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UNDERSTANDING THE RIOTS PART 5 : THE PATH TO RECOVERY : INTERVIEW : Jack Kemp : L.A.'s 'Homeboy' in Washington Has Plans to Put Our House in Order

May 15, 1992|Jefferson Morley | Jefferson Morley is former associate editor of the New Republic and Washington editor of the Nation.

WASHINGTON — "I'm a homeboy," says Jack F. Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who has emerged as the Bush Administration's point man after the Los Angeles riots. Kemp, a former pro quarterback and congressmen, explains that he grew up in West L.A. and his father owned a trucking business on South Central Avenue. But among the patrician millionaires in the Bush Cabinet, Kemp's middle-class pedigree qualifies him as a man who came up from the streets.

For years, Kemp has been urging his fellow Republicans to appeal to black voters and to adopt innovative programs that address problems of urban poverty. The secretary's notable lack of success on both counts does not seem to have discouraged him. He speaks regularly to black groups--like the National Conference of Black Mayors--that rarely hear from Republicans seeking higher office. His style is earnest, irrepressible and slightly old-fashioned. He is one of the few politicians in America, black or white, who appear genuinely stirred by the memory of Abraham Lincoln--his office suite features two busts and an oil painting of the Great Emancipator.

His policy proposals, while based on Republican precepts of entrepreneurship and less government intervention, were not a priority on President George Bush's legislative agenda--at least not until the riots. Nor were they warmly received by Democratic mayors and congressmen, who believe that increased federal funding is essential for addressing urban problems. But now, when all other urban-policy proposals are blocked by the federal budget deficit and all-but-certain presidential veto, Kemp's ideas define the limits of post-riot political possibilities in Washington.

Born in Los Angeles in 1935, Kemp graduated from Occidental College in 1957. He is the author of two books, "An American Renaissance: Strategy for the 1980s" and "The American Idea: Ending the Limits to Growth." He and his wife, Joanne, have four children and live in Bethesda, Md. But he has well-known ambitions to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., come 1997. This moment, when his proposals are Bush's top priority, could make the difference.

Question: Sections of Detroit and Washington that were destroyed in the riots of the 1960s are still in ruins. Why shouldn't we expect parts of South Los Angeles to be similarly devastated 25 years from now?

Answer: Well, they will be unless we do something new and radical. I'm a conservative Republican talking about radical change. . . . The only answer to poverty in my view is to build an incentive-based, market-oriented democratically initiated entrepreneurial system in the inner city. That means overhauling the welfare system and restoring the link between effort and reward. . . . Broader ownership both of business and of housing for low-income people. Greater educational opportunity, more school choice, more magnet schools. . . . That would be the beginning--along with infrastructure development--of an urban renaissance.

Q: There's been a lot of controversy about what worked in the past and what didn't. Where do you come down in that debate?

A: The Great Society primarily focused on the net of safety under which people should not be allowed to fall and lose their dignity, but to a certain extent the focus in the '60s and '70s and, unfortunately, in the '80s, was with the net and not with the ladder. The ladder was neglected. . . . The problem with the ladder is that there are no rungs at the bottom. The welfare system, as one woman said in Nickerson Gardens, is that it punishes us for trying. . . . In America today, in our welfare system, the reward for working on the bottom five or six rungs of the ladder is lower than it is for welfare. . . . I'm going to say something that I never thought I'd say, and I'm saying it increasingly: The people in the inner cities of America that I've met represent great talent and potential for this country.

Q: What can people outside of riot-torn areas do to help?

A: I'm not going to give Peter Uebberoth any gratuitous advice but I think he needs to make sure that in trying to help low-income people and inner-city residents, whether they are from Korea or Central America or Mexico or if they're African-American . . . that he include them in whatever is designed to rebuild the inner city. The frustration that President Bush heard . . . that most of the solutions of the past never included the residents, the neighbors . . . particularly the young minority youths who didn't get access to the jobs and the job training. We are redesigning all of our HUD modernization (programs) for public housing to make sure that if you go out and spend millions of dollars in rehabbing Jordan Downs or Nickerson Gardens or La Strada Courts in East L.A., that you make sure it's the residents that get the jobs and the job training that go along with putting money into brick and mortar.

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