Remarks at the 2015 U.S. Conference of Mayors

Thank you all so much. Thank you. Thank you.

It’s great to be here with all of you. I’m looking out at the audience and seeing so many familiar faces, as well as those here up on the dais. I want to thank Kevin for his introduction and his leadership of this organization.

Mayor Lee, thanks for having us in your beautiful city. It is, for me, a great treat to come back to address a group that, as you just heard, I spent a lot of time as senator working with, in great measure because of the need for buttressing Homeland Security as well as other are challenges within our cities during the eight years I served in the Senate.

And it was always refreshing to come here, because despite whatever was going on in Congress or Washington with respect to partisanship, Conference of Mayors was truly like an oasis in the desert. I could come here and be reminded of what Mayor La Guardia said, “There’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. You pick it up or you don’t pick it up,” and I loved being with people who understood that.

I’ve learned over the years how important it is to work with City Hall to try to make sure we are connected up as partners to get whatever the priorities of your people happen to be accomplished. So it pays – it pays to work with you and I am grateful to have this opportunity to come back and see you.

When I was Senator from New York I not only worked with the mayor of New York City, of course, I worked with creative and committed mayors from Buffalo to Rochester to Syracuse to Albany and so many other places. And I was particularly happy to do so because they were always full of ideas and eager to work together to attract more high-paying jobs, to revitalize downtowns, to support our first responders, to try to close that skills gap.

And I want you to be sure of this, whether you are a Democrat a Republican or an independent – if I am president, America’s mayors will always have a friend in the White House. [applause]

Now as I was preparing to come here, I couldn’t help but think of some those who aren’t with us today. Tom Menino was a dear friend to me and to many in this room, and I certainly feel his loss. Today our thoughts are also with our friend Joe Riley and the people of Charleston. Joe is a good man and a great mayor, and his leadership has been a bright light during such a dark time.

You know, the passing of days has not dulled the pain or the shock of this crime. Indeed, as we have gotten to know the faces and names and stories of the victims, the pain has only deepened. Nine faithful women and men with families and passions and so much left to do. As a mother, a grandmother – just as a fellow human being – my heart is bursting for them, for these victims and their families, for a wounded community and a wounded church, for our country struggling once again to make sense of violence that is fundamentally senseless and history we desperately want to leave behind.

Yesterday was Juneteenth, a day of liberation and deliverance. One hundred and fifty years ago as news of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation spread from town to town across the South, free men and women lifted their voices in song and prayer. Congregations long forced to worship underground like the first Christians, joyfully resurrected their churches. In Charleston, the African Methodist Episcopal Church took a new name – Emmanuel, God is with us. Faith has always seen this community through and I know it will again. Just as earlier generations threw off the chains of slavery and then segregation and Jim Crow, this generation will not be shackled by fear and hate. [applause]

On Friday, one by one, grieving parents and siblings stood up in court and looked at that young man who had taken so much from them and said, “I forgive you.” In its way, their act of mercy was more stunning than his act of cruelty. It reminded me of watching Nelson Mandela embrace his former jailers because he said he didn’t want to be imprisoned twice – once by steel and concrete, once by anger and bitterness.

In these moments of tragedy, many of us struggle with how to process the rush of emotions. I’d been in Charleston that day. I’d gone to a technical school – Trident Tech. I had seen the joy, the confidence, the optimism of young people who were now serving apprenticeships with local businesses – black, white, Hispanic, Asian, every background. I listened to their stories, I shook their hands. I saw the hope and the pride. And then by the time I got to Las Vegas, I read the news. Like many of you, I was so overcome. How to turn grief, confusion into purpose and action. But that’s what we have to do.

For me and many others, one immediate response was to ask how it could be possible that we as a nation still allow guns to fall into the hands of people whose hearts are field with hate. You can’t watch massacre after massacre and not come to the conclusion that as President Obama said, we must tackle this challenge with urgency and conviction. [applause]

Now I lived in Arkansas and I represented upstate New York. I know that gun ownership is part of the fabric of a lot of law-abiding communities. But I also know that we can have common-sense gun reforms that keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and the violently unstable while respecting responsible gun owners. [applause]

What I hope with all of my heart is that we work together to make this debate less polarized, less inflamed by ideology, more informed by evidence so we can sit down across the table, across the aisle from one another and find ways to keep our community safe while protecting constitutional rights. It makes no sense that bipartisan legislation to require universal background checks would fail in Congress despite overwhelming public support. It makes no sense that we couldn’t come together to keep guns out of the hands a domestic abusers or people suffering from mental illnesses – even people on the terrorist watch list. That doesn’t make sense, and it is a rebuke to this nation we love and care about. [applause]

The president is right. The politics on this issue have been poisoned. But we can’t give up. The stakes are too high, the costs are too dear and I am NOT and will not be afraid to keep fighting for common-sense reforms, and along with you, achieve those on behalf of all who have been lost because of this senseless gun violence in our country. [applause]

But today I stand before you because I know and you now there is a deeper challenge we face. I had the great privilege of representing America around the world. I was so proud to share our example, our diversity, our openness, our devotion to human rights and freedom. These qualities have drawn generations of immigrants to our shores, and they inspire people still. I have seen it with my own eyes.

And yet, bodies are once again being carried out of a black church. Once again, racist rhetoric has metastasized into racist violence. Now, it’s tempting – it is tempting – to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident, to believe that in today’s America bigotry is largely behind us, that institutionalized racism no longer exists. But despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.

I know this is a difficult topic to talk about. I know that so many of us hoped by electing our first black president we had turned the page on this chapter in our history. I know there are truths we don’t like to say out loud or discuss with our children. But we have to. That’s the only way we can possibly move forward together.

Race remains a deep fault line in America. Millions and people of color still experience racism in their everyday lives. Here are some facts.

In America today, blacks are nearly three times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage. In 2013, the median – the median – wealth of black families was around $11,000. For white families, it was more than $134,000. Nearly half of all black families have lived in poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, compared to just seven percent of white families. African-American men are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than white men – ten percent longer for the same crimes in the federal system. In America today, our schools are more segregated than they were in the 1960s.

How can any of that be true? How can it be true that black children are 500 percent more likely to die from asthma than white kids – 500 percent?

More than half a century after Dr. King marched and Rosa Parks sat and John Lewis bled, after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and so much else, how can any of these things be true? But they are.

And our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen. It’s also the cruel joke that goes unchallenged. It’s the offhand comment about not wanting “those people” in the neighborhood.

Let’s be honest. For a lot of well-meaning, open-minded, white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports about poverty and crime and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege.

We can’t hide from any of these hard truths about race and justice in America. We have to name them and own them, and then change them.

You may have heard about a woman in North Carolina named Debbie Dills. She’s the one who spotted Dylann Roof’s car on the highway. She could have gone about her business. She could have looked to her own safety. But that’s not what she did. She called the police and then she followed that car for more than 30 miles.

As Congressman Jim Clyburn said the other day – there may be a lot of Dylann Roofs in the world, but there are a lot of Debbie Dills, too. She didn’t remain silent. [applause]

Well neither can we. We all have a role to play in building a more tolerant, inclusive society – what I once called a village – where there is a place for everyone.

You know, we Americans may differ and bicker and stumble and fall, but we are at our best when we pick each other up,  when we have each other’s back. Like any family, our American family is strongest when we cherish what we have in common and fight back against those who would drive us apart.

Mayors are on the front lines in so many ways. We look to you for leadership in time of crisis. We look to you every day to bring people together, to build stronger communities. Many mayors are part of the U.S. Coalition of Cities Against Racism and Discrimination, launched by this conference in 2013. I know you’re making reforms in your own communities, promoting tolerance in schools, smoothing the integration of immigrants, creating economic opportunities. Mayors across the country are also doing all they can to prevent gun violence and keep our streets and neighborhoods safe.

And that’s not all. Across our country there is so much that is working. It’s easy to forget that when we watch or read the news. In cities and towns from coast to coast, we are seeing incredible innovation. Mayors are delivering results with what Franklin Roosevelt called bold and persistent experimentation.

Here in San Francisco, Mayor Lee is expanding a workforce training program for residents of public housing, helping people find jobs who might have spent time in prison or lost their driver’s license or fallen behind in child support payments.

South of here in Los Angeles and north in Seattle, city governments are raising the minimum wage so more people who work hard can get ahead and support their families.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter is pioneering a new approach to community policing to rebuild trust and respect between law enforcement and communities of color.

In Houston, Louisville and Chicago, the mayors are finding new ways to help workers train and compete for jobs in advanced industries.

Cities like Cleveland in Lexington are linking up their universities and their factories to spur a revival of manufacturing.

In Denver and Detroit, city leaders are getting creative about how they raise funds for building and repairing mass transit.

Providence is helping parents learn how to become their children’s first teachers and spend more time reading, talking and singing to their babies at critical stages up early brain development.

Kevin Johnson, who has led both Sacramento and this conference so ably, calls this renaissance of urban innovation “Cities 3.0” and talks about open-source leadership and mayors as pragmatic problem-solvers.

That’s what we need more of in America.

And Kevin is right. We need to reimagine the relationship between the federal government and our metropolitan areas. [applause] Top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions rarely work. We need what I call a new flexible federalism that empowers and connects communities, leverages their unique advantages, adapts to changing circumstances. And I look forward to working with all of you to turn this vision into a reality.

I’ve put four fights at the center of my campaign.

First, to build an economy for tomorrow, not yesterday.

Second, to strengthen America’s families, the foundation of everything we are.

Third, to harness all of our power, our smarts and our values to continue to lead the world.

And fourth, to revitalize our democracy back here at home.

Mayors are vital for all four of these efforts. You know what it takes to make government actually work, and you know it can make a real difference in people’s lives.

But you also know the government alone does not have the answers we seek. If we’re going to restitch the fraying fabric of our communities, all Americans are going to have to step up.

There are laws we should pass and programs we should find and fights we should wage and win.

But so much of the real work is going to come around kitchen tables and over bedtime stories, around office water coolers and in factory break rooms, at quiet moments in school and at work, in honest conversation between parents and children, between friends and neighbors.

Because fundamentally this is about the habits of our hearts – how we treat each other, how we learn to see the humanity and those around us no matter what they look, like how they worship or who they love. Most of all it’s about how we teach our children to see that humanity, too.

Andy Young is here, and I want to tell a story about him because I think it’s as timely today as it was all those years ago.

You know, at the end that 1950s, the South was beginning to find its way into the modern economy. It wasn’t easy. There were determined leaders in both government and business that wanted to raise the standard of living and recruit businesses – make life better. When the closing of Central High School in Little Rock happened and President Eisenhower had to send in federal troops to keep peace, that sent a message of urgency but also opportunity. I remember Andy coming to Little Rock some years later and saying that in Atlanta when folks saw what was going on in Little Rock and saw some of the continuing resistance to enforcing civil rights laws, opening up closed doors, creating the chance for blacks and whites to study together, to work together, to live together, Atlanta made a different decision. The leadership of Atlanta came together, looked out across the South and said, “Someplace in the South is really going to make it big. We need to be that place.” And they adopted a slogan- The City Too Busy to Hate.

Well, we need to be cities, states and a country too busy to hate. We need to get about the work [applause] of  tearing down the barriers and the obstacles. Roll up our sleeves together. Look at what’s working across our country and then share it and scale it.

As all of us reeled from the news in Charleston this past week, a friend of mine shared this observation with a number of us. Think about the hearts and values of those men and women of Mother Emmanuel, he said. A dozen people gathered to pray. They’re in their most intimate of communities. The stranger who doesn’t look or dress like them joins in. They don’t judge. They don’t question. They don’t reject. They just welcome. If he’s there, he must need something – prayer, love, community – something. During their last hour, nine people of faith welcomed a stranger in prayer and fellowship. For those of us who are Christians, we remember the words of the scripture: “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

That’s humanity at its best. That’s also America at its best. [applause]

And that’s the spirit we need to nurture our lives and our families and our communities. I know it’s not usual for somebody running for president to say what we need more of in this country is love and kindness. But that’s exactly what we need more of. [applause] We need to be not only too busy to hate but too caring, too loving to ignore, to walk away, to give up.

Part of the reason I’m running for president is I love this country. I am so grateful for each and every blessing and opportunity I’ve been given. I did not pick my parents. I did not decide before I arrived that I would live in a middle-class family in the middle of America,  be given the opportunity to go to good public schools with dedicated teachers in a community that supported me and all of the other kids.

I came of age at a time when barriers were falling for women – another benefit. I came of age as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to not only change laws but change hearts. I’ve seen the expansion of not just rights but opportunities to so many of our fellow men and women who had been left out and left behind.

But we have unfinished business. And I am absolutely confident and optimistic we can get that done. I stand here ready to work with each and every one of you, to support your efforts, to stand with you, to put the task of moving beyond the past at the head of our national agenda.

I’m excited about what we can accomplish together.

I thank you for what you’ve already done and I look forward to all that you will be doing in the future.

Thank you, God bless you and God bless America.

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