That I would one day be elected to serve the same Congressional district once held by a lion of the conservative movement never entered my mind as a teenager watching the on-field heroics of my hometown Buffalo Bills and its quarterback, Jack Kemp.
Those days at War Memorial Stadium — affectionately dubbed “The Rockpile— — were magical. And thanks to back-to-back American Football League championships, we got our first glimpse of the grit, leadership and ability of Buffalo’s improbable favorite son and the Republican Party’s even more improbable spokesman for free market ideology.
Jack Kemp’s arrival in Buffalo wasn’t exactly the stuff dreams are made of. Claimed on waivers for the paltry sum of $100, the California born-and-raised Kemp had little interest in leaving San Diego or the Chargers. But as Kemp himself acknowledged, “the door to the Buffalo Bills and politics and Congress really opened up that day when I realized I was going to Buffalo.—
As an Erie County Young Republican and, later, as an elected official, I was fortunate to be immersed in Kemp’s passion and ideas long before most of the nation. He created an energy and enthusiasm for politics and public service that not only inspired but challenged us.
Kemp was a happy warrior who believed deeply in the ability of free markets and free enterprise to lift people from poverty. He knew, correctly, that tax cuts and the free flow of capital provide greater opportunity and greater prosperity not just for the wealthy, but for the industrious and hard-working middle class.
This past week, as the well-deserved tributes poured in, I was reminded yet again of what an important figure Jack Kemp was in national politics, and how fortunate I was to have counted him as a friend and mentor.
The self-described “bleeding-heart conservative— went where few Republicans would, preaching to minorities and in inner cities that ours was a party of inclusion, that the Republican Party was the party not just of Reagan, but of Lincoln, and that it was our ideas and philosophies that provided the best hope for a better future.
Jack sometimes earned his oratorical reputation as much for length as content. I remember one event at Buffalo’s Statler Hilton hotel, where Kemp was introducing the guest speaker, California Gov. Ronald Reagan. A friendly wager was made between tables on how long Kemp’s introduction would last. I picked 22 minutes and lost. It lasted 24.
But that’s how deeply and passionately Kemp carried himself, and how happily consumed he was in preaching the gospel of hope and opportunity.
I followed Jack not only to Congress, but in his mission to make homeownership available to more Americans. When Kemp served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, I was tapped to lead the New York State Assembly GOP Task Force on Affordable Housing.
Just as Jack traveled the nation promoting an ownership society to create jobs and clean up impoverished communities, I traveled the state with that same message of growth and opportunity.
It wasn’t so much that I was following Jack Kemp, it was that Jack Kemp was leading; and we, as a nation, are better for it.
Jack Kemp’s passing is an opportunity to share more than the nostalgia of what he meant to our party and our nation. It is an opportunity to be reminded that Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan and others built a road map Republicans should embrace to be a majority not just in numbers, but in ideas.
Because Jack Kemp believed that with better ideas — through inclusion and opportunity — we would build not just a better Republican Party, but a better, stronger America.
Former Rep. Tom Reynolds (R) represented western New York from 1999 to 2008.