Candidate Speech Series: Jim Webb

[This is the first of a continuing series of candidate speech transcripts from all the Democratic presidential campaigns, which will be running all week long. Please see the introduction to this series for more information.]


Jim Webb

Speech to the International Association of Firefighters

Washington, D.C.


I would like to thank my good friend Harold Schaitberger, who as you know began his firefighting career in Fairfax, Virginia, for his kind invitation to join you today.

It's been a while since I've spoken to your group but I think I can safely say that I am still the only person ever elected to statewide office in Virginia with a union card, two Purple Hearts, and three tattoos.

It is good to be back with friends.

On a wall in my house to this day is a photo that was on the front page of the Washington Post on November 10, 2006 -- the morning after we were declared the winner in one of the toughest Senate races in the country, defeating an entrenched incumbent and bringing a Democratic majority to the United States Senate. The photo was taken at a massive, spontaneous rally in the Arlington Courthouse Square. My wife Hong stands on one side of me, Senator Chuck Schumer is on the other, and in that one shot, standing behind me and around me, are five firefighters, holding up signs that said "Firefighters for Webb." You helped me get there. We worked hard together after I got there. And I have to say, honestly, that you are the only group that ever out-hustled Chuck Schumer to get into the middle of a picture.

I'm here today to say, I may call on you again. Stay tuned.

I stand before you as a card-carrying lifetime union member and a committed supporter of collective bargaining rights. You all know that it's easy to come over here and say this, but when it comes to the importance of collective bargaining rights, I can fairly say that I have taken the risks at a time when union membership has too often been vilified and misunderstood.

As you know, Virginia is a right-to-work state. Only 4.9 percent of Virginia workers are union members. Yet...

  • I am the only candidate for a statewide office in the history of Virginia to walk a picket line during a campaign, as I did in 2006 with the Goodyear workers in Danville.

  • My first official trip as a Senator was to the General Motors Powertrain plant in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
  • I supported federal assistance to the automobile industry.
  • I visited workers on the picket line at the Volvo plant in Dublin, Virginia.
  • I voted to give firefighters and other public safety officers collective bargaining rights.
  • And I opposed amendments too numerous to mention, which sought to undermine the fundamental collective bargaining rights of workers or make it harder than it already it is to form a union.
  • These positions may not have been universally popular, but they reflect my strong feelings that collective bargaining rights are essential to the health of much of the American work force.

    I'm especially thankful to be with you this morning, because it gives me a chance to talk about an area where I feel a special bond with our firefighters and other first responders. Everyone in this room knows what it means to undertake a duty that might give you not the choice but the obligation to step into harm's way.

    I've spent time as an infantry Marine on a particularly harsh battlefield. I've covered military conflict in Beirut and Afghanistan as a journalist. And I visited Iraq as a member of the United States Senate. Among these three capacities, there is a vital distinction, which I've mentioned often to colleagues. It defines the most sobering aspect of duty.

    Simply stated -- and I think everyone in this room understands -- you don't know what it's like to be there unless you're faced with the reality that when things go really bad you're not allowed to leave.

    I suppose there are a lot of people who can say that they've seen firefighters fight a fire. But there aren't very many who can say they've fought a fire. When I was in the Senate, a lot of my colleagues liked to point out how many times they'd been to Iraq and Afghanistan. But watching a war isn't the same thing as fighting a war.

    This leads me to the guiding principle of leadership, for those who have endured these realities: take care of your people. Take care of your people and they will take care of you. I was lucky as a young man to have the honor of serving as an infantry Marine in Vietnam. This was a hard time for our country. During the year I was in Vietnam -- 1969, a time made famous by the battle of Hamburger Hill -- we lost twice as many combat dead than we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined during the last twelve years of war -- 200 Americans were dying on average every week. I watched young Marines do astounding things on a daily basis. And that guiding principle sustained us. There is an old Marine Corps tradition: first you feed the privates, then you feed the corporals, then you feed the sergeants, and if anything is left over, the officers eat.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to corporate America in recent times these basic guiding principles have been turned on their heads. First you pay the deal makers, then you pay the CEOs, then you pay the aspiring CEOs, and if anything is left over, you give it to the working people. This is not sour grapes and it is not a cheap shot. It is the reality of our current system and it has got to stop. When I graduated from the Naval Academy corporate CEOs made 20 times what the average worker made. Today it is more than 300 times. This isn't the result of globalization. The average Japanese CEO makes 10 times the salary of the average worker. The average German CEO makes 11 times. By the way, Germany, not China, has the highest balance of trade of any country in the world, and union members have long sat on corporate boards.

    Maybe if our working people sat on corporate boards there would be more money spent on salaries, health care, pensions, and training programs, instead of the outrageous sums that are now going to many CEOs. I believe in the American dream, I have lived it. I believe that people should have the opportunity to shoot the moon, particularly those who, let's say, help our society be a better place by finding the cure for a pernicious disease, like polio, or forever changing the way we communicate, like the internet. But when a corporate CEO can make hundreds of millions of dollars a year -- in one case just last year $690 million in one year doing what is often called boardroom capitalism, buying and selling other companies while average income for our working people has actually been declining, and while the structure of our workforce has been changing into part-time jobs that quite often don't even protect health insurance or pension rights, I think our political leaders should have the courage and the vision to say enough is enough, and stand up to the financial sector that has been growing ever more powerful in its impact on both political parties in our country.

    During my time in the Senate I spoke frequently about the need to reinstitute true economic fairness. A lot of political leaders will give lip service to this concept, but the truth is in the numbers. Every month, every year, deal by deal, financial contribution by financial contribution, those at the very top have pulled farther away from the rest of our society. In the first months of the Obama Administration our country was hit by a devastating recession, brought on by outright greed and irresponsibility in the financial sector. We bailed them out. The alternative was a catastrophic freefall in the entire global economy.

    Let me say this more clearly. The firefighters, the nurses, the truck drivers, the soldiers, the inventive sole proprietors, got hit with a 700 billion dollar tax bill in order to stanch the bleeding of our economy and get the bankers back on their feet again. And what has happened since? The stock market, which bottomed out at just above 6,000 in April, 2009, has nearly tripled, topping 18,000 as recently as last week. But wages and salaries have actually declined, as has the approval rate for loans to small businesses, and real, full-time employment has decreased. Working people bailed them out. And it's working pretty well -- for them.

    So here's where we are, in the America of today. If you hold stocks, if you have capital assets, chances are you're doing fine. In fact, the moneyed interests are doing so well that many commentators believe we are on our way to establishing an entrenched aristocracy.

    According to The Economist, the 16,000 families making up the richest 0.01%, "now control 11.2% of total wealth -- back to the 1916 share, which is the highest on record." Those 16,000 families hold $6 trillion in assets, equal to the assets held by the bottom two-thirds of American families combined.

    If you are on the other side of the equation -- working people -- it's tough. The Pew Research Center reports that for most U.S. workers, real wages "have been flat or even falling for decades." The average wage "peaked more than forty years ago.... After adjusting for inflation, today's average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979."

    The economy is creating more jobs, which is good news, but what kinds of jobs are we seeing? Far too many are poorly paid service sector jobs that don't pay enough money for workers to support themselves and their families. We keep losing better paying jobs. Workers are anxious for good reason. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that "a feature of the Great Recession and indeed the prior two recessions, is that the middle-skill jobs that were lost don't all come back during the recoveries that follow."

    The grand bargain that has been the foundation of our entire society is simple: if you work hard, and elect leaders who will insist on a fair chance for you to succeed, you will have a good income and a comfortable way of life. This simple concept is now at risk. I encourage every one of you to put this question to anyone who asks for your vote: will you stand up to the powerful financial interests who are going to spend billions of dollars in order to elect people who think the current drift toward a permanent, moneyed aristocracy is OK? Or will you have the courage to provide a voice in the corridors of power for those who otherwise will have no voice: the working people who are carrying the well-being of our country on their backs with every tax bill that they pay? Will you look for ways to enable the futures of the marginalized who need a helping hand to become productive citizens, the incapacitated, the under-educated, the formerly incarcerated, all of whom right now are too often being dismissed as permanent liabilities but who with the right leadership and vision can give back and make us stronger? Do you believe that is possible? I do.

    But even that's not enough.

    We need the good jobs and wages found in infrastructure development and manufacturing.

    Reliable estimates show that each $1 billion spent on construction and maintenance of our nation's infrastructure creates tens of thousands of jobs. This is a good deal for our workers and for the country. We are way behind in our infrastructure programs, folks. A modern economy requires a modern infrastructure. In our strained infrastructure, given a D-plus by the American Society of Civil Engineers, lies an opportunity. We must put people to work renewing and strengthening our schools, roads, bridges, waterways, and communication infrastructure, and increasing our global competitiveness.

    We need to place renewed emphasis on our public education system, including the often overlooked area of adult education, which I focused on heavily when I was in the Senate. Adult education system has not kept pace with our workers' needs or those of the workplace. 29 percent of adults read at only an eighth-grade level. Among adults with the lowest literacy rates, 43 percent live in poverty. Too many workers do not have the education skills for jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

    We have the hardest working and most productive work force in the world, but we need to remove obstacles facing working families. Tens of millions of Americans struggle to care for their families' immediate needs while continuing to work. Working people should not be forced to choose between their family and their future.

    Lack of access to affordable and dependable child care, lack of access to affordable housing, lack of access to dependable transportation, and unpredictable work schedules often make it impossible for working families to take advantage of job training programs. In addition to having limited time to focus on improving their job skills, many working families cannot pursue job training or higher education without sacrificing what little financial security they may enjoy.

    In our country it's not uncommon for devastating life events to be coupled with financial hardship. Many low-income workers risk losing their jobs when they are forced to care for sick family members. Chronic illness is one of the most frequent sources of financial turmoil for working families.

    We need to reform our criminal justice system, from top to bottom, from point of apprehension to length of sentencing to prison administration to re-entry into society. During my time in the Senate we brought this issue out of the shadows and forced it into the national debate. This is not a political question, it is a leadership challenge. We have 5 percent of the world's population; and 25 percent of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. We have a system of mass incarceration.

    There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on Earth, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.

    Due to mass incarceration, particularly for drug offenses, many millions of Americans are either in prison or under post-prison supervision. Some are hardened criminals. Others have been incarcerated for the sickness of drug addiction, or mental illness, or a moment of absolute but culpable stupidity. Most would like to re-enter the community that they left behind when they were locked up, neglected, possibly abused, and definitely marked for the rest of their lives on every employment application they will ever fill out.

    Here is a basic question: do we want these people to re-enter a life of crime, prowling your streets at night, then back again in prison, uselessly stagnating while costing taxpayers billions, or is it possible to see a good percentage of them building productive lives, making an income, paying taxes, living a stable existence? I believe it is in the interest of every American for our government leaders to create true pathways for former offenders to get away from the stigma of incarceration and move into a productive future for themselves, their families, and their communities if they are willing to do so.

    These are just a few examples of the kind of issues that aren't going to ring up the cash registers of the big campaign donors, but they will make us a better country, and a better people, and a more fair society. Courageous leaders don't follow the money. They lead, they take risks, they propose new directions, and in time the people will follow. I am not a Catholic, but quite frankly there is no better example of the impact of this kind of courage than the moral leadership we have seen from Pope Francis, whose wisdom and sense of justice has inspired so many people across the world, including me.

    Let me end today by again expressing my thanks to all of you for having answered the call of duty. Let's just imagine that this is March of 2001 rather than 2015. We could be having the same conversation, none of us imagining that six months later the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would be devastated and the members of your profession would be marching into the hell of the resulting infernos while other citizens were, understandably, doing everything they could to flee. I know that feeling. I know what it is like to face a determined enemy and to know without hesitation that I must move forward into the guns of battle, to take care of my people and to do my duty.

    This is the life you have chosen. We as Americans benefit from that choice every day, in the knowledge that you are motivated, highly skilled and ready to face danger. And it is the duty of our country's leaders to make sure that you have the tools to do your job, as well as the benefits that are equal to the risks you are taking and the price you are willing to pay.

    We do live in the greatest country on Earth. That's why people from all over the world want to come here. God bless America. And thank you for doing your part to preserve our greatness.


    Chris Weigant blogs at:

    Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

    Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post