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Transcript: Mayor Bill de Blasio Delivers Remarks At The U.S. Conference Of Mayors Plenary Session

June 23, 2014

SUNDAY, JUNE 22, 2014
DALLAS, TEXAS

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Thank you so much. I have to say that, Mayor Johnson, we are blessed to have you as our president of the Conference of Mayors. You have brought tremendous leadership, and energy, and a vision already that for us in New York is exciting. It helps us and propels us forward in our effort. As the 72nd president of this organization, I think you’re off to an extraordinary start. I want to thank you for all you’re doing locally as well. And since today’s topic has been how we address climate change, I want to thank Mayor Johnson for what he’s doing in Sacramento to show us that economic growth has to be green growth, and we thank you for that. And just on a personal note, something I think a number of us feel, mayors are called upon to do a lot of different things. I don’t think Mayor Johnson, a few months ago, would have anticipated having to step into the national spotlight to address an incredibly troubling moment, but thank god he did, and his efforts to prevail upon the NBA were crucial to healing something that could have been a very, very painful episode if it were not dealt with aggressively. And Mayor Johnson, you did the right thing for all of us, so thank you for that.

Now, we have so many leaders here as part of this panel—I’m coming in at the tail end and I want to reference, of course, the crucial issues on climate change. I just want to contextualize them in the larger fight against inequality and the work we all have to do to address what, unfortunately, is growing inequality of so many different types in all of our cities and across our nation. I’m gratified that Mayor Johnson has asked me to lead our new task force and I’m going to do that with all I’ve got, and I look forward to the participation of so many of you. But I want to thank the folks who were part of this panel – Mayor Finch, who’s doing great things as a leader among all of us on climate change. And I want to thank David Agnew for always listening and always helping us at the White House, and that is a major matter. And Secretary Moniz and, of course, Gina McCarthy at the EPA, all of them have been supportive and we appreciate their efforts on climate change and we need them.

And let’s face it, this is one example of a set of issues where we as mayors play a particular role in this country because, by definition, we are at the front line. And we’re at the front line whether we get help from the federal government or not, whether we get help from our state governments or not – our people expect us to perform, our people expect us to produce, no matter what crisis is thrown at us. Climate change has produced very real and immediate crises, and yet the solution, of course, goes so much farther than the question of whether we recover from whatever immediate disaster confronts us.

In New York City in 2012 with Hurricane Sandy, literally the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of New York City, something we never would have anticipated, something that affected hundreds of thousands of our citizens – immense property damage, immense dislocation – and we’re still, slowly but surely, resolving all the crises that came out – all the pain, all the crisis, all the challenges that came out of Sandy, that’s still very real for tens of thousands of New Yorkers. That’s our front line issue, and I think so many of you around the room are engaged in similar efforts to recover and rebuild and prepare for the future based on that which you’ve experienced already.

But we all have to get to the heart of the matter, I know that’s what this panel was about, of actually addressing climate change more fundamentally. And so much of that has to happen, by definition, at the federal level and at the state level. But again, if we are mindful of the fact that sometimes, those levels don’t act with the same urgency and clarity that we do as mayors, it is therefore incumbent on us to lead the way through action, as is true in so many cases. I know I’m preaching to the converted, but I think it’s important to say, we can have a huge impact on the climate change debate because we don’t just debate it, we act on it.

I look at my city, and I have to tell you, we haven’t to date done what we could have when you think about the thousands of public buildings in New York City – school buildings, public housing, etc.—this is fertile ground for energy retrofits, and I think it’s true in cities all over the country. Those buildings that we control directly should be the first rung of all we do to address climate change because the national and international steps are needed for sure. But we know how pivotal a source of pollution buildings are, we know that retrofits will make a huge difference, and we have the tools because we own the buildings. In New York City in these coming months, we’re going to put together a plan to aggressively go at those thousands of public buildings, so we’ll have a tangible impact in our own corner of the world on the pollution that’s causing climate change.

But we hope also to work with all of you to show what a powerful model cities can create for local action, and to show at that it should be a template for state and federal action, to show that what we do locally actually affects people’s lives, creates a greener planet, helps us pull back from the brink of crisis. And it has to be something that provides a model, a spark, a sense of urgency, in Washington. And at the same time, that we address the climate change crisis, that we address the issues in environmental sustainability.

We know as mayors, we can’t look at them in isolation, because we’re all dealing with the economic realities we face every single day. I always say, we have to think of environmental sustainability and economic sustainability in the same breath. We have to think about our efforts to address climate change locally, our efforts to reduce pollutants locally, to create energy efficiency locally as tremendous job creation engines, and job creation engines that we can use to address larger inequalities, that we can use as a venue to help people who’ve been left out of the economy to get good-paying jobs, that we can use as a way to spark a kind of economic opportunity that hasn’t been there before. Everything we do as mayors, by definition we try and stretch every dollar, we try to get not one bang for our buck, but as many different possible impacts as we can. In the area of retrofitting and environmental sustainability, we have a great opportunity. We can not only achieve, but turn these tools towards a larger work of economic fairness.

And the beautiful thing about us, as mayors – we know how to do things. We have to know how to do things. We don't have the luxury of waiting. We don't like to wait. We don't wait. We do things now. That spirit has to bubble up more aggressively to our state capitals and to Washington, and sometimes we have to lead by example when every other entreaty fails. And I think when it comes to energy retrofitting, addressing climate change – we have a crucial opportunity to create a kind of momentum that hasn't been there before at the federal level.

And I just want to frame this quickly in the context of the larger fight against inequality. We're in a country, again, by definition, that over generations has prized and cherished the notion of opportunity and fairness and equality, and yet, it has slipped away more and more with each year in recent decades. When I ran for mayor last year in New York City, I talked about a tale of two cities. I think every one of us understands that phrase from our own perspective, because we can see every neighborhood, every block in our cities, and we know where people are blessed to be doing well, and we know where people have been hurting and hurting for many, many years. We know that for so many people it's getting tougher.

Our host, Mayor Rawlings, said something on Friday that's worth repeating, and it really struck me – he was talking about Dallas, but he was talking about what it meant for all of us as well. He said, there's a train headed for us, and the in the next couple of decades, if we're not able to stop that train – he talked about the dangers we face, he said, ‘I imagine that many of you have the same train bearing down on your cities. We need to work hard to share best practices, and recognize the severity of these problems. Because the long-term success of our cities – and the nation – hangs in the balance.’  I think Mayor Rawlings got it exactly right. We're not asking for help in fighting inequality out of some sense of local privilege. We're doing it because not only do we have to solve the problems of our people, we have to help this nation avert the crisis that will come if we don't address these problems, and if our cities remain unsupported, since we are more and more the economic engines and core of this country.

I always remind people – look around the world, look at your competitors. In the countries in the world that are vibrant and growing, they're investing, and they recognize their cities as the magnets for talent and innovation and entrepreneurship, and then they invest in education and research and infrastructure, and it's helping them move ahead – it's not happening here. So when we say to Washington, or when we say to leaders in our state capitals, we need that kind of investment – it's not just to avert our immediate challenges, or to recognize an inequality crisis that grows in and of itself, is corrosive – it's also because we can't be that economic core for our country if the federal government and state governments don't participate actively and aggressively with us.

Look at the numbers, look at the reality, of a country where there are some very wealthy people, and they are getting wealthier. And then a huge portion of our population is mired in a dynamic with low income and stagnating incomes no matter how hard they work. There is a clear absence of opportunity. We know it. We talk to our constituents all the time. It's palpable. People are trying to figure out how to find housing, how to find a decent job, how to even put food on the table – more and more of a challenge in so many of our cities – how to do something that used to be a common thing, afford the educational opportunity for their children that's now more and more a source of doubt for our constituents. And these numbers are staggering. The gap between the very rich and everyone else is at historic levels. In 2012, the top 1 percent received nearly 24 percent of all pre-tax income, 24 percent. The bottom 90 percent received 49.6 percent of all pre-tax income. That's the first time that the bottom 90 percent has made less than 50 percent of our national pre-tax income. The middle class is eroding – between 2007 and 2012, wages fell for the whole bottom 70 percent of wage earners in this country – 70 percent of our people, in recent years, have experienced, in real terms, a decrease in their wage level. And at the same time as productivity grew nationwide 7.7 percent. So people are working hard, people are working smarter. They're doing a better job. We see every day, it's not helping them get ahead. They are slowly but surely falling behind, and then we try to catch the china falling off the shelf constantly, as mayors, and do our best to address people's needs. But we need bigger solutions, by definition.

We need to start by convincing some folks out there who don't see the depth of the crisis, or aren't feeling what it means, or are blind to it, or ignoring it, or maybe are people of good will, and just haven't had the opportunity to understand. We have to show them that this is an American crisis, that this kind of growing inequality is fundamentally un-American. It doesn't comport with our values. This is a nation founded on notions of equality. It was not founded to have a small economic elite, and then vast amounts of populations struggling. And I can speak to this because our founding fathers actually were quite explicit. Here's a quote from Thomas Jefferson, in 1785. He said, ‘Enormous inequality, producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind’ was a deep concern for him, and he urged steps like strongly progressive taxation. Here's Thomas Jefferson in 1795, he said a way to, we needed a way to reduce ‘ the inequality of property is to exempt it from all taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.’ Thomas Jefferson laying out very clearly the dangers of inequality, and the need to act aggressively. Here's James Madison, who only wrote our constitution, saying government should prevent ‘an immoderate and especially unmerited accumulation of riches.’

And so out of those ideas grew a country that thrived and was inclusive in many ways. Certainly imperfect, and we’ve all fought to make it better. But thrived and created a middle class and created an actual American dream for so many people. But last month, CNN did a poll and they asked about the status of the American dream for people all over the country – 59 percent of Americans said the American dream was no longer achievable for them, 63 percent said their children would not be better off than they were. That’s how stark it is. The numbers speak to it, the attitude of our people speaks to it and the drift from the vision of this nation could not be clearer.

And let me tell you about what one other observer said. And I think this may be one of the most striking things I’ve heard in a while. He was talking about the threat of inequality, appeared on one of the Sunday morning shows. And he said that this rising inequality was ‘very destabilizing’. He called it a very big issue and something that has to be dealt with. He was quite decisive, who was that? The CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein. And he issued this warning to all of us. He said, ‘If you grow the pie but too few people enjoy the benefits of it and the fruit, then you’ll have an unstable society.’

Now we know this as mayors, again because we live it every day. But it’s not just about how far we’ve gone away from our moorings as a nation and our values. It’s not just that we won’t be able to compete if we aren’t investing in our people, and particularly in our cities. It’s also that we’ve created a dynamic where it’s literally fostering instability because people feel no longer able to participate, no longer able to fully benefit from all that historically we’ve believed was something available to all of us. Certainly a lot of us in this room grew up assuming – we grew up assuming that that was the reality. We saw it all around us. It was an article of faith. And then listen to those numbers suggesting how far we’ve gone.

Everyone in this room is trying to address this crisis in different ways. In New York City, I’ll just tell you very briefly in the last six months, we’ve focused on things that we think will make a tangible impact and show people there is some hope again and they will be included. We passed a paid sick leave law that reached a half million more people than the previous law. We’ve embarked on an affordable housing plan for 200,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years. Because we know that’s the biggest expense people face. And we can’t address income inequality without going at the thing that holds people back so much, which is the cost of housing.

We’ve gone at the core question of education, which will frame our future. We’ve gone at that question because for so many parents, if they have access to full-day high-quality pre-K, that lightens the burden on parents so they can go and find work and get to work and stay at work. But also because it means their child will have the kind of educational foundation to succeed in an ever more-competitive world. If we want to show people faith, full-day pre-K is a prerequisite because it’s an educational option that actually speaks to the modern economy and the modern educational demands we face. And when we give that to our people, we show them we’re actually trying to get them back in the game across the board. It makes a huge difference, just like after-school programs, which we’re focused on – lighten the burden of parents. Real pro-family policies are policies that make it easier for parents to parent while finding the income they need for their family. Things like full-day pre-K, things like after-school address inequality foundationally – here and now, and build an opportunity for a more equal society in the future.

In New York City, we’ve made clear the next two years we are guaranteeing full-day pre-K to every child in our city. Come hell or high water, we’re going to get it done because it’s the right thing to do.

[Applause]

Now, I’ll be quick here. I know it’s been a long morning so I’ll be quick.  There’s so many other fronts we have to face, if we’re really going to address inequality. I know one that’s on the mind of a lot of us – especially in recent weeks – is broadband access. I know so many people here have been doing extraordinarily important work. If we’re going to create fairness and economic opportunity, high speed internet – affordable high speed internet –has to be available to all of our citizens.

[Applause]

And I want to thank Mayor Lee for his leadership on the Net Neutrality resolution, which I think speaks to the core realities that we face. I want to thank Mayor Murray of Seattle for his extraordinary efforts fighting for broadband access, and raising real questions about what the corporate actions that have been taken – the [inaudible] mergers and other actions means, for actual equity and fairness for our people – let alone our consumers. More than a quarter of Americans lack broadband access in their homes – the rates are much higher for low income folks – for African-Americans and Latinos as well. We’re trying to do something locally, as so many of you are. We’re very excited to turn all of our city pay phones into a network of free Wi-Fi hot spots. We’ll have over 7,000. That’s one effort, but there’s so much more to do, because we have to make sure the internet access is truly universal.

Now, everyone in this room is fighting on these fronts. We’re proud that we’re doing some things in New York City that we hope will work will be helpful as examples to others. We borrow all the time from each and every one of you. . There’s best practices – we all appreciate that notion – but I think we’re in a time where we have to go even farther – and, again, I appreciate the opportunity to chair our new task force because best practices helps us, but banding together in common cause helps us even more.

Look what’s happening around the country and look at how each one of our successes builds the other. Look at what Tulsa has done, the extraordinary progress they’ve made on pre-K. I can tell you, it’s something we admired in New York City and it helped us to be able to show what could be done. Denver. San Antonio. All have been making extraordinary impact on pre-K. Each progress, each step forward helps us build the next systematically for each other. What Mayor Lee has done in San Francisco with his initiative on affordable housing helped us as we constructed our affordable housing plan. The paid sick leave laws passed in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. framed for us what we needed to do on paid sick leave. The work that’s been done to help immigrants, including undocumented immigrants – while we wait on our national leaders to resolve the fundamental question of immigration, we end up having to make our own choices of how to address tens of thousands, or in the case of New York City, hundreds of thousands, of our neighbors who happen to be undocumented. And so places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and New Haven passed municipal I.D. laws, which we’re now borrowing as a notion in New York City and we’ll do later this year.

Look at the pattern – time and time again, cities act in the absence of action from the federal level or the state level. Cities look at each other, learn from each other, aggressively move with each other. It’s happening organically. We can help it happen even more deeply, even more effectively. The minimum wage and living wage issues are perfect examples. Seattle’s action on the $15 minimum wage. Philadelphia’s action on the $10.88 wage for city contracted work. These actions are raising the bar and we’re taking inspiration from them in New York.

I’ll finish by saying that if we recognize inequality as the core challenge of our times – this is what we have received, we in this generation, we as the leaders of today have received the crisis not that we asked for, not that we saw coming, but it’s profound and it’s deep, and it’s what we have to take on head on. If we see inequality writ large as the crisis of our time, if we see income inequality as a particularly sharp element of that crisis, it’s time to band together. It’s time to make clear that we don’t accept the trajectory we’re on. And if our federal partners or our state partners aren’t acting quickly enough, we will act. And in our actions, locally, particularly if we knit them together more effectively and more urgently, we will create the beginning of an urban agenda again for this country.

I want to emphasize – for decades, including from the time this organization was founded, there was an urban agenda. In the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s – for 50 years the notion of an urban agenda in Washington was common, was respected, was necessary. And then from the 1980s on, that idea has been buffeted and dissipated in many ways. It’s time to resurrect it forcefully. The US Conference of Mayors is the obvious leading edge of that effort, because we have the evidence on our side.

We have to address the inequality crisis. It is mission critical for all of us locally. It is obviously mission critical for the future of our country. We have to address economic competition. And if there isn’t investment in our cities, we will not be an economically competitive nation. Again, we are doing this for our own people, but we’re doing something patriotic if we force an urban agenda to the core again, to the core of the debate, to the fore of this national discourse, because our nation needs that urban agenda. It doesn’t matter where you live – we need that urban agenda again, because that agenda implicitly would say, invest in infrastructure, invest in affordable housing, invest in research, invest in education. That’s what would be the core of that agenda and that is what our nation needs. And I don’t accept – and I bet a lot of people in this room don’t accept – that some people who go to Washington and represent our cities use their ideology as an excuse for not responding to our needs.

Now, a great man once said, ‘All politics is local.’ Tip O’Neill was right. Implicit in this is that we build an agenda that’s substantively the right thing to do. But we remind the people who represent us in Washington – and I don’t care what party or what ideology they claim – that if they aren’t serving our cities, then they’ve run afoul of the moment we live in, and they aren’t helping us to build our nation up. We have to create that sense of urgency.

I hope all of you will join our Cities of Opportunity Task Force and participate in every way you can. I thank Mayor Johnson again for his leadership. He was quick to see that we need this crystallizing effort at this time of crisis.

If we band together, we can create something that we haven’t seen in a number of decades. It’s going to be a movement where cities around the country demand the kinds of things we’ve been missing. A great movie once had the line, ‘If you build it they will come’ – Field of Dreams fans. Well, we have to build something and bring people along, some willingly, some less so, but we have to bring them along to that kind of agenda again. It will help us to create more equality. It will help us to create more opportunity. It will help us to show that mayors understand you can never wait. The job has to be done now.

So let’s bind together and show Washington how it’s done, what it looks like to actually address these issues head on. Together, together we can reframe the national debate, we can reset the assumptions, and we can help our country aim higher. Thank you. And God bless you.

[Applause]   

 

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