REMARKS BY VICE PRESIDENT HARRIS IN LISTENING SESSION WITH THE AFRICAN AMERICAN MAYORS ASSOCIATION ON THE AMERICAN RESCUE PLAN
South Court Auditorium
Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Thank you, Jeff. And I too want to just publicly thank you, Jeff, for all the work that you are doing. He works around the clock and always rises to the occasion. And there are many challenges for all of us who have assumed a role of leadership at this moment in the history of our country and our world. And, Jeff, you really have been tireless.
Dr. Nunez-Smith, extraordinary. We have been meeting together since you first joined, and you are — you teach and you give feedback in a way that ensures that all of the priorities Jeff, the President, that I have around equity, that we actually are meeting the moment in terms of thinking in a very realistic way about the details and the practicality of what is required to actually achieve equity, understanding that equality and equity are two different things. Equality suggests everyone gets the same thing, but that often assumes that everyone starts out at the same place.
And when we, as an administration talk about equity, we understand then that since everyone does not start out at the same place, our focus needs to be on making sure that everyone ends up in the same place and creates priorities around that.
So thank you both.
Mayor McKinley Price, thank you for your leadership of this organization. Thank you for the work that you’re doing in Virginia. And as you know, we wanted to come together with all of these American leaders. And I see — I’m looking at the screen over here; I see so many friends, folks that I’ve worked with over many years. I want to give a shout-out to London Breed. But I could do that for so many others as well. So thank you for the leadership you provide and especially at this very difficult time in our country. It has not been easy.
And people look in your eyes, each one of you, searching to know that everything is going to be okay. And you keep getting out of bed every morning to do what is necessary to make sure that things will get better. So I thank you on behalf of myself and President Joe Biden.
We’re in February, so we know this is Black History Month, although every month and every day should be Black History Month, recognizing that it is part of America’s history. But certainly, we celebrate mayors, like you, who are keeping our cities going. And, you know, when we think about black mayors and the history of black mayors, we think about Chicago — I see Mayor Lightfoot; Baltimore; Washington, D.C. Those cities often come to mind when we think about our African American mayors and the history of those mayors in our country.
But I also know that’s only part of the picture. The mayors here today lead cities as small as a few thousand people, as the Mayor said, and as large as a few million people. And some of you, in fact, hold down full-time jobs along with your mayoral duties, which is, in fact, why we’re meeting in the evening — at least on the East Coast — right now, because those of you who have full-time day jobs, we wanted to make sure that you could participate and we could hear from you.
But all of that to say you all have a lot on your plate right now. And the President and I, as you may know, both held local elected office at the earliest stages of our careers. And so we know how important you are and your work is. You all are boots on the ground. When you go to the grocery store, when you’re walking down the street, people recognize you, they come up to you, and they tell you what they need. And you have to respond, and you have to be there.
And so that’s why we wanted to meet with you in the middle of this crisis. We want to make sure, as an administration, that we are relevant, that we are actually meeting the needs of this moment. And you, as mayors, really have a voice and an ear toward what the people need.
And so that’s why we wanted to have this listening session, because there’s no question that if we are to get on the other side of this pandemic, and all that it has created in terms of the harm — the public health harm and the economic harm — if we are to get on the other side, we’re going to have to do it with you — with the cities and the towns that are every day experiencing the effects of this pandemic. And to do that successfully, we need to rely, and we do rely, on your leadership.
Over the past months, I’ve spoken with mayors from around the country, and they have talked with me and with the President about what’s happening on the ground. And I — I’d say there are four issues that were raised on nearly every call. Most of them have been calls because of COVID, so we’re doing it like this.
The first is vaccine distribution. Mayors are telling us, as the Mayor did this evening, that you’re working to get vaccines to your cities and get shots in arms, while ensuring equity — from finding enough staff, to administering the vaccine, to coordinating with states to get enough doses — and that this has been very challenging.
Mayors have also brought up budget constraints. Thousands of cities are dealing with budget shortfalls, revenues are down and expenses are up, and I know that that is making it difficult to keep essential workers on the job. In fact, we have found that 1.3 million state and local government jobs in the past year have been at risk.
And, of course, schools are on top of mind. We all want to get the schools back open, but doing that safely is tough and it requires equipment — from masks to air filters. In the meantime, schools need the technology to make the most out of distance learning. And you, as mayors, are right at the center of all of that.
And finally, you’ve told us and you’ve told me about how many local businesses have closed. And, of course, we know that those businesses — those small businesses — are part of the fabric of the community; that those business leaders are civic leaders, they’re community leaders. And so we all need to prioritize getting those businesses back open and back open at full capacity as soon as we can.
So all of that to say: I look forward to hearing what’s on your mind. We wanted, again, to convene this — to really hear from you. But first, I want to just do one more thing, which is to tell you a little bit about what we’re doing.
For too long during this pandemic, cities and states have been left hanging. And as you know, we’re about three weeks into our administration. And — but this — this is a reality. You’ve been left hanging.
The pandemic is a national problem, and it demands a national solution. Jeff mentioned the American Rescue Plan, which we believe is a very big part of that solution. The heart of the plan focuses on vaccinations, which of course is the only way we’re going to get schools and businesses back open in a very real way. And to do that, we need to make sure America is vaccinated.
Like the President likes to say, there’s a big difference between vaccines and vaccinations, right? So, the American Rescue Plan puts $20 billion toward a national vaccination program. We’ve not had one. We’ve not had one — to the Mayor’s point in the introduction. A national vaccination program that includes community vaccination centers and mobile vaccination units.
We just announced our first federal sites — one in the place of my birth: Oakland, California. It just happens that we’re doing it in Oakland. And in East Los Angeles. And there will be more to come. We’re going to be rolling them out.
And yesterday, we also announced the launch of our Federal Qualified Health Centers vaccine program. That’s critically important, as you all know. Under this program, we will send vaccines directly to community health centers.
And when we think about getting people actually vaccinated, we know part of it is they need to trust the folks who are part of the process. And our community health centers, of course, are trusted locations for the healthcare needs of community. And so we do feel that that is a very important vehicle to achieve the goal of getting everyone vaccinated.
And the plan also includes targeted support for local governments like yours. Our goal is to help you distribute the vaccine, to help you reopen schools, and keep frontline workers on the job, and maintain vital services for communities and families.
You know, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, state and local governments cut funding — I don’t need to tell you — but cut funding for a lot of these vital services. So, this put a drag on the recovery for years, and we cannot let that happen again.
So we’re working to get this plan passed. And, you know, I served in the Senate, obviously, before — before now, and I will tell you that the voice of mayors — when you call your senators, when you call your Congress members — really matters.
And so we are sharing with you the details of the American Rescue Plan because your advocacy for what it does, in terms of what you need, will really help with whether or not it gets passed.
And my last point would be this, to that point: Last Friday, it was about five o’clock in the morning, and after I went back to the Senate at three in the morning, about two hours later, at five in the morning, I cast my first tiebreaking vote in the United States Senate, and I was there to cast that vote to help clear the way for the passage of this plan.
The House accepted the changes we made to it later that day. And now the Senate and the House budget committees are putting together a bill.
So I give you all that detail — because you work with your legislative bodies — to let you know that your advocacy will make a difference. So please share your perspective with your senators and your representatives about why America’s cities, why our towns need them to understand that we need to move this, we need to move it fast. It needs to be significant enough to actually have an impact. Every day matters on this.
When we are talking about this pandemic, it’s not like talking about a hurricane that came and went, and now we need to deal with the cleanup; we’re in the midst of this hurricane. It is still raging, probably faster than before. And so the danger here isn’t going too big, it’s going too small and too slow.
And so that’s what we want to share with you. And now we want to hear from you. And again, we are looking to you, as are the American people, for your leadership. And we thank you. And again, on behalf of the President and myself, we thank you. We thank you for the work you do every day. You are among the heroes of this moment.
So with that, I think we will now begin our listening session so we can hear from you.