Mort Kondracke and Fred Barnes are in the Wall Street Journal tomorrow, but online tonight. They write about their new book on Jack Kemp.
GOP candidates in 2016 would do well to echo his message of growth, prosperity and hope.
Kim Strassel’s piece in the Wall Street Journal today is really good. Enjoy!
Some 30 years ago, an influential congressman named Jack Kemp gave a call to Bob Woodson, and in doing so became a Republican model for empowerment politics and minority outreach. A high-profile group of conservatives is staging a revival, looking to finally engage the modern left on the politics of the poor. Republican presidential candidates, pay attention.
As Hillary Clinton was rolling out her economic plan Monday—bashing Republicans as callous to the plight of struggling Americans—influential conservatives were taking to their own stage to respond. They know Democrats will make inequality a driving theme of the 2016 race, accusing the GOP of wanting to slash government funding for the needy, of driving policies that hurt the poor.
What they billed as an “anti-poverty summit” in Washington on Monday was a road map. Up on stage, three decades later, was none other than Mr. Woodson, a titan in conservatism on poverty issues. A veteran of the civil-rights fight, Mr. Woodson became disenchanted with the left’s devotion to failed government poverty programs. He started the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which transforms low-income areas from the inside out.
The philosophy is that low-income individuals and neighborhood organizations must play the central role in fixing their communities, and that these efforts benefit from free-market concepts like competition, entrepreneurship, efficiency and metrics. His first federal partner was Kemp, who embraced and evangelized the Woodson approach starting in the 1980s, using it to pass smart reforms, to champion innovations like “enterprise zones,” and to give his party a model for inspirational, anti-poverty politics. (A model his party quickly forgot.)
Joining Mr. Woodson on stage was (who else?) House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, a Kemp protégé who a few years ago became awed by CNE’s remarkable track record. The Wisconsin Republican worked the method into a new policy agenda, including his proposal last year to combine and transform federal poverty programs into “opportunity grants” that go to the states, and allow local administrators to get money to groups that actually work.
The message has meanwhile found a broader voice in a new conservative news site, Opportunity Lives, run by John Hart, a former staffer to retired Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. Its mission is to cover and hail conservative solutions, and it has already produced a high-quality, seven-part documentary called “Comeback” that features inspiring real-life stories out of the Woodson model. More than a half-million people have watched it.
Monday’s event featured all these players, as well as a celebrities such as NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, opinion-makers like National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, and scholars like the Manhattan Institute’s Fred Siegel. It follows a mid-June event at which House Speaker John Boehner offered a private screening of “Comeback,” attended by more than a dozen influential Republican leaders and members. Politicians nationally have requested briefings, and the concept is working its way into political discourse across the country.
The attraction is first and foremost great policy. Federal poverty programs fail because they are one-size-fits-all bureaucracies that keep recipients in dependency. As Mr. Woodson told me in an interview this week, this is because the left has created a poverty-industrial complex, in which most federal dollars go to “those providing the services—the social workers, the drug counselors. That entire structure is hostile to helping the poor, because these folks have their own financial interest.” The Woodson approach works because it is local, tailored, volunteer-oriented and gets money to the needy.
The Woodson approach will also resonate with most Americans, who live and serve in local communities, and understand the power of that over government handouts. It’s also a rebuttal to Democrats like Mrs. Clinton who claim Republicans don’t care. For the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios, orienting their campaigns around opportunity, this deserves central billing.
It’s even an inroad to minority voters, though Mr. Woodson warns that Republicans need to go beyond rhetoric. “I keep telling Republicans: Stop assuming the only way to appeal to blacks is through the race door. The untapped opportunity is the broken policies in these urban centers that are strangling the poor. Roll up your sleeves, go into your districts, meet the legitimate leaders, minister to their needs. Recruit the businesses that fund your campaigns to help. Democrats inherited these votes; Republicans have to earn them.”
Mr. Woodson points to politicians like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who drove reform making it easier for post-prison offenders to get their occupational licenses—and thus a job—and who won 25% of the black vote when re-elected in 2014.
The Kemp drive was influential in the GOP 1990s embrace of welfare reform, and the pity is the party retreated from that space. The 2016 race is a chance to re-embrace it, and give Mrs. Clinton a run for her own rhetoric.
By Theodore Schleifer
December 27, 2014
By the time Harris County’s conservative leaders fished for their car keys at their Election Night watch party, there were few candidates left to congratulate. Nearly every Republican had won, and each had earned a handshake or name-check from the movement’s political class. Every one, that is, but Gilbert Pena.
Pena finally had triumphed in his fifth run for political office to score the biggest local upset of the evening, but his name remained unsaid. Amid the post-election jubilation, the new state representative was unnoticed. Pena’s supporters would argue that’s because he had been underestimated – again.
“If you underestimate Gilbert Pena, you’re making a mistake,” said his treasurer, Bill Treneer.
Pena, an unassuming retiree derided as a perennial candidate by those Republican signal-callers, rode a GOP wave to oust Pasadena Rep. Mary Ann Perez by 155 votes in November. Pena struggled to woo any donors or political support – Perez’s war chest was 250 times the size of his – but the short and reserved man is used to upending how others perceive him.
The 65-year-old rose from a hardscrabble early life to become a new legislator thanks to a work ethic that can make him impossible to ignore.
Neither of Pena’s parents was in the picture when he moved to Houston in first grade to live with his aunt. She spoke only Spanish, and that showed in the classroom.
Teachers would ask the future state representative to read English – which he insisted he could – and when he inevitably failed his teachers’ challenges, he had his first experiences with racism and hatred, Pena said.
“You can’t read,” his first-grade teacher said, according to Pena. “Don’t you ever tell anybody you can read.”
He continued to tell them just that, even if he had to spend three years in first grade. He sat in the back of classrooms, avoiding pesky classmates as he taught himself quietly to do what other kids had done for years. When he reached Ms. Walker’s seventh-grade classroom, he believed he had made some progress with his reading.
“How come Gilbert’s just reading a book?” one classmate asked Ms. Walker.
“Don’t you worry about what Gilbert’s doing,” Pena recalled her saying. “I got him on a special assignment.”
After Walker’s first year with him, she no longer separated him from the rest of his T.H. Rogers Junior High class.
“If God told her, ‘Ms. Walker, you can’t make it into heaven unless you can tell me one person you did good by,’ ” Pena said wistfully last month, “she could point down to me and say – ‘Gilbert, right there.’ ”
He finally had learned to read, but that skill wouldn’t help support his aunt at home. So, Pena began busing tables for 50 hours a week at El Patio on Westheimer Road. At 50 cents an hour, Pena’s weekly paycheck meant his aunt no longer had to pick cotton to make the same $25 a week.
“We did anything to make a dollar for our parents,” said Ben Pena, Gilbert’s first cousin. During the summers, Pena and his two younger brothers would visit Ben’s family in Wharton County to pick cotton and pecans from sunrise to sunset.
To make those dollars, Pena admits he short-changed his education, which he began to view as merely offering a bus ride to his job at the country club. When he had washed the last dinner dish there, he would walk the three hours home.
He soon dropped out of high school to work three or more jobs at once. A paper route in the morning. An eight-hour shift at a steel company in the afternoon. Cleaning offices at night. Odd job led to odd job for the next two decades. Before long, inevitable layoffs would slide Pena down the ladder back to minimum wage work, erasing any gains he had made since high school.
“I had to do something that would better my life,” he said. “I’m getting to an elder age and I’m thinking, how much longer am I going to have to work like this?”
A drunken driver whose vehicle busted through the median on Interstate 10 accelerated his timeline. The accident wrecked Pena’s left knee, but it also forced him out of his newfound trucking job and created time for college – something no teacher, not even Ms. Walker, believed he could enter or finish. He earned a political science degree from Texas Southern University at age 47.
Pena later found some financial stability installing refrigerators across Texas, working weeks at a time on trips that capitalized on his work ethic and built the bank account to raise his four kids. He spent any free time he had feeding, bathing and tending to his special needs son, who today is 25 and still lives with Pena and his wife.
“I don’t think I could do that 24/7,” said Ben Pena. “But he does it with a smile on his face.”
As he became more secure, the Pasadena resident’s thoughts began to turn to politics as he saw rising taxes cut into what he had earned. He ran for state Senate in 2008 to “get my name out,” he said, and his performance in the Republican primary encouraged him to run for state representative in 2010. His retirement in 2011 enabled him to treat the campaign like a full-time job in 2012. He lost then, too.
Pena said he was unsure about running for the Legislature a fourth time this year. He decided he would make a bid only if he received assurances from Austin power brokers and political action committees that they would financially support him.
And he received those assurances, he said.
But when Pena’s campaign manager, Temo Muniz, presented Pena’s proposed path to victory to Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Associated Republicans of Texas, two of the state’s premier conservative PACs, neither one cut checks, Muniz said.
So, Pena worked even harder. He raised virtually no money and had none of the professional frills that typically accompany a legislative race in one of Texas’ few competitive districts. Instead, he knocked on doors for around four hours every day, almost always by himself and pitching the district’s Hispanic voters a socially conservative message.
“I’ve never seen a guy who works that hard from dawn till dusk every day,” said Treneer.
And he won.
Pena does not have any policy experience or expertise – he does know he plans to support Joe Straus for speaker and that he cares most about education issues – but he said that his “hard times” separates him from the lawyers and businessmen who dominate the Legislature. Many of them have called him to offer their congratulations, but he said he will remember that the Austin establishment never had his back.
“I want to be able to come back and say, ‘You didn’t believe in me,’ ” Pena said. “I’m waiting. They’ll come knocking.”
Congressman Paul Ryan was on The Larry Kudlow Radio Show this past Saturday to discuss his new plan, Expanding Opportunity in America. Congressman Ryan and Larry Kudlow discuss ideas going back to Jack Kemp, and the Congressman even refers to Outcry In The Barrio, a great program I have written about and observed. Plenty more on that later, but listen to the interview and let me know what you think.
I’ve written something that I won’t post this website for a few weeks, but I wanted to make you aware of it now. Take a look:
Outcry In The Barrio, Neighborhood Healers and a San Antonio Visit.