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Jack Kemp: Minorities - and Missouri - on his mind

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2009 - In 1997, while in town to help raise money for the Missouri Republican Party, charismatic GOP favorite Jack Kemp -- who died Saturday of cancer -- achieved something that generally eludes most of his political counterparts, then and now:

He got the attention of the waiters serving the dinner.

The scene was a fireside dining room in the exclusive Log Cabin Club in Ladue. His audience was about 70 of the region's most prominent, wealthy GOP donors, who had gathered to listen to advice on how the Republican Party could recover from a disastrous 1996 election, nationally and in Missouri.

But Kemp -- a football star who became a New York congressman, federal housing secretary and the 1996 vice presidential nominee -- chose straight talk over squishy we'll-come-back sentiment (although the party did make a strong comeback in a few years.)

Kemp focused on the Republican Party's poor record of attracting support from minority voters, and said its future depended on doing better. He cited the sorry statistics from 1996, when only 18 percent of Hispanic voters and 12 percent of African-Americans at the polls had chosen the Bob Dole-Kemp ticket over incumbent Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Kemp said GOP activists and voters should expect more from the party whose first presidential candidate was Abraham Lincoln, who in the White House freed the slaves. He contended that the Republican Party could appeal to minorities without changing its low-tax, less-government roots.

The upshot? As Kemp saw it, the GOP couldn't afford to be branded as an "all-white, suburban country club society" like his audience.

He had the well-heeled white audience listening in receptive silence. So was the largely African-American serving staff standing in the doorways in the back.

That scene was among the most memorable political events during my 30-plus years as a political reporter. But it was apparently typical of Kemp.

During a handful of interviews with Kemp when he stopped in St. Louis in the 1990s, I came to expect -- and look forward to -- some sort of comment out of character for a politician.

(And I made sure I preserved and labeled my tapes.)

In 1995, for example, he offered up this explanation of why he wasn't keen to run for president again (he had a failed bid in 1988): "You have to go to so many places and say so many stupid things. I'm not saying that those guys who do it are worse than me. Actually, I admire them."

Kemp also candidly observed that his political fund-raising had been hurt because he had publicly opposed an anti-immigration measure that California voters approved in 1994 which barred illegal immigrants from attending public schools or using other state-provided social services. (A federal court later declared Proposition 187 unconstitutional.)

He added that he didn't regret his opposition, saying there are more constructive and ethical ways to fight illegal immigration.

On Sunday, Missouri's senior U.S. senator, Republican Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo. (who agrees with Kemp about reaching out to minorities), offered a public statement lamenting his death, and lauding his record.

“Jack Kemp is a role model for the future of the Republican party,'' Bond said. "A self described ‘bleeding-heart’ conservative, Jack worked across the aisle on some of the most important issues of our time, from civil rights to safe housing for all families.

“It was Jack who, along with the esteemed Dr. Benjamin Hooks,  brought to the national stage the scourge of lead paint poisoning children in our cities,'' Bond continued. "This initiative has brought great progress to St. Louis and other cities where families were affected with this avoidable tragedy.

“Countless initiatives to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and needy in our nation were made possible because of Jack's tireless advocacy...."

On Monday, Bond delivered a floor statement in remembrance of Kemp.

Kemp's stands on policy issues will long provide discussion within and outside the GOP. But his political frankness also deserves to be remembered -- and respected.

On 1992, during my first interview with Kemp, he began by making a general comment about how then-Gov. John Ashcroft had educated him on the proper pronouncement of Missour-ah.

When I told Kemp that whether it was Missouri-ee or Missour-ah depended on where one was in the state, he stepped down from the lectern, took a seat near me, and asked for more details.

A year or so later, Kemp was back in the state for a GOP event. During our brief interview, he said with a chuckle that he hadn't forgotten the lesson:

"It's Missouri-ee north, and Missour-ah south, Right?"

Not bad, although even Gov. Jay Nixon isn't sure.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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