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Remembering Jack Kemp

August 03, 2009

Jack Kemp

In 1989, when I was President of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, I had the privilege to chair the national steering committee for Housing Now!, a mass mobilization on behalf of the homeless created and driven by the late Mitch Snyder.  Months of grassroots organizing cuminated in a two day program of meeting and demonstrations climaxing on October 7 with a huge rally on the National Mall.  Crowd estimates ranged as high as 250,000 and more.

The day before the rally, I led a group of participants to a meeting at HUD.  The decision to seek a meeting was controversial; one steering committee likened it to “Captain Ahab asking for a meeting with Moby Dick.”  But we did request a meeting with HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, and he agreed.

The HUD building was surrounded by police in riot gear.  It was ringed with security barriers and checkpoints.  I don’t know what they were expecting, but they were prepared for the worst.  My little group included some homeless advocates whose plans for the day included possibly occupying the HUD building.  Before we entered the building we huddled and got everyone to agree to leave when our meeting was over, but this illustrated the mood folks were in.  Homelessness had become a flashpoint issue in the Bush I presidency.  Snyder had skillfully enlisted media, entertainment figures, and politicos in support of his cause and Housing Now!  Hurricane Hugo had ripped through some of the convoys of homeless people walking and riding to the demonstration.  Folks were not in a forgiving mood.

We’d been scheduled for a half-hour.  We were escorted up to the tenth floor of HUD to the Secretary’s office.  The staff was keeping a close eye on us.  Our group included folks who had spent most of their recent nights sleeping in shelters or in the streets.  It was not your typical HUD visit.

When we arrived in his conference room, Jack Kemp got up and walked over to each of us, stuck out his hand and in his unmistakable gravelly voice said “Hi, my name is Jack Kemp, welcome to HUD.”  The Assistant Secretaries for Housing and for Community Planning and Development were there.  But it was clear from the start that Kemp was the star of HUD’s team.  He asked each of our group to tell him about themselves.  He engaged each of them in conversation about their lives, why they were homeless, and the reasons they had come.  He told them he thought homelessness was unacceptable and that he was committed to finding solutions. Our 30-minute meeting was turning into something much longer.  Staff came to the conference room and tried to signal Kemp that it was time to wrap it up.  He wasn’t interested.  “It’s getting late,” he observed, “and these people must be getting hungry.  Can I get you all some lunch?”  And sandwiches were delivered from the HUD cafeteria.

Before we were done,  2 hours or so after we’d arrived, the most hardened advocates in the group were engaged in deep conversations with Kemp, who treated each of them like a human being and showed them respect and consideration.  Our objective was to get a statement from Kemp supporting Housing Now!‘s demands.  None of the advocates expected to leave with anything but another club to beat the Bush Administration with.  Kemp first responded that “you can take my word…I’m going to do everything I can.”  He even turned to me, and said, “Zigas, you know me, tell them that my word is good.”  For some reason, he always called me Zigas, and in later years I took to calling him “Kemp.”  I demurred and said we were representing a lot of folks, and this group needed to come back with something tangible.  Kemp thought a minute, then said “you and Austin (Fitts, AS for Housing) and Anna (Kondratis, AS for Community Development) go off and draft something up.”  We did, while he remained with the others, telling and listening to stories.

I don’t know who was more reluctant to leave that conference room, Kemp or the homeless folks.  When we emerged on the plaza in front of HUD and read out Kemp’s letter, the assembled crowd was first stunned, then jubilant.

So I was saddened to hear of Jack Kemp’s death from cancer earlier this summer.  We had opportunities to meet and work together through the rest of his tenure, and after.  I didn’t agree with a lot of his views, and I thought he failed to make the kind of difference he aspired to while HUD Secretary.  He was marginalized by the President and Cabinet.  But I never got over his immediate ability to connect with those homeless people.  Or his vocal and energetic commitment to racial equality and a better life for all people.  We disagreed over the means, but not the end.

American politics have become so poisoned by unrelenting partisanship that it’s hard to remember when Republican Jack Kemp welcomed incoming Democrat Henry C. Cisneros to the HUD building in 1993.  He presented him with a bust of Lincoln in front of a town hall meeting of HUD employees, praising his background and credentials, and urging HUD employees to help him succeed.  Kemp and Cisneros teamed up then and later on a series of efforts, and Kemp stood out more and more as time went on and his party colleagues veered further and further from his generous stance.

I’ll miss his gravelly voice, his sometimes off-beat views on gold and other things.  But most of all I’ll miss how he represented many of the best qualities of a politician who came to Washington to serve.


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