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Reactions to Clinton Nomination Acceptance Speech from Chicago Public Housing Community

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President Clinton accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president last night before a packed arena of delegates, media, employees and friends. Throughout the speeches, and throughout President Clinton’s speech, in particular, pundits prowled the skyboxes sharing their commentary with audiences, often spewing the same old tired nonsense. So we hightailed it out of the convention. We decided to go somewhere else and headed two blocks away from United Center to one of the toughest, most desperate examples of public housing in America. We invited a group of Henry Horner residents and people who work at the project to join us for Clinton’s speech. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Clinton accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president last night before a packed arena of delegates, media, employees and friends. Throughout the speeches, and throughout President Clinton’s speech, in particular, pundits prowled the skyboxes sharing their commentary with audiences, often spewing the same old tired nonsense. My favorite was CNN’s commentary. The Republican said she didn’t like the saying, “It takes a village” — you know, the title of Hillary Clinton’s book — because it suggest to her polygamy and tribalism. So we hightailed it out of the convention. We decided to go somewhere else and headed two blocks away from United Center to one of the toughest, most desperate examples of public housing in America. We invited a group of Henry Horner residents and people who work at the project to join us for Clinton’s speech. Here is what he had to say and what they said.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Ten million new jobs, over half of them high-wage jobs; 10 million workers getting the raise they deserve with the minimum wage law; 25 million people now having protection in their health insurance, because the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill says you can’t lose your insurance anymore when you change jobs, even if somebody in your family’s been sick; 40 million Americans with more pension security; a tax cut for 15 million of our hardest-working, hardest-pressed Americans and all small businesses; 12 million Americans—12 million of them—taking advantage of the family and medical leave law so they can be good parents and good workers; 10 million students have saved money on their college loans. We are making our democracy work.

SHIRLEY McLEMORE: To me, the most important issue that I did not hear him talk on was public housing as a whole. Where is it going? What are they going to do with it? Public housing is going to exist. You’re going to continue to have low-income families. Even though he has a welfare reform bill, that’s still not going to stop low income. Most of the jobs that are going to be out there are probably going to be minimum wage. They’re not going to be able to afford $800 apartments. So does that stop—does the money stop from the government for low-income housing or not?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think a president could do anything that would change the condition of, say, some of the housing developments in the city?

SHIRLEY McLEMORE: A president alone? Yes. I basically think that he’s doing reform bills in other areas. He needs to do a reform bill for public housing. Public housing needs more money to operate. We need more money to redevelop. We need more money to enable the residents to give them, as Mr. Pittman said, a better quality of life. But that has to be done with—we don’t have the means, as it stands right now. And no one’s talking about that. Everyone’s talking about tearing down, but not necessarily how, when, where they’re going to rebuild.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think are the major issues that are going on that prevent the quality of life from being improved?

DANA PITTMAN: Well, I think the biggest one is education and jobs.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: We must make two years of college just as universal in four years as a high school education is today. And we can do it. We can do it. And we should cut taxes to do it. I propose a $1,500 a year tuition tax credit for Americans, a HOPE scholarship for the first two years of college to make the typical community college education available to every American. I believe every working family ought also to be able to deduct up to $10,000 in college tuition costs per year for education after that. I believe the families of this country ought to be able to save money for college in a tax-free IRA, save it year in and year out, withdraw it for college education without penalty. We should not tax middle-income Americans for the money they spend on college. We will get the money back down the road many times over.

I want to say here, before I go further, that these tax cuts and every other one I mention tonight are all fully paid for in my balanced budget plan, line by line, dime by dime, and they focus on education. Now, one thing so many of our fellow Americans are learning is that education no longer stops on graduation day. I have proposed a new GI Bill for American workers, a $2,600 grant for unemployed and underemployed Americans so that they can get the training and the skills they need to go back to work at better-paying jobs, good, high-skill jobs for a good future.

DANA PITTMAN: A lot of people don’t have access to education. To get a college education today is very expensive, and a lot of people do not have the money or the resources to pursue a college education. Over in the Henry Horner development, we personally work with a lot of teenagers, and they—a lot of teenagers go to college for their first year or the first quarter of their freshman year, and they—I mean, it’s so expensive that they cannot return after the first quarter, after the first semester. They find themselves in the military or just back in the development with a dead-end job, you know, a minimum-wage job. And we see it every day.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The welfare reform law I signed last week gives America a chance, but not a guarantee, to have that kind of new beginning, to have a new social bargain with the poor, guaranteeing healthcare, child care and nutrition for the children, but requiring able-bodied parents to work for the income.

Now I say to all of you, whether you supported the law or opposed it, but especially to those who supported it, we have a responsibility, we have a moral obligation, to make sure the people who are being required to work have the opportunity to work. We must make sure the jobs are there.

There should be one million new jobs for welfare recipients by the year 2000. States, under this law, can now take the money that was spent on the welfare check and use it to help businesses provide paychecks. I challenge every state to do it soon. I propose also to give businesses a tax credit for every person hired off welfare and kept employed. I propose to offer private job placement firms a bonus for every welfare recipient they place in a job who stays in it. And, more important, I want to help communities put welfare recipients to work right now, without delay, repairing schools, making their neighborhoods clean and safe, making them shine again. There’s lots of work to be done out there. Our cities can find ways to put people to work and bring dignity and strength back to these families.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you think when President Clinton said in his speech that they’re going to provide a tax credit if a owner of a business hired a person off welfare?

DANA PITTMAN: Well, I think that’s a pretty—it’s OK. You know, I think that it’s at least an idea. I’ve heard it before. You know, this is not the first time I’ve heard it. I think I hear it most elections, though most elections I hear that. But, you know, I’ve seen it take place on a very small degree, and it works. I think a lot of people—we have to get past a lot of things. A lot of people are actually afraid to hire public housing residents. They’re afraid, and we have to get past a lot of myths and a lot of fears.

AMY GOODMAN: Why afraid?

DANA PITTMAN: Because of the myth that exists about public housing residents. Public housing residents are not viewed as, quote-unquote, “normal” people. They’re viewed as some separate entity within our society. They don’t think like the rest of society thinks. They don’t do things the way the society thinks, you know. They don’t do things the way society deems that they should do things. So there is a myth that goes around, and we see it every day, and we hear it every day. We feel it every day.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: My fellow Americans, I have spent an enormous amount of time with our dear friend, the late Ron Brown, and with Secretary Kantor and others, opening markets for America around the world. And I’m proud of every one we opened. But let us never forget the greatest untapped market for American enterprise is right here in America, in the inner cities, in the rural areas, who have not felt this recovery. With investment and business and jobs, they can become our partners in the future. And it’s a great opportunity we ought not to pass up.

I propose more empowerment zones, like the one we have right here in Chicago, to draw business into poor neighborhoods. I propose more community development banks, like the South Shore Bank right here in Chicago, to help people in those neighborhoods start their own small businesses—more jobs, more incomes, new markets for America, right here at home, making welfare reform a reality.

Now, folks, you cheered, and I thank you. But the government can only do so much. The private sector has to provide most of these jobs. So I want to say again: tonight I challenge every business person in America who has ever complained about the failure of the welfare system to try to hire somebody off welfare—and try hard. Thank you.

I want to build a bridge to the 21st century that ends the permanent underclass, that lifts up the poor and ends their isolation, their exile, and they are not forgotten anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: When President Clinton says in his new welfare law that no person can be on welfare more than five years in their lifetime, that no person can be on welfare more than three months, I think they’re saying—in a three-month period, what will that do to your neighbors? What will that do—how will that affect life, for example, at Henry Horner?

MICHAEL JORDAN: We’ll have a lot more homeless people. For—

AMY GOODMAN: People that would even have to move out of Henry Horner?

MICHAEL JORDAN: I would think you’ll have a lot. As far as families would go, I would think more families would be displaced because of it. I mean, if you cut somebody off, if you’ve got someone who has no education, no skills whatsoever, and you tell them, “OK, go out there and get you a job. You got two years to go find you a job,” — in that two-year time, you’ve got to get an education first, you’ve got to get some kind of skill to get a job, and I don’t think there’ll be no way you can do it in two years and then be off. Then what? So you mean to tell me, because I couldn’t find a job in two—I know people who have been working, who have skills, who haven’t found a job in 10 years. So why are you trying to tell me that after two years, you’re going to put this woman and her children out on the streets because she couldn’t find a job? You think that’s going to work? That’s going to help us? How does that help us? It’s hurting more than helping.

AMY GOODMAN: You share the same thoughts on that?


AMY GOODMAN: Uh-huh. So do you think this is going to be a disaster?

MICHAEL JORDAN: I think he needs to be more informed.

SHIRLEY McLEMORE: Needs a little bit more work.

MICHAEL JORDAN: Needs a little more. Back to the drawing board.

AMY GOODMAN: If President Clinton were sitting here right now, what would you tell him?

DANA PITTMAN: I would tell him to basically do what he says he’s going to do. That’s what I would tell him.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: In our own country, we have seen America pay a terrible price for any form of discrimination. And we have seen us grow stronger as we have steadily let more and more of our hatreds and our fears go, as we have given more and more of our people the chance to live their dreams. That is why the flame of our Statue of Liberty, like the Olympic flame carried all across America by thousands of citizen heroes, will always, always burn brighter than the fires that burn our churches, our synagogues, our mosques. Always.

Look around this hall tonight. And to our fellow Americans watching on television, you look around this hall tonight. There is every conceivable difference here among the people who are gathered. If we want to build that bridge to the 21st century, we have to be willing to say loud and clear, “If you believe in the values of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, if you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, you are part of our family, and we’re proud to be with you.”

You cheer now, because you know this is true. You know this is true. When you walk out of this hall, think about it. Live by it. We still have too many Americans who give in to their fears of those who are different from them. Not so long ago, swastikas were painted on the doors of some African-American members of our Special Forces at Fort Bragg. Folks, for those of you who don’t know what they do, the Special Forces are just what the name says: they are special forces. If I walk off this stage tonight and call them on the telephone and tell them to go halfway around the world and risk their lives for you and be there by tomorrow at noon, they will do it. They do not deserve to have swastikas on their doors.

So, look around here. Look around here. Old or young, healthy as a horse or a person with a disability that hadn’t kept you down, man or woman, Native American, native-born, immigrant, straight or gay, whatever, the test ought to be: I believe in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. I believe in religious liberty. I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in working hard and playing by the rules. I’m showing up for work tomorrow. I’m building that bridge to the 21st century. That ought to be the test.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a black and a white Chicago? Would you say that there are two different worlds or that it’s integrated here? You’re laughing, Michael Jordan.

SHIRLEY McLEMORE: Yes, there is.

MICHAEL JORDAN: I’ve always said there is a black and white Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the two communities?

MICHAEL JORDAN: There is a Forest Park school, grammar school, with brand new books. There is Chicago Henry Horner School, with Forest Park’s old books. There is a playground, a park, with new swings. There are poles where swings used to be. There is a black and there is a white Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: President Clinton says he wants to build a bridge into the next century. Do you think he could build a bridge between the communities? Do you think that’s possible? Do you think you’ll see that in your lifetime?

SHIRLEY McLEMORE: I think it’s going to take a lot longer than another four years.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you expect any time soon to see an African-American president?




AMY GOODMAN: Henry Horner resident Michael Jordan, and Shirley McLemore and Dana Pittman. They both work at the Henry Horner Homes. They work with the Chicago Housing Authority. Oh, yes, and, of course, President Bill Clinton.

You’re listening to Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 60 seconds.

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