Rock Creek Park celebrates its 125th anniversary next year. We speak with two local experts with books about the history, flora, and fauna that abound in Washington's "backyard."
Maryland lawmakers pack their bags for Annapolis ahead of a special session on gambling. Virginians scramble to select nominees for special elections in early September. And Congress rejects legislation that would have put limits on abortions performed in the District. 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
- Peter Franchot Maryland State Comptroller; Former Maryland State Delegate (D-Dist. 20)
- Mary Cheh Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 3); Chair, Committee on Public Works, Transportation and the Environment
Politics Hour Video
D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) explained why she has called on Mayor Vincent Gray to resign. Cheh said she supports Gray as a friend and is “devastated” by the recent scandals surrounding his administration. She said Gray might not have had personal knowledge about the scandals, but that he demonstrated “willful blindness.” “He did not make sure that the back door was closed and the flies didn’t come in,” Cheh said. She said Gray needs to step down from his position so the city can “clear the decks.”
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, he is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers, who just celebrated a birthday. Belated birthday greetings, Tom.
MR. TOM SHERWOODThank you very much. I love each birthday.
NNAMDITwo federal agencies and Congress said yesterday that they were investigating an incident at Reagan National Airport in which commuter jets headed in opposite directions close to within about 1,650 yards of one another at a combined speed of 436 miles per hour. That's right around the corner from your residence. Doesn't that make you a little nervous?
SHERWOODNo. You know, what makes me nervous is there's some confusion about what happened.
SHERWOODI mean, The Washington Post broke the story, I believe, and then transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, well, they were never on a collision path. Well -- and I saw some diagram in the paper this morning. It's certainly unnerving. I had flown USAir on Tuesday night. So it certainly was an unnerving thing for people who are flying.
NNAMDIWhen you fly USAir from national -- Reagan National, you can, like, walk home when you get to the airport, right?
SHERWOODYou know, living in Southwest Washington, people are kidding me about how I promote Southwest Washington, but I don't care. It's a great place. You can be at the airport in less than 10 minutes.
NNAMDII (unintelligible) you can walk. It's good exercise for you to go to the airport and walk back. Mayor Vincent Gray has taken sides in the Chick-fil-A debate. I guess, summarized by Mike DeBonis in The Washington Post, if there was ever time for a big city mayor to wade somewhat haphazardly into a national political controversy, this was probably the right time for Mayor Vincent Gray.
NNAMDII guess he's tired of you reporters walking around asking him the same questions all the time. He's got another issue. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, it is that the CEO of Chick-fil-A made some statements indicating his opposition to same-sex marriage, and the big brouhaha has erupted with Mayor Menino of Boston dispatching a letter to Chick-fil-A saying they're not welcome in his town. And Mayor...
SHERWOODChicago, same thing.
NNAMDIChicago. And Mayor Gray's saying here in Washington that, well, he can't do anything to stop them, but he's really not welcoming them to D.C.
SHERWOODWell, I think the mayor took the right position, and by the way, you know, today, Chick-fil-A across the country is the reaction to the show-your-support day for Chick-fil-A. Today is the day same-sex couples are supposed to show up at wherever they are and kiss each other and, I guess, not order anything. So Mayor Gray, to go back to the politics of it, he said the right thing, I thought.
SHERWOODHe said that he doesn't welcome that type of bigotry expressed by anyone, person or corporation, but he said he would not try to block any legitimate business that meets the laws and rules and regulations of opening their business in the city. He said he just personally -- he wanted to express a personal view of that corporation executive's position, not suggest that he would take action against them.
NNAMDINinety-eight District of Columbia public school teachers fired. Of the teachers dismissed this week, 39 were rated ineffective on the impact evaluation system, and 59 were rated minimally effective for the second year in a row. About two-thirds of all teachers were rated effective. WTU, Washington Teachers Union, President Nathan Saunders, who has been one of the fiercest critics of that system, says it's flawed, but it has been improved through recent revisions, not likely to be as big a dust-up over this as previous because we're getting used to it, aren't we?
SHERWOODWell, two things: one, there's some changes last year. There were nearly 200 teachers. And since this so-called impact assessment program has been in place, about 400 teachers have been let go. But just this morning, Kaya Henderson, the schools chancellor, announced some revisions to this -- I hate using the word impact, but I can't say how long that long name is the assessment system is.
SHERWOODShe announced some changes. She had raised the score that you have to receive, but she also added some softer provisions that if you are of a certain grade, you can have three years of remedial support so that you can get yourself up to speed rather than one year. And there will be more -- let's see -- I'm looking at my notes here.
NNAMDIYou never have notes. You always speak off the cuff. I tell people Tom knows everything. He never uses notes.
SHERWOODI have notes because this is a big deal. It's such a long email. You know, technically, I'm on vacation, so I'm surprised my brain is working. But she did -- I think the reason you didn't hear the teachers union complain is because she has softened some of the impact while still maintaining a high standard. So I think that's what's happening there, but teachers now do lose their jobs if they don't teach.
NNAMDIAnd I think the next issue is one our next guest may want to comment on, so I will introduce him. He is Peter Franchot, comptroller for the State of Maryland. He is a Democrat. Peter Franchot, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. PETER FRANCHOTKojo, great to be here. Happy birthday, Tom.
SHERWOODHe came without an entourage.
NNAMDIWithout an entourage.
SHERWOODOne staffer, Kim.
NNAMDIHe's a solo kind of guy, but I think everybody in the Washington area was struck this week by the report in The Washington Post about the condition of Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker's wife, Beverly, who has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. He said that he is seeking assistance from the website of the Alzheimer's Foundation. I saw him on "NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt" this morning in which he was indicating that he loves his job, and he loves his wife. And he's taking care of her.
NNAMDIAnd I think he was trying to downplay how much of a challenge this is. But I consider it a public service because not a lot of people are familiar with dementia that can lead to Alzheimer's, and it's going to lead to a lot more people taking an interest in this and understanding it a lot better. Care to comment at all, Peter Franchot?
FRANCHOTWell, obviously, our sympathies go out to the county executive and particularly his wife and their family. You're right. This is an emerging problem, and I remember Sargent Shriver, who was such a prominent Marylander, went through publicly Alzheimer's in his family. Mark Shriver is a good friend of mine. He spent a lot of time dealing with all of the related issues that you alluded to and wrote a tremendous book about it is that a lot of which is about this condition of dementia and Alzheimer's.
FRANCHOTSo most of all our sympathies go out to the county executive's family, but, boy, you put your finger on it. This is a huge problem. It's going to touch almost everybody listening out there in some way or another.
NNAMDIMy own mom had it before she died, but it was not early-onset in her case. She was in her 80s.
SHERWOODAnd I do think it's important that Mr. Baker pointed out that people with any kind of mental illness to other infirmity should not be embarrassed or ashamed to address it directly. While medical research continues, people have to live in the real world of what they're facing now, so...
SHERWOOD...do it straight up.
NNAMDIAnd the Baker family is going to be dealing with this challenge probably for a while. On to the politics, Peter Franchot, the General Assembly is going to be back in Annapolis next week for a special session. Mission: To examine whether gambling should be expanded throughout the state and whether a casino should be allowed at National Harbor. You have written that the idea of having this session to discuss gambling alone is a mistake. Why?
FRANCHOTWell, everyone knows my position on slot machines, but whether your listeners love gambling or don't like gambling, Kojo, the fact of the matter is that expanded gambling is not going to solve Maryland's fiscal problems. And there's a lot of data out there that we can talk about if you want. We already have gambling in Maryland, and so my concern really with this special session is it misses what's going on in Maryland.
FRANCHOTMaryland has a lot of pain and suffering. Just last week, we lost 400 good-paying jobs in Hagerstown, an area out in the western part of the state, at the Unilever Good Humor factory. These are jobs that people had for a long time. Every one of those job losses is a story that has some pain and suffering attached to it. People aren't going to buy back-to-school clothes. They're not going to have Christmas gifts.
FRANCHOTThey're not going to have a job. They may lose their homes. If we are ever going to have a special session in Maryland around an emergency, let's have a special session around those people who are really under the gun in Maryland, the real Maryland economy.
FRANCHOTInstead, we're calling everybody back in to go and do another expansion of gambling on top of the gambling we've already had, and it's just going to benefit a small number of people.
NNAMDIAre you in favor of having this session? Call us, 800-433-8850. Or if you're against it, what do you think gambling will do for Maryland? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com.
SHERWOODLast week, I used a gambling term. I said I was surprised that Gov. O'Malley has gone all in -- Texas hold 'em card game phrase, all in. Not only are we talking about adding the Prince George's County casino possibly at National Harbor, but it would change the slot parlors to casino games. And that was -- I don't think people -- a lot of people first realize that it will be casinos, not just slot parlors.
SHERWOODAnd then in the last couple of days, there's -- that we're told that the bill, which we have not yet seen, is going to include Internet gambling. The people will be able to gamble. I don't know what the provisions are because I haven't seen the bill. But we had this big controversy in the District about how the legislature slipped this Internet gambling in, and they pulled it back. So what is the status of the Internet aspect of that going forward in Maryland?
FRANCHOTWell, every -- that's a good question, Tom. Every state is trying to jump over every other state in this gambling arms race, I guess, you call it. And Delaware is attempting to legalize Internet gambling in its state. There are some new provisions nationally. The point is that why is the State of Maryland jumping to for this predatory for-profit gambling...
SHERWOODOne million dollars. That's why.
SHERWOODThat's what the governor said.
FRANCHOTYeah. But here's the problem. I mean, last time we did this, four years ago, it was promised expanded gambling was going to cure the structural deficit, was going to take care of our unfunded pension and health care obligations, was going to save the horseracing industry, was going to remove the need for new taxes. Well, since then, we've had 24 major tax increases. We still have half a billion dollar structural deficit. We owe $35 billion in unfunded pension and health care obligations. And the horseracing industry is just as dead as it always has been.
FRANCHOTSo this is just -- it's an industry that's particularly predatory around the country -- the Las Vegas gambling companies -- and they come in and get the states in their hooks, and they're able to produce these unbelievable developments. If you can believe it, we had a special session a couple of months ago where we raised taxes on the middle class, particularly Washington-area families of Maryland. Now, we're going to have a special session next week, and, apparently, they're planning to lower the tax rate on these billionaire casino moguls. So hats off...
SHERWOODSo the current ones won't object to the expansion.
SHERWOODThat's one of the reasons.
FRANCHOTWhatever. I mean, we have -- you mentioned the governor and the Senate president. Those are the only two people I know that really want this. Everybody else is stunned that we are coming back in for a special session for emergency reasons. Last three years in the United States, there have been 84 special sessions called by different states, total. Only one of them has been on expanding gambling. That's Maryland. We're number one in that area and...
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Peter Franchot. He is comptroller for the State of Maryland. He's a Democrat. If you have comments or questions for him on gambling or anything else, it's 800-433-8850. Allow me to read what -- from a statement that you wrote. "Gambling isn't the answer to our problems, and it never was. Instead, we owe it to Maryland's working people to have a serious and overdue discussion about how we can get our fiscal house in order without resorting to new taxes, spending and debt." What specific issues would you add to that agenda for this session?
FRANCHOTWell, the point is that, as I said earlier, gambling is, love it or hate it, is not going to solve our fiscal problems because we know that. We've already done it, and it hasn't. What we need to do is have an adult conversion in Maryland about, in my view, we should hold the line on taxes, get honestly balanced public budgets, have much more customers serviced to the private sector and deliver a much more predictable and stable regulatory environment.
NNAMDIBut you seem to think that innovative use of technology and data can, in fact, reduce a great deal of the expenses. You talk about your own agency. We've applied the innovative concept of data warehousing to our tax collection efforts and in less three years have already captured nearly $170 million in once uncollectible taxes. The discussion should also include ways to make Maryland a more attractive destination for private sector job creation. Are those specifically the things you're talking about?
FRANCHOTAbsolutely. And I returned $3 million from my $116 million budget this year. I have 1,100 employees. I gave that back to the legislature and said I'll deliver a better tax season with less money through innovation, technology and good leadership. Every agency in state government should be doing that. And the problem here is not government jobs, Kojo. We've done a great job with protecting the government side of the economy.
FRANCHOTI have 1,100 people, as I mentioned. I haven't laid a single person off in five years because of the economic downturn. The private sector is where we have problems in Maryland. We're dead last in the country in private sector job growth, in private sector wage growth. We've led the country in job losses over the last three or four months. Clearly, this spending more money, borrowing more money, taxing more, expanding gambling, that kind of whole stimulation package is proven to be unsuccessful in Maryland, and we need to make some adjustments given the tough economic times.
SHERWOODI -- why do you think then that Ike Leggett from Montgomery County has joined Rushern Baker to say this is a good idea to go to gambling or -- I don't -- he hasn't proposed a casino in Montgomery County.
FRANCHOTI have great respect for Ike Leggett and obviously Rushern, too. We just spoke about County Executive Baker. The problem is that these local executives get in a position where the state is reducing its payments to them, and they're presented with this is a alternative, short-term alternative to restoring some funds.
SHERWOODI lost track. And I know one of the proposals from the governor was to make the counties pay more for their education cost. Did that -- what happened in legislation with that? Did that...
FRANCHOTI don't know -- well, we haven't seen the legislation. But, you know, the -- over in Prince George's, the big need is a public hospital. That's a huge priority, and that's been linked to this gambling expansion.
NNAMDISenate President Mike Miller has basically said that without slots, Prince George's might not be able to fund that vital hospital project getting off the ground.
FRANCHOTIf the Senate president came to Rockville or Bethesda and made that statement that Montgomery County has to have a casino in Bethesda in order to get some public infrastructure project, you know, they'd turn him over to the law enforcement authorities. But he gets away with it here because the industry -- well, it starts from the top down, and, unfortunately, neither the governor nor the speaker are able to stand up to the Senate president on this and is pushing this through, and it's...
SHERWOODWould the governor call the session if he didn't -- if he couldn't -- he won't say he has the votes now. Obviously that would be insulting to the legislature. But would he call the special session if he didn't have the votes or if he didn't think he had them?
FRANCHOTAll I know is what I read in the paper. I assume he's short on the votes, but he -- Tom, he is, you know, this is a situation where, you know, they kid down there in Annapolis that you can get 71 votes to burn the place down if you really have to. I mean, it's a sad commentary that everybody is pushed down there with kind of breathless urgency and we need 71 votes.
SHERWOODIs this going to be a campaign issue for you, should you decide to run for governor in 2014?
NNAMDIWe know you're considering it.
FRANCHOTWell, everyone is well aware of my opposition to this form of revenue for the state. I'm not opposed to gambling in a moral sense. What I'm opposed to is putting the state through this kind of exercise...
SHERWOODKind of like a sucker bet to you.
FRANCHOTIt -- we're left holding the bag. I mean, this does not solve the fiscal danger that we're in. And we are, despite the fact we're a strong state with a lot of spending power, great economic bones, we're in fiscal danger.
SHERWOODI want to know more about -- I think we have callers, but I want to go talk more about the Internet aspect and how that's going to affect people regardless of where you are, whether you go to a casino or not.
NNAMDIHere's Sean in Washington, D.C. Gentlemen, please don your headphone so that you can hear Sean. Sean, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.
SEANHi. I think Peter makes a lot of good points, but I do want to point out that there may actually really be a need to address some of the gambling in Maryland. Maryland uses machine gambling for everything from a tiny slot all the way up to a $500 table. And what concerns me is the $500 table being completely mechanical. I actually think it would be better if that was a table with a live human being that can say, hey, wait a minute, but maybe you shouldn't bet that much. Maybe you don't want to make that move on the hand...
SHERWOODWait. Just wait a minute. Have you ever been to a casino where the dealer said, oh, hold back? You actually -- that was...
NNAMDIThat's a unique approach.
SHERWOODWell, don't identify that employee 'cause he or she will be fired immediately.
SEAN...actually, I've been to -- I've been to -- I'm from Connecticut, so I'm familiar originally. So I went to Foxwoods Mohegan Sun, the big casinos up there, and the dealers, they won't be fired. And they'll -- I mean, they'll actually (unintelligible).
NNAMDIAll right. They may not be fired, but this is the first time I've ever heard the dealer described as the likely restraint on addictive gambling.
SEANThere are constraint over a machine that won't tell you. And, of course, the machines in Maryland up at Maryland Live won't let you retract your bet either.
SEANSo if you put a bet in for a big machine, a big bet, you can't pull back.
NNAMDIPeter Franchot, I guess the point that Sean is making is, look, you got the machines already. Why not just go ahead and get the real thing?
FRANCHOTYeah. No, it just reminds me, years ago, I was in the legislature overseeing the lottery budget, which is a big exercise, $1.5 billion we take from Marylanders for that program. And there was a big concern about gambling addiction then and that people were spending too much money, and they were too poor. So we in the legislature insisted they put an 800 number for gambling problem on the back of the lottery ticket.
FRANCHOTAnd a year later, the lottery people came in and said, please take this 800 number off 'cause thousands of people call it. And I said, well, that's good 'cause if they have gambling problems, they should get help. They said, no, they're calling to get the winning number. And so this -- the difference between the lottery and the slots is that slot is a big for-profit predatory industry that's coming in from out of state.
FRANCHOTAnd they definitely do not have the interest of Maryland at heart. I don't really know what the speaker was -- caller was referring to, but I do know that this is a pretty ruthless group of folks. And they're going to get what they can out of Maryland.
SHERWOODInternet gambling, some people we thought we need a national lottery or other types of stuff like that and just have the money go to the federal. But what's your understanding, though, how Internet gambling would work in Maryland?
FRANCHOTWell, the administration, I think, unfortunately, has opened this up by saying that states can have Internet gambling in theory for their own citizens, and that's just another break in the dike here. And -- but I think that's what Delaware is doing and what Maryland is possibly going to be doing, which would be opening up Internet gambling for its citizens.
SHERWOODOr people who visit...
FRANCHOTWe hear it for many years. It's just been verboten, but this has now, apparently, been opened up by some federal regulatory rulings. It's relentless. This industry is -- this is not a group of choir folks. This is a pretty experienced group of folks that would go all over the country and pit one state against the other. And I am not arguing the merits right now. I'm just arguing that this is not a solution to Maryland's fiscal problems.
NNAMDIHere is Francisco in Washington, D.C. Francisco, your turn.
FRANCISCOSo the -- I got a question regarding the responsibility of Maryland to give back to the actual businesses that went into the National Harbor, expecting attractions to be pumping revenues back to them. I mean, aside from, you know, the plans are lofty of using other means to fix the Maryland fiscal, what about the businesses that are already there, the hotels, the restaurants?
FRANCISCODisney pulled out. They're no longer going in and saying, hey, we're going to bring an attraction. Now, we're going to, you know, the casinos are saying, let's bring revenue to this area so that that way, now we at least have an infrastructure that's going to be used and not fall by the wayside.
SHERWOODHow is -- that's a good question. How has the model of economic development at National Harbor worked out so far, and will gambling save it?
FRANCHOTWell, I'm against gambling everywhere, but now we've got this battle between gambling that's located in Maryland. And they don't want the new gambling coming in. You're going to have that battle. It's really, I guess, there's a point that you don't want to cannibalize your existing resources. But the whole thing is just not worthy of a special session. If we were going to have a special session, we ought to have it on jobs and on fixing the Maryland economy.
NNAMDIBut if you have it on jobs and fixing the Maryland economy, Francisco seems to be suggesting you're still abandoning the businesses in National Harbor. What would be your specific solution for driving more traffic to National Harbor, if not casino gambling?
SHERWOODI think the question for me also, was this as successful as National Harbor?
FRANCHOTWell, it started out as a huge success story, and with the rest of, you know, the rest of the Maryland economy, it's foundered someone. I'm not exactly sure what the specifics are. They used to be against gambling. Now, they're for it. But the idea that we need to have gambling in order to help the rest of the private sector is ludicrous. If gambling comes in and competes with a lot of the private sector, it is not a economic development tool. It's a predatory for-profit industry that has captured the -- a lot of these public bodies.
FRANCHOTAnd we're going to see that with the special session. And as I said, for people that are worried about the Maryland economy, this is not the answer. We need to get -- roll up our sleeves and get a mature response.
NNAMDIFrancisco, thank you for your call. You said he was -- they were against gambling, and then they were for it. Well, Gov. O'Malley says the same thing about you. He's calling you the Maryland Democratic Party's version of Mitt Romney, calling you a flip-flopper, adding that you had changed your stance on slots -- casinos, too, quoting here. "He's decried legalized gambling and also supported bills for legalized gambling. He supported bills to increase the gas tax. Now, he decries the gas tax." What say you in return?
FRANCHOTWell, I'm sorry to hear that from the governor. Maybe he was jetlagged or something from his travels.
FRANCHOTBut that name calling is just not appropriate, and it just...
NNAMDIHave you, in fact, reversed your position on these issues?
FRANCHOTWell, years ago in the legislature, for one brief moment, I signed on a gambling bill as a co-sponsor, and that was a mistake. But for the last 10 to 12 years, I've been the most fervent opponent of bringing these -- this gambling sector in. And so, you know, if we really paid attention to what's going on out there in the Maryland economy, it's got -- certainly got my attention and keeps me up at night. And the fiscal dangers that Maryland has, even though we're a great state, definitely keep me up at night.
SHERWOODThe national jobs report this morning, which I thought people -- mostly were saying it was not bad, if that's the way to say it, what's better, 168,000 private industry jobs. How is the Maryland economy overall doing, given the last three years?
FRANCHOTWell, we've led the country in job losses. We have 11,000 jobs that we lost last month. We are 48th in the country in private sector wage growth, which means our people are, perhaps, working, but they're earning less. I mentioned the 35 billion in unfunded pension in health care obligations. We're a great state, strong economic bones, lot of spending power. But, boy, we have some challenges that call on all of us to roll our sleeves up and do the hard work to put our fiscal house in order.
NNAMDIWe should note right now that there's a picture on you website where you were dressed up like Indiana Jones, complete with his whip and the caption reads, "Peter Franchot: discoverer of unclaimed property." Where is the excitement and adventure behind the state's unclaimed property?
FRANCHOTWell, it's a -- almost $1 billion I'm holding in funds that are turned over to the state by these financial institutions, banks and insurance companies, and we try to reunite them with their rightful owners. And so we aggressively reach out and inform people that we're holding these dollars for them. And a lot of states don't because, Kojo, the dollars get used by the general fund and the obligation is in perpetuity, but the money gets used for different investments in the state.
FRANCHOTI have a different view, which is this is their money. They just don't know we're holding it. And so we aggressively go out and market the fact that we have it. You should go on our website. You might have -- we might be holding some money for you that belongs to you.
NNAMDIWell, that's how I knew that your picture was there looking like Indiana Jones, 'cause I've been on your website. We're running out of time. Very quickly, can you announce now whether you'll be running for governor in 2014, or at what point will you have made up your mind?
FRANCHOTWell, that's nice of you to ask, and I have a lot of people who get out -- who, while I'm going around the states, say, we really want a Democrat who has got a fiscal focus because we're -- particularly Democrats, we're very loyal to everything the party's doing, but we're apprehensive about the economy. We're concerned about what direction the job situation is going in. So a lot of people pull at my sleeve and say, please do it. I like being comptroller, like Sherwood, who is not term-limited. I'm not term-limited.
SHERWOODI do have a contract with the...
FRANCHOTSo, you know, I enjoy the question that people ask 'cause it shows, I think, that they like what I'm doing as comptroller. But right now, I'm just doing the job they hired me to do.
SHERWOODWhen would we know that you're not running and that you are going to become the comptroller for life?
FRANCHOTThe election is two years from now, so somewhere in the end...
NNAMDIIndiana Jones comes to Maryland. Peter Franchot is the comptroller for the state of Maryland. He's a Democrat. Peter Franchot, thank you so much for joining us.
FRANCHOTThanks a lot for being here. Let me say quickly that whenever I appear on this show, people comment to me the following week. Whenever I'm on TV, nobody ever says anything.
NNAMDIWhich is why Tom Sherwood comes here every week.
SHERWOODRight. I have to get some exposure somewhere.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, he is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. You're listening to The Politics Hour. And we're -- we've got a call on the line about an issue we discussed previously. And before we go to that caller because that has to do with the teachers in Washington, D.C., I should point out that the wife of Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker is Christa Beverly, and we called her Beverly. Her name is Christa Beverly. On to Lance in Northeast Washington. Lance, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LANCEYes. Good afternoon. And I'd like to say my sympathies go also out to Rushern Baker in this very difficult time. But I'd like to say I'm a teacher, and looking at the test scores -- and I want to really comment that when Michelle Rhee took over in 2007 and you look at where we are now, there has not been much growth school by school. Schools left to the park were doing good before she took over. They're still doing good.
LANCEEast of the park, not so good. Test scores were very, very limited, not much improvement, and I don't know how Kaya Henderson maintains a job. So it gets to where we are with the teacher lay-off. I'm proposing that we keep fooling with gimmicks to change the discussion. Right now...
NNAMDIWhat do you think needs to be done, Lance? We don't have a lot of time.
LANCEWell, you need to put more resources where the problem is, and that's east of the park. And you need a real chancellor or leader that has some academic and educational expertise. There's no programs. They keep fooling around with it. At first, it was the teachers.
NNAMDIWho would -- what leader would you suggest in place of Kaya Henderson?
LANCELet's see. On -- really, they have not prepared anyone to step in there. So I would assume you would have to look for anyone who's demonstrated...
NNAMDIWell, Lance, obviously feels that we do need new leadership at the top of the school system. It seems that nobody in elected office in the city at this point seems to agree with that proposition.
SHERWOODWell, there's been a merry-go-round until recently of school chancellors or superintendents or whatever. You know, Kaya Henderson was the deputy to Michelle Rhee for the three years. Mayor Gray came in with strong support from the teachers union and others thinking that Michelle Rhee -- well, whatever she did that might be good or was good, her ability to get along with the teachers and the faculty and all of that, the staff, was not so good.
SHERWOODKaya Henderson, who's been -- hasn't improved that significantly. The -- there are big issues for her, closing more schools. We have far too many school buildings for the number of school children either current or projected. I think someone said we have the same number of school buildings in the District that Fairfax County has, and we have half the students. So there's a lot going on.
SHERWOODAnd I think Kaya Henderson again today announced some changes in the way the teachers are graded, which might take some -- ease some of the concerns of the caller.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Lance. She just got back from traveling outside of the country. But it's traveling around the D.C. area that has been getting all the attention lately, and that's one of the reasons we have Mary Cheh in studio. She is a member of the D.C. Council. She is a Democrat from Ward 3 and the chair of the council's committee on the environment, public works and transportation. Mary Cheh, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. MARY CHEHWell, thank you for having me. And hello to you guys.
NNAMDIHello to you, and please wish Tom a belated happy birthday. He gets very sulky when people don't wish him a happy birthday.
CHEHOh, happy birthday.
SHERWOODThank you very much.
CHEHI don't recognize him anymore. You know, my older girl turned 30, and I told her, I said, honey, this is a big problem for me because I tell everybody I'm 30. And so we have to work that out.
NNAMDIWell, you can work with 21 years and some months. And when they say, how many months? Say 468. The council passed a package last month to overhaul the way taxis do business in the District. What did you do, and why did you find it necessary to do it?
CHEHWell, you know, I think it's absolutely necessary that we have a modern 21st century taxicab industry in the District of Columbia. And what it involved was making our taxicab industry equivalent to the best. We want to have basic things that we didn't have in many of the cabs, for example, like credit card machines and GPS. And we want to have the cabs turnover and make sure that they aren't dilapidated and run-down. In addition, the -- there are other aspects of the bill that will make, I think, taxi riding safer.
CHEHWe have these panic buttons -- I think we're suppose to call them something else now -- for drivers in case they are being assaulted or some other issue like that and safety buttons also for the passengers. The idea was to overhaul the fleet and the operations so that we have, you know, as I said, a world-class system.
SHERWOODWell, you haven't addressed the most important thing is what color is the cab going to be. You know, and I've -- obviously, being a joke and I hope people realize, but there is a plan to -- for the taxi commission to decide on a color for the taxi cab. Do you have a color preference?
NNAMDIBut what a minute. He has a color a preference. You know this, don't you?
CHEHOh, well, let's hear what your color preference is.
SHERWOODDo you think the tone of my voice (word?) I have a preference?
NNAMDIYes, I know his voice. I know the tone of his voice.
CHEHWell, it is not up to the council. As you say, it's up to the Taxicab Commission.
SHERWOODIt's to the commission.
CHEHAnd this will be an evolving process. You know, part of the thing with the...
SHERWOODWhat is the -- what evolving process?
CHEHWell, no. I'll...
SHERWOODThat's something you all say on the dais.
CHEHNo. No, no. I'll explain.
CHEHThat the taxi drivers had been concerned about the additional cost that this would impose upon them, not just the color but, you know, the...
NNAMDIA 50 cent surcharge per hour.
CHEHThere will be a 50 cent surcharge per ride. We will be paying for the equipment, for the credit card fees and more than that out of that 50 cent surcharge. But that would have left the taxi drivers with the -- with two costs primarily. One was the painting and the second was the dome lights. We want them all to be uniform and to have a certain appearance, which I think is in a range of about $150.
CHEHThe reason why I said it will be evolving is because one of the compromises that we made is that, as we want cabs to roll over more quickly so that there, you know, not too many miles, not dilapidated, et cetera, what we're going to do, what the law now provides is that the color, whatever it is -- not up to me -- will be the painting and the color will take place at the time you replace the vehicle so that as vehicles roll into their requirements for being, you know, modern vehicles, they'll have to have been painted whatever color it may be. So what is your preference so that everyone can know?
SHERWOODWell, 'cause I'm a reporter and cover this, I don't have a preference. But I was thinking that, being the nation's capital, it'd be great if we had a red, white and blue scheme. But then, of course, then we have the circus cars, which we call police cars that look like clown cars.
CHEHRight. Well, you -- well, people have adapted to them.
CHEHWell, no, I think people have 'cause I had a similar reaction, and you knew you just grow accustomed to it. But in terms of the color, I have heard of a red and white.
SHERWOODAnd with maybe the blue stars or something, reverse it.
CHEHMaybe, but I hadn't heard anything about blue stars.
NNAMDIWashington Post polls says that people...
SHERWOODYou noticed Kojo has no opinion of this. He has no color preference.
NNAMDII do, but I'm not going to say it right now. People, according to The Washington Post, are increasingly skeptical about the switch to a meter-based fare system. I get the impression we're not going back to the zone system.
CHEHNo, and nor was there any consideration of that. I mean, that really has settled in. And I'm surprised at some of the reactions because I think that with a -- the meter-based system, you are being treated and transparently treated fairly. So that, you know, as soon as you get in the taxi, you have the flag drop rate, the start rate, and then you see how the bill is developing. So, you know, it's right in front of you.
CHEHI don't how many times any of you have experienced the zone system where you may have been uncertain about the zones or where there's -- you're on the wrong side of the street and it's now two zones and three zones.
NNAMDIHow do people -- like you walk out of -- Reagan National and...
CHEHRight, and the tours.
NNAMDIBut now there's a 50 cent surcharge. How does the average person know that there's a 50 cent surcharge?
SHERWOODBut it's just part of bill, right?
CHEHNo -- yeah, it's just part of the bill. It'll be built in to the...
NNAMDIBut the meter is going to read one thing and...
CHEHNo, no, no. The 50 cent surcharge...
NNAMDIWill be included in the meter charge. Okay.
CHEHRight. Exactly right.
SHERWOODIt's like a $2.50. It's -- what'd you call it, the start fee or the...
CHEHThe flag drop.
SHERWOODThe flag -- she knows all this in terms of taxi stuff and...
CHEHNo. I didn't -- no, I didn't know any of this.
SHERWOOD...flag drop fee shows up.
NNAMDIShe now knows that -- well, the beast of an issue that's been left unresolved here is Uber, the luxury sedan service that's becoming a pretty popular alternative to cabs. Where does the Uber conversation go from here?
CHEHWell, just to put it back into context, the Uber company relies on this phone application where you arrange to have a ride. And it's -- it was -- it's built as a premium service. You pay a premium price for it. You get, you know, the black cars. It's all very nice to have your neighbors see you ushered into one of these cars, I'm sure. And it's reliable, and people like it. And the cabs are clean, and the drivers are professional.
CHEHBut there was no real clarity in the law about whether any of that was legal and what kind of regulation that kind of a service would be subject to. And the Taxicab Commission was even performing certain stings. They would arrange for these rides and then impound cars or apply fines, et cetera. I asked the Taxicab Commission, which they pretty much accommodated, although there was an occasional action again like that to stop that, let me try to work out making the Uber process legal as part of the taxi bill.
CHEHAnd so when -- I had discussions with many, many groups, with the disability community, with the different factions of the taxicab industry, with the hospitality and restaurant people, you know, anybody who had an interest in this. And I even had a, as you may remember, something I put up on the Web, sort of a survey...
CHEH...a poll for people to talk about various aspects of the taxi operations, et cetera. And with the Uber people, I wanted to baseline create a system where they could operate legally. But, second, I wanted to have some limitations. For example, one paragraph says that, you know, you have to give an estimate of what it's likely the cost. You have to give a receipt at the end. You have to -- and they give a little description of the path that the car followed, et cetera. So there's some consumer protections built in there.
CHEHAnd then in addition, I wanted a space of time to, sort of, sort this out, a year that I had hoped for to have a follow up on this. And I'd asked that in the meantime, I asked that they would simply maintain their current fees, which was their minimum fee and their base fees, which I also put into the law. And I had discussions with representatives of Uber, and we have to come to some understanding that that would be all right. It would be interim because I have to figure out since Uber also wants to move to something beyond the premium service I understand.
NNAMDIIndeed. They are looking at a hybrid service that would -- they'd like to launch.
NNAMDIAnd it would be less expensive than the premium service.
CHEHRight. Exactly right. But then I have to ask myself, OK, why do we regulate taxis in the first place? And why should one aspect of it, since it's done via a phone app, be unregulated if what they're doing is basically providing taxi service? Should we separate out, for example, street hails where you just go out on the street and you don't know what you're getting, so there'll be greater need for regulating there from dispatch?
NNAMDIOur producer Michael Martinez has an experience of -- that's trying to street hail a cab and instead having a Uber car offer to transport him.
CHEHOh. Mm hmm. Well, let's get the name and license number.
SHERWOODNo. Let's not -- we don't want to turn -- we don't want to be a prosecutorial arm of the city government.
NNAMDIIt was just an experience, he said.
CHEHWell, OK. So if I could get back to this. So that was my understanding with Uber. And then, you know, on the eve of the bill being adopted there, the head of the company claimed that there was no such understanding, and this was anti-competitive, and it's horrible. So I pulled the...
SHERWOODSocial media inundated you with emails.
CHEHYes. Yes. But -- so I just -- I thought, OK, I'll take the Uber stuff out. And then, you know, there was an amendment on the dais to put half of it back in, namely the part that I had in there about, you know, the estimated cost and the receipt, et cetera, but to take out the minimum fare. I said, OK, fine, you know, and I went along with that because, you know, I didn't want to lose the whole bill over that. I went along with that, and that was half of what I had in there anyway. But then I asked -- but let's let it exist until the end of the calendar year.
CHEHGive me time to have a hearing to figure out how we should deal with dispatch services. If I have a taxi company that's dispatching cabs via phone or fax or, you know, text or whatever, why should that be treated differently or regulated more extensively than somebody who's doing the same thing via a phone app? In other words, what's the point of the regulation in the first place? And should somebody who's operating via a phone app be freed from all regulation?
NNAMDIGlad you've raised that point because I think that's the point that Dan in Falls Church, Va. would like to address.
NNAMDIDan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANThanks, Kojo. Yeah. I'm wondering why, if I just want to call up or use Uber's app to contract for transportation, why does the D.C. government have to be involved in that transaction at all? It's -- I mean, I'm a pretty big boy. I can make my own decisions.
CHEHNo. And that's -- you're going to the heart of the question. In other words, you should also ask why, if anybody phones up a taxi company, why that dispatch service arrangement should be free -- why shouldn't that be free of any regulations, too? I can think of a few in terms of customers, in terms of price, potential price gouging. I can think of a few in terms of making sure that the fleet that they contract with or that they own or whatever is of a certain quality and cleanliness.
CHEHI could think that maybe we would want the drivers to not have criminal records, for example. You know, I can think of a variety of reasons why, even if you're doing this by phone or by phone app, you might want to have certain confidence and security about who's coming to pick you up.
NNAMDIHold that thought because we have Oscar at the other end of the spectrum. Dan, thank you for your call. Here's Oscar. Oscar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OSCARYes. That's exactly my point. Uber is not regulated, and you got an industry -- and I'm a cab driver. I've been driving for 35 years, and our industry is highly regulated in every aspect. It is unfair. We can't compete, and especially all the Uber cabs licensed and registered in Virginia. They all...
NNAMDISo you think that the taxi cab industry here is overregulated?
OSCARIt's overregulated. That's why we can't make any money right now. She's talking about a world-class taxi cab industry. Most of the people that ride taxi cabs are in there for a short period of time, 10, 15 minutes going from point A to point B. Our fare is $5 and $6. We're struggling right now. Here's come Mary Cheh with this heavy-handed approach to the cab industry. It's ridiculous. I don't understand where she's going with that.
NNAMDIAnd there you have it: one individual asking, why should Uber be regulated at all, another asking, why is the taxi cab industry overregulated?
CHEHAnd we are having a hearing -- I believe it's Sept. 21 -- about all of this, and I think these are all good questions. You know, the whole thing is open to me. Now the last caller talked about heavy-handed regulation. I think the requirements -- that you have credit cards, that you have uniform dome light, that you have clean, reliable cabs -- you know, I'm sorry, but that part doesn't strike me as particularly heavy-handed.
SHERWOODWe also have -- half the people who ride in cabs, as I understand one figure from the taxi commission, comes from people who just are tourists or out-of-towners. So you can't have a Wild West system where anybody can prey on these tourists. I've seen it done, particularly under the zone system. So it seems to me some regulation, but you're going to deal with that. Can we go on to another important issue?
NNAMDIOh, I just want to know...
NNAMDI…when should we expect this issue to be resolved?
CHEHWell, you know, I want to have this hearing. I'm doing some research now. And by the way, I have looked at some attempts to simply deregulate, and it just develops into chaos.
SHERWOODSo into the -- let's bring up another touchy subject that no one really cares about: speed cameras. There's going to be a task force now that's going to decide...
SHERWOOD...whether our fees are too high for the stationary -- for the cameras, the speed cameras. Are you -- who's doing the task force, you or the mayor who's doing it?
CHEHNo, it's myself and Tommy Wells...
NNAMDIPlease put me on the task force.
CHEH...and -- myself and Tommy Wells, and then there'll be representatives of various, you know, groups that are interested in this.
SHERWOODDavid Alpert, who's from the Greater Greater Washington, on the task force, he's written that -- you know, want to see -- he writes a very thoughtful article about it that some people think $40, that the fee is -- in Maryland is good enough. But it seems to me that if people are going 10, 15 and 25 miles over the limit, fees ought to be higher.
SHERWOODYes. I pay $225 tickets, so I'm not talking...
CHEHWell, and then if it's...
NNAMDIWe'll see about that in your next contract, buddy.
CHEHDepending upon how fast you're going, it could be $250.
SHERWOODWhen will this task force -- it's going to have a couple of meetings in August and September, for sure. Is this something about the end of the year?
CHEHWell, you know, I don't want to make promises that I can't necessarily keep, but I would hope that we could have some clarity on this by the end of the year.
SHERWOODCan you tell us that -- there's always the question. Is -- are the fees because the city is trying to do public safety, or are the fees because the city is trying to raise revenue? Isn't the true answer yes to both?
SHERWOODGood. Thank you.
CHEHYes and yes.
SHERWOODShe's made news.
NNAMDIWe have not spoken to you on this broadcast since you called on the mayor to resign. We've spoken to you many times over the years about your support of Vincent Gray, who you campaigned for two years ago. Why did you find that this was a step that you needed to take?
CHEHWell, first of all, let me say that the reason why I supported Vince Gray is the reason I still support him as a person, which is to say I believe that he's a person of great integrity. And I grew to admire him when I served with him when he was chair of the Council, and that's why I supported him for mayor. The matter that he has become embroiled in may not be one that he has personal -- had personal knowledge of. A lot of people will say, well, why don't you see whether...
SHERWOODThat's a very...
SHERWOOD...forgiving view at this point -- may.
CHEHNo, but I'm saying -- but even if -- no, but my point is even if he did not have direct knowledge about the campaign fraud, the fact of the matter is that -- and this occurred with the personnel issues that bedeviled him at the outset of his administration -- he did not make sure that the back door was closed and the flies didn't come in. And he should have done that. He should have secured the door and made sure he didn't leave it standing open. It's, you know, like in your house. Did you ever have your parents yell, don't leave that door open? Well, that's what happened, and...
CHEHIt was -- it's his -- it was his responsibility. And, you know, there is this phrase that's sometimes used in the law: willful blindness. You know, you just can't turn away. You just can't leave the door open and let things happen. And that's what finally got to me, and I'm devastated by this because I consider him a friend. I like him very much as a person. I think that he is personally honest, and he has integrity. And nothing makes me sadder. The reason why I thought it was appropriate for him to step aside was because I think that we need to, you know, we need to clear the decks.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left.
SHERWOODI want to ask, have you -- he was very angry at you and Catania and Muriel Bowser, but particularly you. He said he didn't -- he was surprised.
NNAMDIYou constitutional scholar, you.
SHERWOODLet me just ask this: Have you spoken to him since -- have you had some kind of conversation since then to make it clear to him why you think he should resign?
CHEHWell, you know, I did...
SHERWOODOr is he not speaking to you, which some people say?
CHEHWell, I went out of the country rather not as a result of that.
SHERWOODYou say scandal in Spanish?
CHEHNo. Corrupción. I don't know. I did go out of the country...
SHERWOODHe hasn't spoken to you.
CHEHNo, we haven't spoken. I did send him a text recently, saying that, you know, I would like to meet with him. So I expect to meet with him. I -- you know, and I -- as long as he stays mayor, I'm going to continue to work with him and, you know, successfully, I think, because we do have, you know, strong interests in seeing that the District is well served. So I have no problem with that.
NNAMDIMary Cheh is a member of the D.C. Council. She's a Democrat from Ward 3 and the chair of the Council's Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation. Mary Cheh, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, he's our resident analyst. He's an NBC4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Back to work for you next week, buddy.
SHERWOODNo, no. Well, next week, but I'm going back to my vacation in just a few minutes.
NNAMDIYou don't have much time left. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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