Kemp: A Rare Advocate For The District
Jack Kemp's mind was naturally focused on football as he led the Buffalo Bills to the American Football League championship in 1964, but he was paying enough attention to politics to realize that his fellow Republicans were making a mistake that would haunt them for decades to come:
By opposing the Civil Rights Act that year, Republicans sent a message that rang loud and clear among black Americans. That, Kemp would argue for decades to follow, was the moment when his party lost the bulk of its black support, and the legacy of that choice remains the party's most serious obstacle as it has steadily lost ground in recent years.
[UPDATE, 1:20 PM: As several readers correctly note below, Kemp got his history wrong: Republicans actually voted for the Civil Rights Act, overwhelmingly--a result of a bipartisan alliance between President Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) It was southern Democrats who led the opposition to the bill, and an alliance of pro-civil rights Democrats and Republicans who pushed it through. What Kemp was actually talking about was probably the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign that year, in which the GOP candidate made his opposition to the Civil Rights Act a centerpiece of his doomed campaign.]
Kemp, who died last night at his home in Bethesda, remained a Republican all his life, and espoused a fairly standard conservative line on most issues. But on race, urban issues and the abiding injustice of leaving residents of Washington as the nation's only people left disenfranchised because of where they live, Kemp stood out and stood up against his party's orthodoxy.
Kemp consistently chastised fellow Republicans as they joined many Democrats in various schemes to block Washingtonians from attaining the full voting rights that all other Americans take for granted.
In the last few years, as Kemp and fellow Republican Tom Davis, the recently-retired congressman from Fairfax County, led the way toward a compromise that would have granted a House seat to the District, the former football star turned politician frequently called upon GOP members of Congress to do the right thing and embrace voting rights.
"Members say, 'Well, black people in L.A. don't care about this,' " Kemp once told me, referring to his conversations with lawmakers. "Let me tell you, African Americans know that Washington, D.C., is a majority-black city with an African American mayor. This is one of the last chances the Republicans have to be a truly national party."
"Young men and women are being sent from D.C. to Baghdad," Kemp said several years into the Iraq war. "The hypocrisy is painful. It's just unbelievable how Republicans could turn away from American citizens who want to vote. I don't see how they can sleep at night."
Kemp was always available to talk up D.C. voting rights, whether in the media, to local groups, or around the country.
He sometimes attributed his awakening on the subject to his years as a sports star, living and playing with blacks and learning about some of the subtle pains that struck his friends even when no bald-faced discrimination was evident.
Kemp's solutions to problems of race, class and the urban-suburban divide were often not those of liberals more commonly associated with such issues. But some of the ideas he advocated most energetically made their way into everyday practice, at least in modified form: Enterprise zones and tax incentives for minority-owned businesses didn't transform American cities, but they did help along the growth of a substantial black middle class in some parts of the country.
In Washington, the Republican party has essentially vanished from District politics--the two longtime GOP members of the D.C. Council, Carol Schwartz and David Catania, have been defeated and left the party, respectively. And Kemp never managed to persuade more than a couple of dozen congressmen in his party to support D.C. voting rights. But Kemp and Davis did leave behind a small but principle core of supporters in the House to carry on their fight, a struggle they saw as standing up not only for District residents who have no voice in the making of their nation's laws, but also for the idea that their party cannot survive as a representative of white Americans alone.
By Marc Fisher |
May 3, 2009; 8:31 AM ET
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