Letitia James: To unite New Yorkers, focus on real issues, not politics

Far too often, we are broken down by factors that divide us, instead of being propelled forward by the principles that unite us. The differences in our race, gender, ethnicity, religion, political ideology, income and geography hold us back from accomplishing true change that benefits all of us.

It’s why, as public advocate, I try to avoid these divisions and instead focus on what lies ahead for our city. Even as my office has continued to serve its oversight function over the mayor and his agencies, we have done so with a sharp aim toward issues, not politics, starting with the welfare of New York’s children and families.

Over the past two years, I have been fighting to reform one of the worst foster care systems in this country. Thousands of children languish in the New York City foster care system, facing physical, emotional and sexual abuse that leaves them scarred for life. A series of policy reports, a city law and a multilingual hotline all led up to a class action lawsuit I filed against the city and state last summer. And we reached a settlement with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to place a monitor and research expert to oversee the system – important, substantive progress that was sorely needed.

This year, we will work with the state to implement these reforms and build better lives for our most vulnerable children.

And we’re not stopping until we ensure a bright future for all of our city’s children. Just this week, we filed a lawsuit against the city Department of Education for failing to fulfill its legally mandated duties to students with disabilities. Research and analysis conducted by the Public Advocate’s Office shows that the Education Department’s Special Education Student Information System, which is supposed to produce and track data about students with disabilities and ensure compliance with federal and state reporting requirements, is unable to do what it was intended to do. This failure to collect proper data has led to a lack of services for children with disabilities and has deprived New York City of hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid revenue.

But it is not enough to protect our children in school when they can’t even feel safe walking home in their own neighborhood. Every day, 48 children and teens across the country are shot by guns – seven die. I’m doing everything I can to get guns off our streets.

This past year, I took on the big money interests that fund gun manufacturers and gun retailers, starting by calling for the city to divest public money from gun and ammunition retailers like Walmart and Cabela’s. And this past summer, New York City’s largest pension fund voted to move forward with beginning this divestment process, acting on a resolution my office sponsored. I also demanded that TD Bank end its support of Smith & Wesson, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers. Over the summer, the bank issued a $280 million loan to Smith & Wesson while simultaneously holding millions of dollars in New York City contracts.

These were great first steps, but we cannot stop. Smith & Wesson is one of dozens of weapons manufacturers being funded by numerous banks, and we will continue to do everything we can to take on the financial smoking gun that enables gun violence.

By working together and focusing on issues that have a real, meaningful impact on our communities, we can move beyond our differences and turn our public service into long-lasting public benefit for all.

Letitia James is the New York City public advocate.