John F. Kerry photo

Remarks to the National Conference of Black Mayors

April 29, 2004

It is an honor to be with you today, and to be asked to speak at the Fannie Lou Hamer lunch. Sixty years ago she traveled to Atlantic City to speak her mind at the 1964 Convention.

Some thought it was a gamble, but we know it was a gift – a gift that reminded us that our work to make this country stronger never ends. When she said, "I'm so tired of being sick and tired," it echoed across this land. She moved this nation toward greater equality. She's more than a memory for us; she's with us today. And she will be with us in Boston in July.

If you want to know what's going on in America, then you talk to a mayor.

I have a great mayor back in Boston, Tom Menino. You can call him anytime and talk about education, housing, and how the Red Sox's keep breaking our hearts. You can catch him at a park opening, a couple of ribbon cuttings, meetings with local business leaders, at a graduation ceremony, swearing in new police officers, at a transportation meeting, a dance for seniors, and that's just an example of half of his day.

And I also have a great mayor in DC, Mayor Williams.

Mayors do a lot because they see a lot. In tough times and in good times, the government that's closest to us is the one we count on the most. Every day you see things I wish everyone in Washington could see.

On any given day – whether it's in Hattiesberg or Evanston or right here in Philadelphia with our friend Mayor Street – mayors see setbacks and success, problems and possibilities.

You see vacant lots transformed into new buildings that bring more jobs and life to a once forgotten corner. You see kids down the street who were once forgotten – written off hopeless by others – change their lives simply because they have a safe place to go after-school. You see abandoned buildings turned into new homes for working families who have been priced out of this housing market. You see long-time businesses working with neighbors to keep area local economy alive. You see how new bus routes, subway lines, and trains connect neighborhoods to opportunities in the heart of downtown.

Cities and towns, you see, are the heart and soul of America, and mayors on the frontlines are America's conscience.

And when I am president, I will convene an annual meeting of the nation's mayors – not just to hear from our big cities, but to hear from our leaders in our small and rural towns across America.

And together we can build a stronger America: if the partnership between Washington and you is strong; if there's real respect between the federal government and the local government, and if there's a fundamental understanding that Washington can't work unless you can do your work.

The ideology that "you're on your own" is bound to fail � both for your cities and towns, and the nation � because you and I know that we're all in this boat together. But how can we make America stronger when the leadership in Washington won't even acknowledge that something is wrong?

They can't even see that it's wrong to reward companies for shipping jobs out of your neighborhood and overseas. That it's wrong to stand by as families and businesses watch health care premiums shoot through roof while the big drug companies and insurance companies get sweetheart deals. That it's wrong when big polluters get their way and your kids get asthma in record numbers.

That it's wrong when we've got schools with just one computer for every 15 kids. That it's wrong when millions of Americans are working fulltime and still living in poverty. That it's wrong that we've grown accustomed to using the phrase "working poor." That it's wrong to invest more in prisons than in Head Start.

That it's wrong to strong arm the world and send our men and women into harm's way with out the proper body armor and a plan to rebuild a country. That it's wrong to ask our mayors to prevent and protect us in the war on terror and then stick you with the bill. And it's wrong when our leadership divides us for political purposes instead of pulling people together to meet our challenges.

Our country has faced great challenges in the last four years: a recession that's left millions out of work; an attack that took nearly three thousand lives from us; and today we are a nation at war. But these events are not excuses for what's wrong with America; they are the causes that demand us to make things right.

And together we will make things right again. Together we can build a stronger America: an America that's strong at home and abroad, an America where fundamental fairness, truth, service, and an equal chance for all – not the privileged few – rule the day.

That's what we believe in. That's what we want for our country – not just for now, but for our kids, our grandkids, and the generations that follow.

We can start by building a stronger economy. We all know that America is at its best when it's at work. When men and women across America can wake up and go to work and make the things that we count on and need.

Whether its cars or computers, our country is strong when the machines are running, products are being made, and people are cashing paychecks to care for their families.

That's the rhythm, that's the sound, of a strong American economy. And in three short years, that sound has been silenced in far too many communities in our country.

For the last six weeks, I've been talking about my plan to create 10 million new good paying jobs, cut the deficit in half in 4 years so we can invest more in the things you need to do. Like $25 billion for education, health care, roads and infrastructure and other priorities of yours such as direct funding for you to cover the costs of protecting America in the war on terror.

This week I took a "Jobs First Bus Tour" across West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

I talked about my plan to create the jobs of the future by investing in manufacturing and training. I announced my plan to enforce our trade agreements to keep America strong and competitive around the world.

We must always trade and engage in the global economy. But it's hard to compete when the leaders in Washington don't see that it's a problem when countries like China fail to live up to their promises.

And it's hard to make America strong when our leaders think that outsourcing millions of jobs is "good" for our economy. That's why I've called for a stop to the insane practice of giving companies tax incentives to export our good paying jobs. It's wrong, and when I'm president it will stop and 99 percent of our companies will get a tax break for keeping jobs here.

We see the problem, and together we know what can be done to make sure that our economy is stronger and in line with our values.

You and I also know that in order to make America strong, we must lift up our working middle class families and all who aspire to join it.

We know that a shift has occurred in America. Families with both parents working used to be able to save for retirement, to buy house or put their child through college. Now they can barely pay for the necessities. They face mounting debt. Health care premiums keep climbing – as much as 49 percent over the last three years. Bankruptcies are at an all time high. Predatory lenders are taking people's homes. And this year 220,000 young people – smart qualified kids – gave up on their dream to go to college because they couldn't afford it.

So to make America's middle class stronger, I have proposed a new "Contract with the Middle Class" to help them get ahead, cover health care costs, and pay college tuitions. My plan will make sure that their taxes go down, so their incomes go up. And when I am president 98% of all Americans will get a tax cut, not just the privileged few.

That's how you build a strong economy. And we will pay for these steps by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

In Mississippi and Georgia – in every state I've been to – working families come up to me and tell me about their struggles with health care costs. We all know that we can strengthen our health care system by keeping costs low.

Parents are worried that their employers might drop coverage. And they're worried that one medical emergency could ruin everything they built for their kids. Health care in this country shouldn't be a luxury; it should be a right. My plan would cut health care premiums by up to $1,000 for a family, cutting the cost for businesses, and making it more affordable for America's families.

We all know that a strong education is the ticket to a better future in America.

America is strong when our schools at every grade level have the books, supplies and safe classrooms. When good teachers can do their jobs, and the principal can guide that school the best way they know how. You see the struggles at the local level; our present leadership in Washington doesn't get it.

You know that empty slogans lead to empty dreams. But if we make the commitment together, Washington and our local schools can make things right.

We will invest in education so that young people can achieve their dream and our workers can remain the best-trained workforce in the world. I have a plan that addresses the high-cost of college with a tax credit on $4000 of tuition. And I have a plan that will pay for college if hundreds of thousands of young people serve their communities: by mentoring kids, building homes, and defending the homeland.

This is what we can do for our cities and towns � and our country. This administration thinks that things are just fine today. They don't even seem to know what's happening.

But we do. And we want to work together and make America strong again.

And nothing is more important to our national strength and future than winning the war on terror.

We know that progress has been made since those dark days in September. We have gone after the terrorists in Afghanistan, cracked down on their funding networks, and after months of Administration resistance, created a Homeland Security Department.

But we know that we haven't done enough.

And I want to talk about a few specific steps we can take today and make us safer and better prepared.

Every report that comes out of Washington – whether the Hart-Rudman reports or other independent reviews – the language is clear. They don't use words like: if or perhaps or maybe or an attack might happen again. The constant word is when.

So if we know it's a matter of when, then when are we going to stop pretending that all has been accomplished in our shared mission to keep America safe? When are we going to start dealing with dangers we still face? When are we going to secure our ports so we know if nuclear material is coming in on a ship? When are we going to address the fact that our borders are still wide open? When are we going to get the FBI in the habit of letting your local law enforcement know what's going on? When are we going to consolidate our databases so that when one of your cops or sheriffs happens to pull over a suspected terrorist, he actually finds out about it.

I have a plan to accomplish many of these steps � and I will continue to address what we can do together to prevent another attack. This is an area in which we can never stop trying to do better. And I believe that our tribute to those who perished from this earth that September day is to create an America that is safer and therefore stronger – an America that has exerted all its might and muscle to prevent another terrorist's attack.

I don't accept the notion that we've accomplished enough. We have to do more, and I don't think it's right for mayors to bear these costs alone. Since September 11th, you have met your responsibilities – paying more than $3 billion from your own budgets.

Of the federal money that's provided set aside for a portion of costs for equipment and overtime and training, very little has actually reached your police departments and fire departments. And that has to change, and I will make sure it does when I am President.

We don't have a second to spare. The General Accounting just reported that security upgrades at nuclear weapons sites are as many as three years behind. We must do better.

Time is not on our side when it comes to stopping the next terrorist attack, and I have a plan that will secure our chemical plants across this country.

According to recent reports, al Qaeda affiliated groups were planning an assault on a chemical plant in Jordan. The FBI has warned us that al Qaeda may attempt to launch conventional attacks on our nuclear and chemical industries. And of course our own leaders in Washington warned us that terrorist may strike again before the November election?

What are we waiting for?

Look at Philadelphia. According to the Environmental protection agency there are seven plants in the area, most of them chemical plants. And if they are attacked – they could kill or injure as many as 1 million people. In Memphis, TN, Vertex Chemicals Manufacturing has 180,000 lbs of Chlorine 25 miles from 1 million people. And in Detroit, Michigan, PVS Technology, Chemicals Manufacturing, has 180,000 lbs of Chlorine 14 miles from 2 million people.

There are more than 100 plants like these across America. And we know these plants are not secure. 60 Minutes did a long investigation – they found you could walk right on in, no questions asked. That's what many reporters have found.

My colleague, Senator John Corzine, has been a leader on this issue since the early days after 9/11. But it still isn't done. Think about that for a minute. It's nearly 2 and a half years after 9/11 � and the Administration is still dragging its heels and we're still fighting to secure our chemical plants. I wish their policies were as tough as their words.

Why won't they lead this nation to take every step to prevent one of our own chemical plants from being turned into a weapon of mass destruction against our own people?

Here's what we have to do together – real commonsense steps that will make the difference. Start by putting America's security ahead of the chemical plant's interests.

We need to require those plants at the highest risk of an attack to have an effective security force, a protected perimeter, and up to date surveillance. And while we will give these plants the lead in developing and implementing their security plans, we will stand ready to require better security under penalty of law.

We have to harden targets today. This Administration unfortunately has been unwilling to take these steps because they have sided with the chemical industry. We need real leadership – leadership that will stand up to the chemical or nuclear power industry and say: "You don't have a choice when the safety and security of the American people are at stake." We don't care who they're writing campaign checks to. It's time for them to make America stronger.

And it's time for all of us to work together and strengthen our homeland security.

It's time for the FBI to get you the information you need on the ground, in time, and before a potential problem becomes a crisis. And we need to make sure that the first responders we count on have what they need if terrorism and tragedy strike us again.

I want America to be stronger so that we win the war on terror � at home and abroad. And let me say this: I'm determined that no matter who wins this election in November; the terrorists will lose.

And we all know that the stakes have never been higher for the more than 100,000 men and women serving their country right now. We think of them when we see the flag or when we sing that national anthem. And when we see those flagged draped coffins bringing our fallen home. We're proud of them, proud of their service.

In Iraq, failure is not an option. We know that the mission is not accomplished � and it is time for a new plan. A plan that gives our men and women every piece of equipment and every armored vehicle they need so they can do their job. And we will lead again � with our allies and the world � with strength and conviction to get this mission right.

We must show this kind of leadership to bring other's to join in the effort to build a stable Iraq � because this historic responsibility is the world's to share, not ours to shoulder alone. Whether it's a stable Iraq or the War on Terror, every country has a stake in the outcome.

After four years of a policy that has pushed the world aside, it's time for a policy that makes us stronger by rebuilding our alliances. When America works with the world, it's a sign of strength, not weakness.

The challenges before us are not easy. They will call for us to sacrifice and work together as never before. But the strength of America has always come from the will, the soul and the unity of our people.

I have seen this all my life. We are nation that is devoted to service. My father joined the army Air Corps in World War II and I was born at an army hospital in Denver.

Millions of Americans at that time were giving up the comfort of their lives to answer their country's call.

Even at a young age, my mother taught me about taking care of our environment long before it was a mainstream idea. She'd even wake me up and take me on nature walks and when we were in the middle of the woods, stop and say "just listen."

Well, I am wide-awake now about what we need to do to preserve our environment and become more energy independent. Moments like the ones I shared with her stay with you – and instill a value to honor God's gift and pass on something better to our children and theirs.

Even in college, the call to service was all around me. The Peace Corps was new � and some of our oldest ideals were at stake in the struggle for civil rights. There were busloads of freedom riders who went to Mississippi to register new voters. And when I graduated from Yale, I just thought it was my duty to volunteer for Vietnam.

Thirty-five years ago, on a boat, in the Mekong Delta, I grew up with a band of brothers from all walks of life and every corner of America. We learned many things on that journey, but above all, we learned that we were never the kid from South Carolina, Iowa, Arkansas, California, or the kid from Massachusetts. Under the heat of fire and the fog of battle, our mission became crystal clear � and color, religion, and background melted away to an understanding that we were all simply "Americans." All of us fighting under the same flag, praying to the same God.

I'm running for President because I believe that we are all in the same boat. I believe that no matter what our differences, we can work together to build a stronger America. We can work together to make our country stronger as we fight and win this war on terror.

We can make our economy stronger so that it works to fulfill the hopes and dreams of working families. Instead of outsourcing our jobs, we can build our industrial strength.

Instead of leaving millions of children behind, we can make our schools stronger so that every child has a chance to reach their God-given talents. And instead of doing nothing on health care for people and everything to protect the profits of the big drug companies, we can make tough reforms to keep costs under control.

This is what we want for America. This is what we believe in. We can restore fairness, and truth and opportunity again. We can accomplish this when our shared mission is to make our country equal to its high ideals and hopes. Because together, we can and will build a stronger America. Thank you.

John F. Kerry, Remarks to the National Conference of Black Mayors Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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