Speech at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Awards Dinner
California Democratic Party State Convention, April 16, 2005
Art Torres, Chairman of the California Democratic Party:
It was in 1998, in a high rise in San Francisco, that a governor of Vermont came to visit. I had never met him before, but he was very important even then, because he was the chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association. And he told me that he was gonna work very hard to help elect Democrats to the state houses across the country. And I want to thank him again personally for helping us elect Gray Davis in 1998, as a Democratic Governor after 18 years of Republican rule. That was Howard Dean.
When he ran for President, and did not succeed at first, he didn't stop. He didn't say "I'm done, I quit, I walk away," he went back to work. He went back to work, to work for the Democratic nominee for President and Vice President. He went back to work for governors, city councilmembers, school board members, county supervisors, members of Congress, legislators across the country because he did not give up on the Democratic Party.
Those of us who are here know what candidates for President sometimes do. They fade away. They say, "thank you very much, I'm off to do other things."
Not Howard Dean. Not Howard Dean.
[Some approving whoops and applause]
His Democracy For America has transformed the politics of America. His political experience has given him a unique perspective, not only in the 1980's, with the county Democratic party chair-- many of you don't realize this-- in Vermont, he was a county Democratic chair. In 1983 he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. He was then elected Lieutenant Governor in 1986, reelected in 1988, and in 1990, he became Vermont's Governor upon the death of Governor Richard A. Snelling, on August 14th, 1991, and I remember the story that he was at his medical office, never thinking he would be Governor, and being called to say that a vacancy had occurred, and he was now the Governor of Vermont.
Well, the rest is history. He didn't give up on us, and we have not given up on him.
And so rather than go away, back to Vermont... great maple syrup, and other things from that great state... Did he decide to fade away after 2004?
[Art Torres and Audience both:] No.
Art Torres: He came back. Not to run for President, but to help rebuild the national Democratic Party, and revitalize it from the bottom up.
And as he did so, he created more enthusiasm, more energy, because for the first time grassroots people understood especially, as the officer of the national state chairs association, that this man was for real, he was committed to the grassroots, and the fact that he wanted to head the national Democratic Party and work again from the bottom up, reassured all of us that this party has a future in America.
So I am thankful for the conversations we had by cell phone during his campaign, [laughs] late at night, calling from Vermont, me calling from San Francisco, exchanging ideas, exchanging visions. And to know that I played a very small part in supporting him to take over this national party, along with many other state chairs from around the country, is one of my proudest moments.
Because we are truly committed to the people that are in this room, and people can talk about commitment, but as other speakers have said, Howard Dean follows through on his commitments and his word.
Please welcome Vermont's favorite son, [Applause begins to rise] America's national Democratic Chair, Governor, Doctor, man of the people, Howard Dean!
[Applause and cheers]
[As Governor Dean walks up to the podium they shake hands, he says something into Art Torres' ear, then they clasp hands overhead.]
Howard Dean: Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you! Thank you.
[In a thick pseudo-German accent:] I'm heah tonight to announce that I am running for Governor of Califoania. [grins]
[Applause finally dies down]
Actually, you have three great candidates for Governor of California, so I'm not doing that. But I really, really appreciate all of you being here. I appreciate Art's very kind words and his help.
I just want to tell you how much I appreciate Mike Honda and what he has done. [Applause] He has-- he is a complete team player, and is working his heart out so that we can have some semblance of honesty back in Washington D.C., and Mike, we thank you very much for that. [Applause]
I also want to make sure that we recognize Alice Travis Germond, who's a Californian, who's the secretary of the Democratic National Committee. Alice, wherever you are, stand up and wave, 'cause I can't see anything up here with all these lights in my face.
And I want to thank Alex Rooker*, the Vice-Chair, and congratulate both her and Art on their re-election a few hours ago... and I appreciate all of your help a lot. *Alex[andra Gallardo-]Rooker
[Slyly:] If only California had been the first primary state.
[Laughter and cheers]
What I want to know is what is your Legislature removing-- doing moving it to June 6th!! I mean...
The first thing I want you to know is, this is not my Chairmanship, this is our Chairmanship together. There is nothing... there is nothing that one person can do by themselves. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I sought this office was because of you.
A lot of the people here are people who have not been at the California Democratic Convention before. A lot of the people on the Assembly Committees are people who did not consider themselves Democrats 3, 4 years ago. And I watched what happened in California during the Assembly District elections a few months ago, and once again, the grassroots got it before I did. And I thought if you could try to reform the Party from the bottom up, I was gonna help you reform it from the top down.
But together, we need to do a lot of things. And I am really pleased by some of the things I've seen in the last few months. People used to say the Democratic Party was really not a party, it was a collection of special interests, but that isn't true any more. Because the future of the country is threatened, and we're gonna do what we have to do, and work with who we have to work with, to make sure that America gets back on the right track again.
And... so the first thing we did was start to put organizers in all 50 states. 'Cause you have seen the last 18-state Presidential campaign in America.
[Cheers and applause]
We can't win if we don't campaign in 50 states. I went to Mississippi about 3 or 4 weeks ago, because I think if you don't show up in a state you aren't gonna be-- how are people gonna respect you if you don't even show up and ask for their vote?
So I went down to Mississippi. The Chairman called me all kinds of names-- the Chairman of the Republican Party called me all kinds of names before I got there, which was what you do when you have nothing to show for the fact that you've been in power for 5 years.
And when I got there I found out that 900 people were waiting to get into an 800-person capacity ballroom, and all 4 former Governors of Mississippi, who were Democrats, were there. Which is unusual, 'cause usually elected officials run in the opposite direction when a national Democrat comes.
These people are desperately hungry to win in Mississippi, they're hungry to win in Tennessee, they're hungry to win in Kansas, because...
...because the truth is, there are no red states, there are no blue states, there are only American states and we all share the same values as Americans.
Our problem is not that Americans don't share our values, our problem is we don't communicate what those values are, very well. Our problem is not that we need to change our values, our problem is that we need to talk to people in language that is relevant to their lives, and not just ours. You know, Democrats are cerebral people. [points to his head]
Sometimes we make policy, but we don't communicate to people why that policy is important here. [points to his heart]
We have a young pollster who did a fascinating poll for us, which among other things showed that there are a group of folks who have the highest anxiety level I have ever seen in Americans-- about a quarter of Americans-- on economic issues. They're worried about the President sending more of their jobs overseas than he already has. They're worried about losing their health insurance, even moreso than have already been lost. These people are one paycheck away from losing their mortgage. They're one health care away-- emergency away from having to go through bankruptcy court.
And yet they vote overwhelmingly Republican. Because at the other end of all that anxiety about economics, there is an enormous anxiety about their kids. These people are terribly worried about what they see coming through the television at their children. And they don't know what to do. They're worried about the sheriff who just discovered a methamphetamine lab two counties over, and they know that's headed for their school. They're worried about moral values. They're worried about gay marriage and abortion and all that stuff, but what they're really worried about more than anything is the one thing they care about more than their economic-- they've already lost control of their lives economically. The only thing they have left that they can't lose control of, is their kids and their families.
We need to talk to these folks.
We need not to react to the backlashes and the differences of opinion about gay rights and things like that, 'cause that's a symptom. What is real is the fear. And we don't address it. We come across as "well, that's unreasonable. That's irrational." And then the next port of call is, "well, we've got three programs that are gonna help you, early childhood education, early intervention, universal health care, all good things." What they hear is, "Oh, I see, you wanna take over raising our kids for us."
We need to change the way we talk to folks. We can't keep talking to people from here, [points to his head] we have to talk to people from here [points to his heart] 'cause 75% of these people in this country vote from here [pointing to his heart].
We don't have to change our core values. I've been to Mississippi, I've been to Tennessee, I've been to Kansas. If you stand up for what you believe, people will respect you. We may not get one single additional vote from those states, but we will never again be demonized the way the President has demonized Democrats.
We need to show that we respect folks. And the best way to show that we respect people in all 50 states, is to show up, and listen to what they have to say, and be understanding, not that we should ever agree with the violation of civil rights. Equal rights under the law are a core tenet for every single American, and certainly every Democrat.
I think we need to talk about abortion differently. And I'll tell you just what it is that I mean by that. Republicans have painted us into a corner where they force us to defend abortion. I don't know anybody who's "pro-abortion". I don't. They get us-- they back us into getting into an argument about whether abortion's a good thing or not. You know there's been 20% higher abortion rates since George Bush was President than since Bill-- when Bill Clinton was President?
We can make common ground with folks. The issue that we need to debate is not about the-- whether abortion is a good thing or not. The issue we need to debate is whether a woman gets to make up her own mind about what kind of health care she's gonna have, [Applause rises] or whether Tom DeLay gets to make up her mind for you. That is the issue that we have to debate.
[Cheers and applause]
When I was campaigning for this job, I ran into a lot of women in the South who say they're pro-life. "I don't like abortion, I wouldn't ever have one, I wouldn't want my daughters to have an abortion... but you know, I'm not sure that if the lady next door got herself in a fix and had to think about what to do, I'm not sure I should tell her what to do."
Now, we call that person "pro-choice", but she calls herself "pro-life", so the minute we start talking "pro-choice", all of a sudden we're not talking to her any more. But when we say this debate is about whether a woman has a right to make up her own mind or not-- every woman in America has been told what to do by somebody else once in a while-- [Applause rises] every woman in America gets that the Democratic Party believes that individuals can make up their own mind, and that politicians from Washington will not make these decisions for Americans!
[Cheers and applause]
I want to talk about "moral values" for a moment.
It is a moral value not to leave more debt to your children than the debt that you encountered. That is a moral value. We have not seen one Republican President in the last 40 years balance the budget of the United States of America. Borrow and spend, borrow and spend, borrow and spend, we can't trust the Republican Party with our taxpayers' money.
Social Security is a moral value for people who have worked all their life. They deserve to retire with dignity. We ought not to turn our retirement programs over to the same people who gave us Enron.
A strong defense of the United States of America would be stronger if we continued to have the high moral ground in foreign policy, if we were only the admired nation that America was before George Bush took office, we would have a moral foreign policy, and that would give us the ability to defend America. America is not gonna be defended simply by having a strong military. We also need to have high moral purpose.
And it is a moral value, as some of our evangelical friends have recently pointed out, to conserve and steward the earth and environment which we were so lucky to have been given. Environmental preservation is a moral value.
It is a moral value not to cheat hardworking middle-class Americans by telling them that you've given them a tax cut when you've raised their property taxes and exercised federal control over their schools. That is a moral value to tell the truth. It is a moral value to be honest in our dealings with others.
It is not a moral value to be reprimanded three times by the Ethics Committee and then try to get rid of the committee. [Whoops and cheers]
It is not a moral value to have 204 judges confirmed and then try to get rid of 200 years of Senate precedent so you can get the last 10 on the bench. [Applause]
It is not a moral value to create the largest deficits in the history of the United States of America, and have our creditors be those who may one day be our enemies.
It is not a moral value to threaten judges of the United States of America because they made a decision that you don't agree with. [Applause]
It is not a moral value to insert yourself into the private and most personal life and death decisions of a family at a time of their greatest need. [Applause]
We can't win if all we do is talk about the problems that the Republicans have given this country. We can only win if we have a positive agenda. And that positive agenda includes jobs for Americans that will stay here in America. That positive agenda includes making labor unions stronger so that every American can have the great dream of making sure that their children do better than they do.
That positive agenda includes committing America to join every other industrialized nation on the face of the Earth and have a system of healthcare that every single American is covered by.
Everyone in this room is here because you were able to give some money to the Democratic Party. And everyone in this room is able to give some money to the Democratic Party because, for the most part, you're doin' OK. You may be struggling but, you're doin' OK. [Nods and points to someone in the audience] --And, thank you for that, too.
And everybody is here and can afford to give a little money to the Democratic Party because somebody, either you, or your parents, or their parents, or their parents came here, or in the case of Native Americans, were here before we got here. And you're here today as a success because somebody in that chain between those who came and here tonight benefited from a free and public American education.
And what we will do as Americans is make sure that when the Democrats are back in power, that public education is supported. We will say 'no' to Governor Schwarzenegger's attempt to take 2 billion dollars out of the education fund last year, and break his promise by not putting it back in the education fund this year. Governor, keep your promise to the children of California and fund public schools! That is how we get ahead in America.
[Cheers and applause]
Governor, don't go down the same road as Tom DeLay. We can't use any more corrupt Republicans in office in this country. Governor, give us, give our children, the 2 billion dollars you promised, to make our public schools a success. The school system has been harmed enough.
Education, opportunity, a health care system that works for everybody including middle-class people who are afraid that they may be bankrupted, an economy that relies again on budgets that are balanced. Imagine every Republican Senator voting 'no' on a pay-as-you-go bill that the Republicans put in. The idear that we would ever in our lifetime see Republicans become the party of fiscal irresponsibility to me is astonishing, [wryly:] although very little is astonishing in Washington any more.
We want to rebuild America. We want to rebuild American infrastructure, which has been gutted by a tax policy that leads to huge deficits so that the states and municipalities have to raise taxes or go without. We want to rebuild American morals so we care about each other again, we can publicly say so. You know the Social Security debate is not just about money. It's about whether we have responsibility for each other as a community, or not.
We will make sure that we are one nation, and part of that being one nation is including everybody. Including everybody and being honest with each other again. And that won't be easy all the time. Democrats make mistakes too, and lord, we've made a lot of 'em.
[In] fact, I think we're in pretty good shape, we've gotten 48% of the vote after all the mistakes we made, and now we're not gonna have to do a lot to come back. 3%, folks. 3%, 3% of the vote to cast aside the propaganda of Fox News. 3% of the vote to say 'yes' to a health care policy which is in synch with the rest of the world. 3% of the vote to take the moral leadership of the world back again, and be the shining example of opportunity and extraordinary caring that this country was until January of 2001. 3% of the vote to say to the people of California that we will fund your schools. 3% of the vote to look ourselves in the mirror and know that we're not leaving enormous amounts of debt to our children. 3% of the vote. We can do it, but we need four-year campaigns in 50 states, and we need one other thing.
Some of you have heard this story before, but I'm gonna tell it again, anyway. [bounces his eyebrows slyly]
[ripple of laughter in the audience]
When I was campaigning for President, there was a lady in New Jersey who helped us enormously. She raised a lot of money, and she agreed to do yet another fundraiser for us, she did a dinner in her house, and there were a lot of very smart people, including a lot of former officers of the previous Democratic administration and so forth.
And one of the guests was this woman's 30-year-old daughter, who was a schoolteacher from Texas. And we were talking about things, and church and state came around, and everybody was saying we needed separation of church and state, and the President was off-base on that, and all of a sudden the young lady from Texas piped up and said, "Well, now Governor, I don't agree with you on that. I'm an evangelical Christian, and we don't believe that there ought to be separation of church and state. We believe this is a Christian nation."
And you could've heard a pin drop, and everybody was a little uncomfortable, and we changed the subject to something else and went on, and had a nice evening.
At the end of the evening, I was saying goodbye to the guests. And I went to see her, and I said, "tell me how it is that you happen to support me? You can't possibly agree with my views that a woman has a right to make up her own mind about her health care, and that gay people oughtta have the same rights as everybody else in America." And she looked at me and she said, "We are deeply troubled by your views on...[audience laughs] ...on gay rights and a woman's right to choose. But we support you for two reasons.
"The first reason is that our child has polycystic kidney disease. And that means in Texas that not only can we get no health insurance for our child, but we can't get health insurance for anybody in our family. And that we think everybody ought to have health insurance in this country.
"But the real reason that we support you is because evangelicals are people of deep conviction. And you're a person of deep conviction. And what--
"--What we want to know, more than anything else, is not whether you agree with every single one of our convictions. What we want to know, is that if something happens to our family, or something happens to our community, or something happens to our country, that the people who are going to be making the decisions to help us, are people who are going to make those decisions not out of focus groups or polls or politics, but out of deep conviction."
The reason that I leave you with this is because we can work hard four years in a row. And we can put money into every state and organize those states. And we can knock on every door. But the only way to win a race in American politics is to stand up for what you believe in.
[Cheers and applause]
The reason that this party is the party that has always led in times of change, and that there's so few Presidents that you can think of on the other side that made a difference in America, is because there are a lot of people, not just political leaders in this party, but people who stood up to make a difference, at considerable self-sacrifice, including, sometimes, their lives, to say who they are, be proud of who they are, and stand up for what they believe in. If we say what our values are, if we refuse to be bullied, if we inform Americans about what we believe instead of letting the other party do it, if we stand up and bring people to us, to lead towards change again, then vote by vote, election by election, precinct by precinct, year by year, we will take this country back for the people who built it. You are the people who built America. We want want our country back again!
Thank you very much.
See video at: California Dem Party Website