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Remarks by HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo
National Italian American Foundation (NIAF)

June 15, 1999

What an honor to be introduced by [Congresswoman] Nancy Pelosi, because if there is a model of public service and of courage in public service - because a lot of public service comes down to courage: the ability to do what you believe is the right thing despite the political reality at the time - that is Nancy Pelosi. As a model today, as a model of what Italian-Americans are really all about, let them look at Nancy Pelosi and say that is the model of what Italian-Americans are in this nation and this is their contribution. Thank you so much Nancy.

It is a pleasure to be with NIAF once again, they are a great organization telling the truth about the Italian-Americans. They have been a great to friend to my family. Just last week NIAF did an event for my mother who has written a book, "The People Who Changed My Life". She has written a compendium of mentors and role models and NIAF did an event to help push the book, it is $21.95. It is available at local book stores, if you call HUD we can get a bulk rate discount - I am just kidding but I just want to be a good son.

But the work that NIAF does and work that Sons of Italy does - Phil Piccigallo here today - I cannot underestimate. The story of the Italian-American people is really a story that is not understood in this nation. And I am going to touch on a point later on about discrimination which I think is still much alive and well in this nation and I think the story of the Italian-American is still a story that has not been fully communicated.

Too much of the media and the movies depict the Italians in one way, which is an unfair stereotype to the overall Italian American culture. So to have organizations like NIAF working, getting out the truth, getting out the true story of what Italian-Americans value, is very very important and leadership board representatives are here and John Calvelli is here - God bless you for what you do. We have many members of Congress who are here - I am not going to mention all of them because there are too many, but one thing I have learned is when you have a lot of Congress people in the room talk short, because basically Congressmen like to hear themselves talk and they really don't want to hear any one else talk. And they are not shy about it, they will tell that themselves. But I want to make a few points if I can and then we will have some questions and answers and a dialogue.

Nancy raised the State of the Cites report which we just put out and I think it frames a few issues, that - as this as a policy forum - would be a good stepping off point. I am in the President's Cabinet, I am HUD Secretary, HUD is not the most glamorous department, as you probably know - that's why it is always nice to have a friend like Nancy introducing you because sometimes the introductions are not so kind because HUD has a tricky brief as Nancy said, it represents tricky issues. It has had a checkered past, that's why the introduction was especially kind. We talk about family, Nancy said we are family here, the family always tells the truth. I would be introduced once in a while by Joe Kennedy, Joe Kennedy was in the seat before Mike Capano and he was also from Massachusetts also head of the Housing subcommittee and I was the HUD Secretary, so Joe Kennedy would often be at the event with me and he would often introduce me, and he always had the same line because it worked for him. He would go through with whatever we were talking about at the time and then he would say 'and now it is my pleasure to introduce the HUD Secretary, my brother in-law, the man who is the HUD Secretary because no else was stupid enough to take the job, Andrew Cuomo.'

But family always tells you the truth, my brother Christopher - beautiful kid, 26 years old - came down to my hearing before the Senate when I was going to be confirmed for HUD Secretary and we went through 3 hours at this hearing with the Senators and every Senator would get up and they would all raise their horror stories about HUD - what are you going to do about the public housing crisis, what are you going to do about the section 8 crisis, what are you going to do about the mark-to-market crisis, all these crises, all these crises, this goes on for about three hours.

After the hearing I walk outside into the hall way with my brother Chris. I say 'so what do you think, how did it go,' he said that 'I think you better call the President right away and tell him you made a mistake. You want another department - this one has too many problems!'

So it is a tricky department and it is a tricky brief. Because literally you are talking about the people and the places in this nation that have the least power, they are the poorest places. By definition they are the poorest places because they have least power. If they had access to power, by definition they would not be poor. So you are talking about people and places who many times do not have a voice. Who many times are below the radar screen and it is easier to forget - but we would forget at our peril.

The State of the Cities report says basically two things. It says first there is a great apparent success story that is this nation, and one that we should celebrate because it is true: this is the strongest economy in history - breaks all sorts of records. The President relishes that fact, the vice President relishes that fact, the Congress relishes that fact and we should, because it is true. But it is not at the same time the only reality that is out there, and there is another reality for people and places that are left behind in the new economy, and their reality of failure is as stark as the other reality of success, and it is also more painful as a reality.

So you have a time where you have this great economic success, 18 million new jobs, lowest peace time unemployment since I was born. I made a mistake, Nancy, not 31 years 41 years: 41 years lowest peace time unemployment, crime down, poverty down, welfare down - that is one story of America. But there is also another story, of those places that are left behind where three out of five people aren't even in the stock market - so they don't celebrate when you go to 10,000 or 11,000.

Yes, you have more millionaires than ever before - you also have the greatest income inequality in over 20 years. You have the highest home ownership rate in history, 66.7 percent, which I take credit for as the Housing Secretary, but you also have 600,000 homeless Americans - at the same time that you have the highest home ownership rate - so you have two very accurate realities, both stark in their own way - both a story of success and the story of failure.

The paradox, however, is in many ways antithetical to what we believe in as a nation and what is in the long term health of this nation. You cannot survive, you cannot flourish with those disparities, with those polarities. It is especially true in the cities, as the report goes on to point out. The numbers are staggering.

Most of the cities are doing well and I do not mean cities like New York, LA, Chicago, I mean cities 'writ large' if you look at the 900 cities in the Nation. Most of them are doing very well -about one-third of them are either smaller, poorer, or have higher unemployment. The strong cities, the cities that have done well in the transition to the new economy are doing very very well. The cities that have been trailing are falling further and further behind. You can see the story in the numbers or you can just go down here to Anacostia [in Washington, D.C.] and drive through Anacostia and you will see the story, or you drive through parts of the south Bronx or you drive through parts of Watts in LA and you will see the same story or go visit a public housing project.

Pass by Cabrini Green in Chicago and the situation is as bad as it has ever been in Cabrini Green. Talk about the Dow Jones Index and they won't know what you are talking about. And you look at the conditions and you smell the filth and you feel the pain in the hallways and see how hollow our success truly is. The stats tell one story, the lives tell a different story.

Well what do we do about it? I think as NIAF suggests by its origination, this is not an overly complicated problem, we don't need to do any fancy studies to determine what to do. We just need to look at what we were taught originally. I think back, for me, the model was my grandfather Andrea Cuomo - I was named for him Andrew - Andrea Cuomo little man, ethnic man 5 ft. 6, 155 pounds dripping wet with change in his pockets, but he knew what needed to be done. The very concepts that he talked about - and I can hear his voice today, God Bless him - are still the concepts that we have to strive for. He would talk about this land as a land of justice, justice was so important to him. He would talk about this as a land of opportunity, 'opportunity for all, opportunity for all' he would keep saying.

We have to get back to those core principles and make them happen because they are not yet a reality. We need opportunity for all translated into what we are talking about in this town. You need economic development measures that get jobs back to cities - 84 percent of all new jobs over the past two years created in suburbs - 84 percent. The cities are losing the jobs; as you lose the jobs you will lose the people and you can not sustain it. Opportunity for all - everybody should work but that means there has to be a job there. It is hollow rhetoric to opine that welfare was no good and we really have made people work: yeah you are right, thank you for that bolt of wisdom called welfare reform.

One problem: Where are the jobs? Where is the training? Where is the day care? Where is the transportation? And if you look at what the economy is doing, it is pulling the jobs from the people and places who need it most. We can correct that, we know we can correct it, we do it very well, we have economic development incentives, we can use the tax code, we can use grants, we can get the jobs back to where we need them, we have to do it.

We have to fix the education system. Why? Because the education system was the insurer of opportunity for all. The public education system was the great equalizer, it said you can come from anywhere but you go to our public education system and if you work hard you can wind up being Mario Cuomo or Colin Powell or Bill Clinton - all from the public education system. We are losing that. When people get up and give speeches and say there is a crisis in education in this nation they forget the second part, there is not a crisis in education in this nation. If you are rich you get the best education on the planet in this country, if you are poor and cannot afford a private school or you are from a poorer school district, then you get a substandard education and you never catch up.

The education system in this country is moving to two education systems, one for the rich side of town, one for the poor side of town. And you go into the richer suburban schools districts in the first grade, they'll show you that they put the child on the Internet in the first grade. You go to the same town, the poor school, they don't even have a basketball net. First grade they will put them at computers with Pentium Processors - poor schools the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is the metal detector that they walk through on their way to the classroom. That is not opportunity for all. We are 19th out of 21 in 12th grade math and science. The countries we beat were Cyprus and South Africa - that is not a formula for long-term global economic dominance.

We need health care because that's opportunity for all - we will set the stage and then you build from there. Healthcare: you have 43 million uninsured, 11 million children uninsured. We need housing because that is part of providing the platform for people to do for themselves. With a strong economy, a cruel irony: we actually have the greatest need for affordable housing in the nation's history. Marcie Kaptor can tell you 5.3 million Americans need affordable housing. What's happening, interestingly, is the strong economy is driving up the rents. Ask George and Nancy about San Francisco. The economy is so strong the rents are going so high those people who are on the bottom end or on fixed-incomes can't pay the rent. We know how to solve it-subsidize the rent, which is what you did for so many years. Build affordable housing. We just have to want to do it.

Opportunity for all, provide a safe community. We are doing that with a cops program - lowest crime rate, both property and violence, since 1973. You can do more as soon as we solve this insanity over the gun legislation in this town that's going on now - which I don't understand. Some people say 'well you don't understand it because you are a New Yorker, you are from the northeast you don't understand the value of guns.' No, no, I am an educated New Yorker, I have gone hunting up Maurice's district, bird hunting, quail hunting, did pretty well and I know this - that if you need an assault weapon to hunt, if your aim is that bad, you should just take up another sport. And I know that children don't need hand guns to hunt and I know the saying which they love to use in rebuttal: 'guns don't kill people, people kill people.' No, people with guns kill people, and if we had intelligent legislation to handle guns we would be doing even more.

My grandfather would talk about the land of justice which for him meant that being an Italian American didn't count against you, that the premise of the country was everybody could come - Jews, Italians, Irish, Blacks, Whites it didn't matter. You came and then you did the best you could and under the 'opportunity for all' agenda they would work with you to make it happen. We still have not reached that, we really haven't. One of things we do at the department is, we do fair housing - I can't tell you how many cases every day coast to coast where discrimination is still alive and well - as ugly, as vulgar as it has ever been. Last year the case in Jasper, Texas where they took an African American man, they chained him to the back of a pickup truck, and they dragged him until he was decapitated. That's America 1999, not 1969 - and the cusp of a new millennium with all this economic power, still killing people for the color of their skin.

We had a case, a Portuguese woman moved into Missouri. First week, they came they planted a seven foot cross on her lawn and burned it. Why? Because she was Portuguese - they thought she was African American - and that was their way of saying 'we don't want you here.' Cemetery in New Jersey, Rosh Hashana they knocked down all the tombstones in a Jewish cemetery. Discrimination is very much alive and well, and for Italians its alive and well. Mario Cuomo was thinking about running for national office. At one time we did a few polls: 6 percent name recognition of Mario Cuomo, only 6 percent had heard of his name nationally. Nine percent thought he had connections to the Mafia! Discrimination is alive and well, and my grandfather would talk about the voice of liberty, the voice of liberty, that this country was the voice of liberty. What we did in Kosovo, thank God, was express and communicate the voice of liberty, what we are doing in China - which we should do more of - what we are doing in South Africa - keep that voice of liberty strong. Those are the avenues, the agendas, that I think that we have to approach to resolve the dual realities that we are seeing in this nation. Understand the realities, expose them don't run from them and then approach them

And I also believe this: That now is the time to do these things. We have a great economic success - lets use it to invest! If we are not going to do these things now, then when are we going to do them? They say the time to fix the hole in the roof is when the sun is shining. Well, now is when the sun is shining. If we don't take those dividends and invest now in Anacostia, when are we going to do it; if don't now take up the fight for affordable housing now, when are we going to do it? If we don't take up the fight now for healthcare, when are we going to do it? If not now, when?

I'll tell you when, never. Because all of the excuses are gone. If this Congress, if this administration doesn't push progressive government it will never happen - because you won't get a better moment than this moment. All the things they yelled about for all those years - all the obstacles are stripped away. How many years we heard about the deficit, 'well we can't do it we have deficit, the deficit,' the great inheritance of the Reagan administration. Well the deficit is gone. God bless President Clinton, you have a balanced budget, you are talking about a surplus.

'Well, the government can't do anything.' Well the government's reinvented-confidence in government is at its highest point in 40 years. If we don't do it now when will we do it? If we don't do it now we will never do it. And that my friends is a sin, because we have so much more to do, because the promise that this nation made to my grandfather and your grandfather is not yet fulfilled. They believed, they believed, they believed so much so that they came from all over the globe to this country. They got in little boats, they went across great oceans to lands they didn't even know - they didn't even know how to speak the language but the promise was so powerful.

Opportunity for all, justice, brotherhood, discrimination against none. We'll help you: you make it, you will lift us all! And we will work with you to make it as a community. We are not there yet, but we can be. Now is not the time to be complacent. Now is not the time to pat each other on the back and say 'boy oh boy you see how that Dow Jones is doing.' Now is the time to lock arms and go forward even stronger and harder than before and use this moment. We can do better. We are cheating ourselves if we say 'this is all we can do.' We are cheating ourselves if we are saying 'this is the best we can be, we've done it, this is America at its best.'

This is not America at its best. This is not America at its best. We can do more.

Langston Hughes wrote a beautiful poem, I just want to read you a couple of paragraphs from it, Let America be America Again.

Let America be America again, let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed, let it be that great strong land of love where opportunity is real and life is free, a quality is in the air we breath. I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery scars, I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek, I am the worker sold to the machine, I am the people worried, hungry, mean, hungry yet today, despite the dream, I am the man who never got ahead, a dream still beckoning to me. Oh let America be America again, the land that has never been yet and yet must be.

That is our charge - together we can do it.

Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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