Remarks by Vice President Harris in a Conversation with Mayor Randall Woodfin at the National Urban League Conference
Walter E. Washington Convention Center
12:50 P.M. EDT
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: (Make the Alpha Kappa Alpha “Skee-Wee” sound.)
MAYOR WOODFIN: Madam Vice President, I think we know what type of audience we got this afternoon.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I want to say hello to all my sisters and brothers who are here. (Laughs.) Good afternoon. (Applause.)
MAYOR WOODFIN: Well, listen, it is good to be at this Urban League luncheon. It’s important to mind our manners. Let me start by thanking our leader, Marc Morial. Y’all give it up for Mr. President. (Applause.)
And to all the guests that are present, but a special shoutout to all the presidents of the local chapters across the nation who are on the ground doing the work. Thank you so, so, so much. (Applause.)
With a special shoutout to William Barnes, who is the president of the Birmingham chapter. And Birmingham delegation over here, I see you. (Applause.)
Madam Vice President, is there anybody you want to acknowledge out here? Madam Vice President, is there anyone you want to acknowledge out here?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I want to acknowledge everybody because I represent the whole of the United States of America. (Laughs.) (Applause.)
It’s good to be with everybody. And I do want to acknowledge Marc Morial and just say that I see Marc in places all over our country advocating for the National Urban League and all that it represents. And I see him in the White House. I’ve seen him in the halls of Congress. I’ve seen him in the community. He is always the same person fighting for all that we hold dear and all that is at stake at this moment in time.
So, Marc Morial, thank you for all that you do. Thank you. (Applause.)
MAYOR WOODFIN: Absolutely. So, we all know that the Urban League is a premier organizations on the civil rights frontline fighting for so many things. And before we get into some questions of the day related to what’s at the top of Americans’ mind and how the — your office and the President’s office is addressing those things, I do have to ask you something.
You are quite busy — very, very busy. As Vice President though, you are also a human, and you have a life. You are a mother. You are a wife. You have friends. You have family. What do you do to balance all of that, and how do you solve for taking care of yourself and self-care?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, that’s a wonderful question.
Well, I will tell you, every morning — I work out every morning. Every morning, no matter how much sleep I’ve had, I just find — and it’s only half an hour. I get on the elliptical. But it just — it just gets you going.
I saw Ms. Miller — Michelle Miller this morning, and I told her I love watching her on Saturday mornings when I’m working out.
But I think it’s important that when we are dealing with so much that is heavy, when we are dealing with just the pressures of everyday life, that we take care of mind, body, and soul. And so that includes taking care of your health and your mental health. I think it’s very important to always surround yourself with your family, with your friends who will be there for you to cheer you on but to also be there in those moments where you might trip. And they’ll have a good laugh with you at the fact that you did, but they’ll pick you back up and push you out.
And I’m also deep of faith. I believe that you have to — whatever it is that you believe in, believe in the goodness, believe that through moments of darkness there will be light, and that we all have power that we can bring to making things better, and have faith in that ability.
MAYOR WOODFIN: That’s good for us to know. Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.)
MAYOR WOODFIN: Yeah, absolutely. I want to kind of get into a serious topic that’s on the top of mind, probably not only for this organization but a lot of mayors across the nation.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MAYOR WOODFIN: Across the country, we are grappling with spikes in gun crime. That’s no secret. Often with a limited set of tools, we can’t control the flow of guns into our cities or access to handguns themselves. And the truth is: Birmingham is no different. I know the mayor of D.C. is here; D.C. is no different. And you’re a former prosecutor and an attorney general. So you, of all people, understand what we’re dealing with.
And recently, the President Biden has issued an executive order on gun safety, and he just signed a bipartisan gun safety law into action. The question is: What do all these laws and executive orders mean practically for cities and mayors to help us combat crime across our communities?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I’ll say that I do believe in many ways we are a nation in mourning as a result of gun violence. Black people are 13 percent of America’s population, and I think it’s 62 percent of homicide victims to gun violence.
When I look at this issue, I think about Mrs. Whitfield of Buffalo, New York — I attended her funeral — an 86-year-old grandmother. There are people here from Buffalo who know what that meant — (applause) — in terms of the loss to the community, of that precious woman.
We see — whether it is a mass shooting of 20-odd people in one part of our country or in a given city — 20 people in 20 days dying from gun violence. And we know it is something we need to address.
When I look at the failure of the United States Congress to have the courage to act, I think it is a call for all of us to demand action and demand that they have courage.
When I think particularly about the issue of assault weapons — you know, assault weapons — most things, whether it’s the table that you’re eating on right now, the plate you’re using, the fork — most things have an intentional design in terms of the things that we use. Assault weapons were designed to kill a lot of human beings quickly. There is no reason that we have weapons of war on the streets of America. (Applause.)
So when I think about what we need to do to address, Mayor, and what ultimately does so often fall on the shoulders of our mayors to address on a community level, we need to take action at the federal level in terms of passing smart gun safety laws. We need to get rid of and repeal this liability shield for gun manufacturers. (Applause.) Why should they be immune from litigation? It doesn’t mean that a court will necessarily decide anything, but the people — if we believe in systems of justice — should have a right to bring those cases where there is merit.
We need to have background checks. Think about it. It’s just reasonable to believe that before you can buy something that can kill another human being, we may want to know a couple things about your background, like that you are a danger to yourself or other people around you.
So, we need reasonable gun safety laws. And I believe that it is something that we all know will address the issue, in part. But there are a lot of other pressing issues that are associated with that issue that also need to be addressed in terms of what it causes in terms of the mental health impact, the trauma on communities.
What we know — when I look at the mothers of homicide victims that, when I was DA, I would meet with every other Thursday evening; no other prosecutor had met with them. And I would meet with those mothers, mostly, and fathers who had lost mostly their sons and the trauma that it caused on those families and, by extension, the communities. We need to address that as well.
So there are a lot of things that are directly connected with gun violence that we need to be smarter about, not to mention all of the other contributing factors that we could go into in more detail about economic opportunities, or lack thereof, in communities.
MAYOR WOODFIN: Absolutely. You know, I would say one of those, I guess, spillover factors is what’s happening in our schools and the ability when school starts back — for some in August, in a few weeks; for others, in September — that we’re all heartbroken about what happened in Uvalde.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MAYOR WOODFIN: And even though I don’t control our schools in Birmingham, you know, part of my job is to make sure our police officers do. I think we all in this room care about the safety of our children. We know you do as well. But I guess the question is: As an administration, the Biden-Harris administration, what can you do more of to protect our children while they’re actually in schools to prevent and/or stop these mass shootings from happening of school children?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, one of the things that we’ve got to stop saying is that the way that we’ll keep our children safe in school is if their teacher has a gun. (Applause.) We got to stop that. That’s not the solution.
We need to put in place measures that obviously promote and support local leaders to have the facilities that they need to have to ensure that the children are safe in school.
But I really do believe, Mayor, that it really does relate to also a much bigger issue. There are more guns than people in the United States. And it is too easy for too many people to — in particular when we look at these mass shootings in school, look at the ability of so many people so easily to get assault weapons.
And so, let’s agree that we have to act on that, and we have to elect people then, in the next 109 days, who will promote safety by understanding the connection between things like reasonable gun safety laws and safety.
MAYOR WOODFIN: It’s really important. As we talk to teachers, as we talk to principals and superintendents of schools across the nation, that’s really important. Thank you for that.
I will tell you that another topic on the minds of people as I listen to my own sisters, as I listen to my Mama, my aunt, and even my friends: women’s maternal health.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MAYOR WOODFIN: We know that what Dobbs did — sending things back to states. But in a state like Alabama where there are no exceptions — and when I say exceptions, I mean things that we know are just flat-out wrong: incest, rape — maybe something equally or more importantly, which is an actual mother’s health. You add on top of that — we know in the African American community that Black maternal mortality rates are at an alarming rate.
When you have states like Alabama or Georgia or other states in the South that have these trigger laws, what can we do to either codify Roe v., or what can we do at the federal level to make sure a woman’s maternal health is protected?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So this is an issue I’ve worked on for a long time. And I’m proud, in fact, that we have — through the work with many people who are here, who we’ve worked together over the years, we’ve been able to bring the issue of Black maternal mortality to the stage of the White House.
Together, when I was in the Senate with leaders like Lauren Underwood, the congressmember from Illinois; Alma Adams; Marcia Fudge, who is here now as the Secretary of HUD, was a leader when she was in Congress — we were able to actually bring the Maternal Care Act to the floor of Congress and then, by extension, at the White House, elevate this issue.
Why? Well, because today in America, Black women are three times more likely to die in connection with childbirth. Native women twice as likely to die. Women in rural America one and a half times likely to die.
When it relates to Black women, the facts are clear: Regardless of her socioeconomic level, regardless of her educational level, she is three times more likely to die. And if we are speaking truth, it is because when she walks into that clinic or that hospital or that doctor’s office, she is not taken as seriously as other women who walk into those rooms.
So the issue of racial bias in the healthcare delivery system must be addressed on this issue. And to that end, we have been doing the work at the federal level, through the White House, to advocate for training on racial bias for all healthcare providers.
One of the other things that I’ve been proud that we’ve been doing — and I feel very strongly about this — is to highlight the significance, the value, and the importance of doulas, who understand the community, who understand and give dignity and respect to the women who are going through these experiences.
The other work that we are doing is saying that we need to start rating hospitals based on how accessible and helpful they are to women going through pregnancy.
So this is some of the work we are doing that is about addressing these components of the system that lead to these awful outcomes.
You mentioned reproductive healthcare, both on the issue of maternal mortality, but let’s also talk about it in terms of the right all women should have to make decisions about her own body and not have her government tell her what to do. (Applause.)
So, weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court took a constitutional right, that had been recognized, from the people of America, the women of America.
And let’s understand, to your point, that they said, “Oh, no, we’re going to let this go to the states.” Well, I’ve done an assessment of where you’re seeing some of the most fierce attacks against a woman’s right to make her own decision based on where — which states it’s coming from. You will not be surprised to know that in many of those same states, you’re seeing attacks on voting rights. You will not be surprised to see that in many of those same states, extremist so-called leaders are attacking LGBTQ rights.
So this is a moment where, one, we must stand and say it is wrongheaded and intended to harm when you pass laws that deny a woman a right to make decisions about her body, when you pass laws that suggest there’s not even an exception for rape or incest.
You know, I personally prosecuted cases involving child sexual assault. Nobody is mi- — it’s an uncomfortable topic. People don’t want to talk about it. But it’s real and it happens. And that child and that woman should not have to endure an act of extreme violence and then not have the ability to have agency and autonomy to decide what happens next in her life.
And, Mayor, I’ll say this too: Many of us grew up going to church. Many of us understand that this is a conversation about access to abortion that a lot of folks don’t want to have. But you don’t have to abandon your faith or your beliefs to agree that the government should not be making the decision for that woman. (Applause.) And that’s how I think we should think about it.
The other way I think we should think about it, and I’m talking to leaders of the Urban League: Some of the best work that has happened in the ongoing movements for justice, for freedom, for liberty, led by the Urban League, have been fueled by what we all know we do so well when we do it, which is coalition building.
So let’s think about it. I asked my team to do a Venn diagram of where these attacks are happening — so voting rights, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights. And, of course, there was a huge intersection.
But the other point is this: Let’s bring together the folks that have been fighting for voting rights with the folks (inaudible) — same-sex marriage, fighting for reproductive rights. Let’s bring folks together, seeing how much we have in common to fuel this movement. Because right now, there is a full-on attack on freedom and liberty in America on these issues. And I say, “Take back the flag.” Freedom and liberty? That’s what we fight for. (Applause.) That’s what we fight for.
And if Thur- — the former court of Thurgood Marshall wants to pursue its agenda that’s about taking those rights away as a constitutional right — well, let’s remember Thurgood and Constance Baker Motley and Charles Hamilton Houston. They understood you’ll fight it in the courts, but you also have to fight it in streets, which is about organizing the people to stand up for their rights.
MAYOR WOODFIN: Thank you. Thank you, (inaudible). Thank you. (Applause.)
Madam Vice President, you gave a shoutout to a special person that is a good time to recognize. Secretary Fudge, we see you. (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: There she is.
MAYOR WOODFIN: And, Madam Vice President, you also mentioned in your remarks a few minutes ago about some of these attacks. We know one of those attacks. Well, let me back out. We’re in the midst of a midterm election cycle. And we know one of the attacks that has been pretty consistent is voting rights. Now, again, in the South, certain states have histories, like Alabama, like Georgia.
And as we come upon this midterm election, I guess we would like to know what is the Biden-Harris administration doing more of to protect voting rights, particularly for Black voters but even for younger voters who feel like their vote is not being counted.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right. I’ll mention a few things. And I’m going to start with this, just to pull back: So as Vice President, I have met with and talked with, probably 80 times, presidents, prime ministers, and kings of countries around the world. I’ve hosted them in my home, the official residence of the Vice President.
We hold ourselves, as Americans, out to be a model of a democracy. Flawed though we may be, imperfect though we may be, we walk into rooms around the world and we talk about the importance of the rule of law, human rights, dignity.
Around the world, they are watching what we are doing. I’ve had these conversations where they are asking me, “Madam Vice President, what’s going on with voting in your country? What’s going on with not allowing women to make decisions about their own body?” They’re asking these questions. Because, you see, like everybody here who is — everybody here is a role model — when you are a role model, people watch everything you do, and they look at you to see if what you say is reflected in what you do.
So when we think about these issues like voting rights, do understand that it is as big as people standing in line and it not being illegal to give them food or water when they’re standing in line to vote. It’s as big as that, as it is our standing in the world and our ability to defend democratic principles.
So, our President has rightly said that — look, there’s this thing called the filibuster, and it can be and has been often used as an obstruction to getting good legislation passed. Our President, Joe Biden, has said he will not let the filibuster stand in the way of passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. (Applause.) He has also said he will not allow it to get in the way of passing the Women’s Protection — Health Protection Act.
So what do we need to do to actually then allow these pieces of legislation to get through? A hundred and nine days, we need to elect two more senators — two — (applause) — two — so that we can pass that federal legislation to deal with the fact that you’ve got these extremist so-called leaders in places like Georgia, Florida, Texas, who are intentionally trying to make it more difficult for people to vote so they don’t vote.
And here’s the thing: Look at the recent history on this. Urban League leaders organized in the midst of a pandemic to achieve a goal which was achieved, which was: In 2020, more people than ever before voted. More young people than ever before voted — (applause) — stood in line in the midst of a pandemic, did what they need; in the midst of trying to educate their kids at home, did what was necessary to vote. That scared a lot of people.
Because, you see, when people voted — I’d like to think of voting as sometimes thinking of it as like people put in an order, like, “This is what I want.” So people voted because they said, “I want an extension of the Child Tax Credit.” They got that. We did that. For the first year, we reduced child poverty in America by 40 percent, including child poverty among Black children in America. (Applause.)
People stood in line and they said, “Pass a tax cut for parents to help us pay for the cost of raising a child that includes food and medication and school supplies.” So we passed that tax cut, where you can get up to — and parents get up to $8,000 more in their pockets because we got that done.
Folks said, “We want an administration that comes in that says Medicaid in the states should cover more than two months of postpartum care after a woman has given birth to another human being; let’s extend that to 12 months.” That’s happening.
People put that order out and said that’s what they wanted when they voted.
And, by the way, not one Republican, since we came in office, in the United States Senate voted for any of that.
So people got what they wanted. People said, “I’m going to stand in this line, but I want to see a Black woman on the United States Supreme Court.” (Applause.) And now, there is Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on the United States Supreme Court. (Applause.)
And yet — and still, so-called extremists, so-called leaders are passing laws to make it more difficult for people to vote.
And we then have to do what we know how to do well and do best, which is: In the face of intentional obstacles, we need to remind people that when they vote, they are, in essence, making a request, if not a righteous demand, for what they want to see from their elected leaders. And based on whether they put in that request and that demand through their vote, they will start to get those things.
So that’s how I think about this issue right now, especially, again, with 109 days to go, because there is so much on the ballot. And you look at it, whether — going back to the issue you raised of choice, think about it: In certain states, they are criminalizing — criminalizing healthcare providers, punishing women; that law where there’s — basically allowing vigilantes to turn in folks who exercise their rights.
So why do these elections matter? Well, because who your DA is matters. Who your secretary of state is on voting, that matters. Who your governor is matters. Who your mayor is certainly matters. Not to mention, who are the members of Congress. There’s so much at stake.
MAYOR WOODFIN: It truly is.
Before we get out of here, Madam Vice President, there are — I mentioned one earlier; I mentioned William Barnes, who is the president of the Birmingham Urban League. And he introduced me to several of his colleagues who are in his position across — cities across the nation. If you could give a charge to all the local Urban League presidents about being on the ground, one, supporting the work the administration is doing, but, in general, what’s the charge to these local leaders?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think voting in particular. I will say it over and over again: 109 days, today. Can’t get these days back. I would encourage all of the local leaders to remind people of why these elections matter, because they do.
And let’s be prepared, because all of us have been involved in this process for a long time, and so folks are going to righteously say to us when we ask them to vote, “Why should I vote?” And they have a right to ask that question. And let’s be prepared, before they ask the question or when they ask the question, to remind them of what they did in 2020 and what it resulted in.
I didn’t even mention, as a proud graduate of an HBCU, we put $5.6 billion into HBCUs — (applause) — as a result —
MAYOR WOODFIN: Y’all give it up.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: — of our work. (Laughs.) H-U!
That was shameless but I had to do it. (Laughs.)
MAYOR WOODFIN: Yeah, and you got it. This whole stage is here to see you. You’re good.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: But that’s what I would urge.
And then I would also say this — I wish we had more time to talk: But it’s also important to remember the kind of trauma that all communities have experienced, in particular over these last two years.
People were told to isolate. People — you know, when you look at the Black community — off the top my head, I think the number is something like one in four people know someone who was either hospitalized or died from COVID. What it meant in terms of our children. What it means in terms of the impact to all of us around undiagnosed and untreated trauma, not to mention just the daily grind of getting through the day.
And people can become a bit dispirited. And we have to remind them of what is good and what is right and that they are important and that they are not alone.
I think, for us as leaders at this moment in time, one of the things we can do best is to remind people they are not alone. And that’s about building community, about convening and binging [sic] — bringing people together and reinforcing the fact that we all have so much more in common than what separates us.
And so, in spite of all the noise that suggest otherwise –Urban League does this so well; always has done this — let’s build coalitions, let’s build community, and empower folks to know how important they are and how much they matter.
MAYOR WOODFIN: Let’s build communities, National Urban League. (Applause.)
Ladies and gentlemen, the Vice President on the United States, Kamala Harris. Thank you. (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you all.
END 1:23 P.M. EDT