Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Inaugural Remarks By Public Advocate Letitia James

I AM DEEPLY honored and humbled to take this oath for the Office of New York City Public Advocate. Words cannot express my gratitude to all of those who gave their time and prayed for this day to happen. Individuals dedicated their preciousmoments to make a dream come alive. They represent the bridge that carried me over.

Like so many New Yorkers, mine is an unlikely story. A road traveled incrementally by many before me, which made it possible for me to be here before you today. To them I dedicate this day.

I never expected to be a city-wide elected official or to make history as the first woman of color to hold city-wide office.

As I stand here in this space filled with anticipation, anchored by the strength, and will of parents smilingdown from heaven; parents without credentials; humbled individuals more accustomed to backbreaking work than dinner parties. They taughtme to set an example and serve as an inspiration to others; to fight for something greater than one’s self.That sense of purpose was sharpened throughout my public school and later at Howard University School of Law which set in motion a public service career.

I joined public service because I felt it was the single most effective way to change the outlook of exclusion and marginalization that has left a mark onso many New Yorkers at one time or another.

The wave of progressive victories our city has recently enjoyed was, in some ways, inevitable - The fabric of our city, of our nation is made strong by the untold sacrifices of so many  who are left defenseless, unrepresented, unspoken for, -- but at some point in history the tide must turn - the policies that made them voiceless must give way to a government that works for them - that speaks for them - that cares more about a child going hungry than a new stadium or a new tax credit for a luxurydevelopment that a majority of New Yorkers can’t afford. To live up to that challenge and to be centered in our decisions is the task before those of us who think of ourselves as the progressive wing of our city.

Even as the tide turns towards progress, we do not have the luxury to rest our oars.

The growing gap between the haves and the havenot’s undermine our city and tears the fabric of our democracy.

We live in a gilded age of inequality where decrepithomeless shelters and housing developments stand in the neglected shadow of gleaming multi-million dollar condos; where long-time residents are priced out of their own neighborhoods by rising rents and stagnant incomes; where stop and frisk abuses and warrantless surveillance have been touted as “success stories” as if crime can only be reduced by infringing on the civil liberties of people of color; where what should be the race to the top for high quality education has turned into a race to the bottom for standardized test scores; and where hospital closures serve as an existential threat to the health of our communities and library privatization moves are little more than land grabs for more luxury condos.

Most disturbingly, we live in an age where a New York City worker can work full-time and still need food stamps to feed her family; where more and more jobs pay lower and lower wages until we find ourselves in a place where half of all New Yorkers are living at or near the poverty line.

I’ve heard the stories from fast food workers who are working two or three jobs and helplessly sinking into the poverty abyss. Over the past year of campaigning and organizing, I have met with individuals who have made a science out of stretching a paltry $7.25 an hour – an act of magic, I call it – while trying to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I have joined them at walk outs and pickets and seen in their eyes the constant fear of losing their last economic lifelines.

But in those eyes, I have also seen hope; enduring hope; the eternal optimism that keeps aflame the light in their eyes.  Like the spark in Dasani's eyes this morning.

In the face of a seemingly endless recession and an unsparing economic system, working people in our city don’t give up. Their spirits have not been broken. New Yorkers get up each day and fight and when they’re knocked down they get up again and fight some more.

This is the spirit of our city.

This is the tenacity it will take for our government to strike a blow against inequality and injustice and make our city work for working people again. It’s why those of us taking the oath of office today were elected to serve because with each ending comes a new beginning.

Though we must recognize the challenges I laid out, we must also capitalize on the unique opportunities only a city as amazing as New York can offer. We still have one of the most diverse and talented work forces in the world; new industries continue to arrive and thrive in New York; and our city remains the unquestioned hub of creativity, commerce, and human advancement in our region, and maybe the world.
These challenges and opportunities can only be met effectively if we work together. Let this be our lasting resolution on this new day.

I congratulate Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer as we come together to celebrate this historic day and launch a journey that will move our entire city forward. All of us share a progressive vision for this city’s future.

I pledge to work cooperatively with all of my colleagues and build real consensus. Indeed, moving New York forward will take hard work and a joint determination.

Of course, if working people aren’t getting their fair share, if our government isn’t securing the reformsNew Yorkers were promised, you better believe that Dasani and I will stand up – that all of us will stand up – and call out anyone and anything that stands in the way of progress.

Elections are never the culmination of creating change, but simply a first step. New Yorkers should judge their government by whether we make improvements in the education system our children rely on, whether we improve healthcare access for our patients, whether we help create jobs that pay more than the minimum wage, whether we make our city one that is safer even as we respect the civil rights of all New Yorkers, and whether we focus more on building sports arenas or affordablehousing.

Above all, our government must maintain an unflinching focus on the  spirit of these benchmarks.

So today we celebrate and get to work to fulfill the promises we have made to New Yorkers; motivatedby the challenges before us and inspired by the greatness of our cause.

I thank you for your trust and I am more determined than ever to roll up my sleeves and seize the opportunities presented by the dawn of a new day.

One city, together.

God bless you all and God bless our great city.

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