June 3, 2019

Speaker Carl Heastie's Keynote Address at Baruch College 2019 Commencement Ceremony

June 3, 2019
Barclays Center
[as prepared]

Good morning graduates, guests and faculty. I'm honored to be here today to celebrate this occasion with you. You should all be very proud of what you have accomplished and excited for the opportunities ahead. Congratulations to all the graduates.

I spent a lot of time here at Baruch. In fact, I'm fairly confident I might be the longest tenured student - it took me nine long years to earn the 60 credits needed to get my MBA, during which time they changed the degree requirements three times. But alas, I persevered.

Some of you may already know who I am, some of you may not. I lead what I believe to be one of the greatest legislative bodies in the country - the New York State Assembly. It is a chamber rich with history where landmark legislation has been passed and served as a model for the country.

I always felt I was destined for public service. Every year, from first grade through fifth, I ran for class president at PS 111. I lost every time - I'm not even sure I voted for myself. All I can say is, apparently my classmates did not see my potential. I guess you can't win them all.

Graduations have always been particularly special to me because I have never taken for granted the value of an education. The amount of doors it will open is life changing. I have also felt first-hand the cost of education. Despite being accepted to MIT, UPENN and RPI for undergrad, the financial aid offered was not enough. Like most New Yorkers, cost was a factor in my decision making process - both when I decided to attend Stony Brook for undergrad, and when I chose Baruch for my graduate degree.

When I decided to get my master's, I was working as a budget analyst at the New York City Comptroller's office. I soon realized I was the only person in my office without an advanced degree, so I made a promise to myself that I would earn my MBA.

I knew I wanted to go to a great business school. As a numbers guy, I knew I was going to have to weigh my options and crunch the numbers to see what I could reasonably afford. I learned that at a fraction of the cost of NYU, a degree from Baruch yields similar post graduate outcomes. It was a no brainer.

I also cannot overstate how grateful I am for the flexibility the graduate program here offered me - I managed to serve as a member of the New York State Legislature while working on my MBA. Whether it takes nine years or two, Baruch College understands that their graduate students often have jobs and families. I commend them for that.

I first ran for the Assembly in 2000 because I wanted to make a real difference for working families in my community. That's why most people get into public service. I would be lying if I told you this job is easy or lucrative, but it is incredibly rewarding.

In 2015, I saw an opportunity to do more for my community. To become the leader of the greatest legislative body in the country. To better the lives of 19 million New Yorkers.

When I first became speaker, I set a Families First agenda. I wanted to promote the health, safety, economic and social well-being of New York's families. Since then, we have raised the minimum wage, secured paid family leave for all working families and made college more accessible and affordable for more New Yorkers. I was even finally able to realize a longtime dream of mine - breaking ground on a community center for my constituents in the Bronx.

But I also wanted to deliver real change in New York. I wanted to fix the fundamental flaws in our broken criminal justice system. I have always said my speakership would be in vain if I did not.

But a lot has changed since I became speaker in 2015, and that is what I would like to talk to you about today. Political discourse has shifted. The leader of the free world uses Twitter to taunt anyone who doesn't agree with him. Division between Democrats and Republicans has never run deeper. Rifts are forming within parties. The polarizing rhetoric from Washington has made me fearful for the future - for your generation. The current political discourse seems to be that if we aren't in complete agreement on the issue, we can't work together. But I assure you, without collaborative dialogue, without civility, it does not matter how ambitious each of us is. We cannot deliver real change if we don't do it together.

When the rhetoric we hear becomes polarizing and politicians in Washington are buckling down on a policy we disagree with, it becomes tempting to go to our respective corners and stand our ground more firmly - to refuse to concede or budge. We worry that engaging with the other side will undermine our position.

But when our positions become too rigid, we start to turn on our allies. In a recent speech, President Obama described this phenomenon as a sort of "circular firing squad." In these divisive times, we have become so passionate and firm in our convictions that any deviation from their pure form becomes unacceptable. Suddenly, our friends become our enemies and our partners become our opponents.

But democracy is about compromise. It does not allow for an "all or nothing" mentality. It was not designed to give any one person everything they want all of the time. In fact, our democracy actually forces us to take into account those we disagree with. Without meaningful collaborative dialogue we cannot accomplish anything. It's a reality I am faced with time and time again.

For the first time in 10 years, Democrats in New York control both houses of the legislature and are working with a Democratic governor. We are in a great position to build on the progress we have made. But while my fellow Democrats and I share many of the same values, from the shores of the Great Lakes to the coasts of Long Island, each member of the legislature has a different life experience and represents a community with unique needs and interests. Simply put - we will not all be in complete agreement all of the time. Affecting real change requires open dialogue.

During his speech, President Obama pointed out that our system doesn't work if you don't compromise on anything or you compromise on everything. Instead, you must know what your core principles are and stay true to them.

Let me give you an example. Reforming New York's criminal justice system has always been a top priority for me. For too long, our system has disproportionately affected communities of color and punished the poor. Cash bail has become a form of pre-conviction punishment that incarcerates people when they are legally considered innocent simply because they cannot afford to buy their freedom. Bail was intended to be a vehicle to ensure people show up to court, not a pre-punishment for a crime they may not even be guilty of. Those are my core values.

Like most issues, this one is not cut and dry. For weeks, my colleagues and I agonized over how to handle cash bail for the most violent of crimes. How fair is the concept of bail for violent offenders if deep-pocketed movie producers accused of horrific crimes can purchase their freedom in less than an hour? If we base whether or not to use cash bail on an individual's perceived threat to the community, are we punishing them for crimes they may not have committed and crimes they have yet to commit? These are undoubtedly difficult questions.

I knew that if I took an "all or nothing" approach to the issue we would get nowhere. The system would remain unchanged. Cash bail would continue to hurt the poorest and most vulnerable New Yorkers. But there are a lot of views on this issue that required everyone to work collaboratively to achieve a successful outcome. In the end, we ended cash bail for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Did everyone get everything they wanted? No. New Yorkers don't care if legislators get what they want. They care about whether or not they get what they need. In the last four years, I have accomplished a lot as a leader not because I stood my ground, but because I never stopped talking to those I disagree with.

So in these polarizing times when civility seems like a lost art and social media wars are treated like the antidote to conflict or disagreement, I implore you to change the narrative.

Instead of seeing disagreement as a declaration of war, what would happen if we instead said to ourselves, "I'm going to work a little harder to convince people that my way is a good way?" Because as far as I know, no one has ever changed their strongly held beliefs over an angry tweet or name calling. They became informed. They educated themselves. So engage in dialogue. Share your knowledge. Share your perspective.

It's also important to recognize that we all can be a good person and at the same time be wrong about an issue. As I always say, everyone is entitled to their own wrong opinion. I am humble enough to know I don't have all the answers. When asked how he could be friends with Justice Ginsburg given their strong disagreement, Justice Scalia said, "I attack ideas. I don't attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas, and if you can't separate the two, you gotta get another day job."

And this practice is not exclusive to political dialogue. It is relevant in every part of our lives - at work, at school, at your place of worship, in your personal relationships.

Both as a leader and a father, I feel a great sense of responsibility to help prepare the next generation of leaders. All of you are here today because someone opened doors for you in hopes that you would make the world a better place. So do it. Go make the world a better place. Just remember, if you find yourself in a position to be helpful to someone who may not have been on your side or helped you during your journey, stay true to your core values and focus on what people need, not what you want. Because as the great Mick Jagger said, "You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need."