Former N.Y. Rep. Kemp Loses Battle With Cancer

Posted May 4, 2009 at 6:43pm

Updated: May 6, 2:12 p.m.

Jack French Kemp, a one-time star quarterback who represented western New York in the House and later ran on Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole’s 1996 ticket, died Saturday at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 73.

Kemp was diagnosed with cancer in December 2008. Pathology tests showed the cancer “was most likely but not definitively melanoma,— said James Kemp, his son, in a telephone interview.

“My family and I are greatly saddened but grateful for the life and love of Dad. We’re grateful to God that he’s taken him without suffering. He passed peacefully,— James Kemp said, adding that his father died “in the presence of his pastor, my mom and his daughters.—

Jack Kemp ran for president in 1988. After an unsuccessful primary bid, he became secretary of Housing and Urban Development for four years under President George H. W. Bush.

Before his appointment to the Cabinet, Kemp represented the Buffalo area and western New York in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971 to 1989. He was House Republican Conference chairman for seven years.

“He was a great boss to work for. He had enormous energy, very persistent in explaining his ideas, but was very happy,— said David Hoppe, who was Kemp’s chief of staff from 1984 to 1988.

Hoppe said Kemp brought the spirit of competition he learned in sports into his career in politics. “He competed as hard for his ideas,— Hoppe said. But after a game or a heated debate, “Kemp believed we should shake hands and be friends,— Hoppe added.

As a Congressman, Kemp was best known for the 1977 Kemp-Roth bill, which proposed cutting taxes by 30 percent. The bill became President Ronald Reagan’s major campaign issue in the 1980 election.

When Kemp persuaded Reagan to adopt the Kemp-Roth tax cut as the winning formula for tax policy, his “longest touchdown pass has been thrown,— John Mueller said, recalling the comment in a speech Reagan gave in December 1988 honoring Kemp. Mueller was Kemp’s economic counsel from 1979 to 1988.

Before his election to Congress in 1970, Kemp played as a professional quarterback for 13 years. In 1957, he was drafted by the Detroit Lions but then played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three years later, he became captain of the Los Angeles Chargers and continued with the team after its move to San Diego a year later. In 1964 and 1965, he led the Buffalo Bills to the American Football League championship as team captain. Kemp retired from football in 1969. In 2006, the NCAA named him one of the group’s “100 Most Influential Student-Athletes.—

In 1996, he became the surprise pick as Dole’s running mate. In 2002, Kemp created Kemp Partners, which gives strategic counsel, relationship development and marketing advice to its clients.

Kemp used his firm to help lobby for D.C. voting rights in the House. He “never asked for a cent in return,— DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka said. “We have lost a truly remarkable person and an incredible ally in our fight for justice. Kemp was one of those rare souls. Always smiling, forever optimistic.—

Through the firm’s Web site (kemppartners.com), Kemp published opinion pieces. On Nov. 12, 2008, Kemp wrote “A Letter to My Grandchildren,— discussing the “monumental— election of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president. “Is this a great country or not?— asked Kemp, who pushed for racial equality, gaining perspective on the issue while playing football with black teammates.

In a 1996 New York Times interview, Kemp said: “I wasn’t there with Rosa Parks or Dr. King or John Lewis. But I am here now, and I am going to yell from the rooftops about what we need to do.—

“We have lost an outstanding American. … His voice will be deeply missed,— Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was one of the first Members to release a statement remembering Kemp, said: “Jack was a leading voice for a strong national defense, civil rights, and any other policy that empowered people. Whether as a quarterback, a Congressman, or a cabinet secretary, his life was defined by vision and by a firm commitment to the service of others.—

On Sunday, President Barack Obama issued this statement: “Jack Kemp’s commitment to public service and his passion for politics influenced not only the direction of his party, but his country. From his tenure as a Buffalo congressman to his ascent in national politics, Jack Kemp was a man who could fiercely advocate his own beliefs and principles while also remembering the lessons he learned years earlier on the football field: that bitter divisiveness between race and class and station only stood in the way of the common aim of a team to win.’ Michelle and I extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the entire Kemp family.—

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said, “I am very saddened by the death of my friend Jack Kemp. He was a decent, honorable, genuine, compassionate and enjoyable person and a great public servant. Jack Kemp was truly an American original.—

Kemp was strongly connected to California through Pepperdine University, whose School of Public Policy he helped found. Since 1997, Kemp had been giving lectures at the school. So involved was Kemp with Pepperdine, both as a board member and lecturer, that the university decided to name its Institute for Political Economy in his honor.

Pepperdine announced Wednesday that its inaugural conference and dinner in honor of Kemp, originally scheduled for May 13, has been postponed until fall 2009.

Kemp left behind his wife, Joanne; his four children, Jeffrey, Jennifer, Judith and James; and 17 grandchildren.