Shaun Donovan Delivers Remarks at the Association for a Better New York
February 19, 2021
Thank you, Melva, for those kind words, and thank you ABNY for having me here today and for the great work you’ve done to lift our city up for decades. It was an honor to support your efforts to help New Yorkers fill out the Census and get our city the resources it deserves.
I’d like to start with a story, if you’ll be so kind as to indulge me. On October 18, 1977, I went to a ballgame at the old Yankee Stadium, sitting in the upper deck. It wasn’t just any game, it was the game in which Reggie Jackson hit three home runs, leading the Yankees to win the World Series.
On the way home, sitting on the subway with my dad, amidst the cheering and celebration, the car was packed full of fans, but in it were also some who would be sleeping on the street on that cold autumn night. Our city, the city my dad had immigrated to in search of opportunity, was in crisis. The Bronx was, quite literally, burning.
At the same time, a man named Lew Rudin was watching that crisis take hold of our city, and was spurred to action, motivating and organizing others to help revitalize our struggling city as ABNY’s first President. We both — Lew as a leader of the city’s private sector, and me as a young kid — wondered how the wealthiest, greatest city in the world could turn its back on its own and let so many suffer.
And we were both impacted to our core in a way that would lead us to public service.
Today, over 28,000 New York City lives have been claimed by COVID, and millions are struggling to pay rent and feed their families. In this moment of crisis, it’s hard not to ask ourselves once again why our city is falling short.
There is again this feeling for many that our city is slipping away, that the damage is too much to overcome, that New York itself may not be able to recover.
But Lew Rudin and those that followed and heeded his call to service, refused to let New York’s dire straits define its future and worked to change its path — and we must do the same now.
In the world’s most diverse place, the bold confidence in what our city can be — sometimes in direct defiance of the odds — is perhaps the singular trait that all New Yorkers share.
Yes, right now the odds feel stacked, and yes the challenge in front of us feels overwhelming at times. When you find yourself in the midst of a crisis, that is natural. It’s the job of leaders in these moments to step in, push us forward, and support communities as they fight their way to a stronger future.
Right after school, I worked at the Community Preservation Corporation where I helped rebuild the very same neighborhoods in the Bronx that I watched burn down as a kid. I met New Yorkers that were doing whatever they could with whatever they had to lift up their communities, planting seeds in the cracks of the concrete that would sprout a remarkable affordable housing development in Melrose called Via Verde, and make Ruben Diaz Jr. later remark “where the Bronx once burned, we are building gardens in the sky.”
What I didn’t know then was that I would be thrust into crisis leadership, but that is where I’ve found myself time and again nonetheless.
It’s in those moments, at those times, when you look around and see the faces of those who are suffering. And right then you’ve got two choices. You can step aside, telling yourself that someone else will take care of it. Or you can step in, lead, look the problem in the face, and overcome it.
I had the honor of serving as Mayor Bloomberg’s Housing Commissioner, stepping in and leading in the wake of 9/11, as our entire city refused to be knocked down — loudly demonstrating to the world the strength and determination of New Yorkers.
And I brought that experience forward when President Obama asked me to be his Housing Secretary during the worst housing crisis of our lifetimes. I stepped in, I led, and I worked tirelessly to help people get, and stay, housed.
When President Obama asked me to help bring our great city back, I stepped in, I led the federal government’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, and gave our neighborhoods the tools to come back stronger and better prepared for the next challenge.
And again I carried those lessons and skills to step in and take a leading role in the White House’s Ebola and Zika outbreak strategy, preventing devastating pandemics in the early stages.
Through these crises, I learned directly, viscerally, what to do in a situation like the one we are facing today. Sitting next to Dr. Fauci — a proud New Yorker if ever there was one — in the situation room, it was always clear that a health crisis is not about ego or ideology — it’s about service and competence.
That’s why we put Dr. Fauci and health professionals front and center as the faces of our responses to Ebola and Zika. That’s why we brought the United States Military in right away to tackle the challenge. That’s why we were successful at managing those outbreaks and staving off pandemics — and that’s why our response to COVID failed so miserably.
In the midst of this crisis, in both the Briefing Room at the White House and the Blue Room at City Hall, we had the wrong messengers playing the wrong roles. Leadership means being willing to set your ego and ideology aside for the people you serve and to let the professionals do their jobs.
Donald Trump failed to do that. Bill de Blasio failed to do that.
Removing contact tracing and testing from the Health Department was both a failure and a warning sign that mirrored what we saw countless times in Washington the last four years. The worst thing a leader can do is surround themselves with people who won’t tell them the truth, and it showed that telling this mayor the truth would mean losing your ability to do your job.
These warning signs pointed us to an outcome that was at once inevitable and avoidable; inequitable, inefficient vaccine distribution in this city.
But even with these failures, I’m confident we can turn the page. With new leadership in Washington and new leadership coming to City Hall, we have a chance for change. A chance to turn things around for our health and our economy.
My vision for this city is focused not just on repairing its torn fabric and bringing together all New Yorkers to rebuild from the damage done by COVID, but on reimagining New York as an innovative city that truly works for everyone.
And to make this happen, I’ve launched the Campaign of Ideas, putting out the boldest, most comprehensive plans to address our city’s most pressing issues.
It starts with a simple but profound idea of making every neighborhood in our city a 15 minute neighborhood — meaning every New Yorker will have access to a great public school, fresh food, rapid transportation, a beautiful park, and a chance to get ahead within 15 minutes of their front door. Leading planners across the globe are innovating in ways that enable this kind of equity; to turn an old phrase on its head, if they can make it anywhere, we can make it here — only better.
I’ve committed to closing the persistent and devastating wealth gap in our city, an injustice that not only robs whole communities of fair opportunity, but stifles our entire city’s economic potential. A key tool in this fight will be my Equity Bonds, whereby every child in New York City will receive $1,000 deposited into a city-administered savings account, with up to an additional $2,000 deposited for each year until they turn 18.
What this means is that a child born in poverty under this program will have roughly $50,000 waiting for them when they graduate high school. We know that this money can change the economic trajectory of an entire family over generations — a college education, home ownership, opening a business, erasing debt — and that can transform our children’s lives and turbo charge the economic trajectory of our city.
I’ve committed to reimagining the right to shelter in our city as a right to housing, and finally bringing an all hands on deck approach to affordable housing. We will finally invest properly in revitalizing and expanding affordable and sustainable housing in our city, and support those who have fallen on hard times, whether it’s through finding a new home or staying in the one they’re in.
I’ve committed to keeping our city safe by using our resources more effectively. By reallocating resources for situations like mental health crises and school safety toward trained professionals that are better equipped to provide the help people need, we can ensure that police officers have the necessary tools to effectively tackle violent crime and close the out-of-state gun pipeline.
I’ve committed to aggressively revitalizing our city’s economy, creating 500,000 jobs for New Yorkers by the end of my first term and launching the most comprehensive training program in the nation so all New Yorkers can build skills toward secure, family-sustaining jobs.
But no idea, no matter how grand or well thought out, will matter if we can’t keep New Yorkers healthy.
Our city was the hardest hit by COVID, anywhere in the world. Our city lost the most residents of any city, anywhere in the world. Our city faces the most challenging recovery, anywhere in the world.
And so it is with a native New Yorker’s bold confidence in his city that I say: under my administration, New York will become the healthiest city in the world.
New York City has made great strides in the last few decades — and here is a place where we owe Mayor Bloomberg and his health policies a great debt of gratitude — with life expectancy increasing by over three years from 2001 to 2013, almost 2 and a half years longer than the national average.
And yet despite that laudable progress, significant disparities in health and life expectancy persist between White New Yorkers and New Yorkers of color. We have much more work to do.
Our city’s shortcomings during the pandemic — whether in implementing testing and tracing or more recently, distributing vaccines — have further highlighted the need to address these centuries-old inequities.
That is why, today, I’m rolling out a comprehensive health plan that will make New York the healthiest city in the world; grounded on the commitment to deal with this pandemic quickly and equitably, eradicate health disparities, and make high-quality health care accessible and affordable for everyone.
Our first priority will be swift, aggressive, targeted COVID response, focused on helping our hardest hit communities.
We will unite the City’s disparate and disjointed actions under one unified effort by moving all emergency response and preparedness measures back under the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
We will repurpose contact tracing funding and transition toward more robust vaccine distribution — and finally ensure that shots are reaching our most vulnerable communities.
We will partner with primary care physicians and organizations to not only improve management of the current crisis and distribution of vaccines, but bolster our long-term emergency preparedness at the community level.
Looking to the future, we will build and train a reserve of medical and public health professionals to be mobilized during pandemics, so we can act on a plan as soon as a threat appears and keep the situation from getting as awful as it did last year.
And we will work with colleagues in the Biden administration and the state government — colleagues with whom I’ve collaborated so many times over the years to fight crisis after crisis — to ensure that our city gets the funding, the equipment, and the support that it needs, when it needs them.
I know our city will get out of this crisis, and New York will be better prepared for the next one. But our work won’t be done once COVID is under control and our lives ostensibly return to what they were before it began.
There was monumental work to be done before, and we must engage that work now by properly investing in the accessibility and affordability of health care in our city, closing gaps in health equity, and making our city the global leader in health and life sciences innovation.
Disparities in neighborhoods cause the disparities in health that predominantly and immorally impact low-income people of color. Unequal distribution of health services, inequitable levels of air pollution, and a scarcity of fresh food and open space are core drivers of negative health outcomes, and they must be fixed.
Building on the 15 minute neighborhoods model to address inequities in fresh food, environmental conditions, and public space, we will ensure that, no matter where you are in this city, you can see a good doctor of your choice for primary care within 15 minutes of your home.
With that in mind, New York City will create its own public option by effectively resourcing and managing Health + Hospitals, our Federally Qualified Health Centers, voluntary hospitals, and private providers. We will prioritize giving people access to high-quality primary care, regardless of immigration status.
All Americans deserve a true public option that makes health care affordable for all, and I will support the Biden administration in any way I can to make that goal a reality. But we also won’t stand idly by while the 600,000 New York City adults that currently lack access to health insurance go without proper care.
We cannot address health disparities, we cannot maximize the potential of our economy, and we cannot make this the healthiest city in the world, without ensuring primary care for everyone — including those in our criminal justice system and those experiencing homelessness.
This approach will have the added benefit of reducing emergency room visits and hospital admissions, while encouraging the more than a quarter million Medicaid-eligible New Yorkers to enroll.
It will also allow us to more proactively and consistently address longstanding health crises that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic — issues like mental health, opioid abuse, chronic disease, and unacceptable rates of maternal mortality among women of color.
By making our city healthier we will revitalize entire sectors of our city’s economy. Before the shutdown, the hospitality industry in our city provided as many as 400,000 jobs — we must get them back. Hospitality, tourism, and dining help power our city’s economy, and they must be central to powering our city’s recovery. When we are safe and ready, we will partner with NYC & Company to launch a campaign publicizing ourselves as the healthiest city in the world.
And looking toward the future, investments in life sciences innovation will not only make our city healthier, they will strengthen our economy and make our city a global force in improving the health and well-being of all people.
To that end, we will work with residents in the Bronx and Harlem on a comprehensive and collaborative plan to establish dual uptown life sciences hubs anchored in robust job training and clear pathways to employment for residents.
We’ll also build a free-standing, fully endowed research center for life scientists in Upper Manhattan, and build a “Grad-School-to-Enterprise” training pathway for PhD students in the life sciences.
And we will capture a growing wave of investment and job creation by improving and building upon collaborative efforts with life sciences industry leaders, major universities, and New York State.
From Housing to Hurricanes, I have been front and center in helping New Yorkers recover from disasters.
I’m running for Mayor of New York City — not only to pull us out of crisis, but because we need to re-imagine a city that truly works for everyone.
I’m running for mayor because, in this time of uncertainty and struggle, I’m the only candidate with the right combination of experience during crisis; bold, comprehensive ideas; and the understanding needed to make those ideas real for New Yorkers.
And I’m running for Mayor of New York City to usher in a new era of compassion and competence, which will move us away from the failed leadership that has made the crisis we’re living through even worse.
It’s been a long journey from that subway car in 1977, to the Oval Office and situation room, to here today running for mayor of the city that we love. The crises this city has faced formed my core values, they forged my career in public service, and they built the foundation of my experience.
Of all the lessons I learned working with Presidents Obama and Biden, the single most important was this: we won’t get “there” alone.
“There” is a new, healthy day in the wake of this pandemic, and “there” is a robust, inclusive economy that closes the wealth gap.
“There” is an equitable recovery, and “there” is a stronger city where everyone has access to all that makes New York great.
“There” is a place ABNY has led us before in the wake of crisis, and “there” is a place ABNY will help us go in the future.
I’m running for Mayor because I have the experience and vision to lead a new path forward. But I won’t get us “there” alone. It will take all of us.
My friends, my fellow New Yorkers, wherever you are across this wonderful, imperfect, irreplaceable place we call home, we have the map, and we have the directions, to a city that works for everyone.
Let’s go “there”, together.