Remarks by Vice President Harris In a Moderated Conversation With Senator Tammy Duckworth And Jeannie Mai Jenkins
Second City Comedy Club
(November 6, 2022)
MS. MAI JENKINS: Ladies, I’m beside myself because right now I’m surrounded by the bosses, man — the ones that help us make the changes we need, help speak for us, help look out for us, help us make waves. So, thank you for being two Asian American mixed baddies who are just paving the way for us to — and our futures. We love you guys being here. (Applause.)
I had the craziest epiphany yesterday as I was reminding myself that it’s Sunday, we’re going to set our clocks back. But it’s crazy that if you don’t make the right moves this Tuesday, you could set our country back 50 years.
And that didn’t hit me, like I said earlier, until Roe v. Wade. I did not know that based on voting, that based on individuals in office, that based on even down to localized things like our governors, that laws can be taken back, that things could be changed.
I thought that once it was set, like, we are moving in one trajectory, but that’s not the case. The reason why I’m here today is because I’m hearing democracy is in danger. That’s what I want to really get the real tea on here and now. I want to hear real answers from you guys. And I want to feel that when we walk out of this room today, we feel clear and understood on one page what we are supposed to do.
So please kick us off, Senator Duckworth.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, let me just say that small “d” democracy is hard work. It means we all have to show up every single day. It means we have to definitely show up to vote. And — and while I wear the uniform to protect that democracy, it’s equally important for everyone to do that.
And so, can I start off with the first question —
MS. MAI JENKINS: Please do.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: — for — for the Vice President? Because, you know, we were freshmen in the Senate together.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes, we were.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: We were class of 2016. And I just want to say: Welcome, Madam Vice President. We are so honored to have you here. (Applause.) And we’re here to celebrate our AANHPI heritage.
I want to ask, Vice President, how — I know this, because you used to cook wonderful, wonderful dinners for the women senators yourself, but how has your heritage informed views and roles as a leader of the free world?
MS. MAI JENKINS: And what dishes did you make? (Laughter.)
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: Oh, she’s a — oh, yeah. Talk about —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I love — I love to cook. Well, you know what — okay, you want to talk about food?
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: Yes.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: We’re Asians. We start from food.
MS. MAI JENKINS: I can’t picture it. I can’t picture you in the kitchen —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Oh, I love to cook.
MS. MAI JENKINS: Really?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: My grandmother was a great cook. My mother was a great cook. I mean, you know we can — there’s so many places I could go with this right now.
MS. MAI JENKINS: What’s your go-to?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I mean, my go-to is a roast chicken. But —
MS. MAI JENKINS: Okay.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: — here’s the thing. Here’s — (laughter).
MS. MAI JENKINS: I mean, it worked for Meghan Markle, so —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It’s easy.
MS. MAI JENKINS: Doug is a happy man. (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: But here’s the thing: When — when I think about my background and I think about the influence of my heritage on my work today, it is vast. It’s everything from the fact that we would go to India every other year growing up. And by that time, my grandfather was retired, but he had a tradition of every morning taking a walk with his retired buddies.
And as it is in most Asian cultures, birth order matters. I was the eldest. (Laughter.) And so I was the only one that my grandfather included on that walk, of the grandchildren.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: Amazing for — for a granddaughter.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: But — very much. Very — my grandfather was very progressive. My grandfather, when my mother was 19 years old and said, “I want to — I want to study to become a scientist to cure cancer” — my grandfather let my mother, who had never been to the United States, at the age of 19, leave to go to Berkeley, California — his eldest daughter, his eldest child. So he was very progressive.
But — and — and so growing up, though, on those walks, they would talk about — you know, because remember, India’s independence was only in the late 1960s — they would talk passionately about the importance of democracy. They would speak passionately about the importance of fighting corruption and a representative government and equality.
And I didn’t fully appreciate at that age how much I had absorbed and internalized the importance of those points.
And, you know, so that has had an influence. It ha- — it has had an influence in terms of growing up in the Bay Area. My mother would often work late hours. And two doors down was Mrs. Shelton from Louisiana — a Black woman from Louisiana who was part of the migration from the South to California — and she was a second mother to us. And my mother loved to cook okra, and Mrs. Shelton loved to cook okra. My mother with mustard seeds and turmeric — (laughter) — and Mrs. Shelton with dried shrimp and hotlinks.
And that is a simple example of a point that I think we are all familiar with, which is that when you really do understand multiple cultures, when you have lived in those cultures, when you have been fed by those cultures, literally and figuratively, you really learn to understand so fundamentally that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us, no matter the language, no ma — right?
You — and that’s something that I think that, Tammy, you and I would agree has informed how we think about the fights that we have been in for equality and for fairness and for justice, understanding that there is a strength in our diversity. But that, fundamentally, we all have so much more in common than what separates us.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: I have to say, also, though, just having your presence in the Senate, on that — you know, at the top of — of the Senate podium there where we sit and we preside, and when the Vice President comes in, and she’s presiding over the Senate as the — as the head of the Senate and casting — every time she votes, we win. So — we win. (Laughter.) So, that’s one thing, right? (Applause.)
The symbolicness of having a biracial Black Asian woman be that person in that seat of power sends messages around the world. And so, we’re so lucky to have you there.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And do you know — interesting fact: In my first year as, as you said, President of the Senate, as Vice President — in the first year, I broke John Adams’s record for casting the most tiebreaking votes. (Laughter and applause.)
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: Yes. (Laughs.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: Wow.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You’re welcome. (Laughs.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: Wow. And just — I wonder, today, if your grandfather was stepping out to have a walk and have one of these talks —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. MAI JENKINS: — especially when, again, the thing I keep hearing over and over is our democracy is in danger, what would he be saying today? And that brings me to ask you, then: Why is this now, especially after the seeds that have been planted when you were a little girl, absorbing the times then — why is this so important to you now?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, as Vice President, I have now — my team has counted — I have now met directly or by phone with over 100 world leaders — presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and kings. And one of the things that we all know — and certainly the senator knows so well: When we, as the United States, walk in these rooms to have these conversations, we walk in chin up, shoulders back, representing the strongest and the greatest democracy in the world, imperfect though it may be.
But it gives us the authority then to go in these rooms and speak about the importance of rule of law, human rights, freedom of the press. But the thing everyone here knows about being a role model is this: When you are held out as a model — as a role model, people will watch what you do to see if it matches what you say.
And so, when we look at, for example, the fact that the highest court of our land just took a constitutional right, that had been recognized, from the people of America; when we look at the kind of supposed leaders — so-called leaders who are spewing hate and division, people around the world are watching. They are watching. I’ve had these conversations with world leaders who have asked me, “What is going on your country with voting? What is happening with the court?” They’re watching.
And my greatest fear is that there are dictators and autocrats around the world who will then look at their people, who are demanding rights, and say to them, “Well, you want to hold out the United States to such an example, look what they’re doing. You be quiet.” Which means that these attacks on our democracy will not only directly impact the people of our country, but arguably people around the world.
That’s how significant this is in terms of the scope and the depth of what is happening. And I think that it highlights another very important point, which I do believe I learned from my grandfather and learned from my parents who marched for civil rights in the ‘60s.
You know, when democracy is intact, it’s extremely strong in what it does to uplift the people. When it is intact, it protects and defends individual rights. It works in the interest of justice and equality and fairness. It’s very strong in that way.
The duality of it all, though, is, on the other hand, it is incredibly fragile. It will only be as strong as our willingness to fight for it. And that’s why we’re all here today, because we are prepared to fight for it. (Applause.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: I will admit that when that decision was made with Roe v. Wade, I, amongst millions and millions of women and moms, got nervous — and women — moms-to-be got nervous. What exactly is — if you can tell us, what is the Biden-Harris administration doing specifically to protect our reproductive rights at this time?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, there’s a lot of work that we are able to do through the executive branch. But as we all know, there are three branches of government and they’re co-equal. The Court just took the right. The executive has some power, which I’ll describe in a moment. And then I’d invite the senator to also talk specifically about some of these issues. And then there’s the work that Congress needs to do.
So, the executive branch. The President has signed two executive orders that will — that basically reinforce the right that people have to travel, for example, because we know we’re looking at almost half of the states in our country that have or are very likely to ban rights to reproductive healthcare.
And so, what that will mean is, for a state like Illinois, who has extraordinary leadership, they will be, as they’ve described, a safe haven for people around the country. And we want to make sure that their right to travel is not in any way impacted. So that — that is important in terms of executive orders.
We have also, through the United States Department of Justice — they have created a task force looking at where there is room for litigation to defend rights that are being violated.
They’ve also — a wonderful Indian American woman, Vanita Gupta, who many may know and remember as a great civil rights fighter and leader — (applause) — she’s actually heading up the task force at the part- — Department of Justice. And what she has also done has been to elicit pro-bono services from law firms — free legal services — because there’s so many — in particular healthcare providers — doctors, nurses, and others — who are worried about liability, worried about — you know, in these laws that are criminalizing healthcare providers. Literally, there are laws being proposed and passed that would send a doctor or a nurse or a healthcare provider to jail for providing reproductive care.
So this is some of the work we’re doing. In the Department of Defense and yo- — in — and in the VA — the Veteran — (a toddler’s cry can be heard) — let the children speak — in the — in the Veterans — (laughter) — and the work that we’re doing in the Veterans Administration is also about recognizing that we have so many veterans who are in need of help and what they can do through the VA to make sure that their healthcare is provided where it is legal.
And also looking at active service members, of which there are about 300,000 women in the service, and what we can do to provide for them — because, of course, most of them don’t have a choice in where they are deployed, and they may be deployed or assigned to a state that has banned their rights.
But the senator can talk, I think, a lot about the work that’s happening in the Senate with the Women’s Health Protection Act.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: So we — we’re trying to codify Roe
v. Wade into law with this bill. And I just have to say, first off, I think Congresswoman Schakowsky is here. We need to recognize her — (applause) — because there’s somebody who’s been on the frontlines — on the frontlines of this fight for a very long time, and a mentor to me and everybody else here as well.
Talk about someone who actually has been arrested a couple of times — (laughter) — fighting for our rights. One of her arrests — by the way, one of her mugshots, remember, is 007. So she’s hardcore. (Laughter.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: (Inaudible) life, yes.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: But, yeah, so we’re trying to codify it in Congress, both, you know, on the Senate side and on the House side. But we can’t get it passed on the Senate side because of the filibuster. And so, if we can win back all 50 senators plus two additional, we have a chance at, perhaps, codifying it in the Senate and then sending it over to the House where Jan and her colleagues can vote on it there.
But, you know, I — and Madam Vice President, I want to talk to you a little bit about these stories, right? As you’ve traveled, what are you hearing about the overturning of Roe v. Wade?
You talked about, you know, states like Illinois becoming a sanctuary state for folks. And when I traveled to southern Illinois — for example, Granite City, Illinois — I’m hearing about women coming from Texas, 1,500 miles, to seek reproductive healthcare. And some of them are not coming for abortions. Some of them are coming to have an IUD inserted —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: — because there are doctors there who are interpreting this law in a way that says you can’t have an IUD inserted.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: And so, what — how are you — what stories are you hearing around the country?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I want to just emphasize a point that the senator made before I answer that question directly: Elections matter. (Applause.)
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: Yes.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, the President has said — our President Joe Biden will not let the filibuster get in the way of passing the Women’s Health Protection Act. But we just need two more senators. We need to pick up, we need to hold on to what we’ve got, and we need two more senators. And then, the President can pass into law the Women’s Health Protection Act, which means it would render null what these people are doing — (laughter) — to criminalize healthcare providers, to punish women, to make no exception for rape or incest. Right?
I was a prosecutor for most of my career. I specialized in crimes and violence against women and children. I specialized in child sexual assault cases. The idea that anyone would claim themselves to be a leader who would propose that after an individual has gone through such an act of violence and violation to their body and survived it would then not have the ability or authority to make a decision about what happens to their body next? It’s immoral. It’s immoral.
So, by getting two more senators — and in the neighborhood of Illinois, you got a chance — right? — Pennsylvania. Look, I mean, literally, if we pick up two more senators, the President can sign it into law.
So elections matter. Remember, these Senate seats are six years. Imagine six years in the lives of the people who have everything at stake in this issue.
And then, in terms of what I’m seeing around the country — I don’t — oh, here. I brought props. (Laughter.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: It’s story time.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: All right. All right.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: This is a map of the United States. (Laughter.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: You guys don’t get it. This is so helpful.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You’re welcome.
MS. MAI JENKINS: Color coding is so helpful for me. I’m soaking this up.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, the color — the colors represent — one color is abortion banned from conception/fertilization with no exceptions for rape or incest; one is with the exception; one is with the exception for rape but not incest. There’s a color that’s a 6-week ban, a 15-week ban, 18-week ban. You get the point. These colors represent different laws around our country on this issue.
What does that mean? There is an incredible amount of confusion. And within an environment where people are confused, it is then an environment that is ripe for disinformation, misinformation, and predatory behaviors.
And so, we have — this is a roomful of opinion leaders. Part of the challenge we have right now is not only to reelect Tammy, not only to do what we need to do to pick up two more Senate seats, but we also have to use the bully pulpit that we bring to our work and our lives to make sure that we clarify what the rules are and also to remember, on this issue, in the midst of this confusion, it is about — the subject is about a decision that an individual has to make that is a very serious decision that requires a lot of reflection and already this person may feel very alone.
And then you have in an environment that — layered in this issue is a whole lot of judgment that has existed since the beginning of time about women’s sexuality. And you layer then that, which is she’s in an environment of mass confusion, feeling alone, so-called powerful leaders are judging her. At the very least, she’s going to be made to feel alone and embarrassed and without resources or information.
This is — all of these issues are at play with this.
But to the point then of the question, there — what I’m seeing is, is a lot of confusion and fear. A lot of confusion and a lot of fear. And that’s why the power of the people here is so important to remind people they’re not alone and they’re not being judged. (Applause.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: And Madam VP, with Tuesday just being right around the corner, it helps so much when you visualize how much progress we can do, even just starting at the Senate, and just the two — like, giving us that reachable goal.
Now, I’m going to keep it a buck right now. I look at this room and these are young, knowledgeable people who understand the power of voting. This is not what it looks like for me at home.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. JENKINS: This is not what it looks like when I go to most Asian areas. When you go to Westminster, it doesn’t look like this. There are aunties, grandmas, grandpas, all different dialects and languages, and people who don’t understand the importance of voting, don’t get that they matter to vote, don’t understand the push that we need.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right.
MS. MAI JENKINS: So, for us here, what are the things we need to say and do. Because I know everybody here is already voting or has voted, like our 18-year-old Linda Linda over there. (Laughter.)
But if you’re not that and you’ve got your grandpa, your uncle — I’ve got dozens of aunts and neighbors and friends in nail salons alone. Like what should we be saying? How should we be moving and empowering those that are sitting there with their power to vote and not doing anything with it?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, one thing, I think, is to say to our relatives and our neighbors — and depending on when they arrived and from which country, I think there’s a point that will resonate pretty profoundly, which is, “Don’t let anyone take your power from you. Because you actually have power. And it is, in election time, through your vote. And don’t let anybody force you into a position where you’re silent when you actually have power.”
And I think it will and does appeal to a lot of the people that we’re thinking of right now that they have had too many experiences that have suggested to them they must be silent, when, God knows, when they’re within the confines of family and friends, they’re not silent ever. (Laughter.) You know what I’m saying? Right? They are not — it is not their nature. (Laughter.)
Right. And so, reminding the aunties, the grandparents — right? — reminding them that this is another — another version of their voice, and that it counts. It matters.
I think somebody mentioned earlier — look at 2020. The Asian turnout in that election is a very big part of why I’m Vice President of the United States. (Applause.) A very big part.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: And Georgia.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Georgia.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: The young Asian American vote won Georgia for us, for both Democratic senators in Georgia. (Applause.)
And, you know, it’s those aunties and grandmas and — who are told to be silent, they’re bra- — they’re incredibly brave people. They did it incredibly brave —
MS. MAI JENKINS: They are the bravest. The survivors.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: I know, right?
MS. MAI JENKINS: Right.
SENATOR DUCKWORTH: And yet — and yet —
MS. MAI JENKINS: There is — but I love that VP said the word “silence,” right? Because for some reason in our culture, let’s own it, there is a too comfortability in being silent and being unseen. And the model minority myth absolutely still exists and breathes today.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And I was looking for the stat in these various cards that I have, but it was something like — there was — 60 percent of Asian voters turned out in 2020.
MS. MAI JENKINS: Wow. Sixty.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: There was a — and we’ll factcheck that to make sure — but, yeah, it was the highest turnout that we’ve ever seen.
And — and what did it produce? Let’s think about it, right? Because — and this is another thing to remind family members and community members. So, that vote — when people stood in those lines in places like Georgia, all over the country, they put in their order.
They said, for example — remember, because this was the height of the pandemic, where — remember, the other guy was spewing all of this suggestion about the source of the — of COVID.
And people, in the midst of the fear that the communities were experiencing as a result of so much of that, exercised their power, voted. And because they did and we were elected, we were able — together with Senator Duckworth, Mazie Hirono — we sponsored that legislation together when I was in the Senate. And then you got it passed. And the President signed into law the COVID Hate Crimes bill — right? — (applause) — to deal with that hate that was being spewed, which we continue to see rise against members of the Asian community.
And so, we have to also remind people: This time, the power that they showed last time — the power remains, right? It — people said when they went to vote, “We care about parenting children and families. We care about children.”
And so, because they voted, we were able to extend the Child Tax Credit, which reduced child poverty in America by over 40 percent. (Applause.)
We passed — we passed a tax cut for parents and people parenting children. So now they can get up to 8,000 more dollars in their pocket for the cost of food, medicine, and school supplies for their children. We have to remind them —
MS. MAI JENKINS: Oh, I need to remind that because I know no Asians are turning that down. (Laughter.) I don’t think they even know.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: But these are the things we have to remind them, because we have empirical evidence — we have evidence. When you saw 60 percent — if 60 percent of the population voted, this is what we got. It mattered.
MS. MAI JENKINS: Absolutely. And at the same time, how is the administration, Vice President, helping members of the AANHPI community fully participate in America, like fully participate in American society so that they feel included?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, part of it is everything that is about inclusion — and that’s about representation, as we know. And so, it’s about members of the administration and reflecting the communities that are being impacted and are impacted and are the leaders of the country.
It is about what we need to do to continue to speak out. You know, the President and I, after the horrendous crimes that occurred in Atlanta last year, went right down. It was one — I think the first trip that — you know, it’s very rare that he and I will go to the same place at the same time because of just — it’s a big country and we need to cover a lot of ground. But we went together on that one to make very clear where our administration is when it comes to hate crime, when it comes to the importance of the community.
So, there are things like that that we have to continue to do to remind people that we are very clear that, you know, as we say: Out of many, one. Especially in this moment, where you just look at the cruelty and the division and the intentional attempt to divide the country based on all of these factors.
And we’re acutely aware of the importance of standing up to say that’s not who we are as a nation. That’s not our vision of who we are. And I think that’s incredibly important right now.
Because these so-called extremist leaders — I think they have determined that the measure of strength is based on who you beat down. But our measure of strength is based on who you lift up. (Applause.)
MS. MAI JENKINS: All I can say is, this was the first year, I could not believe, seeing at the White House that Asian American Heritage Month was celebrated. (Applause.) And you were all up in the mix, in the line with everybody, taking pictures. And I was like, “Wow, we do feel seen.”
And you’re so right — reminding everybody what we just did to get you guys here is proof that we are seen and proof that our voice is counted and that we matter.
(The portion of the conversation led by Senator Duckworth commences.)