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Cory Booker

Cory Booker

Posted: May 15, 2009 02:34 PM

A Great American Servant


There is too much disagreement for disagreement's sake.

In a time of persistent challenges that still call into question our most sacred aspirations as a country, we cannot afford shallow callous divisiveness in our public debate. We become distracted from productive labors by our perceived opponents; we become focused on them and not on our larger calling to advance our nation; our debate becomes more about scoring points against an adversary and less about advancing our common cause. And we DO have a common cause.

In college, I was a fiercely committed Democrat -- a meeting with Jack Kemp, then Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, challenged my blind partisanship. I met Secretary Kemp in East Palo Alto, California where I was working with youth. He was a Republican, I was a Democrat yet somehow he cut right through my then natural state of cynicism. I must confess that I almost regretted that I immediately liked this Bush appointed HUD Secretary. My mother has a saying, "who you are speaks so loudly I can't hear what you say." It wasn't his gift for gab that struck me but the power of his ideas and his authentic spirit. Kemp was clearly passionate about urban spaces and the people of cities. He immediately engaged me (a college student) in a direct candid manner; he appealed to my compassion and my logic. And more than that, it was obvious that he was not in East Palo Alto looking for a photo op surrounded by people of color -- he was there to listen, to share his ideas and hear concerns.

After that meeting, I sought out more about Jack Kemp. I ordered some of his speeches and read what I could. I found I disagreed with him on some matters of policy, but reading and listening to him, I found that he always challenged me in the most productive of ways. My study of Kemp encouraged me to learn more about subjects from tax policy to international trade and, on occasion, I had to yield to the strength of his ideas and change my views.

From my position as a Democrat, I began to look at him with more affection than some within my own party who were great with rhetoric but seemed to lack a substantive analysis of issues. Though I had met him only once, following Jack Kemp was a gift; he challenged me, forced me to defend positions and invited me to engage in more dispassionate objective analysis of facts and less personalized partisan assaults on individuals that had me, in the past, often leaving ideas completely ignored. Even to the end of his life, this was how the man conducted himself - he didn't believe in ad hominem attacks but wanted to keep everyone, even those within his own party, focused on what was important (see his defense of Barack Obama against Sean Hannity).

As Mayor of an American city, I can confidently say that one of the more successful federal/state urban initiatives of the past quarter century has been the creation of the Urban Enterprise Zone. (See also Bill Maher and Kemp mention). Jack Kemp was the evangelist for this idea and sponsor of the legislation in Congress which created the zones. Urban enterprise zones, soon adopted by many states, have driven billions of dollars into poor urban areas all across the United States.

The next time I saw Jack Kemp after our East Palo Alto meeting was when I was a Newark municipal councilman. We began a friendship and, as always, he challenged me, but now (I'd like to think) I could challenge him a little as well (and felt comfortable enough to tease him about his hair and my lack thereof). I was so encouraged by how much he seemed to be invested in Newark and the success of our City. He really believed that our nation could never claim to have achieved herself unless we made the opportunity and promise of America accessible to everyone. He freely admitted that we, as a country, were falling short and that there was great urgency in the fight to make America real to everyone. He and I bonded on everything from the urgent need of education reform to what many must view as his courageous beliefs on immigration.

When I first ran for Mayor, Kemp joined with another one of my political heroes, Bill Bradley, to host one of my early fundraisers in Washington, D.C. These two great men, both athletes, carried with them an intimate, almost visceral, understanding that black or white, Catholic or Jew, Republican or Democrat, we are all on the same team and we will either win or loose together.

Jack Kemp, thank you for helping this Democrat to be Mayor of this great American city.

Thank you for helping to make me far, far more of an American than I am a Democrat.

Thank you for challenging me to think first; consider ideas before individuals; and to always stay focused on the urgent unfinished cause of our country.

Jack Kemp, you were a great American servant.