It's been more than two years since the passing of Jack Kemp, former Republican congressman, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, vice presidential nominee and Buffalo Bills quarterback. Kemp's absence from the political stage has never been felt more acutely.
Partisan politics and gridlock dominate Washington, crippling our political process, as demonstrated in the recent fight over raising the nation's debt ceiling. The self-serving gamesmanship played by both Democrats and Republicans took our country to the brink of catastrophe before a deal was struck.
"You serve your party best by serving our nation first," Kemp said, a lesson in public service that has been lost on today's politicians.
Kemp's great strength was that he did not fit political stereotypes and did not adhere to party lines. He was a self-proclaimed populist in a Republican Party that, in his words, had become associated with "country clubs and big business."
Unlike many of his Republican contemporaries, his was the politics of inclusion, not exclusion. Kemp sought to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party, attracting minorities, women, blue-collar workers and organized labor. And although at times a partisan Republican, Kemp worked well with Democrats during his 18 years in Congress.
Kemp was a passionate believer in supply-side economics and its tenets of economic growth, free enterprise and tax cuts. By giving people access to capital and allowing them to take ownership of assets, Kemp believed entrepreneurship could break the vicious cycle of poverty in this country.
A self-described "bleeding-heart conservative," Kemp set his sights on liberating the poor from the conditions of poverty in America's inner cities. Economic empowerment was Kemp's mantra. His vision was to create enterprise zones in every urban area in America plagued by poverty, unemployment, welfare and despair.
Countering criticism that his party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, was racially insensitive, Kemp reached out to the African-American community. Speaking at an NAACP convention, Kemp admitted that the Republican Party was "nowhere to be found" in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and committed to creating a "radical Republican Party" worthy of African-American support.
Kemp also blazed his own trail among Republicans when it came to welfare: "Let me say that as a Republican, I believe there has to be a safety net under which people should not be allowed to fall."
Kemp was unique among Republicans. His passing has left a void in America's current political landscape and, in particular, in the Republican Party. Now, more than ever, our country needs the kind of principled leadership and vision that Kemp provided.
Greg Slabodkin of Kenmore was an intern in the early 1980s in Rep. Jack Kemp's congressional district office in Buffalo.