth.
Carr is a testament to that. At 82 years old, Carr said his vision was declining to the point he couldn’t read the newspaper. Since he knew Paul through the Lions Club, Carr decided to consult him about the problem and had his cataracts removed earlier this year.
“I can vouch for his professional skills,” Carr said. “I thought we better get it done in case he was successful in his political run so I wasn’t left without an ophthalmologist.”
That shouldn’t be a problem. One of the pillars of Paul’s campaign has been term limits, and he said he wants to keep practicing medicine if he wins in November. It would be a continuation of the balancing act Paul’s been playing since that April speech.
“I would go back and forth and I might well work Monday in my medical office and leave on a Monday night flight to go to Washington,” Paul said.
Time management isn’t the only aspect of the campaign that’s crept into Paul’s personal life. Because this is his first run for a political office and his political views are in line with the nascent - and sometimes radical - tea party movement, the media have been digging through Paul’s past.
The most sensational story reported so far was published by GQ magazine. It describes Paul’s days at Butler University. The article climaxes with a story of a prank that involved marijuana, a fake kidnapping and forcing a fellow student to worship the “Aqua Buddha.”
Paul hasn’t outright denied the story, but he has condemned the style in which the story was presented.
“I thought the old school was you had at least one named source and one corroborating source,” Paul said.
Paul said he’s had to talk with his kids about this and other accusations that have circulated through the media.
“People don’t realize that we’re real people with feelings and our families are real people with feelings,” he said.
However, Paul thinks that because his family attends political events with him, they realize that there are two sides to every story, and politics can be a somewhat dirty business.
For a week after Robert’s Friday night soccer game, Paul hit the campaign trail hard. Monday evening was spent in Owensboro, Wednesday in Henderson and Thursday in the north-central part of the state - probably a reaction to Conway’s announcement that he was opening a campaign office near Cincinnati.
It pulled him away from his medical practice and his personal life, something likely to happen with more regularity as the days to the election tick away.
Still, the race hasn’t consumed all of Paul’s life.
He made sure he was in town Friday to celebrate his wife’s birthday.