Sen. Holly J. Mitchell Community Swearing-in Remarks
Today I have taken an oath of service to our community. I am grateful that you joined me here to bear witness to a commitment that I take as seriously as anything I have ever done. Everything I have experienced and achieved up to now has brought me to this point and readied me, I hope, for the challenges ahead.
I come to the public sector as a child of parents who began their careers in California as social workers, career civil servants entering the work force as government programs expanded to fight the War on Poverty launched fifty years ago this week in response to national media putting a face on poverty in America – and it wasn’t pretty.
So you might say that government service and activism on behalf of those in need is in my DNA. My mother and several others who have joined me here today inspired me by example – she was among this State’s first African American women to both run a prison and a county probation system – clearly she’s no joke!
Public school teachers like Florence Downey, Veronica Morris and Mrs. Broussard also taught me the importance, and power, of nurturing and protecting young minds and spirits.
During my CORO Foundation fellowship, I met and was mentored by my “First Boss”, Congresswoman Diane Watson, the first African American woman to serve in California’s State Senate. I stand before you as the fourth since statehood.
When I ventured forth into the non-profit sector, eventually becoming CEO of Crystal Stairs, I had the wonderful satisfaction of engaging in advocacy for children and working families – and the immense frustration of discovering that their issues seemed to be first on the agenda of few in power. That’s when the first of the lessons of my mentors hit home: Stand up for what you believe and don’t sit down until it’s done.
Everything in my life experience told me that government, for the people, by the people, can and must do what’s best for ALL the people. So here I am, three elections, three years in the Assembly and 22 bills signed-into-law later, taking my seat at the table as your State Senator.
I learned two critical lessons in the Assembly: You can’t do everything that ought to be done, but if you focus and build a coalition, you can make real progress toward what needs to be done. I spent the last three years learning the difference.
I was there at a time when we were tasked to develop a balanced budget when the State was, in effect, broke! I saw firsthand what it cost in terms of massive cuts in services, when families were often left to struggle without our help.
And, I will NEVER forget their stories:
- Six year-old Dwayne from San Diego talked to me of trying to sleep on a hard, cold floor next to his Mom and heading to school tired and sometimes hungry most days.
- The mothers of adult children with developmental disabilities who were afraid of what would happen if their residential services were eliminated.
- Patricia, a mother of three and a veteran, told of domestic violence that led to homelessness, a cycle that CalWORKs was helping her break.
Yet when we persevere, improvement happens. And we rebuild.
In 2012, when several states tried to turn back the clock on Roe v. Wade with anti-choice restrictions, we joined forces to expand women’s access to birth control. The only bill in the country that advanced women’s reproductive health service – compared to the over 1400 that were introduced in statehouses across this country to limit them.
We restored funding for the Cal-Learn Program for teen parents and their children.
My bill to allow foreign medical school graduates at UCLA to get needed hands-on clinical experience if they committed to practicing medicine in under-served communities was signed into law.
So was my “Calls for Kids Act”, allowing a parent detained by immigration authorities or police to make two calls to find immediate care for children left at home, because far too many were sent to foster care needlessly.
Several of the laws I authored were “fixes”, increasing access to assistance for those in need while potentially saving taxpayers’ money, such as:
- Creating a “health homes” model of care, reimbursed largely through the Affordable Care Act, which coordinates care for homeless patients, helping them avoid excessive use of costly emergency rooms.
- Two bills which made it easier for babies to get prompt HIV care.
I also got bills passed to fix problems that shouldn’t have needed a law:
- Caylee’s Law requires parents to promptly report missing children.
- Police are now banned from citing homeless kids for loitering.
And in 2013, I focused on the “Mitchell Plan” to obtain relief in the budget for families in deep poverty that had endured years of cuts to the programs which helped them, barely, keep their heads above water. We secured the first increase in benefits in almost a decade.
My Vision of the Role of Government
That’s where we’ve been. Or, as my teen-ager likes to quote, “The future is born, so put the past in the casket.” Let’s talk about where we’re headed and why.
President Obama recently said there is “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American.”
Yet California – our California – has the highest poverty rate in the nation. One out of six Californians lives in poverty, including nearly one out of four children. The gulf between Black and white Americans hasn’t changed significantly in these 50 years, with the median income for Black households 59% of the median income for white households.
More than two million Californians live in “deep poverty”, including over half a million children. Deep poverty means a family of four living on about $16,500 a year or less. It is a downward spiral no child should endure and few will escape.
Lifting families out of poverty, because it is the best way to help children realize their potential and our society to make opportunity real, is the most compelling work I can imagine doing. Judge me by my commitment to that challenge – and join me in the struggle!
Look around you. What I’ve tried to bring here today is a cross section of our community so that we might see and talk with each other, to cultivate a vision of what might be achieved in our midst if we join hands in common purpose.
Rev. Lawson speaks to us of the journey we’ve travelled from separate pasts to a shared present, inspiring us to lock arms and claim the future our parents sought for us when they brought us west to America’s last frontier. Sonia Lopez, who introduced Madam Attorney General, embodies the future we can and should have, one that includes more women, minorities and youths whom we seek out to nurture and for whom we make way.
I wanted today to be about reaching for a tomorrow that lives in the hearts and hopes of our community’s youth. They are what we are about, who the world we build is for.
Some say that government is the problem not the solution. I say, that depends on what problem you’re trying to solve. On New Year’s Day this year, I awoke to a Los Angeles in which it was wondrously apparent what government can do and only government does do.
How many of you remember when L.A. was wrapped in smog that called for smog alerts on school campuses, and hid the Downtown skyline? Look around us, that is no more. Your government developed policies and regulations that gave us back air to breathe and light to see.
On New Year’s Eve, Ryan joined a dozen friends and family in taking the Expo Line from right here in Culver City to L.A. Live, arriving in a matter of minutes, without having to fight traffic or parking just to enjoy the company of other Angelenos bringing in the New Year together. Mass transit, your government helped do that.
And this year, maybe a million or more people in this State will get quality healthcare that their age or condition or budget prevented them from even seeking before Covered California brought Obamacare to their door. Your government is making that happen…
What I Hope to Do in the Senate
This year, I will introduce legislation to discourage human trafficking, with a focus on preventing children from falling prey to sex traffickers and making sure traffickers are punished severely.
I also will continue my focus on the Budget as our core expression of California’s human values. Legislators owe it to you as taxpayers to weigh carefully which kinds of services the State will preserve and which we will not. I don’t want us to go back to making promises we can’t keep or accumulating bills we can’t pay. Yet with an operating surplus of 6.4 billion dollars over the next two years, we have the resources to pay down debt, establish a prudent reserve and restore those critical benefits families just can’t do without.
I will continue to fight for investment to create opportunity and equity, particularly for children. That includes building on last year’s raise in cash grants so families on CalWORKs will be able to escape the deep poverty which tends to become a life sentence for children. CalWORKs is the temporary bridge we offer to ensure that every man and woman enrolled can provide for the minimal well-being of their children. It needs to work.
Restoration of critical early care and education programs and further investment in our youngest children is also key to creating a brighter future. To close past budget gaps, the State has cut funding for child care and preschool by nearly 40% since 2008 – enrolling far fewer children in California’s child care and preschool programs.
We also must monitor and build on past budget actions such as public safety realignment which shifted thousands of felons from State prisons to local jails to comply with court orders to reduce over-crowding. We need to make sure the State funds counties to do what it could not: ensure public safety while providing real, community-based rehabilitation and reentry services, which is key to reducing recidivism. Too many young men of color get locked out of the job market due to drug-related conviction records. I want to see whether the general public is willing to have a conversation about sentencing reform and equity.
In short, 2014 will afford fresh opportunities to capitalize on progress made and lessons learned.
California has a tough row to hoe in the coming months, but I believe she’s worth it!
Will we invest by paying down debt and guaranteeing access to high quality early childhood education to reduce the prospect of child poverty? We have compelling work ahead of us on behalf of our children – but they too are worth it!
The educational gap between children of different economic and ethnic groups is getting worse, and after third grade it becomes very difficult to bridge. The Local Control Funding Formula’s allocation of new funds for our kids kicks in soon, so I’m urging LAUSD and Culver City Unified to have all hands on deck as crucial decisions are made for our children NOW.
Environmental justice is high on my agenda because our scarce natural resources are vulnerable to both exploitation and neglect. Whether the issue is unregulated fracking in Baldwin Hills or toxic fumes in University Park, we must be vigilant and pro-active. I will again seek a moratorium on fracking, combined with much more comprehensive investigation and regulation of environmental intrusions.
Government is a tool. We have only to put it to good use. In the midst of such plenty and such want, only civic-minded engagement with each other will see us through.
Many of us are here today because of the tireless commitment of public servants – social workers, teachers, police officers, judges, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, nurses, yard attendants, administrators, and educators – all who put us first. To them, for them, I say Thanks!
It’s time. It’s our time to pay forward the grace and generosity of my mentors. Let’s shift the paradigm and together begin the climb back up to the California we want to live in – the one ALL children deserve.
In the words of Dr. Maria Montessori:
“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future”.