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John Kerry Addresses National Black Chamber Of Commerce Convention

by Pamela Leavey

As I reported here earlier, Senator John Kerry delivered the keynote address at the National Black Chamber of Commerce 14th annual convention today in New Orleans, Louisiana. This was Kerry’s third trip to Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina hit. Kerry addressed rebuilding efforts and the serious challenges that still remain for the Gulf Coast’s businesses and economy.

Below are Kerry’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Senator John Kerry, Address to National Black Chamber of Commerce
14th Annual Convention
New Orleans, Louisiana
July 21, 2006

Last night the Senate passed the Voting Rights Act, extending this landmark civil rights bill for another 25 years. We’ve made great strides in attacking racial discrimination, but our work is far from done. This bill protects voters in places with a history of restricting minority rights. It outlines language assistance requirements, and empowers the Attorney General the ability to assign poll watchers. Last year I introduced the Count Every Vote Act to end the absurdly long lines, mistaken purging of voters, voter suppression and intimidation, and unequal access to the voting process that hold our democracy back from being the best it can be.

But just protecting voting rights is not enough. Economic opportunity for everyone is also a civil right.

This is my third trip to Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last summer. When I came here in May with Senator Mary Landrieu, I toured parts of New Orleans that, frankly, still look like the third world. We met with business and community leaders, including Mr. Alford, to learn first-hand the challenges they face. Equal opportunity is certainly not alive in New Orleans. And we have to work to bring it here.

Katrina pulled back the curtain and revealed a reality of poverty and desperation that many thought no longer existed in our country. It’s astounding. Here we are, in the richest country in the world, and nearly one year after a devastating storm, our people are still waiting for help from the federal government to pick up the pieces and rebuild. Amazingly, tragically, just like during the storm, the people of New Orleans are once again waiting for the help from Washington that they’ve been promised. This time, they’re not waiting for a rescue, they just want a hand to reach the higher ground, to get their businesses up and running again. And once again, it’s mission NOT accomplished.

To those of you who own businesses and work here in the Gulf, I applaud your perseverance, your courage, and your determination to rebuild in the face of adversity.

It’s time for America to do right by New Orleans.

So, I’m glad that we’re here in the Crescent City today. We need to keep the spotlight on New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast. We need to hold the government’s feet to the fire until we get homeowners and business owners the tools they need to bring New Orleans back.

What’s the hold up? We can’t blame ‘heck of a job’ Brownie, the former FEMA director, anymore — he’s gone. We can’t blame Hector Barreto, the former head of the Small Business Administration, because he just jumped ship too. Where can the people of the Gulf turn?

On September 15th, President Bush stood in Jackson Square and made promises. He promised to ‘do what it takes,’ to ‘stay as long as it takes’ to help citizens rebuild their lives and communities. The President said that ‘when the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets.’ Those are his own words. But the people I’ve met in New Orleans say these promises have been broken. And, after witnessing it with my own eyes, so do I.

It’s been 10 months since the President made those promises. More than $10 billion in contracts have been awarded for debris removal, yet piles of debris, street after street, remain in New Orleans East, where I toured in May.

From all of your stories, I hear that the people of New Orleans are still going through hard times, that only half of the hospitals are open, and one-fifth of the schools and childcare centers, one-sixth of the transportation system, and—in a city that loves its food like no other—less than half the restaurants have reopened.

You’ve probably heard the promises of money and aid from Washington. But you know what? We’re spending American taxpayers’ dollars a lot faster on rebuilding Iraq than on rebuilding New Orleans. We’re putting more energy into staying the course there than on staying the course in New Orleans.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 125,000 small and medium-sized businesses were disrupted or destroyed by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma along the Gulf Coast.

I’ve been working closely with your own Sen. Mary Landrieu on a plan to help get the Gulf Coast back in business. In fact, we put together bipartisan legislation in the Senate back in September. It passed, but guess what? The Bush Administration is blocking it. They said, “no can do.”

So Sen. Landrieu and I introduced another bill to give impacted Gulf Coast states $50 million for emergency bridge loans to those that need money immediately.

Local and small businesses here in the Gulf Coast need to be given the first shot at federal contracts for recovery. They also need timely access to capital. Today, although more than $10 billion of SBA disaster loans have been approved, less than $2 billion has made it into the hands of Gulf Coast residents to rebuild their communities. Non-profit groups — from schools to churches — should also be able to get disaster loans too. And to help Gulf Coast residents get their feet under them, we should extend the loan deadline.

These ideas can help New Orleans recover, but we cannot stop there, because the 2006 hurricane season is already here. We need a proactive disaster plan at the SBA. We need a permanent reporting system on the disaster loan program’s finances to keep it solvent and prepared for future disasters.

Sadly, we had to learn some tough lessons from the 2005 hurricanes. But now is the time to turn these lessons into action and solutions.

Just this month, the new SBA chief, Steven Preston, was sworn in to take over this agency. The SBA is the only federal agency that is charged with looking out for you, the small, minority-, women-, and veteran-owned firms across the country. I’m not talking about hand-outs; I’m talking about a helping hand that levels the playing field instead of putting big business first.

Now when President Bush nominated Mr. Preston, I had some concerns that Mr. Alford also shared. At the confirmation hearing, I called on Mr. Preston to recuse himself from any decisions that would benefit the big company he used to work for. We need an SBA chief who is a champion for small businesses. Someone who will not endorse big business policies that hurt small firms, who will fight to fund key small business programs. And—this is important– we need someone who will stand up for minority firms and minority entrepreneurs, not leave them behind.

Today, there are well over one million black business owners. Which sounds great, until you consider that last year African Americans accounted for 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, but only four percent of all businesses in the country. So, my friends, what we need are forward-thinking initiatives at the national level to triple the number of African-American owned businesses.

Everyone in this room is working to make that happen, and I have some ideas on how we can do more.

First of all, we need to work together to tackle the “wealth gap.” When a white family’s net worth is $67,000 but a black family’s is only $6,100, we have a real problem in this country.

That’s why I have been working with leaders in the business and higher education communities – especially in underserved areas including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal colleges to encourage entrepreneurship and help minority firms get the tools they need. I introduced legislation to create a grant program aimed at these minority institutions to help target students in highly-skilled fields and guide them towards starting a business as a career option.

I’ve also introduced legislation to give minority small business owners an advocate in the SBA by creating an Office of Minority Small Business Development. Frankly, I don’t think the Bush Administration is doing enough to ensure minority firms are able to remain innovative and competitive. Too many minorities are still financing their businesses on credit cards and too many fear unfair denial from lenders. That shouldn’t be the case. They deserve a fair chance and the knowledge that the SBA’s lending partners can help them thrive and boost our economy.

For everyone, access to capital remains one of the top obstacles to starting and growing a small business in this country. Especially for minorities. Over the last five years the SBA’s two biggest loan programs — 7(a) and 504 — have not done their job. Lending to African Americans – dollar for dollar – is stagnant compared to the rest of the population where there have been strong increases. I’ve introduced legislation to expand access to financing by raising the dollar amount of loans that the government can back and expanding the network of lenders nationwide.

All of these bills – my minority entrepreneurship program and the small business lending improvement proposals that establish a minority business advocate – have received the support of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. I thank you for your support. And I call on you to help me turn these proposals into a reality that expands the economic empowerment of African American communities all across the nation.

The Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship – on which I’ve served for more than 20 years – is working to pass a large piece of small business legislation next week. I’ve been fighting to include the Minority Entrepreneurship bill, which is my top priority, but I have definitely encountered resistance. So there couldn’t be a more important time for you to get in touch with your Senators, your Representatives, and tell them about your priorities. Frederick Douglass once said, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

I’ve heard from many minority newspaper, radio and television owners that they are not getting their fair share of federal advertising contracts. Federal policy says they should be. But are they actually doing that? I’ve asked for a comprehensive study because it’s time we know how the government measures up to its responsibility to reach out to all sectors of the American economy.

And I’ve also collaborated with my Senate colleagues, Barack Obama and Bill Nelson, to get the Federal Communications Commission to stand up for small business in the media, including minority-owned newspapers and broadcast stations. Media consolidation is making it harder for everyone to compete against the giants in the industry, especially for small businesses, minorities and women. Ownership of our media voices should reflect the diversity of our country, not defy it.

Hurricane Katrina stripped away any illusions we might have had about the reliability of this administration to respond to a crisis. It showed us just how little compassion goes into compassionate conservatism, and New Orleans deserves better. It created a rare accountability moment, a moment for introspection that allowed us to take stock of the state of our country today, of our communities and of the direction we’re taking. Working together, we can get this city, this state, this region, and this entire country back on track. We can return to the core principles of this nation and we can help all of America’s entrepreneurs – black and white, large and small—to succeed and prosper.

Thank you.

4 Responses to “John Kerry Addresses National Black Chamber Of Commerce Convention”

  1. Hey Donnie,

    Is Katrina a real talking point for the mid-terms this year there in Louisiana?

    From what I’ve seen from way out here in the Northwest, it doesn’t look good.

  2. Hi BlueWashington,

    If you go to my blog. The Katrinacrat Blog you will find a few links to some of the local lefty Louisiana blogs. On those blogs, look at the links to other ones. You would be suprised at how many have come up and are still reporting on the rebuilding and Katrina itself. They are try to get things started for a convention at the end of August, with us La. bloggers. The one problem they are having, is gettinf a list of them. There are a lot of them, and many are going up each day. This might be interesting to watch. There are a lot of pissed off people here.

  3. I’m glad that Sen. Kerry is keeping after the Bush Admin to honor their promise to rebuild the Gulf Coast. My sister-in-law and two of her children went from Mass. to NOLA last month with a church group to help de-mold and bleach out houses there. She brought back pics. Sigh! I told her that Sen. Kerry is still interested in the area and trying to help people get back on their feet and that made her happy.

    The Gulf area hasn’t been forgotten by most Americans, just by this Admin. There are a lot of good people in my area who have held bake sales and participated in drives to get really needed stuff to the area. That’s what Americans should do in a time of crisis, help each other. Sigh! If only Bush knew that.

  4. Tay Tay

    Thankfully JK keeps hammering away and reminding people of what failures the Bush administration are.

    It’s very sad that they don’t get it or don’t care – some of both I fear.