Blacks Voting Republican? If Jack Kemp Has His Way

Jack Kemp isn't running for anything. Except, perhaps, Matchmaker of the Year. The former Housing & Urban Development Secretary is attempting to arrange a marriage between black voters and Republicans at the unlikely altar of affirmative action. At stake, Kemp believes, is nothing less than the future of the GOP and the health of America's inner cities.

Certainly, today's headlines don't point to any romance between African Americans and the GOP. The three leading Republican Presidential candidates are all vowing an end to minority set-asides, hiring quotas, and racially based college admissions.

"MEND IT." But in Congress, it's another story, due in large part to Kemp's prodding and the support of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Worried that a sharp reversal of racial set-asides will harm the party's efforts to recruit black voters in 1996, Senate and House Republicans are scrambling to come up with a minority-friendly alternative. Preparing for the post-recess legislative blitz, Republicans are writing bills featuring big tax breaks for companies and individuals willing to invest in inner cities. The legislation will be billed as the GOP's counterpoint to the "mend it, don't end it" White House approach to the federal government's 160 affirmative action programs. Meanwhile, some Republican congressmen are readying a heavyweight lobbying campaign to close the deal.

The Republican package is the brainchild of Kemp, who never misses a chance to celebrate the GOP as the "party of Lincoln." Says Kemp: "Affirmative action has to be replaced by something. Otherwise, we just signal millions of Americans of color that there's no place in the party for them."

The appeal has worked with younger party members. In the Senate, Republicans led by freshman Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) will wrap some new ideas around a bundle of GOP policy perennials. The result: 100 "enhanced enterprise zones" that would enjoy big tax cuts, reduced regulation, federal help in home buying, and school vouchers. Current tax breaks targeted at inner cities are considered too weak to be effective.

Under the most generous of the proposals, taxpayers could deduct the cost of buying up to $500,000 worth of stock in a company located within a zone. Then, if the stock is held for five years, any profits on the sale would be exempt from federal capital-gains taxes. Businesses within the zone could deduct twice their usual limits for new plant and equipment. Tax credits would offset some construction costs. And federal regulatory agencies could be asked to grant waivers to the projects as long as health and safety are not affected.

The biggest hurdle could be the package's 5-year, $7 billion price tag. Yet Kemp argues that the plan would boost the economy of many cities, cut chronic unemployment, and bolster party strength. "With this kind of approach, a third to 40% of the minority vote could go to Republicans," he says with his typical put-me-in, coach optimism.

Gingrich insists that a package of inner-city development incentives is vintage Republicanism that will appeal to minorities. He promised members to "focus more of our energy on how we design a helping hand" and has asked Representative J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), one of only two black House GOP members, to draft an alternative to racial preferences. Watts is focusing on school choice and capital formation as the key to developing the inner cities. Banking institutions lending money within an enterprise zone would be exempt from the paperwork requirements of the Community Reinvestment Act. A portion of federal loans and block grants --as much as 25%--would be reserved for the zones.

Not everyone in the GOP is convinced that it's necessary to come up with a palatable alternative to affirmative action. Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour insists that "we already have the high ground, and we don't need to do anything other than to be for equal opportunity and against discrimination of any kind." With a packed legislative calendar, Congress won't have much time to deal with the inner city this fall.

But GOP supporters are counting on the wider appeal of tax breaks to business and investors to help move the legislation early next year. Senator Abraham also intends to line up Republican governors and many Democratic mayors for a major lobbying blitz. With GOP Presidential hopefuls hammering away at affirmative action almost on a daily basis, minority voters are going to be demanding GOP alternatives. Kemp claims to have the ready-made answer.

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