Virginia Republican Party Chair John Whitbeck joins us in studio, and we get an update on Congress and D.C.'s "Death with Dignity" bill from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
D.C. politicians go into “spin-mode” after a week of scandals. Maryland’s same-sex marriage debate hits a speed bump in the State House. And Virginia lawmakers get out of Dodge, as their session comes to a close. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
- Dick Saslaw Member, Virginia Senate (D-35th Dist.); Senate Majority Leader
- Tommy Wells Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 6); Chairman, Committee on Public Works and Transportation
Politics Hour Extra
Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35th Dist.) talks about why he sponsored a bill allowing private companies that give car title loans to do business in neighboring states. Saslaw says that the bill allowed for greater regulation of the loan terms:
Virginia Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35th Dist.) says that an injunction is likelyt to be filed as soon as Gov. Bob McDonnell signs a bill that passed in the state legislature that would allow for clinics providing abortions to be regulated as hospitals. Saslaw, who has a long history supporting pro-choice measures, says he suspects the bill is unconstitutional:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. Tom, the troubles of Mayor Vincent Gray continue even as the episode now known as Lincoln Navigator-gate continues. You wanna start with Mayor Gray?
MR. TOM SHERWOODI just think, you know, his own insiders say that two-month-old administration is off track. The mayor has done some things to get back on track, tougher ethics reviews of his appointees, taking a long time getting people appointed to his administration. I think Gray recognizes that he's got at least an image problem. He's gonna work on it, but things have been off track.
NNAMDIWell, we had a conversation with Mike DeBonis yesterday, talking about what needs to be done to try to overcome this. He said that in his view, the mayor has not put forward any broad vision or agenda. One remembers how his predecessor came in and started reforming schools immediately. The mayor has not taken on any major initiative like that, and so in a way, it leaves him on the defensive against things that are constantly being revealed.
SHERWOODWell, you know, I don't think Mike DeBonis is well-known enough in the city that you can just say his name and people know who the...
NNAMDIJust quote him.
SHERWOOD...heck you're talking about.
NNAMDIHe's an obscure reporter for The Washington Post who used to work for...
SHERWOODFormer City Paper person who sold out and now works for the Post.
NNAMDIHe used to be a former Loose Lips...
SHERWOODLet's just be clear.
NNAMDISpeaking of former Loose Lips, did the Ken -- is the Ken Cummins...
NNAMDI...who has been vetting people for Mayor Gray, the Ken Cummins who originated the Loose Lips column?
SHERWOODYes. And mayor for life.
NNAMDIAnd you also...
SHERWOODAnd Ken Cummins is a very good private investigator if you ever need to hire one for your own, you know, personal matters.
NNAMDII may at some point.
SHERWOODJust keep that in mind. But back to Mayor Gray. He has done something that does have a singular issue for him, and that's birth to 24 education. Even as council chairman, he was doing early childhood education while Michelle Rhee was doing the schools. And he thinks that education is an important thing. You know, the big question in the election was whether or not he would continue the reforms of Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty in the schools.
SHERWOODAnd so far, so far, everything points to the fact that he is. He hasn't yet named Kaya Henderson as the school chancellor, you know, announced her twice, but he will get around to that soon. So I think you can give him credit for being focused on education. He has a weekly meeting with Kaya Henderson, the chancellor. But I do think there is an image that he's allowed to set in for these first couple of months that he's not moving very fast.
NNAMDIThis week revealed that the president of the University of the District of Columbia, also the possessor of a Lincoln Navigator, has been taking fairly expensive trips abroad and has so far been unable to present the evidence of the business nature of those trips.
SHERWOODWell, he -- you know, Fox 5 did the stories that's kinda hyperventilating stories about what he's done and all that, and they were chasing him in the limo. You know, he did -- he bought that. When he was first hired three years ago as the university president, he was given a $60,000 transportation allowance. And with that, he bought that car. I don't know if it was a taxable event for him or not, and he spent a lot of money traveling. His defenders say here's a president, after decades of turmoil, came in, tore up the university, restructured it, changed the programs, brought new people in, created a community college and has been traveling the country trying to build up an endowment and reputation with sister schools all around the country and the world.
SHERWOODIt was a -- he's a fast-talker. He's moving too fast. He's jettisoned a lot of people who were involved in the school system. They don't like him. He's kind of the Michelle Rhee of higher education in the city. And they don't like that. And he's -- I've talked to him on the phone just briefly since these stories. He says that he has -- he flies at the last minute because of his schedule, so he has to pay more. He says he has a circulatory problem that his doctors will confirm. It says he can't sit in the crowded coach sections. He says that he has done all these things to build up the school, and these are his enemies who are just trying to attack him.
NNAMDIA story by...
SHERWOODI don't know the whole answer, but that's the setting.
NNAMDIA story by Keith Alexander in today's edition of The Washington Post indicates that Police Chief Cathy Lanier says that they cannot -- they will not be searching for the body of slain teenager Latisha Frazier even though they know that it is in a landfill because a combination it would appear of both cost and safety considerations are causing them not to do that. A cursory search on Google this morning indicate police searching in landfills in Pittsburgh, Florida, Delaware and as far away as Acapulco, Mexico, for bodies. They don't seem to be concerned about the cost or the safety in those cases.
SHERWOODWell, I have to say that I don't know enough about this, but I do know enough about it to say it seems odd that someone told them that's where the body is.
NNAMDISo it would appear they have six people who have been arrested for it.
SHERWOODIt seems to me there's an obligation to recover the body for not only for the humanitarian...
SHERWOOD...issues but also for any legal issues going beyond. I mean, you can't go into court and say, well, we know where the body is, but we don't...
NNAMDIThese people admitted to having killed her and...
NNAMDI...dumped her body in a trash container.
SHERWOODWell, maybe it's not the police that need to go get the body, maybe there's some other government agency could do it. But it does seem kinda coldhearted not to do it.
NNAMDIIt does seem kinda strange. It's "The Politics Hour" starring Tom Sherwood. He's our resident analyst, an NBC 4 reporter and columnist for the Current Newspapers. Joining us in studio right now is Richard Saslaw. He's a member of the Virginia Senate. He's a Democrat from Fairfax and the majority leader of that chamber. Senator Saslaw, thank you for joining us.
SEN. RICHARD SASLAWThank you for having me here, Kojo.
NNAMDIThe general assembly wrapped up its 47-day blitz of a session last weekend. In just a few weeks, you and your colleagues cast votes on everything from car title lending to standards for abortion clinics. Before we dissect the specific issues, what is your immediate impression of what the session is going to mean for Virginia and more specifically for your constituents in Northern Virginia?
SASLAWWell, this was the first time in several years that we did not have to go in there, you know, and seek pretty deep budget cuts. We actually had -- I don't want to call it a surplus because we've essentially borrowed from the -- from the VRS retirement system to get through this current biennium that we're in. But we did have an extra $150 million over what we thought we had when we started.
SASLAWThe governor's original budget did not recommend any new funds for education as K-12. The Senate added 106 million. We wound up at about 75 million, and the House actually was gonna cut K-12. So since, you know, K-12 is extremely important to the people in my district, which is the west end of the city of Alexandria and central Fairfax. We did pretty well. We also came out of it pretty well for the first time with higher ed. We got a long way to go because we have cut higher ed to the point where the state really is only contributing, for instance, the UVA 6 percent of their budget.
SASLAWAnd if it wasn't for the out-of-state students, the tuition would either be dramatically higher, or we'd be closing the doors to an awful lot of potential in-state students.
SHERWOODYou think so?
SASLAWAll in all, we came out pretty well.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Dick Saslaw, he is the Senate majority leader in Virginia, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org.
SHERWOODThe economy is getting better, but I read in the infamous or famous Richmond Times Dispatch that you actually complimented the Republican governor, McDonnell, for some of the work that he did to help bring this budget together. You know, in Washington, we're always talking about bipartisanship and working across the aisle and all those other euphemisms for let's get along. Did you guys do pretty well this time?
SASLAWI think we did. I mean, obviously, there are philosophical disagreements between the Democratic Senate and even some of the Republicans in the Senate. We're not willing to go along with spending $150 million of general fund money of which a third of that comes out of the hide of public schools, and we took it all out. We -- the House had 150 million in there because, by and large, the House Republicans' K-12 has not been that big a deal with them. We wound up compromising $32.7 million. But, you know, near the end when things started bogging down, the governor was very helpful with respect to getting things back on track again.
SHERWOODFor all the thousands of people who are stuck in cars in Northern Virginia somewhere, I think if they made the wrong turn, they should have avoided whatever construction there is. What...
SASLAWI experienced that today.
SHERWOODYes, I know. And you used to be a big service station magnate. Didn't you own several service stations in your career?
SASLAWUp to nine at one time.
SHERWOODOh. Price of gas, ooh. But in any event, what good out of the legislation...
SASLAWI'm not to blame for that.
SHERWOODI know you're not but...
NNAMDINo. He just wishes he owned...
SHERWOODThen we get off whether service stations make money or not, but somebody must make money.
SHERWOODWhat did happen for Northern Virginia in the legislature in terms of all the borrowing that was proven and whatever for spending on the roads? What's the good news out of that?
SASLAWWell, you've got to remember this. The package that we just passed, there's an infrastructure bank which you won't see results for some time, but the total amount to be borrowed as of -- as a result of this bill would be $4.3 billion. But what's important to remember is 3.2 of that, even if we didn't have this bill, over the next decade would have been borrowed anyways because it was approved. It was Governor Kaine's transportation package back in 2007. So 3.2 billion of the 4.3 was already gonna be done anyway even if we never had this bill.
SHERWOODIt's just that...
SASLAWWhat this bill did was it takes some of the bonding money, the money to be bonded later on in this decade and has moved it up to 2011, 2012 and 2013 about $500 million extra. Of course, during 2014, '15 and '16, we're not gonna be able to do very much at all, so that money was there regardless of whether we had this bill. The rest -- the other 1.1 billion is what's called GARVEY bonds, where you get a federally-approved project and you go out with bonds and you use out of your federal allocation the money to pay that back. Now, if they essentially do away with this program, we're left holding the bag, and we've got some revenue problems.
NNAMDILet's talk about some more specific issues for a second because it would appear that the Republicans were able to do a kind of end-around around you by attaching as an amendment to a bill a measure that essentially would have abortion clinics or clinics that do provide abortions be regulated as hospitals, and that it would appear caught you unaware?
SASLAWWell, let me tell you, indeed, it did. Let me just say this. We'll talk about that. What it did was -- and we've had these bills in the Senate, and we've killed them. What happened was an amendment got attached to a Senate bill when it was in the House. It came back, and on a 20-20 vote, 18 of the 20 Democrats voted -- excuse me, 20 of the 22 Democrats voted against it -- the amendment. All of the Republicans voted for it. So you had 20-20 vote, and the lieutenant governor voted yes to break the tie in favor of that.
SASLAWI suspect that bill is unconstitutional, and because of the heavy regulation of trimester -- first trimester abortions, and when it gets to the U.S. Fourth Circuit where it will wind up, it's gonna see an entirely different Fourth U.S. Circuit makeup than it did 10 years ago on something similar to that.
SASLAWNow, let me just say this. Over the last decade -- and it's no secret, I happen to be pro-choice -- I've been pretty much responsible for bottling up or killing 80-some bills. And one finally got through, through circuitous means. Now, 80 out of 81 is not a bad batting average.
NNAMDIYour critics will say, you shouldn't have blinked that one time.
SASLAWWell, they can say that and I can't argue with them. But when you consider, you know, all the things the we've prevented from happening, I mean, it would be virtually impossible for -- if all of our restrictions that had been proposed over the last decade have passed, which would have happened if we haven't had control of education and health committee, which I helped to engineer, you would had a pretty hard time getting that.
NNAMDIOur guest is...
SASLAWThis thing was not -- they passed it off as a health measure and they knew full well it had nothing to do with women's health. It had everything to do with the issue of abortion and nothing else.
NNAMDIOur guest is Sen. Richard Saslaw. He is a member and majority leader of the Virginia State -- the Virginia Senate. He joins us in studio along with Tom Sherwood. Tom?
SHERWOODYeah. The -- support of that bill did say that they were gonna regulate clinics just like hospitals and -- but their point, being to put so much regulation on that, be fewer of them. Now, has someone already prepared to sue? I mean, has the governor signed a bill yet? Has he had the signing day to sign the bills?
SASLAWHe'll sign the bill. You can't file a lawsuit till the day it goes into effect...
SHERWOODRight. So he hasn't signed yet.
SASLAW...and that, yes, the -- I have been told an injunction will be sought immediately.
NNAMDIThe fear, of course, is that this could ultimately lead to the closing of some of the clinics that do provide abortions. But ultimately, the regulations will have to be put in place by a state board of health. And we don't know exactly how that will proceed. The other -- one of the other controversial measures has to do with a measure you sponsored that would allow those agencies, those private agencies, that give cash in exchange for the title of a car title loans to do business with cars from out-of-state locations in Virginia. In Maryland, they're not too happy about that, because they say they think people are going to be running over to Virginia to do it. Why did you sponsor that bill?
SASLAWWell, I sponsored the original bill that reined in and brought down the -- significantly the interest rate before they were charging 25 percent a month. The bill that I had last year -- first off, we're not gonna outlaw them. We've already got open-ended credit, which comes to about 300 to 350 percent. And it's not regulated. So they could go that route. And they didn't have to come in with their car. They could come in and borrow that anyway. In addition to that, they can borrow on the Internet. Furthermore, before car titling came or payday lending, these people were street borrowing. In other words, they borrowed $100 on Monday and they paid back $200 on Friday.
NNAMDIFrom loan sharks.
SASLAW5,200 percent interest. When I passed...
NNAMDIFive hundred percent or your kneecaps in some cases.
SASLAWThat's correct. When I passed the bill last year, they brought down interest rate down considerably from about 300 percent APR to about an average of 230, 235, and require that loan to be terminated in a year, either you get it paid up or you're gonna lose a car. Most of the cars are clunkers. A lot of them when -- as soon as -- if they break down, the people will just discontinue paying on the loans. And that happens apparently a fair amount of the time. But we did not realize or we didn't believe that it barred out-of-state people. They are gonna borrow that money, Kojo, one place or another. And like I said, the incumbent at Virginia, even without me changing the law and get revolving credit from these consumer finance companies.
NNAMDIWe have quite a few calls on that issue. So if you...
NNAMDI...put on your headphones for a second...
NNAMDI...I'll go to some of those calls. We will start with Emily who is in Washington. Emily, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Emily, are you there? Emily is no longer there. However, here is Ed in Reston, Va. Ed, your turn.
EDOh, thank you. By the senator's rationale, Virginia should be selling dope, booze and every other thing that -- so I don't think they'll be...
NNAMDIThe state does sell booze, you know.
EDWell, they do. Well, through the ABC, yes.
EDWell, you know, why don't we legalize bootlegging? I just cannot get over the link between the contributions to his campaign and this kind of out-of-the-blue legislation to legalize out-of-state car loans when there probably should be no payday in car loans to begin with.
NNAMDIHow do you respond to that? The allegation is, of course, that this is being done in return for contributions that you have gotten from firms that give car title loans.
SASLAWI would say this. First of all, I get a lot of campaign contributions from a lot of people. And you can probably tie campaign contributions. I get it from VEA. So...
SHERWOODWhich is Virginia Education Association.
SASLAWWhich is Virginia Education Association. I get them from consumer groups. I get them from a lot of people in a lot of different places. I try -- I've got a philosophy, which I try to balance both the business consumer, labor interest, all together. And some people agree with my philosophy, some don't. My attitude towards business and essentially a laissez-faire type of economy would be there regardless of whether I got one dollar or no dollars or even if they ran somebody against me, you know, I just simply feel that, first off, you're not gonna stop people from borrowing. And number two, there's, you know, only so much you can do to protect people, you know, from maybe entering into a foolish agreement.
SASLAWBut let me tell you, before I've submitted that bill last year, these things would go on for two, three and four years, and the loans would never be paid off. That has been halted because of my legislation. And I can tell you, Ed, it doesn't have a single thing to do with campaign contributions.
SHERWOODIs this the end of line on this subject, or would you anticipate that maybe next year you might do something more to rein it in a bit more and maybe squeeze it more, or is this it?
SASLAWWell, you never can tell where life will take you or where politics will take you. But I'm pretty much finished with, you know, with doing that.
NNAMDIEd, thank you very much for your call. We have one more call from that issue, identified as Del. Glenn Oder. He's calling from Newport News, Va. You're on the air, Del. Oder. Go ahead, please.
DEL. GLENN ODERHi. Good afternoon, Kojo. And thank you for taking my call.
ODERIt's no secret that Sen. Saslaw and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regards to these high-interest loans that, I think, are being brought by lenders are actually using predatory practices to keep people in the cycle of debt. My question is, we've heard speeches after speech regarding the debt that Virginia was gonna go into it as it relates to the state borrowing for roads, obviously, before it ultimately passed.
ODERBut my question is, so if it's a bad practice for Virginia to go into debt to pay for roads, why in the world is it okay for us to allow businesses to loan -- to make loans to people with over 200 percent interest when we know the people that they're loaning money to are already in financial trouble.
SASLAWWell, first off, Glenn, how you doing? The -- Glenn, you voted for 3202 if I'm not mistaken, which authorized $3.2 billion of that 4.3 billion in debt. As you know, I voted against it. So quite frankly, people ought to be criticizing you if you're criticizing debt, all right? Now, the only thing I voted for this time, since we already had that debt, was to expedite, you know, the bonds at the back end of that 3202 up towards the front end. You voted for the whole kit and caboodle. I voted to take the general fund money out of there.
SASLAWYou've probably voted for -- put in general fund of which one-third comes out of the public schools in your area, which drastically need that money a lot more than I do. So before you start casting stones, I'd say -- tell you to get out of that glass house.
NNAMDIDel. Oder, your turn.
ODERSen. Saslaw, I would say that if I live in a glass house, go right ahead and throw stones at it. But my glass house said that people that are get charged 235 percent interest is (word?). And the bill that you passed last year was a weak bill regarding the credit that you've taken part today on how it reined in car title lenders. The question that I have is the only regulation in there that really did anything was that said that we wouldn't violate the trust of our bordering states by loaning against them. Many of our border states, D.C., West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, have all got predatory lending caps. And yet here we are with your bill, we now have invited all these other states to come here.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, Del. Oder. Allow me to have Sen. Saslaw respond then we do have to move on.
SASLAWWell, I would simply say this, Glenn. First off, as you know, we had open-ended credit for a long, long time. If we didn't have car title lending, they could come in. There's virtually -- there are no controls at all on that. I haven't seen a bill come across from you, you know, to rein that in. I did something. I did rein that in. And quite frankly, all the consumer groups that are complaining about this, congratulated me on doing a good job last year. And, furthermore, there was no prohibition in that bill about out of state. I don't know where you read that, but it wasn't in that bill. What we thought was that bill was -- would allow for that. So you better go back and reread it.
NNAMDIDel. Oder, thank you very much for your call.
SHERWOODYou know, in the legislature -- in the assemblies, the gentleman from, right, the gentleman from Alexandria and the gentleman from -- where was he from, I'm sorry?
NNAMDIFrom Newport News.
SASLAWNewport -- gentleman from Newport News. And I like Glenn.
MR. TOMMY WELLSWell, that's always dangerous when you hear that. (laugh)
NNAMDIYou're only break for a few weeks, Senator Saslaw. You and your colleagues are heading back to Richmond next month to get to work on the redistricting process. What do you think is at stake in that special session, and what is your party's strategy going into it? The general belief is that you're likely to lose a few seats as a result of redistricting. What do you think?
SEN. DICK SASLAWWell, if I lose a few seats as a result of redistricting, and I'm in the majority, I'm not doing a very good job.
SHERWOODRight now -- so the House and the Senate -- what kind of committee -- the governor is involved, right?
SASLAWOnly to sign a bill or to amend it.
SHERWOODOnly to sign the bill, but what kind of committee -- how does it work? I don't want to go into all the details. But do -- does the House do it separately?
WELLSThe House does theirs. The Senate does theirs. And I'm not gonna interfere with the lines the House draws for the House. And they're not gonna interfere with the lines I draw for the Senate. And I would simply say, well, you know, our goal is to make the Democratic districts, particularly the marginal ones, a little bit better than they are now. I'm not greedy. I'm not trying to put all the Republicans out of business by any stretch. They didn't do that to us 10 years ago. And we're not gonna do that to them.
NNAMDIYour party has got some...
SASLAWA gentlemen's agreement.
NNAMDIYour party has got some big time personnel issues to sort out in the coming months. Mainly, you need to find a candidate to run for the seat that Jim Webb is vacating in the U.S. Senate. It's my understanding that you are keen on one Tim Kaine throwing his hat into the ring. Why is that? And if not Kaine, who else?
SASLAWWell, if it's not Kaine, we'll have to get into that at a later show. (laugh) Tim has never lost an election. He was elected city council and then mayor. He ran for lieutenant governor, won that, got elected governor. He's shown that he can not only govern but he can win statewide elections. People like Tim. He is one of the brightest people I have ever met. There's just -- there's not many around, I think, with this guy's intellect. But the most important thing is, can you get elected? He's more than proved that.
SHERWOODWell, he has, but, you know, he's been the national party chairman, which means he's been part of the Obama administration. There are some feelings -- like your view on whether or not Obama can possibly carry Virginia in the reelection campaign for 2012.
SASLAWThe latest polling showed that he's got a six-point lead, I think, on Mitt Romney...
SASLAW...and up to -- that was yesterday or the day before, and up to 19 points on Sarah Palin. So I think he'd be very competitive in Virginia.
SHERWOODTim Kaine, as you know, is on vacation with his family even as we speak, preparing to make this decision. Do you have any inside knowledge that he, in fact, is going to do it, because I saw your eyes kind of sink into your head when you thought about Kaine not running because you don't have another good second candidate.
SASLAWWell, that's, you know, that's not a state secret at this point in time. (laugh) I mean, it's a big drop off from Tim to the next guy. But, you know, let's face it, I mean, the probable Republican nominee, and that's -- although not 100 percent assured because the Tea Party has shown their ability to win elections, primaries, not general elections but primaries.
SASLAWYeah. I, you know, he's not without his own baggage, as you know.
SHERWOODYou would like for the Tea Party to have a very big voice in the Republican nominee?
SASLAWWell, whether I would like it or I wouldn't, it's likely to occur.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Sen. Richard Saslaw, member of the Virginia Senate. He's a Democrat from Fairfax and the majority leader of that chamber. He came in to the studio today, mostly so he could take a look at the reconstruction going on at his old high school across the street here.
SHERWOODOh, I thought you were gonna say of me -- I covered him back in the early '80s.
SHERWOODHe was young and vigorous and now he's just...
WELLSAre you saying that Tom needs to be reconstructed too?
SHERWOODWilson High School.
NNAMDIThat too -- we're talking about Wilson High School.
SHERWOODWhat year did you graduate, if you don't mind saying?
SASLAWNo, I graduated...
SHERWOODYou did graduate.
SASLAWI did graduate, by the skin of my teeth, and I mean by the skin of my teeth. I graduated in 1958. And...
SHERWOODWe can check the yearbooks, you know?
SASLAWYou can check. I had to finish summer school in order to get that diploma.
SHERWOODAnd you went to Alice Deal.
SASLAWWent to Alice Deal.
SHERWOODYou were born in the District.
SASLAWBorn in the District.
SHERWOODThen why did you move to Virginia?
SASLAWIt was, believe or not, when Eleanor and I got married in 1968, Northern Virginia was the halfway point between where she worked as a teacher in Prince George's County, Md., and where I was working in Reston for a international, you know, company.
SHERWOODI'm saying, are you still married?
SASLAWBelieve or not, yes.
NNAMDIPlus, there was a rumor that time that Tom Sherwood would be moving to D.C. and so he moved out to Virginia.
SHERWOODI was here in the Navy in 1968.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and columnist for The Current Newspaper. Senator Saslaw, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIThank you very much, Kojo, for having me here, and thank you, Tom.
SHERWOODThis is the first time we've seen each other since the early '80s.
NNAMDIAnd he regrets it already.
SHERWOODWell, not quite.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast, we'll be joined by D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells. He is the chairperson of the council's committee on public works and transportation. And speaking of the D.C. City Council, Tom Sherwood, it is my understanding that one sitting member of the council, Sekou Biddle, has been challenging the petitions of a number of people who will be challenging him for that at-large seat. And among the petition signatures he's challenging according to one of his opponents, Bryan Weaver, is his own. The signature of Sekou Biddle has also been challenging signatures of former (word?)
SHERWOODWell, you know, this is one of the, you know, pit stops along the election cycle. And we don't -- you know, you don't pay to be on the ballot. And you have to get signatures to get on the ballot. And then right after...
NNAMDIStand outside those supermarkets, yes.
SHERWOODYes. And right after the deadline for turning it in, let's say, something like a 10-day -- whatever period it is, where any person, any registered voter, I guess, can challenge the petition to the people who are on the ballot or trying to get on the ballot. And it's an important faction. I mean, I don't know how it's gonna turn out, these signatures. But, you know, there are many candidates who have trouble. I recall when Tony Williams...
NNAMDII knew you would.
SHERWOODI did the story in 2002. He couldn't get on the ballot. He had to run his write in because half of his signatures will admittedly faked by the guy who collected them. So I think it's good for Sekou.
NNAMDISo if Sekou Biddle says that's not my signature on that petition, presumably he knows what he's talking about.
SHERWOODThere are several challenges going on. I hope that people do a nice vetting. They do a better vetting of the signatures on the ballots than they do on the people who've been hired to the Gray administration. To make sure that the -- the signatures are right, we have an accurate ballot of who's gonna be on the -- in late April, who's gonna be running for that seat. So I don't make fun of him. I would like to know if Tony Williams and Adrian Fenty actually signed some of the petitions.
NNAMDIWe've been hearing about legislators in the state of Wisconsin who are staying away, Democratic legislators. In the state of Maryland, there's a vote coming up on gay marriage, and it was delayed on Tuesday morning because one delegate, Del. Tiffany Alston from Prince George's County, skipped the session in protest, and delegates there seemed to be -- a couple of delegates from Prince George's County, I think, seemed to be going back and forth on this issue.
SHERWOODWell, this is a very hot issue. Many of the ministers in Prince George's County are waging very strong arguments trying to get Del. Alston not to vote for this. She says she's considering a civil union's thing but that's a anathema to the people who think marriage ought to be...
NNAMDIWater under the bridge, they say.
SHERWOOD...right, and the throwback. And so I think she's trying to thread the needle on this. Whether or not she ultimately ends up, she can say, I tried to civil unions and this is what we -- we can't go back. I'm gonna vote for, I don't know how it's gonna play out. But it's an intense political battle, and those who are opposed to same-sex marriage are prepared to immediately go and try to get a referendum on the ballot in 2012, which means that if that happens, this law, I think, doesn't go into effect until after the balloting. But...
NNAMDIIt's one thing...
SHERWOOD...it's a mess.
NNAMDI...to go to the General Assembly and run into a protest. It's another thing to have to go to church on Sunday and be besieged by parishioners.
SHERWOODBut, you know, there are -- while there are any number of African-American churches that are opposed to same-sex marriage, there are -- even in the district and other places, there are, in fact, churches, majority of African-American churches that support the equal rights of adults.
NNAMDII was just reading an article on theroot.com that there were ministers in the state of Maryland who held a meeting to apologize to members of the gay community for not being more supportive of them...
SHERWOODThose for it are a little bit slower on the uptake of the politics than those who are against, but that's pretty much true on any issue.
NNAMDIWe have spent a lot of time in the past two weeks talking about the leased Lincoln Navigators that City Council Chairman Kwame Brown was provided by the city. People are fumed about the cost of the leases, about the extravagance of them being fully loaded or the insistence that they be black on black. Well, joining us now in studio is Tommy Wells. He's a member of the D.C. City Council, Democrat representing Ward 6. He is also chairman of the Council's Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Councilmember Wells, good to see you.
WELLSGood to see you, Mr. Nnamdi, Mr. Sherwood.
NNAMDIYou came out with a report this week that objected to the vehicles because they actually violate city law regarding their gas mileage. What did you find out and how would you like to see this resolved, and what does one Carol Schwartz have to do with all of this?
WELLS(laugh) Well, as you know, I am committee chair for the Department of Public Works, and all leasing and purchasing of almost all city cars come under the Department of Public Works. And when this first came out, about the SUVs and the Lincoln Navigators, I realized that, you know, we have oversights. So I asked for a preliminary report of all the SUVs. We also did a law review or a review of all the laws in D.C. that impact the purchase and leasing of cars.
WELLSAnd what we saw was that it specifically says that, you know, you're not to purchase or lease an SUV, which generally does have a much higher cost than a sedan or a midsized sedan, unless it's related to emergency or security or plowing snow. And also, it states that you're not to procure a car that gets less than 22 miles per gallon. Again, that -- you know, clearly, that there are trucks and other things that we need under the Department of Public Works that won't meet that test, but in terms of cars, that's -- there's a 22-miles-per-gallon rule. And so, the preliminary report that I've released says that, apparently, those laws were violated.
SHERWOODIt seems like this is a throwback to the control board. I was talking to some of the former control board members, and they said in the '90s, '98 or so, when they took over, that they were confronted with hundreds of leased cars, and they just cancelled them all. They had the power to get rid of them. And over the years, this has kind of built back up. Is it that no one has been watching the store? I know you're the new chairman just in the last couple of months. But is this just been a growth on the city government and no one's been watching it?
WELLSWell, I'm not sure. But I do know that there seems to be a number of SUVs. Even if they're the Ford hybrid, you know, it's still an SUV. It costs a lot more than a midsized sedan. That as I've gone through this -- I don't have a final list yet -- that I think we have to be accountable for the public's money. But also, we have to be sure that we're following the laws that were passed years before, and Carol Schwartz was part of that. And so, I'm gonna be sure that the law is enforced and that we're spending your money wisely, especially during these times.
SHERWOODYou're about to have all these budget meetings when the mayor presents the budget on April 1. Even though the economy is somewhat better, every expectation is that you'll either have to make significant cuts and/or raise some taxes. I can just see every interest group, every -- sitting in the council, looking at your committee or any other committee saying, you wanna cut us, but you have all those cars. You wanna cut us, but you spent all that money. It puts you guys in a hole, I guess, to do the hard budget work that's ahead.
WELLSWell, I think, Tom, you go to the heart of what the real damage has done. The damage in terms of the public's confidence that we're spending their money wisely. We're about to have to cut another $322 million or raise revenue, and we are down to -- I just was sitting on the oversight hearing that Barry had over the Office of Aging, and with their cuts, they say they'll no longer be able to transport seniors to their dialysis appointments, that we're cutting deeply into services.
WELLSAnd so, if we do say, well, let's raise revenue, we've undercut our argument that we need to do that with the higher salaries, with purchasing SUVs, just the optics undercuts are ability to do -- put all the options on the table to say that we're spending money wisely.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for City Councilmember Tommy Wells, call us at 800-433-8850. Send e-mail to email@example.com, a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there.
SHERWOODYou know, in this concept, you know, there -- we've talked, just before you got here, about how some people feel like Mayor Gray has kind of gone off track, even his own supporters on some of these issues, but the Council Chairman Kwame Brown has run into the ditch over his SUV thing. And have you heard about this -- the person who's selling the I Miss Fenty T-shirts and the Do You Miss Michelle Rhee T-shirts? And I just wonder what you think about those. I'm sure you're not wearing one.
WELLSWell, I'm not gonna get into the politics and the kind of the drama of this and the soap opera of it. It's extremely important that, you know, as we cut services and if we try to consider increasing revenue, that it affects real lives. And that's the most important thing to me, is that we're accountable and we have to govern.
NNAMDITo be fair to Kwame Brown, as you identified vehicles across D.C. government that are in violation of this ban, what -- you're gonna be holding a hearing on this. What answers will you be looking for when this hearing comes around?
WELLSWell, one of the things is, first of all, is to stop the practice, that Kwame Brown was not the first chair to get an SUV. Actually, now, Mayor Gray had an SUV.
SHERWOODThis was a Tahoe, I think, or something like that.
WELLSIt's an SUV.
WELLSAnd so -- where Linda Krop had a midsized sedan. She didn't have a driver. And I'm not saying the other guys have drivers, but Linda Krop clearly...
NNAMDIOh, I remember Chairman Wilson had a driver.
WELLSI don't know if that law was in place or not when...
SHERWOODHe wasn't even born when that -- when John Wilson was in charge.
WELLSThat's exactly right, Tom.
SHERWOODIs Chairman Brown gonna justify…
NNAMDIWell, the reason I said that is because in the tragic event that ended Chairman Wilson's life, it was the driver of his car who was waiting outside and who found him. Yes.
SHERWOODNow, as Chairman Brown -- are you gonna ask Chairman Brown to testify or will he come to your hearing?
WELLSWell, this is oversight of the Department of Public Works, and I do -- have heard that Allen Lew will come testify.
WELLSThe city administrator...
SHERWOOD...who's doing his own study for the mayor.
WELLSAnd so, what I wanna know is how many SUVs are there, how many cars that don't meet the 22 miles per gallon and also what can we do about the ones that we have purchased to get them out of our inventory. This is about saving money, being accountable and trying to do what my responsibility of oversight.
SHERWOODI raised Chairman Brown because the questions raised in the e-mails that The Washington Post first reported on and others is that the chairman, while he was chairman-elect, was insisting on what is called a fully loaded Lincoln Navigator, black on black interior and all that. I'm just wondering, he, apparently, didn't -- either he knew what the law was and didn't obey it or he didn't know what the law was. I'm just wondering, should we hear testimony from him about how he got that car to begin with? You know, I'm trying to back you into a corner.
WELLSYeah. This is, you know, this is the council's oversight of the executive branch. And, frankly, I don't mean to be flip about this, Tom, but Chairman Brown could have asked for a rocket ship, and that doesn't mean necessarily that the executive branch has to provide it. And so, the executive branch broke the law, not the chairman.
NNAMDIOver the years, we've gotten used to speaking with you in Human Services Committee mode about things like juvenile justice, but this year, you took over the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. The vision thing, what is your vision for this post? And how do you plan on using it to help shape the city?
WELLSWell, transportation is the backbone to the economic future of our city. If we're gonna grow, as Anthony Williams said, by 100,000 people, if everybody -- if that's 100,000 more cars, then we're in trouble. And so, the Metro system, while it's got its problems, it's aging, we need -- it's a successful system. It brings in, you know, hundreds of thousands of folks every week, and we need to build on that. We need to now connect our neighborhoods. We need to use them as hubs and really have a quality of life in D.C. where, as we grow, that we -- you don't necessarily have to be a one-for-one for cars.
WELLSSo what I see is as a vision is that the other thing that we have to do as the future of economic development in Ward 7 and 8 is transportation dependent. And that's why I support the streetcars going out to Ward 7 and 8. That's why I support better bus service and really growing our city in a way that increases the quality of life for all of us.
SHERWOODMayor Fenty was fairly well-recognized by people who are for all forms of transportation. I'm gonna call them alternate because they are, you know, bicycles, streetcars, buses, high-speed buses, special lanes, better parking. If there are some thing that Mayor Gray is not as aggressive on these areas -- and you support, I think, every one of those things I just mentioned -- is there any effort to -- are you concerned at all? Or is Mayor Gray onboard on most of these things?
WELLSIt's only been 60 days, and I look forward to a partnership with whoever the permanent person is that's head of the Department of Transportation. And I expect Mayor Gray to be just as concerned.
SHERWOODHe's talked about streetcars. I mean...
SHERWOOD…he was misunderstood about the streetcars. He's supporting many of the changes, but I just don't know if people think he's as aggressive as the previous mayor.
WELLSWell, to be a world-class city, we have to be multimodal. It's got to be a safe, easy place to walk, ride bikes. But also, to have a transit system, frankly, Ward 7 and 8 has been neglected in a lot of ways in terms of economic benefits. The only way that Ward 7 and 8 will get economic benefits is to be able to be connected to all the amenities in the rest of the city. And I know that Mayor Gray is very concerned about that, and that's what -- you know, why we need the streetcar and better bus service.
NNAMDIA lot of people wanna talk to you. To get to our first call, let's -- let me ask first. It's my understanding that you're pushing the Department of Transportation on its performance parking pilot zones. What do you want to see happen on that front?
SHERWOODWhat is that?
WELLSWell, what that is, is that it's a strategy of managing our public parking in a way that it's just not free for everyone and it's not, you know, a stagnant thing. It's something that where you want -- especially in business corridors, you want the parking to turn over. If it turns over, your businesses do better. And there's times when that there's a high demand, and that one theory is you charge more so that it'll turn over. So that you know, when you're going to a business, you're likely to find a place to park. Then there's other times, when there's nobody there, like on a Saturday or Sunday and either you don't charge or you drop it so low so that you still generate revenue.
SHERWOODSmart meters can do that.
WELLSThat's exactly right, Tom. And so performance parking, we have a pilot zone for doing that around the baseball stadium and parts of Capitol Hill and Southwest. I don't think we've done a very good job of managing that. It certainly has generated more revenue, and that revenue is being reinvested in the community in, you know, alternatives to vehicles. But it is a way for us to manage -- it's hard to grow mobile parking, and so it's pretty limited on streets, and it's a smart way, really, to get some reinvestment into transit alternatives.
NNAMDIOn then to Randall in Washington. Randall, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RANDALLOkay. Speaking of parking, I'm here in South Carolina and 7th Street, and this has bothered me. You have like zone 6 residential parking permit only, Monday through Sunday, 7:00 a.m. to midnight. Right across the street, you had more traditional zone signs, which are two hours restricted parking for non-Ward 6 residents. Clearly, there are a lot of spaces here in Ward 6 that are being excluded for Ward 6 residents only. And I -- you know, it's unfair 'cause Ward 6 residents can go anywhere in the city and park. I come on over here in Ward...
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that, Randall. That was making my jaws a little tight, too. (laugh) But let's hear what Tommy Wells has to say about that.
WELLSWell, what we've seen is we've got this -- if I understand his question correctly -- is that why would you restrict some sides of the street? Now it's not the whole street, just some sides to only Ward 6.
WELLSAnd that is because we saw, with Adams Morgan, when you have an explosion of entertainment and restaurants and such, that it really -- you lose your parking for the residents that are used to having it. And so we've seen an extraordinary economic growth along Barracks Row with a large number of restaurants and entertainment areas. At the same time, because of the baseball stadium and the growth in the area, that we're trying to manage this in a way that we want you to get on the bus.
WELLSWe want you to take the Metro. You know, this area -- 7th and South Carolina -- is not far from Metro station. We -- you know, it's not gonna work for everybody. But for the people who need to come home from work, park during the day, that live there, it's a balance, and it is true that we're favoring Ward 6 residents.
NNAMDIHave other council members threatened to retaliate, retaliate by doing the same thing in their own wards?
SHERWOODWell, you know, in Georgetown or on M Street, there's a -- you can't park in these neighborhoods until, like, 9:00. That's to keep -- that's to give people time to get home and students to get home and have a place to park before the crowds...
NNAMDIYou're so reasonable today. Here... (laugh)
WELLSWell, Tom is also a Ward 6 resident and he's in the pilot zone.
SHERWOODAnd I also have a parking space in my condo, co-op.
NNAMDILet's go to...
WELLSBut also Ward 1 has the same pilot for...
WELLS...Ward 1 only. So it's not just Ward 6.
NNAMDILet's go to Zack in Northwest, Wash. Zack, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZACKHey. How's it going? Thanks for taking my call today.
ZACKI've got a question for the member. You're -- I live on the 500-block of Harvard Street and Georgia. And you mentioned, at the beginning of your program, that you guys are gonna be posting maybe some losses, and gonna have to take some cuts. I'm wondering what type of rules and regulations are you gonna begin to start to enforce. Just more recently, my whole street, we all received fines for having our trash can in the back of our alley. Well, we didn't know that it was illegal for our trash cans to be out and that we had to bring them in.
ZACKSo now all of us have these fines, and I'm wondering if you're gonna start to implement these types of rules and regulations without notifying us before. Like a simple courtesy would be like, hey, bring them in, you know, instead of just automatically fining us. I was wondering what types of rules and regulations are you now gonna start to enforce that maybe we didn't know about before, because you have...
WELLSWell, I appreciate that question. Obviously, the executive branch enforces the laws, but I don't mean to dodge that at all, that, you know, the rules and regulations are there, and certainly I agree that if they have not been enforced, you should get a notice. But the cleanliness and being able to pass in our alleys is extremely important. We do supply free trash cans. Not everybody does that elsewhere in the country. They're on wheels. And -- but you've got to also provide some accountability with that as well. But I -- you know, no one likes to get a ticket that they didn't know was coming. But we also have to keep -- we have to enforce our laws and regulations.
SHERWOODIt seems to me -- it does seem like you can have -- we have warning tickets and other kinds of tickets for things. It seems to me that the enforcement of, say, trash cans is that you could get a warning ticket or something like that before 'cause I can drive in any alley in Mount Pleasant, for example, and see cans all over the place. And so it's not uniformly enforced. So maybe there ought to be some warning.
NNAMDIYeah, people need to get a heads-up, you would think, before you start...
SHERWOODLike street parking and street cleaning, every year, twice a year, they say, all right, we're gonna do this. They put out press releases. And they put it out all in the news that we're gonna start street cleaning. You have to move your cars.
WELLSWell, I think there is also, under the previous administration, an effort to try to balance the budget with increasing the number of tickets and fines that were enforced.
WELLSAnd I think that is still there. I think it was a backdoor way to try to raise revenue from the populace. And so Vince Gray has to decide if he's gonna try to do the same thing. But I really do believe that that was a revenue generator in order to avoid raising taxes.
NNAMDIYou've got another new gig on the Metro board. The ACLU is getting ready to sue Metro over the random bag searches it's been conducting for the past several months. How do you feel about that program, and what concerns do you have about a potential suit coming your way from the ACLU?
WELLSWell, I really can't speak to the ACLU suit. Supposedly, this has already been tested where they have random bag checks on Amtrak in New York City and elsewhere. So I don't know the results of the lawsuits in those cities.
SHERWOODBoston and New York, they were thrown out.
WELLSSo, yeah. So there's -- suits have been thrown out before. But in terms of -- my concern is, it's extremely important we have a relationship with the riders that's positive, especially during the time that Metro has gone through so much fatigue, and, you know, we got escalators breaking, things like that. And we also got some, you know, some crime coming up in Metro that we didn't use to have. And so I'm concerned about the deployment of our police officers. I don't like seeing four police officers at a bag check that should be deployed, or I believe should be deployed on the trains.
WELLSOn the other hand, while the board needs to set policy, I do wanna be careful about how much we second-guess the new general manager, and we have to create a balance. But I am concerned about the bag checks. I think that if it keeps us safer, then we need to be safer.
SHERWOODWell, here's my -- I've written about this, and I was in the Metro Center yesterday doing this very story. And the good news is Metro has agreed to talk to the ACLU, which had not -- wouldn't even answer their letter for, apparently, a couple of months. But I was in Metro Center. I saw one Metro police officer. And I went up in all the platforms across. I saw one. He was only near the entrance. He would have been the first one out if there had been any problem. So -- but my concern is that no one at the board has asked a question to the chief, says, what -- can you tell us that this is effective?
SHERWOODThey say it will discourage terrorists. Well, the terrorists would have to be the stupidest terrorists in the world to see a bag check and walk up and say, excuse me.
NNAMDIWould you check my bag, please? (laugh)
SHERWOODThat would be where the bomb would go off. And it's done so randomly. It seems like a waste of time. And if you wanted to do it for security, fine. But someone ought to explain why it works. The Fairfax gentleman said, we're not police officers. We gotta trust the police. Well, you know, they may know something we don't know. But we know that's an open system. I just don't -- no one's ever said it's effective.
WELLSWell, again, this is standard practice on Amtrak, standard practice in New York and other cities.
SHERWOODWell, I am -- I've been on Amtrak a billion times. I've never even seen them do it. And that -- it just -- I just -- I wish -- I hope that you guys will just pursue it and see what's the effect.
WELLSWell, I agree, Tom, and I'm glad to hear you're on Metro.
NNAMDII'm so glad that Tom has stopped being reasonable. We have time for one more call. But, Elizabeth, you've got like 20 seconds. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIYes, 20 seconds.
ELIZABETHIs that me? Is that -- oh, wonderful. Hi, Tommy and Kojo. I am a business owner on H Street in Northeast. And when I signed my lease -- I have a triple net lease -- it was -- the property taxes were fewer than $3,000. Since then they've tripled, and my tax bill is coming up at the end of March.
NNAMDIDid you say H, the letter H, or H…?
ELIZABETHH as in Henry. I know you voted for $6 million...
NNAMDIAny tax relief for businesses on H Street, Northeast is what Elizabeth would like to know.
WELLSWell, Elizabeth may have been noting this that, early on, the council -- I worked with Jack Evans and we voted to say -- to drop the tax on the first million-dollar value of a building. But frankly, the -- Elizabeth is a victim of great success on H Street. We've added over 55 new businesses there in just the past two years.
NNAMDITommy Wells is a Democrat from Ward 6 and chairman of the council's Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Council member Wells, thank you for joining us.
WELLSThank you, gentlemen. Have a good weekend.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, thank you for being so reasonable today.
SHERWOODOh, I'll fix that next week.
NNAMDIThank you. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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