By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Gun violence, voting rights, abortion and maternal health care were the key issues Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke on at a meeting of the National Urban League in Washington, D.C. Friday.
During the chat, which lasted nearly 35 minutes, Woodfin asked Harris questions on a range of topics, some personal.
Here’s the full transcript of the conversation between the Mayor and Vice President.
Randall Woodfin: As Vice President, you’re also a human, and you have a life. You are a mother, you’re a wife. You have friends, you have family. What do you do to balance all of that, and how do you solve for taking care of yourself and self-care?
Kamala Harris: I work out every morning, every morning, no matter how much sleep I’ve had–if it’s only half an hour, I get on the elliptical. It just gets you going. And I saw Miss [CBS News correspondent] Michelle Miller this morning. I told her I love watching her on Saturday mornings when I’m working out.
I think it’s important that when we are dealing with so much that is heavy, when we are dealing with just the pressures of everyday life, that we take care of mind, body and soul. That includes taking care of your health and your mental health. I think it’s very important to always surround yourself with your family, with your friends who will be there for you, to cheer you on but to also be there in those moments where you might trip, and they’ll have a good laugh with you [at] the fact that you did, but they’ll pick you back up and push you out.
I’m also deep in faith. I believe that you have to, whatever it is that you believe in, believe in the goodness, believe that through moments of darkness, there will be light, and that we all have a power that we can bring to making things better and have faith in that ability.
RW: Given recent increases in violent crime across the nation, legislators and the Biden-Harris administration have passed laws and issued executive orders to combat the problem. What do these recent moves mean for mayors and other local leaders practically?
KH: First of all, I’ll say that I do believe, in many ways, we are a nation in mourning as a result of gun violence.
Black people are 13% of America’s population, and I think it’s 62% of homicide victims to gun violence. When I look at this issue, I think about Mrs. [Ruth] Whitfield, of Buffalo, New York. I attended her funeral and the 86-year-old grandmother. There are people here from Buffalo who know what that meant in terms of the loss to the community of that precious woman.
We see, whether it is a mass shooting of 20-odd people in one part of our country, or in a given city, 20 people in 20 days dying from gun violence. And we know it is something we need to address. When I look at the failure of the United States Congress to have the courage to act, I think it is a call for all of us to demand action and demand that they have courage when I think particularly about the issue of assault weapons.
Most things, whether it’s the table that you’re eating on right now, the plate you’re using, the fork, most things have an intentional design, in terms of the things that we use. Assault weapons, were designed to kill a lot of human beings quickly. There is no reason that we have weapons of war on the streets of America.
We need to take action at the federal level in terms of passing smart gun safety laws. We need to get rid of and repeal this liability shield for gun manufacturers.
Why should they be immune from litigation? It doesn’t mean that a court will necessarily decide anything, but the people, if we believe in systems of justice, should have a right to bring those cases where there is merit.
We need to have background checks. Think about it. It’s just reasonable to believe that before you can buy something that can kill another human being, we may want to know a couple of things about your background, like that you are a danger to yourself or other people around you, so we need reasonable gun safety laws.
I believe that it is something that we all know will address the issue in part, but there are a lot of other pressing issues that are associated with that issue that also need to be addressed in terms of what it causes in terms of the mental health impact, the trauma on communities.
When I was DA, I would meet with [mothers] every other Thursday evening. No other prosecutor had met with them, and I would meet with those mothers, mostly, and fathers who had lost, mostly, their sons, and the trauma that it caused on those families and by extension, the communities, we need to address that as well.
So there are a lot of things that are directly connected with gun violence that we need to be smarter about, not to mention all of the other contributing factors that we could go into more detail about, economic opportunities or lack thereof in communities.
RW: What can the Biden-Harris administration do to improve the safety of children in schools and stop mass shootings?
KH: One of the things that we’ve got to stop saying is that the way that we’ll keep our children safe in school is if their teacher has a gun. We’ve got to stop that. That’s not the solution. We need to put in place measures that obviously promote and support local leaders to have the facilities that they need to have to ensure that the children are safe in school, but I really do believe that it really does relate to also a much bigger issue.
There are more guns than people in the United States, and it is too easy for too many people to, in particular, when we look at these mass shootings in school, look at the ability of so many people so easily to get assault weapons, so let’s agree that we have to act on that, and we have to elect people in the next 109 days, who will promote safety by understanding the connections between things like reasonable gun safety laws and safety.
RW: Maternal health is a big issue across the nation, as well as in Alabama. In addition to that, the Supreme Court recently overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed women’s right to abortion. What can we do to codify Roe and make sure that maternal health is protected?
KH: This is an issue I’ve worked on for a long time, and I’m proud of the fact that we have, through the work with many people who are here, we’ve worked together over the years, we’ve been able to bring the issue of Black maternal mortality to the stage of the White House.
Together, when I was in the Senate, with leaders like Lauren Underwood, the Congress member from Illinois, Alma Adams, Marcia Fudge who is here now–Secretary Fudge was a leader when she was in Congress–we were able to actually bring the Maternal Care Act to the floor of Congress, and then by extension, at the White House, elevate this issue. Why? Well, because today in America, Black women are three times more likely to die in connection with childbirth.
Native Women are twice as likely to die, women in rural America, one and a half times as likely to die. When it relates to black women, the facts are clear, regardless of her socio-economic level, regardless of her educational level, she is three times more likely to die, and if we are speaking truth, it is because when she walks into that clinic, or that hospital, or that doctor’s office, she is not taken as seriously as other women who walk into those rooms.
So the issue of racial bias in the healthcare delivery system must be addressed, on this issue. And to that end, we have been doing the work at the federal level, through the White House, to advocate for training on racial bias for all healthcare providers. One of the other things that I’ve been proud that we’ve been doing, and I feel very strongly about this is to highlight the significance, the value and the importance of doulas, who understand the community, who understand and give dignity and respect to the women who are going through these experiences.
The other work that we are doing is saying that we need to start rating hospitals based on how accessible and helpful they are to women going through pregnancy, so this is some of the work we are doing that is about addressing these components of the system that lead to these awful outcomes.
You mentioned reproductive health care, both on the issue of maternal mortality, but let’s also talk about it in terms of the right all women should have, to make decisions about her own body and not have her government tell her what to do.
Weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court took a constitutional right that had been recognized from the people of America, the women of America, and let’s understand, to your point, that they said, ‘Oh, no, we’re gonna let this go to the states.’
Well, I’ve done an assessment of where you’re seeing some of the most fierce attacks against a woman’s right to make her own decision. Based on which states it’s coming from, you will not be surprised to know that in many of those same states, you are seeing attacks on voting rights.
You will not be surprised to see that in many of those same states, extremist, so-called leaders are attacking LGBTQ rights, so this is a moment where we must stand and say it is wrongheaded and intended to harm when you pass laws that deny a woman a right to make decisions about her body, when you pass laws that suggest there’s not even an exception for rape or incest.
I personally prosecuted cases involving child sexual assault. It’s an uncomfortable topic. People don’t want to talk about it, but it’s real, and it happens. That child and that woman should not have to endure an act of extreme violence and then not have the ability to have agency and autonomy to decide what happens next in her life.
Many of us grew up going to church. Many of us understand that this is a conversation about access to abortion that a lot of folks don’t want to have, but you don’t have to abandon your faith or your beliefs to agree that the government should not be making the decision for that woman.
Some of the best work that has happened in the ongoing movements for justice, for freedom, for liberty, led by the Urban League, have been fueled by what we all know we do so well when we do it, which is coalition building.
So let’s think about it. I asked my team to do a Venn diagram of where these attacks are happening, so voting rights, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and of course, there was a huge intersection, but the other point is this. Let’s bring together the folks that have been fighting for voting rights with the vote, same sex marriage, fighting for reproductive rights, let’s bring folks together, see how much we have in common, to fuel this movement because right now, there is a full-on attack on freedom and liberty in America, on these issues, and I say, Take Back the flag. Freedom and liberty? That’s what we fight for.
RW: What is the Biden-Harris administration doing more of to protect voting rights, particularly for Black voters, but even for younger voters who feel like their vote is not being counted.
KH: As Vice President, I have met with and talked with, probably 80 times, presidents, prime ministers and kings of countries around the world. I’ve hosted them in my home, the official residence of the vice president. We hold ourselves, as Americans, out to be a model of a democracy, flawed though we may be, imperfect though we may be. We walk into rooms around the world, and we talk about the importance of the rule of law, human rights, dignity. Around the world, they are watching what we are doing.
I’ve had these conversations where they are asking me, ‘Madam Vice President, what’s going on with voting in your country? What’s going on with not allowing women to make decisions about their own body?’ They’re asking these questions because, like everybody here is a role model. When you are a role model, people watch everything you do, and they look at you to see if what you say is reflected in what you do.
So when we think about these issues, like voting rights, do understand that it is as big as people standing in line and it not being illegal to give them food or water when they’re standing in line to vote. It’s as big as that, as it is our standing in the world and our ability to defend democratic principles. Our president has rightly said that, look, there’s this thing called filibuster, and it can be, and has been, often used as an obstruction to getting good legislation passed.
Our President Joe Biden has said he will not let the filibuster stand in the way of passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. He has also said he will not allow it to get in the way of passing the Women’s Health Protection Act, so what do we need to do to actually then allow these pieces of legislation to get through.
In 109 days, we need to elect two more senators, two, so that we can pass that federal legislation to deal with the fact that you’ve got these extremist, so-called leaders in places like Georgia, Florida, Texas, who are intentionally trying to make it more difficult for people to vote, so they don’t vote. And here’s the thing. Look at the recent history on this. Urban league leaders organized, in the midst of a pandemic, to achieve a goal which was achieved.
In 2020, more people than ever before voted. More young people than ever before voted, stood in line, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of trying to educate their kids at home, did what was necessary to vote. That scared a lot of people. Because when people voted, I like to think of voting sometimes thinking of it as like people putting in an order, like ‘This is what I want,’ so people voted because they said, ‘I want an extension of the child tax credit.’ They got that. We did that.
For the first year, we reduced child poverty in America by 40 percent, including child poverty among Black children in America. People stood in line and they said pass a tax cut for parents to help us pay for the cost of raising a child that includes food and medication and school supplies, so we passed that tax cut, where parents get up to $8,000 more in their pockets because we got that done.
Folks said, ‘We want an administration that comes in and says Medicaid in the states should cover more than two months of postpartum care after a woman has given birth to another human being. Let’s extend that to 12 months.’ That’s happening. People put that order out and said that’s what they wanted when they voted. And by the way, not one Republican in the United States Senate, since we came in office, voted for any of that. So people got what they wanted.
People said, ‘I’m gonna stand in this line, but I want to see a Black woman on the United States Supreme Court.’ And now, there is Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson on the United States Supreme Court.
And still extremist, so-called leaders are passing laws to make it more difficult for people to vote, and we then have to do what we know how to do well and do best, which is in the face of intentional obstacles, we need to remind people that when they vote, they are in essence, making a request, if not a righteous demand…And based on whether they put in that request and that demand through their vote, they will start to get those things, so that’s how I think about this issue right now, especially again, with 109 days to go because there is so much on the ballot.
And you look at it whether, going back to the issue you raised of choice. Think about it in certain states, they are criminalizing health care providers, punishing women. That law where they are basically allowing vigilantes to turn in folks who exercise their rights, so why do these elections matter? Well, because who your DA is matters, who your secretary of state is, on voting, that matters, who your governor is matters who your mayor is certainly matters. Not to mention, who are the members of Congress? There’s so much at stake.
RW: If you could give a charge to all the local Urban League presidents about being on the ground, supporting the work the administration is doing, but in general, what’s the charge to these local leaders?
KH: I would encourage all of the local leaders to remind people of why these elections matter because they do, and let’s be prepared because all of us have been involved in this process for a long time, so folks are going to righteously say to us, when we ask them to vote, ‘Why should I vote?’ And they have a right to ask that question, and let’s be prepared before they ask the question or when they asked a question, to remind them of what they did in 2020 and what it resulted in. I didn’t even mention, as a proud graduate of an HBCU, we put $5.6 billion into HBCUs.
It’s also important to remember the kind of trauma that all communities have experienced, in particular, over these last two years. People were told to isolate. When you look at the Black community, off the top of my head, I think the number is something like one in four people know someone who was either hospitalized or died from COVID.
What [COVID] meant in terms of our children, what it means in terms of the impact to all of us around undiagnosed and untreated trauma, not to mention just the daily grind of getting through the day, and people can become a bit dispirited, and we have to remind them of what is good and what is right and that they are important and that they are not alone.
I think for us as leaders at this moment in time, one of the things we can do best is to remind people they are not alone, and that’s about building community, about convening and bringing people together and reinforcing the fact that we all have so much more in common than what separates us, so in spite of all the noise that suggests otherwise–Urban League does this so well–let’s build coalitions, let’s build community and empower folks to know how important they are and how much they matter.