Remarks by HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo
Alliance for Justice - Champion of Justice Award
April 19, 2000
Thank you very much. Dr. Amekhtar, thank you very much for the kind of introduction. Let me thank you for all the good work that you do and for your leadership -- with a couple of corrections on the introduction.
First, I am one of the youngest cabinet secretaries ever named -- that is a correct statement. But, not to torture the truth, one of the younger Cabinet Secretaries was a gentleman by the name of Robert Kennedy, who would have been my father-in-law, my wife Kerry Kennedy-Cuomo's father. I don't count him because that was nepotism -- his appointment when it was done. (Laugh)
Second, Dr. Amekhtar was very kind when he said that I have advanced my father in action. It would be a great honor to me if I believed that I could match Governor Mario Cuomo in action.
But let me first congratulate the Alliance for Justice for the great, great work that they are doing -- Dr. Amekhtar, Jim Weill, the Chairman of the Board, Nan Aron, the Founder and Director. This Alliance says it all. It really does sum up what we're trying to do. The things that we have been talking about, the people in this room actually do. I am truly honored to receive this award.
There is also someone else who is in this room today who could just as easily be at the microphone now -- you'll hear from him in a few minutes. This gentleman, in my opinion, has culminated his legacy as one of the best governors in the nation by taking on one of the toughest issues in the nation, and making it happen. Not just speaking out on an issue, which is important -- it's important to have an elected leader, a political leader who steps up on the tough issues -- but it's more important to have someone who speaks up and then actually gets something done. The State of Maryland is resonating across the nation in terms of what it’s possible for a state legislature to do. And that's due to the leadership of one man, Governor Parris Glendening -- congratulations, Governor. (Applause)
Let me speak relatively quickly if I can, for a few reasons. First you're eating your meal, and it's very dangerous for a politician to be between a speech and a meal. Secondly, I'm from New York, and that's how we talk in New York -- we talk very fast. And third, I'm on my way to Oklahoma City with the President of the United States, and Air Force One waits for no man except one, I can promise you that.
A couple of quick points if I can, though. This week to me really sums up so many of the issues that we've been dealing with as a collective. In many ways this week is a metaphor for the entire situation. Look what has happened just this week. First, you have the story of the economy, the full story of the economy, both sides of the story of the economy. We saw the tremendous strength of the economy when the stock market came roaring back on Monday. And you also have the down side of the economy, when President Clinton took his new markets tour, the second New Markets tour this week to the places that were left behind -- Palo Alto, East Palo Alto in California, the Navaho Indian Reservation.
Secondly, we have, again, the reminders of the plague of violence on our society. Today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing. Tomorrow is the anniversary of Columbine. And thirdly, you have the confluence of both Passover -- tonight is the first night of Passover -- and of Easter, which really puts this all in a frame of reference by asking us, what is the true meaning of success?
First, on the economy. The economy is going great guns. President Clinton will get up, every economist will get up and say this is the strongest economy in the history of the world -- and it is. 21 million new jobs, interest down, inflation down, employment up. All the numbers are going in the right direction, and it is a truly phenomenal economic story of success.
There are no two ways about it. We have created more wealth in this nation with this economy than at any other time in the history of the nation. And the homeownership rate, as one of the key economic indices, is at the highest point in history, 66.8 percent – the highest homeownership rate in history. It's important that you remember that, because it's not a coincidence that I was the Housing Secretary when the homeownership rate hit the highest number in history. (Laugh) (Applause).
So you have this great story of economic success. You have this great, powerful, beautiful economy, but then you have the flip side of that economy. They say the brightest light casts the greatest shadows. Well, if that's true, the places that are then left behind in this miracle of an economy make it even more painful for us to rationalize. When you go to the Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico, this week, with this President of the United States, and you see a 75 percent unemployment rate -- you say, how can this be, in this great land?
A young woman on the reservation won a computer by entering into a game show. She won the computer -- the problem is she doesn't have a telephone line to hook up the computer to. Because in this year you have many homes on the reservation that still don't have telephones, they don't even have electricity.
You can go to the Chicago Housing Authority today and see 11 of the 15 poorest census tracts in the United States on one or two blocks. You can go to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, you can go to Appalachia, or you can go to upstate New York, you can go to western Massachusetts, you can go to Toledo, you can see all of these medium-size cities all across the nation that are getting smaller and poorer.
So you have two stories of the economy. A great economic engine of success, and places that are left behind at a faster rate than ever before. You have the worst income inequality in 20 years, with more wealth polarization then ever before. The top 10 percent now own 90 percent of the wealth.
We know what to do about it -- education, education, education. Affordable housing, so people have a safe and decent place to live while they put their lives together. Economic development, access to credit. And stopping the violence so we can forge community, because none of these things are going to happen unless we have a safe context for them to happen in.
And that takes us to the issues of guns, and that takes us to today and the Oklahoma bombing, and the Columbine tragedy, and the issue of violence. And make no mistake about it, the issue of violence will not be resolved only by addressing guns. Because the reality we must face is that we are a violent society. In many ways we were born of violence, we were born from revolution, literally. We were forged by two World Wars. We know violence, we relish violence.
But Columbine, Oklahoma City, six-year-olds shooting other six-year-olds, women in public housing putting their children in bath tubs to sleep because they are afraid of a stray bullet. This is a random senseless violence that not even we can rationalize even with our history of violence.
And guns may not create the violence, but they are the outlet for the impulse, they are the tool of the violence, and we have too many of them in our society today -- 250 million guns is too many -- and that's what we're seeing day-in and day-out. (Applause)
You have 12 times more children who will lose their life this year in this country then the other 25 industrialized nations combined, and we call ourselves a civilized society. 30,000 people will lose their lives, 100,000 injuries. It easier in this society to buy a gun than it is to buy a McDonald's hamburger. There are seven times more gun dealers then there are McDonald's, believe it or not, 12,000 McDonald's, 84,000 gun dealers.
We have to do something about it. The President has a game plan and we're operating on three tracks simultaneously. First we have to get legislation, because that's the real way to make this problem come to an intelligent end -- fashion intelligent, sensible, common sense, gun control legislation. The President has submitted it to the Hill, the Hill has it, 80 percent of the American people want it passed. Pass the legislation by this United States Congress -- that's the best way to come to a reasonable solution here. (Applause)
The second track is litigation. Thirty cities have sued the gun manufacturers for product liability -- cases basically saying that this product is unsafe. When you think about it, it's rather absurd where we've gotten to as a society. We have a jar of aspirin that will have a child safety cap. Why? Well, because it's aspirin, and maybe a child opens it wrongfully, takes too many aspirin, the child will hurt themselves.
So you have a child cap on a bottle aspirin, but you have no safety device on a gun. Where is the logic to that, where is the rationale for that? So the cities have commenced lawsuits. Litigation is not an idea way to do business. Really we should have the legislation and then you wouldn't need the litigation. But until we get the legislation we're going to try to the litigation.
I was proud to be the /cabinet Secretary of the Department that said it would join with the cities in those lawsuits if we didn't come to a reasonable negotiated settlement with the gun manufacturers,
And that is the third track, which is negotiation -- going to the gun manufacturers and saying, let's see how we can resolve this. Maybe the Congress can't, maybe the courts shouldn't, but maybe we can do at the negotiating table that which we can't do in the Congress or in the courtroom.
And we entered into an agreement with Smith and Wesson, the largest handgun manufacturer in the United States, which in and of itself will make guns safer and will keep more guns out of the hands of criminal. Literally, they make guns safer. Governor Glendening has been talking about smart guns, guns that only operate, only work for the authorized operator. And where the dealers will have a code of conduct so we make sure we're doing everything we can possibly do to keep guns out of the hands of criminals.
Smith and Wesson signed that agreement. That agreement will save lives, especially since Smith and Wesson is such a large part of the market. But it also does something else. It answers all the nay sayers who have been arguing against legislation and arguing against gun control saying that you can't do this. Because Smith and Wesson says you can. Smith and Wesson says you can make a gun that is safer, that only works for an authorized operator, we have the technology available, and the market will consume it.
The Smith and Wesson agreement says you can have dealers who will operate in a reason and prudent manner and do the background checks, keep the guns safe, and make sure we're not selling too many handguns to one person in any given time.
Smith and Wesson will change this debate for all time because it knocks down every argument that the opponents have made for years. And when Smith and Wesson, the largest manufacturer of handguns in the country says you can do this, it means you can do it.
And now we have an opportunity to actually make these things happen.
The American people are with us, I am convinced of it. They are with us on the entire agenda. They are with us on the education agenda, on the housing agenda, on the economic development agenda, and they are with us on the guns agenda. And we have an opportunity to do this. You have the strongest economy in the history of the nation. Use it as an engine. Use it as an engine to take you higher than you've ever gone before.
All the excuses are gone. How many years in this town did they say, when we would talk about progressive Government, you can't do that because we have deficit. You know -- the deficit. We would talk about doing housing, education, economic development. We have the deficit, the deficit, they would say, you can't spend because you have the deficit. Well, God bless President Bill Clinton, he defeated the deficit.
The monster that stopped progressive Government for over a decade is slain, and now you can go about making this nation a better nation. And they are ready to do it, they are ready to do it. The opponents, the NRA are the tail on the dog. Three million members of the NRA should not tell this country what it can do, and what it can't do, and that Congress should not be in the pocket of the NRA. (Applause)
It is ludicrous. Three million members of the NRA. There are 3.2 million teachers in public school. Why doesn't the Congress listen to the three million teachers instead of the three million NRA members. (Applause) There are two million nurses who treat gun shot victims every day, why don't they talk to the two million nurses who can talk about gun violence first hand? (Applause) There are 16.5 million members of the AFL-CIO, there are 3 million residents of public housing, who live with this gun violence day-in and day-out, why don't they listen to the people who are on the other end of the gun for a change, and see what they say. (Applause)
That is the case that the people in this room make, and make it better than anyone else. And I do believe we have an opportunity. And I do believe our message is timely.
And that takes us to the last part of this week -- the first night of Passover tonight, Easter on Sunday for those in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This week also says, as well as the economy, and as well as the violence, it also says, what's it all about? What is success? What do we want from ourselves, and our families, and our nation? What is the goal of this entire effort? What is the destination point for the entire community. Deuteronomy says "Justice, justice shall you pursue."
The prophet Micah says “The Lord God has told us what is right and what he demands. See that justice is done.” Your name says it all, the Alliance for Justice. But justice, in the truest and deepest meaning of the word. Not just criminal justice -- we do that very well. We have more people in prison than any other industrialized nation on the globe. We do that very well, we lock people up well.
We have to understand the other meanings of the word justice. How about economic justice as a goal, that says we're not really a success as a nation when we count the number of millionaires, if we still have one out of five children living in poverty today.
How about social justice, that says we're not ready to celebrate as a society. The fact that you have the highest homeownership rate in history, when you have to walk out of this hotel today and see 600,000 homeless brothers and sisters on the street, where we've gotten to a point as a society where we walk down the block and we can pass a fellow human being on the street and we don't even see them anymore. We have evolved to a point where we will sooner bend down to pickup an aluminum can in the name of recycling, then to help a homeless human being in the name of humanity. Is that really what Micah was talking about when he talked about justice?
And racial justice. How about Martin Luther King's justice, how about Bobby Kennedy's justice, how about John Kennedy's justice? Still today 30 years later, we are still judging people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.
The Alliance for Justice says we set the bar higher. That this place can be a better place. That this nation can be better, and stronger, and sweeter, and we demand that it be. We have vision that says, we want to lift this entire nation to a higher place. Thanks to the people in this room we're going to do it. Thank you, and God bless.
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