Washington, D.C. December 7, 2016 – Today, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) delivered her farewell speech after 24 years in the United States Senate. Senator Boxer reflected on her four decades in public service.
The full transcript is below:
Madam President, thank you so much. This is a moment for me that I think it’s fair to say I will never ever forget. And I’m so honored, I’m so honored to have members of my family here, staff from past and present, from both my personal office and committee. Extraordinary colleagues who I adore and love, I worked with, fought with, debated.
I’m so honored that Senator McConnell and Senator Reid have said really nice things about me. I think in Senator Reid’s case, we go back so long, and I’ll talk a little bit more about that. In Senator McConnell’s case, we didn’t talk for a long time, and then we did get together and we did some great work together. But I think he was here just to make sure I’m leaving.
My Leader over in the House is here, Nancy Pelosi, and I will talk about her more. My colleagues from the House came over in the midst of all their work. I love them. I have enjoyed working with them. I look around this Chamber, and I realize the reason I’m able to actually leave is because I know each of you, in your passion to make life better for people, and that’s what it’s all about.
Madam President, when I decided not to run for reelection, you know how the press always follows you around and they said, “Is this bittersweet for you?” And my answer was forthcoming: “No way is it bitter. In every way is it sweet.” And why do I feel that way? It’s because this has been a dream to be in a profession that I think is noble, no matter how beaten up it gets. For 40 years, for more than half my life. And I was able to do every day what I always wanted to do, which was simply to make life better for people.
I didn’t always succeed. Were there frustrations? Yes. Were there disappointments? Yes. Were there defeats? Yes, many. But every morning when I woke up, I knew I had a chance to do something good. And as a first-generation American on my mother’s side, and most particularly as a woman, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I could be in the United States Senate. It was an uphill battle, and I know I speak for a lot of people sitting right here who know what I’m talking about.
When I first ran for the Marin County Board of Supervisors in 1972, it was a Republican landslide year. It was more than tough. I’ll never forget one woman I spoke with after knocking on her door, I introduced myself and said, “Hi, I’m Barbara Boxer, I’m running for County Supervisor.” She greeted me by saying, “I never thought you’d be so short.” And then she said she wasn’t supporting me. To quote her, because, “you have four kids and you’re going to neglect them if you’re elected.” Well never mind this was a part-time job, just a few minutes from the house. Never mind the man I was running against had a family and a full-time job. And never mind that I actually had two kids. But she insisted, Nancy, she said, “I know you have four kids because I read it in the newspaper.” I said, “Lady, when you give birth, you never forget it, and I did it twice.”
But two things helped get me through it. First, was an article by Gloria Steinem, who essentially said that women tend to take losses too personally. We have to understand we could be just a little bit ahead of our time and we can’t give up. And second, my son Doug, only seven at the time, ignored any attempts to cheer him up by saying, “Mom, can you make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch?”
The point is, life goes on. You pick yourself up and you keep fighting, because this is your country, it is our country and it is worth fighting for. So I ran again four years ago later and I won. I was eager to get to work on things like afterschool for kids, protecting the natural beauty of my county, ensuring that a child walking to school would be safe. And I soon became known as the stop sign queen, I put up so many signs to protect kids.
But, you know, it was local government, and the world was changing. The Vietnam War was raging. The women’s movement was ramping up, the oil companies wanted to drill off the pristine coast of California. So even only representing 40,000 people, I was exposed to these national issues that would soon require all of my attention.
Tip O’Neill, one of Nancy Pelosi’s great predecessors, was known for his saying that all politics is local. But the global became local in Marin County. When we got a federal grant saying the threat of nuclear attack is real, you have to have a plan to evacuate the county in case there’s a bomb dropped in San Francisco. This was in the 1980’s. Well, the Reagan Administration, I think, missed the obvious. Getting in a car on a narrow road to evacuate to Napa or going under your desk wasn’t going to protect you, so all five supervisors, three Republicans and two Democrats, rejected the grant. Instead, we mailed the informational booklet to every household telling them there was no way to evacuate from a nuclear bomb. You have to prevent it in the first place.
And during that same period, James Watt wanted to drill off the coast of California. We put together business people and environmentalists and farmers and everybody, and we said, no, and the tourist industry joined us, and we stopped it. That was my first attempt at very broad coalition building. So as national issues unfolded before my eyes, I had to do more, if I really wanted to stay true to making life better for people.
So when John Burton’s seat for Congress opened up in 1982, I jumped in. It was a longshot and I’ll always be grateful to the people that brought me to that dance, working people, environmentalists, child advocates, they put me over the top.
After I won the election, I began hearing about the mysterious disease that was stealing the lives of so many in my congressional district. I remembered feeling so helpless because we didn’t know what it was and what caused it, but one thing was clear: AIDS was devastating, and too many in Washington were just not taking action. When we found out it could be transmitted sexually, I had to go up against the far right wing who didn’t want to provide any information about the disease. Yet here I was, a middle-aged mother of two from the suburbs talking about condoms.
It was uncomfortable. But this would become my way. In the face of a crisis, never look away, never back down, and never be afraid. In the case of AIDS, I got to work with the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a southern gentleman. He never heard of AIDS. And he said to me, if people are sick, we’re going to help them. We got the first double-digit federal aid funding and we established an AIDS task force and brought in people like Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Glaser, and we fought back and we took it under our wing to solve this crisis, both adult AIDS and pediatric AIDS.
By that time, I had an extraordinary new partner in the house, Nancy Pelosi. We immediately bonded. I was so impressed with her passion and her energy. We remained the dearest, we remain the dearest of friends to this day. I am so proud of her. Nancy has changed the face of politics in America and she will go down in history as one of the most influential leaders of our time. Recently, on a recent issue, I was expressing deep disappointment and Nancy told me, “Don’t agonize, organize.” This was two nights ago. She’s right. When things get tough, that’s what you do.
Over the years, issues kept coming my way, came the way of a lot of people in this room. The Violence Against Women Act, LGBT equality, protecting a woman’s right to choose, workers’ rights, protecting the air and Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Those are all examples.
The fights keep coming, whether you are in elected office or not. They come to you if you are a single parent trying to raise a child and struggling to make ends meet on a minimum wage. It is not fair. They come to you if your kid gets asthma. They come to you if your job has been outsourced and you have nowhere to turn. They come to you if college tuition gets out of reach.
Whether it is happening to you or someone else, the great thing about our participatory democracy is, each of us has a chance to make a difference. You can make a difference by holding an elected office or working for someone who does. You can make a difference by working for a campaign. You can make a difference by starting a business and employing good people to help you build it. You can make a difference by becoming a teacher, a nurse, a firefighter, or a police officer. There are so many noble ways to make a difference in America, but the one thing you cannot do even when it is tempting – you cannot turn away. Never. The forces and the people who shape you cannot be ignored.
And I say to everybody within the sound of my voice that you have it within you to step out and make your mark. A lot of young people come up to me and say, I’d love to do what you do. How do I become a U.S. Senator? I’m sure lots of us get that question. And I always say, “It’s not important to be something; it is important to do something.”
But if you choose my path and the path of many in this room, I want to be clear: you will need mentors, and you will need friends. Like two of mine, John Burton and Barbara Mikulski. John encouraged me to run for the House. We had always been fighters for those without a voice. Barbara had been my friend from the House and encouraged me to run for the Senate. When I went to see her, she said very simply, “Go for it.” I mean, that and $40 million dollars. That was good advice. And I did. Senator Mikulski is everything a Senator should be: intelligent, caring, always focused, and as an added bonus, she can have you in stitches. I’m so grateful for her guidance and, most importantly, her friendship.
So I launched my campaign for the Senate. It was very difficult. No one predicted I would win. I was filled with doubt. Coming to my aid was my senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein. She stood by my side, even though it could have cost her votes. And I will never, ever forget that. Thank you, Dianne.
And I also need to pay tribute to Anita Hill, because without her, I never would have been elected to the Senate. Anita Hill courageously told her story to the all-male U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, breaking the silence on this painful issue. In addition, people saw there were only two women in the Senate. Anita Hill, you showed us all that we must never be afraid to take on the powerful. It certainly isn’t easy. But if you learn to be tough in the right way, you can find the sweet spot, even in this atmosphere where the parties have grown so far apart.
This is one of my biggest regrets: how far the parties have grown apart. Especially when it comes to the environment. Remember, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. He signed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. George H.W. Bush signed the extension of the Clean Air Act and many Republicans led the charge for environmental protection. But now, unfortunately, protecting the environment has become a divide where we truly duke it out. As I leave here, I intend to do everything in my power to work to bridge that divide because we all live on one planet. Doesn’t matter what party we are. We all breathe the same air. We all want our families to be healthy and live on a planet that can sustain us and all of God’s creation.
So now, in this time of deep division, we have to find areas to work together. Well, I think I’ve found a proven formula with Senator Jim Inhofe. We never surprise each other, even where we disagree. Ever. Our word is our bond to each other. We found that we could work as a winning team to build and strengthen our nation’s infrastructure, and we have made incredible progress for the American people on those issues: long-term highway bills, long-term water bills and the first update on the Toxic Control Act — and that was a doozy for us. I’ll never forget that battle.
Transportation turned out to be a sweet spot between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and me. We hadn’t talked seriously for 20 years because of the Packwood case. “Hello”, “hello”, and that was it. But we did come together on the transportation act. Our work surprised our colleagues, but I think it surprised the two of us more than anything else. But it worked because we set aside ll of our past legitimate divisions in order to rescue America’s transportation system.
We took a risk, and the risk paid off. And, of course, all of my colleagues helped make that possible. I want also to mention my Republican counterpart on the Ethics Committee, Senator Johnny Isakson because when it comes to ethics, we’ve proven there’s no room for partisanship. We want to make sure the Senate is a respected institution. Friendship and trust, with members on both sides, and in the House of Representatives – I’m so proud so many of you are here – that’s the only way to get things done.
And having a leader who has your back is essential. A good leader knows and understands each member of his caucus and where they draw the line. Harry is so humble. Whenever you talk about him, he puts his head down. Harry, could you just look at me for a second. A good leader knows when to speak up and when to listen. A good leader knows when to pick up the gloves and fight like hell. That’s what Harry Reid has done. He is not a show horse. He is a workhorse. He is a soft-spoken man. How many of us have said, Harry, can you speak up? He is a soft-spoken man of few words, but he chooses his words wisely, and he chooses his fights wisely. He doesn’t seek the spotlight. But when it comes to standing up for what’s right, he is right there. When others have tried to slip out of the room. Harry has not only been an extraordinary leader and colleague, he’s been a close and treasured friend of me, of Stewart. He and his wife, Landra. I know he treats me like a sister. He always hangs up on me when I call him. And he never calls on me when I madly wave my hand in caucus. You’re like a sister. You don’t have to worry. The love will be there. I am forever grateful for his leadership and friendship. Another quality of Harry’s is that he encouraged women to run for the Senate and once we got here, he made sure we had major responsibilities. Harry, you will go down in history for that.
I am, of course, ecstatic that my successor is Kamala Harris, who has served as Attorney General in my state with great distinction and who will continue the tradition of having a strong, progressive woman in this seat. Kamala, you heard it here – a strong, progressive woman in this seat is what we need.
As I wind down my remarks, I must be completely honest about my broken heart. I worked hard along with so many millions of Americans so that we would have our first female president. It was not to be this time but we made history with Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee of a major party who, I might add, won the popular vote by millions and still counting. She truly shattered the glass ceiling and showed that women have the ability to take it on the chin again and again. My message to everyone who supported Hillary is the work goes on.
Yes, you build on success but you learn from failure, but you never stop working for human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, voting rights, children’s rights, and the environment. I certainly don’t plan to stop. I am not only fortunate to have this extraordinary career, but I’m also so fortunate to be going home to a state that stands for everything I believe in.
I want to thank everyone – every one of my staffers, those who work for me in Washington, either on my personal staff, my committee staff, those who work for me in the state, and those who helped me get elected. A lot of you are here today. Without them I never, ever could have done my job and I never could have accomplished the things that I’ve accomplished that I’m proud of. And I want to thank the floor staff. The floor staff never gets thanked enough because they deal with us when we’re very nervous, when we’re about to have an amendment come up, when we’re about to vote on something and we want to understand the rules. We want to understand our rights. Gary, you and your team, Trish, Tim, all of you, thank you.
When I look back on everything I fought for, there are more than a thousand accomplishments, and I am certainly not going to talk about all of those, but I’m going to briefly, very fast go through ten of my favorites. The first after-school programs that got funded by the federal government covering more than 1.6 million kids every day. A million acres of California wilderness preserved. The first-ever Comprehensive Combat Casualty Care Center in California for our most wounded warriors. Ensuring that our transportation programs remain in place for years to come with millions of jobs protected. Upholding our landmark environmental laws, and I hope that continues. But I won’t go off on that. Setting clean drinking water standards to protect pregnant women, children and other vulnerable people. The dolphin-safe tuna label. Protecting victims of rape in the military from irrelevant harassing questions that had already been barred in civilian courts. Establishing the first-ever subcommittee to oversee global women’s issues which Jeanne is going to carry on. Recommending a diverse group of extremely qualified judicial nominees who are carrying out our laws in California’s federal courts.
There are many more I can talk about. Each one is like a child to us, and we remember how hard it was to get it done, but let me be clear. You don’t get anything done here unless your colleagues help you from both sides of the aisle. My biggest regret, I have to say what it was. My biggest regret is that I couldn’t end the war in Iraq. It hurt my soul. I came down to the floor every day and I read the names of fallen soldiers. I was accused of being too emotional. I asked probing questions in Committee to expose the fact that we were in the middle of a civil war. Day after day I made my case, but the war went on and on, and it took president Obama to finally end that war and I will also be grateful to him.
Of course, there’s unfinished business and I know my colleagues are going to carry it on. We have to restore the Voting Rights Act. We need to restore trust between our communities and law enforcement. We have to continue to protect and provide affordable health care. We must take action on climate change or we are in deep trouble as humankind. We must protect the DREAMers and immigrants who contribute to our communities every day. We must raise the minimum wage and ensure equal pay for equal work. We must protect reproductive freedom and work across party lines for a safe world.
I’ve often joked about some of the things that have been said to me over the years that are too colorful in a negative way to repeat here, but I want everyone to know whether friend or foe, whether critic or admirer, I do appreciate the fact that you let me know how you felt about my work one way or the other.
So to close, I want to read into the record a letter I received in October from one of the greatest jazz musicians in our country. It was this handwritten letter. He was recently honored at the Kennedy Center and he writes in long hand. I quote him:
“Greetings: so, so sorry that we are not going to have you for us anymore. I’ve always been interested in politics, marching as a 6-year-old with my activist grandmother for civil rights. It has been such a joy and inspiration knowing that Barbara Boxer was there for us. God bless you, your family, and loved ones and thank you. You will be missed and we all love you. Have a beautiful life just like you’ve made life beautiful for so many citizens.”
Well, I want to thank Sonny Rollins. I don’t know him personally. I met him once. But what he said is all I wanted to do, make life beautiful for people. I didn’t always succeed. I didn’t always prevail. I felt the pain of losing many times, but I can honestly say I never stopped trying.
I was able to do it because of the love, understanding, and support of my husband of 55 years, Stewart, who is here today. He gave me so much including the best political name ever. I did it because of my son Doug, my daughter Nicole, my daughter-in-law Amy, my son-in-law Kevin and my four incredible grandchildren: Zach, Zain, Sawyer and Reyna. And because of the people of California who sent me here time and time again, 10 years at the House, 24 to the Senate. I had the opportunity to never stop trying. I had the opportunity to speak out no matter how many times I had to try, I did.
Here’s the thing. I had this platform, this extraordinary honor, this sacred position, and I say to my colleagues, no matter who says what about it, it’s a sacred position. You hold your head high. So many here have fought the good fight and will continue to fight the good fight.
I always treasure my time serving the people. They gave me a purpose in my life that I will always cherish. They made me a better person. They made my life more beautiful than I ever could have imagined and for that I am forever grateful. Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.