Two Four-Letter Words Link Gingrich and Barry

March 20, 1995|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Talk about your odd couples. Could that be House Speaker Newt Gingrich rubbing elbows with District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry?

Yes, that's ''Mayor for Life'' Barry, famously stalwart big-city liberal and convicted smoker of crack cocaine, getting all chummy with ''New Age'' Newt, who, we all thought, stood for everything Barry detests, and vice versa.

But politics is funny. Washingtonians could hardly believe their eyes in February when the No. 1 pit bull of modern conservatism showed up smiling in photo opportunities with the district's first mayor to, as the local joke goes, ride in a limousine that bears license plates he made himself.

Insiders say the two got on famously, talking earnestly about their mutual desire to save the district government that is on the verge of bankruptcy. There was no fuss, no fury about ''welfare-state liberals'' or "blame-the-victim conservatives.'' How did it happen?

The answer is two four-letter words: Jack Kemp. It was Mr. Kemp, the former housing secretary and 1988 Republican presidential candidate, who brought Newt and hizzoner together in the offices of Mr. Kemp's conservative group, Empower America.

Why? In a February Washington Post opinion piece, Mr. Kemp explained that it would be ''redemptive'' for the Republican Congress and the Democratic mayor to save the nation's capital city.

He took no pride in the way conservatives either stood on the sidelines or showed open hostility when the civil-rights movement needed help in the days of Martin Luther King Jr. Now that the predominantly black District of Columbia teeters on financial bankruptcy -- cutting jobs, shortening its school year and struggling with a yearly debt equal to 20 percent of its operating budget -- Mr. Kemp sees a golden opportunity for Republicans to put their supply-side ideas to work in a modern urban partnership.

After all, district residents don't want to lose their coveted home rule. And Congress, despite the punitive-sounding bluster of some conservatives, has no real desire to add the crisis-ridden district to its long list of concerns. Why not work together?

''For the Republican party, it is a second chance,'' Mr. Kemp wrote, ''which history rarely provides. We did not lead the fight when schools and lunch counters were integrated or when King spoke of his dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

''But now we have the chance to write the final chapter in America's struggle to make everyone a full participant in the American experiment using the district as an example of our ideas.''

Well put. Hanging in the balance is the age-old question: Is today's Republican party really serious about its professed concerns for the best interests of black voters and the poor?

GOP leaders often give lip service to their ''big tent,'' open-door policy, but you'll see more people arriving on time at a convention of the Procrastinators' Society than you will see arriving early or late to a meeting of black Republicans these days.

Mr. Kemp, to his credit, goes farther than words. He reaches out. Unfortunately, he gets slapped down a lot. Take, for example, the principled position he and his Empower America partner, Bill Bennett, the former education secretary, took against California's Proposition 187, which would cut off non-emergency assistance to illegal immigrants. They called the proposition what it is, a short-sighted tantrum of resentment politics, not a real answer to the state's financial woes.

What happened? Resentment won. Proposition 187 won by a landslide. Mr. Kemp's political fortunes crashed. He dropped out of the 1996 presidential contention, while the presidential star of California's pro-187 governor, Pete Wilson, soared.

Mr. Kemp's withdrawal broke the hearts of the GOP's economic growth and ''empowerment'' wings. This is the dawning of the age of the tough, cut-government meanies, like Mr. Gingrich, Sen. Phil Gramm and commentator Pat ''cultural war'' Buchanan.

To save the district and provide a model to other suffering cities, Mr. Kemp suggests ''something radical'' to ''restore hope and prosperity:'' a ''contract'' between the Democratic mayor and the Republican Congress.

Mr. Kemp, a student of economics when he was not playing football, would rejuvenate the city's moribund economy by exempting all district residents and businesses from federal income taxes in exchange for one low, flat, district tax rate. He would also phase out the ''federal payment,'' an annual congressional payoff that tries but fails to make up for the tax revenue the district loses because so much of its land is occupied by the federal government and other tax-exempt entities.

It's worth a try. Since Congress has unique powers over the district, there may be no better laboratory for conservatives to put our money where their mouths are.

Whether Mr. Kemp's gambit to bring Speaker Gingrich and Mayor Barry together to revolutionize urban government works or not, it offers a model for a new politics, a way out of the balkanizing politics of race cards and resentment into a new age of cooperation, shared ideals and common ground.

I guess Mr. Kemp would rather be right than president. It's too bad he is getting his wish.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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