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Can Paul Ryan Follow in the Footsteps of His Mentor, Jack Kemp?

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Disclosure that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had chosen Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate has generated a media frenzy. Ryan, as chairman of the House Budget Committee in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives has proposed some "outside of the box" budget cuts. He has suggested the elimination of several major government programs to reduce government spending and balance our budget.

The New York Times, in an op-ed Sunday, said:

"By cutting $6 trillion from federal spending over the next 10 years, he would eliminate or slash so many programs that the federal government would be unrecognizable.''... (G)government would be absent when people needed it the most. Medicaid, food stamps, and other vital programs would be offloaded to the states, but the states would not be given the resources to run them...

More than three-fifths of the cuts proposed by Mr. Ryan come from programs for low-income Americans. These cuts are so severe that the nation's Catholic bishops protested the proposal as failing to meet society's moral obligations, saying the plans "will hurt hungry children, poor families, vulnerable seniors."

We are grateful for the writer Jonathan Chait and HuffPost's Arianna Huffington for providing us some real life -- perspectives in real time on the impact the current economy is having on the lives of millions of Americans before the implementation of Congressman's Ryan's proposed budget cuts.

Chait wrote last week in New York Magazine:

"In the years since the collapse of 2008, the existence of mass unemployment has stopped being something the economic powers that be even pretend to regard as a crisis. To those directly impacted, the economic crisis is an emergency, a life-altering disaster the damage from which will endure for years. But most of those in a position to address it simply have not seen it in such terms. History will record that the economic elite has viewed the economic crisis from a perspective of detached complacency..."

Arianna reminded us this week that:

"For millions and millions of Americans, the economic crisis is the worst event of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, health insurance, and opportunities for their children, seen their skills deteriorate, and lost their sense of self-worth. But from the perspective of those in a position to alleviate their suffering, the crisis is merely a sad and distant tragedy."

But for millions of Americans, it's a horrible day-to-day reality. Just look at what's going on with housing. Eleven million homeowners are underwater -- about one out of every five homes.

This is a major part of "reality canvas" against which Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his vice president. But, there is also another part of that canvas rooted in relevant historical reality that worth remembering.

Congressman Ryan has cited former Secretary of HUD Jack Kemp as his political and ideological mentor. Because I personally knew, worked with and admired Jack Kemp, I thought that maybe, in spite of all the that has been said and written by the Democratic party and liberal media, out of respect for Jack Kemp, I should try to keep and open mind about Paul Ryan.

In the biblical tradition of the Black Church, Ryan may still be: "a work in progress... and that God's not finish with him yet."

Before getting into politics in the Republican Party, Jack Kemp was a professional football player, a quarterback. Some of the teams he played with included the Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills.

President George H.W. Bush appointed him HUD Secretary in 1988. Whether in a predominantly African-American or Hispanic community in South Central Los Angeles or Harlem or Bedford Stuyvesant, NY, he was respected and well received. I can personally attest to this. On more than one occasion while dinning at Sylvia's soul food restaurant in Harlem, one person after another would stop at our table to speak and express their admiration and respect for him.

Maybe it was his years playing football with so many African-American players; maybe, it was in his "DNA" -- just the kind of person he was. In either case, Jack Kemp was passionate about economic, especially entrepreneurial opportunities for minorities. As HUD secretary, he created, sponsored and promoted business "enterprise zones" and public housing tenant homeownership.

I watched the speeches of Congressman Ryan and Mitt Romney, in one of their first joint appearances as presidential candidates at a campaign stop in Manassas, VA.

Ryan spoke about his belief and philosophy about the sanctity of encouraging and protecting individual achievemen, hard work and individual entrepreneurship, without the interference of government. He reminded his audience of our God-given rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

As I watched both candidates speaking form Manassas I wondered whether they or anyone in their campaign ever gave a moment's thought about the historical significance of Manassas, as it relates to some of the issues of the 2012 campaign.

Manassas was the first major land battle in our Civil War. July, 1861 was the first Battle of Bull Run. It was the first of two major Confederate victories; the 2nd in August of 1862. It took the Union victory in the Civil War to consecrate and protect the opportunities for all of our citizens to participate in the entrepreneurial America extolled by Ryan and Romney at Manassas.

It may be useful for Ryan to re-drink from the waters of wisdom that characterized his mentor Jack Kemp, especially on the issue of exercising the right to vote.

Jack Kemp was interviewed on NPR years ago about the issue of restoring the right to vote to convicted felons. Below is part of that interview:

KEMP: "Voting in America is the quintessential part of our democracy, and once a felon has paid his or her time and is no longer under any charges, in my opinion, should be given the incentive for civilized behavior by restoring the right to vote. Several states have taken it away. Some states give it back. I think there should be federal legislation."

"I was asked the question after defending my -- or I should say supporting an extension of the Voting Rights Act here on the anniversary of its passage in 1965 -- I was asked the question, do I think that an ex-convict who has done time, paid their dues, so to speak, and meet all the conditions that society has imposed upon them for punishment for a crime, should they be allowed to vote? And I said under those conditions, yes."

GORDON: You also talked about how this affects the African-American community disproportionately since African Americans are disproportionately charged with felonies.

Mr. KEMP: Yeah. Well, I was making the point that in Florida, there were 600 to 700,000 people who were denied a chance to participate in the 2000 elections who were ex-convicts, ex-felons who paid their dues, served their time, met all the conditions of probation, and a majority of them were African-American. And let's face it. Voting registration in the past was used by some to deny African-Americans their right to vote, and this country has an obligation in the 21st century to, I think, remove every single impediment to every American having the right to vote and every American having his or her vote count."

This is the Jack Kemp who was the political mentor of Congressman Ryan. My, oh my, how far has the "apple fallen from the tree"?

I have written and spoken often about the need to protect the right to vote against various states' effort to limit voting by minorities in the upcoming presidential election.

To put my concern, and the concern of others, over the threat of voter suppression in some historical perspective, it is important that we pause and reflect for a moment about one of the noblest efforts to protect our elective franchise.

Romney and Ryan's campaign speeches at Manassas, VA reminded me that earlier this month, on August 4, 2012, was the 48th anniversary of the discovery of the brutalized and murdered bodies in Philadelphia Mississippi of three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James E. Chaney. Goodman and Schwerner, undergraduate and graduate students from NYC were white and Jewish. Chaney was local.

They had come down to Mississippi as part of summer of a 1964 Student Voter Registration campaign in the South.

In 1964, for example, less than five percent of Mississippi's 500,000 of adult African Americans were registered to vote. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNNC) mobilized college students, most of whom were white, to join them in registering African Americans to vote.

March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress. This was eight days after the bloody confrontation between police and civil rights demonstrators led by now-Congressman John Lewis and Dr. King at the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

President Johnson said:

"I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy ... The cries of pain and the hymns and protest of oppressed people have summoned, in convocation, all the majesty of this great government ... We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in."

It's been reported that Congressman Ryan is a "policy wonk" and that the author Ayn Rand has shaped much of his intellectual, political and economic thinking. In addition to some of Ms. Rand's works, such as Atlas Shrugged, The Value of Selfishness, For the New Intellectual and others, Congressman Ryan should expand his reading list.

I respectfully suggest he consider some of the authors used as reference sources in the new undergraduate course I am teaching, commencing next month at one of our country's most prestigious Jesuit universities. The course, "From Slavery to Obama," will be taught in the undergraduate school of the University of San Francisco.

The Jack Kemp who I knew and admired would be the first to ask whether or not he could come and be a guest lecturer during some part of the course. He knew that under limited and certain circumstances there was role for the federal government in the lives of citizens, rather than standing on the sidelines when individual rights and economic opportunities were being threatened or denied.

Let's hope, at this critical juncture in our nation's history, that Congressman Paul Ryan is in fact a "work in progress" and that "God is not finish with him yet."

He still has the opportunity to make Jack Kemp proud of the exercise of enlightened leadership at this time.

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