- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

“If I had served my God with half the zeal that I served my king, I would not have been left sad and lonely in my old age.”

Such was the lament of the former archbishop of Canterbury in the play “Becket” when he was deposed by King Henry II and replaced by the king’s carousing friend, Thomas Becket. And this should be the lament of the Republican Party for its failure to be faithful to the transcendent principles and practices laid down by the likes of Jack Kemp and George Kettle, both recently deceased.

Both men had similar life-changing experiences when they observed racial injustice early in their careers. When George was 17, he was awaiting service in a Virginia restaurant when a black man came in and asked to purchase a cup of coffee and was told that people like him could not be served. At the age of 79, the pain and passion of that moment was still written on George’s face as he said, “I saw it and I did nothing.” Jack Kemp witnessed the same level of racism as his professional football friends were denied equal treatment by both the league and the fans.

George Kettle spent much of his time and wealth helping thousands of people around the world - from providing scholarships for inner-city black youths to working with and helping a pastor purchase and renovate a run-down property and turn it into a residential facility where hundreds are being freed from drug and alcohol abuse. The work of Jack Kemp is well known to a grateful nation.

Mr. Kemp and Mr. Kettle chose to serve their God and their nation and they properly placed these before their allegiance to their political party. The failure of the Republican Party to heed the lessons of these two men explains why the party is nearing extinction.

I worked side by side with Jack Kemp when he was in the Congress and then served an unpaid adviser when he was appointed secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I witnessed firsthand his frustration with the failure of his party to follow a consistent course of action to empower low-income Americans and those that had been disenfranchised. Jack’s frustration mirrored my own as I saw low-income blacks being betrayed by their liberators.

In 1981, Rep. Jack Kemp called and asked if he could come over to my office and meet the grass-roots leaders of the newly formed Public Housing Resident Management movement. Without aides in tow, Jack came with pad and pen in hand and sat for four hours listening and learning from these leaders. He heard amazing accounts of how drug-infested, crime-ridden housing projects became transformed into safe neighborhoods as a result of residents imposing strict standards of conduct on their peers. They, in turn, were inspired that a member of Congress would take that amount of time to spend with them. A relationship developed between these resident leaders and Jack Kemp that would last a lifetime.

In order to share what he had learned, Jack introduced me to some freshman Republican congressmen who organized themselves in what they called the “Opportunity Society.” Among them were Newt Gingrich from Georgia; Vin Weber from Minnesota; and Dick Armey and Steve Bartlett from Texas.

To deepen their understanding of what Jack had shared with them, they conducted a public hearing in the Kennilworth-Parkside Public Housing complex in the far Northeast section of Washington - one of the most drug-infested places in the city before local resident leader Kimi Gray and her resident management team cleaned it up. The members heard firsthand accounts of heroic acts to drive out the drug dealers and clean up the community. This event was reported on all the local news channels and in the local papers. Within two weeks banking committee Chairman Henry Gonzales and the Democrats felt outflanked and conducted their own hearing in the same place.

The Republican members learned of seven legislative housing policy barriers faced by these residents that discouraged their quest for independence and self-sufficiency. Solutions to these barriers were translated into legislative amendments to the U.S. Housing Act and Mr. Kemp promised to champion them. But, as he said to me, “Republicans are in a minority. If we propose it, it will be dead on arrival. You get me one Democrat and I will get you 100 Republicans.”

I recruited Democratic Delegate Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia, another man who, like Jack, was a stellar person of principle who put the interests of those he served ahead of his party. Jack and Walter came together and the housing amendment had its bipartisan sponsors.

During the course of public hearings, Democratic members of Congress were flabbergasted to be greeted by low-income housing residents lobbying for a piece of legislation introduced by Republicans. One member remarked, “Hey, these are supposed to be our people!” With the sponsorship of conservative Colorado Sen. Bill Armstrong joining with liberal Illinois Sen. Alan Dixon, the seven amendments to the housing act swept through both houses without one dissenting vote on the House floor.

President Reagan signed the bill giving residents the right to manage and to own their dwellings into law flanked by my six public housing leaders. The entire movement was the subject of reporting by every major network television, including a 20-minute segment on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”

Within the next four years, the principle of resident empowerment was a part of both the Republican and Democratic party platforms.

Both Jack and I were hopeful that what was done to enact public housing management legislation would be the template that the Republican Party would follow into the future. That template was: (1) Listen to those suffering the problem, (2) craft remedies identified by them (3) join with the aggrieved in public advocacy for change, and (4) reach out across the aisles to seek support.

For a while, it seemed Jack Kemp’s lessons were being heeded by the Republican Party. Newt Gingrich acknowledged that Republicans would never succeed if they were seen as being against minorities. Jack’s approach was a centerpiece of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” and Mr. Gingrich, as speaker of the House, also turned to me to get input from low-income, grass-roots leaders in shaping welfare reform.

Jack called himself a “bleeding heart conservative.” But that did not mean creating big government spending programs. Rather, he used his influence to summon the entrepreneurial spirit that resides in corporate America and low-income communities alike. He recognized that the desire for independence and self-sufficiency that drove Kimi Gray and her colleagues was the same spirit that drives corporate America - as evidenced by the Amoco’s $5 million grant investment in the public housing resident management movement. He used this knowledge to forge consensus around an issue important to low-income people, and used government to remove the barriers that were impeding this spirit. That is the template that Republicans and conservatives could have followed for the next three decades.

But somewhere along the way, as they moved into the majority, Republicans forgot. I remember being invited to a brown-bag luncheon of conservatives in Georgetown purportedly for the purpose of discussing a poverty agenda.

But when I arrived, I was told to drop my sack of sandwiches in a hall closet, where a sorry stack of similarly modest bags already resided. I was directed to the dining room, where white-gloved waiters served lunch and fine wines on linen-clothed tables. It was clear to me that the Republican war on poverty was over, and the lessons of Jack Kemp were already lost.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

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