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Kemp Preaches Hope to Blacks, Others in Slums

April 09, 1989|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — From the imploding slums of urban America to the genteel confines of his spacious Washington office, Jack French Kemp whirs in motion.

The secretary of housing and urban development, an ex-quarterback drawn to an invisible goal line, roams the littered alleys of a North Philadelphia housing project, past defiant graffiti and purported drug dealers warming themselves over torched garbage.

"You can do it!" he exhorts tenants trailing him. "You have to build up hope!"

Even in his office easy chair, he squirms restlessly and repeats his theme: "You've got to give people hope! . . . Hope and faith are the most important ingredients in our lives!"

Charms Critics

This voluble white suburban Republican conservative is an unlikely preacher to the inhabitants of what he calls this nation's Third World. Yet, two months into his tenure, with little substance to match his rhetoric, the 53-year-old Kemp has charmed his natural critics with his heavily symbolic, high-profile appeals to blacks and the poor.

His new admirers hope that Kemp, in his enthusiasm, has raised expectations so high that he will have to deliver significant change or risk being labeled a failure. So far, however, he has proposed no expensive new programs, and the drive to reduce the federal deficit is working against him.

"People want what Jack Kemp is talking about to happen--and will work for it," said a prominent black leader who asked not to be named. "But they are waiting to see if the rhetoric matches the record."

So are Kemp's longtime conservative supporters, who wonder if the man they backed for President in 1988 has abandoned them for the lure of a broader and more promising political coalition.

Robert Woodson, the conservative head of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, described "some fear on the part of conservatives that (Kemp) will make some concessions on social spending and civil rights." Roy Innis, the conservative chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, has publicly criticized Kemp as insulting Republicans by courting prominent liberals.

"He's taking a calculated political gamble," said Robert Hayes, counsel to the National Coalition for the Homeless, who served as Kemp's tour guide on recent visits to East Coast housing projects.

"If he's successful, he's a hero--and he will have radically broadened his political constituency."

If he fails, Hayes said, "he'll be finished as a presidential contender."

Explains His Philosophy

In his verbose, breathless style, Kemp explained in an interview why a lifelong conservative would embrace programs for the poor:

"You know in your life that if you work hard and you're a good citizen and you drive down the right side of the street and you stop at the signals and you study hard and you mind your mom and dad and you get good grades, stay in school and keep that first job, that you're not going to be in poverty. I mean, you just know it intuitively.

" . . . What if this is not true for (some) people? What if there is no job at the end of the tunnel? What if education doesn't lead to anything but unemployment lines? . . . I think government has a responsibility to create (that) climate."

Kemp's appointment as HUD secretary neatly married his and the Bush Administration's interests.

The White House wanted to attract minorities and Democrats by striking at problems in the cities--"the new political frontier" for the party, as described by a senior aide to the President.

Record in Congress

And Kemp, who in his 18 years in Congress had pushed with little success for new approaches to easing urban poverty--tenant ownership of housing projects, for example, and enterprise zones with tax breaks to lure businesses to distressed areas--was ripe for a job in which he could put his theories to work.

From the beginning, Kemp moved to jump-start the housing agency with an enthusiasm that contrasted with the style of his predecessor, Samuel R. Pierce Jr., nicknamed "Silent Sam" for his acquiescence to HUD budget cuts under President Ronald Reagan.

In an opening first move that has become legend for its symbolic appeal, Kemp ordered the lights turned up in the building's dim offices. He took the oath of office in the agency's cafeteria. He praised HUD's beleaguered bureaucrats in his swearing-in speech and stayed after the ceremony to shake hands with hundreds of employees.

Through Bleak Territory

And he took his show on the road, traveling from the ghettos of Atlanta to the low-rent district of Baltimore to the row houses of Philadelphia. Openly exploiting symbolism, he led a small crew of aides through the bleak territory like the quarterback he once was.

Kemp, who spent 13 years in pro football before winning a seat in Congress, explained that he wanted to "give people a message." He insists he is riding an unprecedented wave of interest in issues now in his domain--homelessness, need for low-income housing, urban development and home ownership.

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