(‘76 Contributor) Rand Paul must still be licking his wounds after his recent foray into the halls of Howard University. When I read about Sen. Paul’s devastation as his prepared remarks unraveled, revealing a series of factual errors, misnomers, temporal confusions and a failed attempt to equate the post–1968 Republicans with the party of Lincoln, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with another white conservative who had spoken numerous times to cheering, supportive crowds at Howard University: the late Jack Kemp—congressman, cabinet secretary, and 1996 GOP vice–presidential nominee.
In contrast to Paul’s appearance, Jack’s visits were never described as a “brave” thing to do, and police never had to erect barricades in anticipation of violent protests. Kemp was not only a welcomed speaker but was even appointed on the Howard University Board of Trustees—a position he considered not an honor but a responsibility, which he took so seriously that he attended the board meeting while battling cancer, the month before it took his life.
At Howard University, as well as in South Central Los Angeles, Harlem, and the Southside of Chicago, Kemp was among friends. Winning political support from those areas was never Kemp’s goal, but a byproduct of his consistent effort to achieve the goal of boosting all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or ideology to have a shot at achieving the American Dream. Kemp practiced what I believe is “Community–Building Conservatism.”
When he served in Congress and as HUD Secretary, I had the privilege of assisting Jack in his efforts to stimulate urban development through innovative projects of enterprise zones and resident management of public housing. Grassroots leaders in my Center for Neighborhood Enterprise network invited him to their neighborhoods in low–income inner–city communities that had been neglected and abandoned by Democrat politicians who represented their districts.
Jack first went in and listened. He then utilized his considerable influence to mobilize members of Congress and the private sector to support efforts of neighborhood leaders to gain greater self–sufficiency and control and to empower them to uplift their communities. Kemp established himself with his actions, not with an argument. His actions were not a strategy to capture a vote but a heartfelt response to needs that were not being met. As a consequence, he developed a reputation as someone who authentically cared and, in the process, his party and the conservative philosophy benefited from his actions.
The standard that Jack used was “outcome” and his action had a clear goal: improving life for those who were most vulnerable. That was the signature standard that Jack used to define his relationships with his peers, his party, and even those on the other side of the aisle. He elevated principle and purpose above party and politics.
He believed that the people who were suffering in drug–infested cesspools of pathology needed to be strengthened to help themselves, and he saw that they were not finding that help among their political friends, so he reached into those communities and offered a lifeline. He recognized the aspirations and capacities of those who were disadvantaged and in need. He saw that they had the desire for self sufficiency and independence but were in need of a vehicle to realize those goals, so he provided that means.
And he invited others from the Democrats’ side to help him help those who were most in need. He was willing to meet with anybody in pursuit of his goal. He demonstrated that it was possible to forge a consensus with those on the left without compromising any core conservative principles. He was the ultimate consensus builder. Yet his purpose was never to build a consensus; collaboration was a means to a larger goal. Jack’s goal was to make a difference, and any support that followed was just a byproduct of that effort.
When, as a vice–presidential candidate, he campaigned in Harlem, Jack said that his hope was that the day would come when 50% of Black Americans voted Republicans and 50% voted Democrat so that each party would have to compete for every black vote.
Other conservatives practiced the principled outreach that Kemp embodied, and their efforts elicited similar support from minority communities. Dick Riordan—as an entrepreneur and long before his political activities began—supported PUENTE, a neighborhood youth and family center in a low–income Hispanic community, and provided a site for the organization’s trailers. He continued to work with PUENTE’s founder, Sister Jennie Lechtenberg, spearheading a $10 million capital campaign for her efforts. In 1995, the organization opened the doors of its 40,000 square–foot state–of–the–art facility that provided educational opportunities for 1,800 students, which was named in Riordan’s honor. In 1993 when Riordan ran for mayor of Los Angeles, his decisive victory at the ballot box earned him the title that no Republican had held for more than 30 years. He later went on to be re–elected with 60% of the vote.
Similarly, in Indianapolis, Mayor Steve Goldsmith enjoyed support across all racial and ethnic boundaries with an agenda that focused on economic revitalization and opportunities for upward mobility for all.
It is important to note that, in spite of their remarkable popularity among blacks and Hispanics neither Kemp, nor Riordan, nor Goldsmith ever engaged in a campaign of “minority outreach.” All worked to further opportunities to achieve the American Dream, but none segmented fellow–Americans into vying racial and ethnic groups.
Against the backdrop of the success of these leaders, current Republican multi–million dollar investments in “minority outreach” through political operatives, media personnel, and emissaries hired to make headway into unfamiliar territory are revealed as not only ill–fated and counterproductive but clueless, at best and, at worst, insulting.
There is no quick–fix, political operative or speaking engagement that can garner minority support for Republicans today but, as Jack Kemp and others of his ilk have proven, an impassioned and determined commitment to results–based action will win lasting allegiance across racial, ethnic and even political boundaries.