Governor Mark Warner on “Why I am a Democrat.”
Remarks to Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson-Hamer Dinner by Governor Mark Warner of Virginia.
Jackson, Mississippi, May 31, 2003
In Virginia, we have had to cut $6 billion from our state budget in 16 months. That’s because my predecessors cut taxes, increased spending, and assumed the go-go days of the 1990s would last forever.
And this year, while we were busy trying to increase funding for public education – they wanted to eliminate the estate tax to benefit about 400 wealthy families.
But we said, when you’re in a hole – the first thing you do is stop digging.
While we were launching the most extensive reform of state government in a generation they tried to kill important reform legislation just to keep me from winning a political victory.
In Washington the last couple of years, we’ve seen lots of talk, but few results. And we’re heading in the wrong direction.
The last time we had a Democratic President, America saw the first budget surpluses in a generation.
Just three years later, the Republicans’ own numbers show a future filled with deficits as far as the eye can see.
The last time we had a Democratic President, unemployment fell to record lows. But today it climbs a little higher every month.
The last time we had a Democratic President, the stock market soared. Today, it just sputters.
In 2000, America was promised something called “compassionate conservatism.” And you know – that sounded familiar to a lot of us in the South. We had been saying for a long time – balance the budget, but not on the backs of working people.
But they meant something else – and all we got was more of the same.
Look at public education. Two years ago, the No Child Left Behind Act became law. It was a sweeping effort to raise academic standards, improve the quality of teaching, and close the achievement gap.
But there was no money to back it up, and current budget plans leave it almost $10 billion short.
Or look at health care. The rebuilding has begun in Iraq – and they’re starting with health care.
If you listened closely after the fighting ended, you might have heard that, “In one year, the US hopes to rebuild 6,000 Iraqi schools, to repair 100 clinics and hospitals, and to provide basic universal health care to 25 million Iraqis.”
That’s the right thing to do in Iraq – and it’s the right thing to do here at home, where more than 40 million Americans still don’t have health insurance.
Or look at homeland security. You know, the images of September 11 will always remain in the minds of every American. For me – I was in the middle of a heated campaign. The polls were close, a big debate was coming up, and no one was getting enough sleep.
Our campaign office was just a few miles from the Pentagon. We all climbed up on the roof and watched the smoke rise. And none of the political battles seemed important.
Over the weeks that followed, I found myself inspired by the work of the firefighters, the police, the EMS workers in Virginia, in New York, and in Pennsylvania. They made us all proud to be Americans.
But in many ways, it seems like they have been forgotten – because we’ve never seen the
billions that states were promised to train first responders, help prevent future attacks, and respond to emergencies.
You know, back in February, Governors from both parties met with the President and top White House officials. We shared our concerns about these issues and others.
And we were told, very politely – there simply is not any additional money at the federal level, and you should not expect any.
But the next day – we learned that the federal government had found $26 billion to entice Turkey to cooperate with the war with Iraq.
Now I support our troops and their efforts to change the regime in Iraq. But if the federal
government can find the money for a worthy international goal, they should be able to find it for worthy domestic priorities as well.
That’s just a snapshot of what’s going on in Washington. You know, it looks like the Republicans
will keep on talking a good game – and we’ll keep cleaning up the mess.
But that means we have to strengthen our party – starting with the grass roots. That means strengthening local Democratic committees. It means identifying good candidates to run for office at all levels.
It means remembering that TV commercials don’t win elections – but knocking on doors and meeting people one-on-one does.
It means reaching out to new voters and new Americans – and inviting them to be part of our Democratic family.
And it means having a message that reaches out to all Americans.
We did it in Virginia in 2001 – and if we can do it there, we can do it here in Mississippi, and we can do it again for America.
Virginia hasn’t voted for a Democratic President since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. When I ran, the Republicans controlled both houses in the legislature and every statewide office – and the White House picked our Governor to run the Republican National Committee. And despite those odds, we won because we built a new coalition of Virginians. We did that by laying out a message that focused on meeting the needs of an information age economy – a message that stressed economic opportunity, educational opportunities, and fiscal responsibility.
We started with the most loyal Democrats. We said to African Americans and to working people – We know that you have been taken for granted in the past. Those days are over. You will help lead this team.
We said, we’re going to bring people together – just like Governor Winter showed us how to do here in Mississippi.
And then we reached out to Virginians in rural communities – to people who hadn’t voted for a Democrat in a long, long time. And we asked them to give us a chance.
In a 21st century economy, you can be successful anywhere – if you have a good education and job skills.
We talked about giving young people the chance to get a good job in the place they grew up. Because you shouldn’t have to leave your family or your hometown to get ahead.
We said, Virginia will never prosper if all the good jobs are in one area, and other places get left behind.
And then we said something that a lot of people had never thought of – you can like NASCAR – you can like hunting – you can like bluegrass music – and you can still vote for a Democrat.
We did all this because we recognized that if you’re going to offer people economic hope, you can’t spend all your time talking about the same old social issues that have divided us for too long.
You can’t move forward if every discussion is about abortion and guns.
Those are all important issues, and we can’t ignore them. But they create passion that often distracts us from more fundamental issues.
And let me say it again – if we can do it in Virginia, we can do it for America.
We have to do it for America. Because America deserves better than failed fiscal policy. America deserves better than an economy that leaves millions of people and whole communities behind.
And Democrats offer better. We offer optimism, and we offer hope for the future.
Now as you might guess, a lot of Republicans and Independents supported us. And since then, a lot of them have asked me, Mark – Why exactly are you a Democrat?
And I just smile. Because if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.
Amy Tuck clearly wouldn’t understand.
I am a Democrat because since Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence – and since Jackson spoke for the common man – our party has never been the party of the status quo.
Instead, we have been the ones to see a challenge – and do something about it. Let’s be honest – it hasn’t always worked perfectly. Sometimes it has gotten us in trouble. Sometimes it has split us apart. But sometimes, those are the wages of progress.
And yet, I am a Democrat because the greatest and most noble political experiments of our time had their birth in our party.
I am a Democrat because the New Deal literally saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
I am a Democrat because a generation after a Democratic president started the Peace Corps, you can still find faded photographs of John F. Kennedy on the walls of homes from South Africa to South America.
I am a Democrat because fighting for working men and women is always the right fight.
I am a Democrat because our party led the struggle for civil rights – in the tough places like Virginia and Mississippi – and because we recognize that discrimination and bigotry are not dead – and that we must continue to seek equal opportunity for all.
I am a Democrat because despite our failures, our missteps, and our excesses – we know that waging a war on poverty does not mean fighting the individuals who are poor.
I am a Democrat because we know that today’s battle is about the future versus the past – and it’s time to put aside yesterday’s battles of us versus them.
I am a Democrat because we know that criticizing success won’t create a single job.
And most of all, I am a Democrat because when my three daughters go out into the world to make their lives, I want them to find a world where there’s less hopelessness – less selfishness – and less violence.
I want them to find a world where there is more opportunity – more understanding – and more hope.
That is the mission of this party.
That is what we work for.
That is why we get up every morning.
That is why we’re here tonight.
And our work is not done.