Illustration for article titled Jack Kemp—The Reason I Became a Republican

“I would like to see an America where black and white actually listen to each other. These issues can’t be solved with rhetoric but with sound positive progressive inclusive policies. I want to see the Republican Party lead that debate because we are the Party of Lincoln and we must be an inclusionary party. . . I’d like to see an America where half of all black Americans are voting democrat and the other half are voting Republican."


Jack Kemp on Meet the Press, Feb. 9, 1997

Jack Kemp was not your typical conservative Republican politician. He was bigger than that. He got it. He understood that the Party of Lincoln could not last long if it could not figure out how to successfully attract black voters into its fold. Not since 1960 has a GOP presidential nominee received more than 30 percent of the black vote: Jack Kemp understood the problem this presented, and he often lamented it. He begged his party to be true to its founding principles and reach out to minority voters.


The above quote from Meet the Press was the essence of Jack Kemp, a man whom I knew, respected and admired. A fiscally conservative congressman, a hawk on the military defense and a man who had a great interest in the issues of civil rights, the plight of America’s cities and outreach to the black community.

We can all see the consequences of the GOP not heeding his advice; the party now attracts less than 5 percent of the black vote, less than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote; it is fast becoming a small regional, mostly Southern party.

If the Republican Party is to have a future, it needs to take some of the advice that Kemp had been giving for the past 20 years.

Jack was a man after my own heart. I first met him as a college sophomore in 1988 when he was running for president in the GOP primary. After he became HUD secretary under President George H.W. Bush, I came to know him better. It was Jack Kemp who ventured into South Central Los Angeles (with shirt sleeves rolled) after the riots in 1991 to calm the black residents of that community. Jack Kemp inspired me to become a Republican, and I have always been proud of that.


It was Jack Kemp who encouraged me to run for Congress in 1996 when I was but 29, (neither of us knowing at the time that he would be tapped for the vice-presidential spot by the GOP nominee Bob Dole). We kept in touch over the years, and when I penned my op-ed in the Washington Post on the GOP after the 2008 election, Kemp was one of the first to reach out to me via e-mail saying:


Thanks for the mention in your terrific and relevant op-ed last Sunday. Come by the office and let’s have coffee and see how we can work together to rebuild our party.



Kemp fought many tough battles within the GOP, particularly as HUD secretary, when he tried to push aggressive urban reform and revitalization. He waged those battles mostly in secret, alongside me and many other moderates on social and civil rights issues; he lost those battles, as the current state of the party attests.  I would recommend to you a great story written by Jason DeParle about this, headlined “How Jack Kemp Lost the War on Poverty.” In it, DeParle takes you inside the thinking of the GOP hierarchy and how it treated Kemp.


In the final analysis, the true legacy of a man’s life is not what he achieves in his professional life, but what he does in his personal life. Jack was a devoted husband to his wife of over 50 years, Joanne, and his four children and 17 grandchildren. They loved him, and he loved them most of all. Consider the letter he wrote to his grandchildren upon President Obama’s election. It read in part:

“My first thought last week upon learning that a 47-year-old African-American Democrat had won the presidency was, "Is this a great country or not?" You may have expected your grandfather to be disappointed that his friend John McCain lost (and I was), but there's a difference between disappointment over a lost election and the historical perspective of a monumental event in the life of our nation.”


That was Jack Kemp. He was always civil, always a gentleman, always optimistic about what America and the GOP could become. The nation has lost a great statesman. All who knew him have lost a great friend and political visionary whose presence in the Party of Lincoln will be missed.

Sophia A. Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.

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