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Williams: State of the District

(Published March 12, 2001)

Mayor Anthony A. Williams delivered his second State of the District address March 1 at Lincoln Theater amid raucous heckling from protestors angry about the mayor’s plans to privatize the city’s public health care system. As a public service, The Common Denominator is publishing the following excerpts from the mayor’s speech. The complete text may be read online at www.dc.gov.

Our city is working better, lives are changing, and — for the first time in a generation — people are moving back into the District of Columbia. Ladies and gentlemen: the state of the District is the strongest it's been in decades.

But this is a foundation to build on — not rest on. I don’t intend to rest for the next two years, and I know you don’t, either. Because we cannot rest when too many residents have not yet felt the benefits of our economic progress — and too many neighborhoods have not seen government work well enough for them. And we cannot rest when so many children must still battle the twin evils of poverty and racism, watching doors shut that should be open to all.

***

So, tonight, I want to focus on three critical ways we must rebuild our city — improving education for all children, improving the well-being of our most vulnerable residents, and improving the quality of life in every neighborhood.

Let's start with schools.

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It's time for us to stop dreaming — and start working to repair and rebuild our crumbling schools.

Yesterday, I toured Kelly Miller Junior High in Ward 7. I saw broken windows and sunken floors in the classrooms, where children ought to be learning algebra. I saw debris and pigeon waste in the gym, where children ought to be playing ball. When Kelly Miller closed down in 1996, the young people of Lincoln Heights were promised a brand new, state-of-the-art school in a few years. Some five years have passed. Millions of dollars have gone unspent, and that abandoned building is still wasting away — like the promise made to those children.

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It’s no longer a question of resources. Between the Council and my administration, we’ve dedicated $777 million for school renovation and modernization — $169 million in this year alone. It's no longer a question of accountability — we have new committed leadership.

It is now a question of will. And so, tonight, I challenge the school board and superintendent. I challenge the Council, and I challenge myself to make sure that this time we keep our promise to the children of Kelly Miller, just as we must keep our promise to the young people who should attend McKinley Technology High School in 2003, and just as we must keep our promise to the children of the 80 schools we said we'd fix in the next nine years — even if that means changing our approach to managing school construction. Tonight, let’s keep our promises to all the children of the District.

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But, frankly, if we want to see real change, we simply must change the way some schools are run. And there is a right way and a wrong way to do that. The right way is refusing to let any school fail a child. The right way is giving parents more choices among public schools, including charter schools.

And I believe the right way includes teaming up with proven educational entrepreneurs to reform our most troubled public schools. They've improved reading scores at some of our public charter schools, and they can do the same with other schools — working within the existing school system. Now, some may disagree with this approach, but I would rather be criticized for trying and failing — than for failing to try to improve the way we teach our neediest children.

Because, whether we succeed as a city, and even as human beings, will be determined, not by how we care for those with the most, but by how we care for those with the least. And that leads us to the second way we must rebuild our city — by improving the well being of every resident.

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You don’t have to look any further than our parks and street corners to see the homeless men, women, and children — whom all of us have a moral imperative to help. And you don’t have to look any further than the grim statistics to know there is a health care crisis in this city. And we know the status quo is not working.

When the life expectancy of our African American men is 10 years less than the rest of America, and when this country’s highest rates of infant mortality, diabetes, and HIV infection are in our own backyard, it is time to fix health care in Washington, DC.

Since the day I took office, I've worked to do that — and it’s often been a lonely crusade. Two years ago, I went to the Council with a plan to expand health insurance, and it was shot down. "Not enough information," I was told. Then I put together a commission of everybody — physicians, nurses, academics, civic leaders, and citizens. And, based on their findings, I presented a more detailed plan. It was shot down, as well. "Too ambitious." So, the Council, the Control Board, and I agreed to let our city's private providers offer us a solution. And that's where we stand today.

Two plans and two years of trying. And all that’s changed is that our health care crisis has gotten worse. Part of the problem is the number of uninsured, which is still a shocking 65,000 people. Many of them have told me how they work two or three jobs, and still live one illness away from bankruptcy. That is wrong. So, tonight, I'm pleased to announce that as part of the health care network we’re creating, we will immediately provide HMO-style coverage to our city’s uninsured. And in my budget, I'm making a $1 million guarantee to residents without insurance — you will get the prescription drugs you need.

But this crisis goes beyond insurance. As the Health Commission made clear, we must create a health care system rooted in primary and preventive care, so that people have a family doctor who treats them with dignity and helps them solve health care problems before they require emergency care. At my town hall meeting last night at Union Temple, there was a doctor who asked, "Are we teaching our children that the best they can expect is a trauma center when they are shot?"

Now, I know that some still have great concerns about what we've proposed — and I heard from many people last night who have a lot of fear — and, quite frankly, even some anger. They know the current system is broken, but they fear the unknown even more. And I understand that. I respect that. I know how hard uncertainty is — especially when it comes to our families’ health. But I wouldn’t be standing up here supporting this plan, unless I truly believed it was the best way to improve health care for our residents.

Ladies and gentlemen: we are not closing a hospital. We are opening the doors of care to the people who need it most. We’re keeping our current clinics and adding 100 health care centers to the network. We’re providing access to 1,000 more doctors and nurses. We’re providing 24-hour trauma 1 care at Greater Southeast. And we're working with local health care providers, people who know the District, know its residents, know what it means to meet our needs East of the River.

I know there is disagreement on this issue — and there should be in a democracy. But you didn't elect me just for my dazzling personality. No, you elected me because you knew I'd confront our most challenging problems head-on, make the tough choices, and do the right thing. That’s what I’ve always done for this city. And that's what I intend to do here. We've had two years to debate this. And every day we argue is another day that poor residents and people of color suffer and die at the hands of the status quo. They deserve more. It's time to stop debating. It’s time to get it done.

And that’s the approach we must take when we improve the quality of life in every neighborhood — which is the third, and final way, we are rebuilding our city. And here we don’t need fancy new programs or lots of new spending. We need to get back to the basics.

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But how are we are going to ensure that this economic prosperity reaches every neighborhood and resident? First, we must support our local, small, and disadvantaged businesses. And that’s what we have done these past two years by increasing our contract awards almost 500 percent — from $68 million to $311 million.

And second, we must do more than talk the talk of welfare reform….

…we can and must ensure that the end of welfare leads to a better life, not a worse one. We can provide the job training, childcare, and other tools people need to move from welfare to work.

And we can do something else: we can make a commitment to improve adult literacy. Imagine — right now, nearly 40 percent of adults in the District can’t read or write well enough to get a good job. They should never be embarrassed. We should be embarrassed that we aren’t helping them learn.

Let’s also get back to the basics with better housing. We all know how much it means to a family to raise a child in one’s own home, to have dinner in one’s own home — to be part of a larger community. Next week, I’ll introduce comprehensive legislation to help make this city first in the nation in new homeownership. That means protecting affordable housing and creating new housing for all people, regardless of income. It means stabilizing our neighborhoods, so that the residents who made them great aren’t pushed out, as home values rise. And it means converting thousands of empty and rundown buildings into new homes for our people. My initiative will include real resources.

***

Let's get back to basics with safe streets, as well. Last year alone, homicides dropped to their lowest level in 14 years. Theft dropped by 4.4 percent; auto thefts by 5.9 percent; and burglaries by 7.6 percent. The statistics are saying it. Our residents are feeling it. We are a safer city.

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It's time to get back to the basics in every neighborhood.

***

Now, clearing the snow shouldn’t be news. It shouldn't be news when we repair potholes on time, or sweep the streets regularly, or continue to make progress in the way people are treated when they call their city government. That should just be the way things are in the District. So, let’s make good government services just the way things are. Let’s make keeping the grass cut and the pools open just the way things are this summer. Let’s make quick responses to 911 calls just the way things are.

And let’s make clean air and clean water just the way things are in every one of our communities. Just look at the Anacostia River. We can clean it up — and rid the area of poverty and violence.

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Think about the new Adopt-a-Block program, where the Fannie Mae Foundation and UDC are helping to clean up our communities and turn litter into landscaping. Think about the 39 neighborhoods which are coming together to create new blueprints for their communities. We can build a city that works for everyone — neighborhood by neighborhood. But let's be clear: we cannot do any of this unless we keep rebuilding trust in our government.

The fact is, while the rest of America's cities are treated like adults, our Nation's Capital still has parents: over-protective parents, meddlesome parents. There was a time, quite frankly, when we acted a bit like children. But we're all grown up now. We have good credit. We have money in the bank. We’re solving our own problems. And we need Congress to be our partners — not our parents.

When I met with President Bush, I was encouraged by his concern for our city. He genuinely cares about education. He understands how we feel about re-opening Pennsylvania Avenue. As his speech on Tuesday night showed, there's a lot of common ground upon which we can move forward, working together. But, when the issue is our democratic rights, there can be no compromise.

You know, it was a great day when we put on our new license plates a few months ago. But it’ll be an even greater day when we can take those license plates off. From Africa to the former Soviet Union, we’ve worked to bring democracy to the rest of the world. I say it's time to bring it home. It’s time for our votes to count in Congress. And it’s time for our budget to be debated in Council — not on Capitol Hill.

Of course, there are some who worry that if we are running the show, we'll return to the days of our reckless youth. But, we will prove them wrong. We will prove that we can continue making tough decisions — even unpopular decisions — when they are the right decisions. We will show we can maintain the fiscal discipline that brought us to this day. And we will show everyone from Wall Street to Main Street — that we can work together as a city by offering the only proof that matters: results — real results.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator