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 takes heat for letting drivers cheat on tolls. D.C.’s chief tax appraiser is thrown into the fire over questions about his background. And the presidential candidates burn up the campaign trail in Virginia. 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
- Nathan Saunders President, Washington Teachers' Union
- Jamin Raskin Member, Maryland State Senate (D- Dist. 20 Montgomery County); and Professor of Law, American University's Washington College of Law
Politics Hour Video
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, discussed how the teachers’ union strike in Chicago compares with some of the education reform disagreements in D.C.
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. He was in Charlotte last week for the Democratic National Convention. And if you have heard Tom Sherwood complained about jersey barriers and obstruction here in Washington because of security, you ain't heard nothing yet.
MR. TOM SHERWOODI'll be very -- I'll be succinct. To the 2,000 police officers or so in the Charlotte, there were additional 4,000 from all the federal agencies.
NNAMDISouth Carolina, Chicago.
SHERWOODI think something like 60 D.C. police officers came.
SHERWOODThe best part of that, though, was when they were blocking the street for the D.C. vote delegation protest about statehood. D.C. police were keeping D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans from walking down the street, and both sides were good natured about it.
NNAMDIWhat was your general impression of the security perimeters for the convention?
SHERWOODI'll cite Peggy Noonan, conservative Wall Street Journal columnist, speech writer for Ronald Reagan, respected mainstream conservative journalist, who said it's one thing to be prudent and cautious, but we have gone overboard with security. And I believe she sums it nicely.
NNAMDIGetting around Charlotte even in the daytime during the course of the convention was very, very difficult because there were roadblocks it would appear just about everywhere.
SHERWOODI really thought the -- as I gotten nearer and nearer, more and more roads were closed. They would -- you could not make a right turn or a left turn. You had to go way out and then -- to make your way back in. I understand the severity of security and the fear if something goes wrong no one wants to be called to Capitol Hill to have that intimidating question, why didn't you close that street?
SHERWOODAnd so the Secret Service in reaction to that essentially...
SHERWOOD...builds a big area where nothing could happen, but it just seems to me it's anti-American to the extreme we've gone. We ought to live free or die according to some license tag.
NNAMDIWe'll see if that changes during the course of the next four years when we'll probably will be attending the next Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, back in Washington, and we interviewed D.C. at-large Councilmember Michael Brown at the Democratic National Convention. We didn't actually air his remarks there, but at the time, we didn't know about his latest misadventure, so to speak, that he now has to adjust his campaign reports to account for $113,950 in unexplained expenditures that nearly wiped out his campaign account, left him with less than $20,000 in the bank.
NNAMDIThis is one in a fairly long and persistent series of financial problems that have plagued this councilmember. How do you think that is likely to affect his reelection effort, not to mention his signature is being challenged and other problems?
SHERWOODWell, we don't have time to list all the financial failings, personal and otherwise in Michael Brown's career, but, you know, whether or not it affects him, you know, he did survive the challenge -- separately, the challenged his signature to be on the ballot. You know, he has a well-known name. The challengers are two, three on the ballot and, of course, there are a couple of others.
SHERWOODI'm not sure they've broken through to -- we'll see what they -- newspaper endorsements do, but I think this is an embarrassment of one of many embarrassments for our councilmember who just cannot seemed to get his personal life in order. And then his campaign to have a press conference essentially complained that your treasurer stole it and then walked off, that's one of the things that didn't get widely reported.
SHERWOODHe calls a press conference like at 4:30 in the afternoon which means TV stations are generally not going to be there unless somebody has been killed or something is on fire. And so he stands, and the reporters wait for him. He walks out. He makes a statement. One question or two questions later, he turned on his heels and walks away. That's not the way you solve a problem in your campaign finances. But, again, I don't know if his opponents are going to be well-funded enough and well-known enough to cause him trouble in Nov. 6.
NNAMDINow, tell us what you really think. Now, let's move on.
NNAMDILet's move on.
SHERWOODTrying to be succinct here.
NNAMDILet's move on to the chief assessment officer for the District of Columbia, Tony George.
NNAMDIThe Washington Post reporting this week that there are serious issues with his employment background that one of the reasons he lost a similar position in Fulton County, Georgia, was because of the arbitrary lowering of tax assessments which is precisely the complaint against him here. Chief financial officer Natwar Gandhi and his staff defended those settlements, but there are, according to The Post, unwilling to say if there are aware of the reasons of -- for Mr. George's termination in Georgia when they hired him.
SHERWOODWell, I must say I read that story, and I questioned frankly why it was on the front page of the paper...
SHERWOOD...because it didn't have a lot of new news in it. It certainly shows that Tony George is not the best when it comes to his office demeanor in treating employees well. But nowhere in that story did it detail or have any former officials saying he was fired because he lowered assessments.
NNAMDIThis is true.
SHERWOODThere's no detail there. And so I don't know why Tony George has lowered assessments in this city and gotten $48 million in lost revenue out of the billions the city collects. But I don't quite know what the story is here.
NNAMDIThe irony of the story, I guess, is that most of us who happened to be property owners would love to have our property tax assessments lowered. He happened to lower them for people who were, well, better-heeled than people like I am.
SHERWOODWell, some of the, you know, I haven't seen the list of all the properties. I know that the -- for example, The Washington Post itself as a corporation seven years in a row has challenged its assessments, and I don't know all the results of that whether it's raised or lowered. But it's a huge business. And the $48 million represents 1 or 2 percent of the moneys collected. And the one issue we now can say -- The Post said in an editorial this morning, well, there's, you know, there's an FBI investigation.
SHERWOODWell, some employees of the office have complained to the FBI that they think something is wrong. And so the FBI has to look into that, but there's been no story...
NNAMDIIndication of wrongdoing.
SHERWOOD...suggesting of illegal wrongdoing or that the FBI is on -- like we have in the Gray campaign, we -- there are specific things we know about investigations ongoing, but to say that the FBI is investigating these tax assessment issues, there's no there, there yet.
NNAMDIWell, unless, of course, the president of the Washington Teachers Union had his property taxes lowered, and we know nothing about that. Nathan Saunders, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. NATHAN SAUNDERSIt's always a pleasure.
NNAMDINathan Saunders is the president of the Washington Teachers Union. Have your property taxes been suddenly lowered after your appeal?
SAUNDERSI refuse to comment on that.
SAUNDERSI'm not an expert in that area.
NNAMDIThere might be a story there to pursue. Chicago's debate over education reform went into territory that Washington's debate never went into when the city's public school teachers decided to go on strike this week. Apparently, the report that you traveled to Chicago this week was an erroneous report. You did not?
SAUNDERSI did not.
SHERWOODDid you want to go?
SAUNDERSI certainly wanted to go, and actually I (unintelligible).
SHERWOODThe big demonstration tomorrow at noon, you know, in Chicago, you still have time to get out there.
SAUNDERSNo question about it. And, you know, the focus is for me to support and our members in D.C. to support the Chicago teachers' union from afar. We've raised money. We've had a red day. We've had a number of things, and teachers are living precariously through a number of the teachers in Chicago.
NNAMDIYou said a red day because you're trying to get Washington teachers to wear red in solidarity with Chicago's teachers. What do you see at stake for your union members with what's going on in Chicago? It seems that a big part of this is the same issue that divided the union and the administration in Washington, D.C., having to do with teacher evaluations.
SAUNDERSAbsolutely. What's synonymous about this conflict is that the issues are absolutely the same. The statistics are very similar. If you look at Chicago, you're looking at 52,000 kids in public charter schools. Thirty-three percent of the children in Chicago are living in poverty. Eighty percent of the children in Chicago qualify for free and reduced lunch. And the children are overwhelmingly black and brown children. Now, that's...
SHERWOODThere's 350,000 kids in the public school system, just to give a sense of how big it is compared to the 70,000 in the city of Washington.
SAUNDERSThat's correct. But the public charter schools are significant in Chicago, and they're a force to be reckoned with. In the District of Columbia, some common themes are school closings. We're about to move into this coming school year, big issue with the IFF report...
SAUNDERS...Illinois Facilities Fund...
SAUNDERS...report out of the deputy mayor's office. And we also have an issue similar to D.C. teacher recall rights and then, of course, the teacher evaluation. Exactly what percentage of a student's test score should figure into the evaluation of his or her teacher, the very same issues. What we have is a radically different approach, though. Karen Lewis, a strong teachers' union president in the Chicago Teachers Union and a former George Parker who now works for Michelle Rhee. So that speaks volumes.
SHERWOODThat sounds like a criticism.
NNAMDIWell, he's not the former George Parker. He still is George Parker.
NNAMDIHe's the former head of the teachers' union.
NNAMDIYes. But it would appear that at that time things got hot in Washington the last time the teachers negotiated a contract. Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke was brought in as a moderator to finish those talks that seemed to go on forever. Do you think a strike at that time might have got you a better deal? You did not like the deal that George Parker got.
SHERWOODOr could you strike?
SAUNDERSWell, the last time the teachers' union in Washington went on strike, we couldn't strike then, but we still went on strike.
NNAMDII covered that strike, yeah.
SAUNDERSSo I don't think the fact that a rule exists is going to stop that component, but the issue was not the compensation component of the contract. The issue was the rights that were given up, the rights to seniority, the rights to tenure, components of recall, exactly what happens in a public school to a teacher who was effective and teachers there but as a result of low enrolment, the school closes, does that teacher have a priority in getting a job back in D.C. public school when openings are available. Those were the issues that a lot of teachers did not like, and we're not satisfied with the resolutions.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments for Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, or your opinion about the Chicago strike and how it compares to the school issues here in Washington, D.C.
SHERWOODMr. Saunders, under your leadership of the teachers' union and Kaya Henderson and the school system, while there have been issues, there seemed -- the temperature certainly has been lowered. Would you agree with that that she has been more accessible to you or you to her in this case where you agree on everything or not?
SAUNDERSSure. I will certainly say that we have worked together in the best interests of the public school system, and what that means is that we've had some improvements and -- but we have not agreed on every single thing. I'll give you a perfect example.
SHERWOODBy the way, don't forget the -- there's the absence of here. There seems to be less animosity that there are -- while you may disagree on politics or policies 'cause I don't sense the animosity that I've felt daily with Michelle Rhee, Adrian Fenty. But I see some with Rahm Emanuel and Karen -- what's her -- in Chicago that...
SAUNDERSKaren Lewis. The situation with Chancellor Henderson and I, it goes back to the very beginning, and this is similar to what's going on in Chicago. We had -- our very first conversation was a conversation about respect. If you look at the Chicago Teachers Union, there are numerous threads about whether or not there is respect from Rahm Emanuel towards the teachers and the CTU and Chicago.
SAUNDERSKaya Henderson has simply kept her promise to me, and I've kept my promise to her at our very first meeting. And that was that she will not be disrespectful of D.C. public school teachers because if she was I made it very clear that I would have to attack her and I would have to attack her immediately, and she's been very respectful as a result.
NNAMDIWhat are those indications of disrespect that you saw here in D.C. that you apparently also see in Chicago? How does that disrespect manifest itself?
SAUNDERSWell, in the case of Michelle Rhee, it was disrespectful to go on Time magazine…
NNAMDIWith a broom.
SAUNDERS...with a broom and say, I'm going to get rid of those teachers in Washington, D.C. And it was also disrespectful to accuse the teachers of crimes against students, to being abusive against students without evidence. That was disrespectful. And so we've moved in a fashion where we're trying to get things done for children and we're trying to work together. I'm pulling the union forward and she's pulling the public school forward. And I think we are looking at some progress. Test scores are up in D.C. public schools. Not too many people talk about that.
NNAMDIWe -- go ahead, please, Tom.
SHERWOODIt's clear from what happened here with Michelle Rhee, what's happened in Chicago, what's happened in New York and other places, there is a -- almost a fundamental national shift in the -- or there's an effort that much of the private schools -- public school system could be privatized. The charter schools are just doing gangbuster's business in this city.
SHERWOODAnd this does seemed to be a political way against teachers unions and the status quo that more change has to happen and it has to happen quicker. You're saying you can be part of that change...
SAUNDERSWell, we certainly...
SHERWOOD...not being cast aside.
SAUNDERSWe certainly feel that we can be part of the change. There are some things that are going on in terms of reform in Washington that are good. Teachers -- I'm sorry, parents in the District of Columbia have more choice in terms of options for K-12 kids in anywhere in the country, charters, traditional publics, privates, vouchers, as well as religious-based schools. So there's a lot of choice. However, we have to be competitive in terms of the public -- traditional public schools.
SAUNDERSAnd we've got to make sure that our business model both in terms of traditional public school business model as well as the union's business model works. We think that we can be successful. Test scores are indications for those who think test scores are the beginning and the end. I think we're in a process and we're possible at a turning point where we can see a lot of growth and development.
SHERWOODChicago has nearly $5 billion school system. It's running a deficit of nearly $700 million. Teachers are -- they're seeking or about to get apparently a 16 percent raise over the next four years. Just financially, can Chicago afford not to have close -- 'cause I think they're thinking about talking closing 80 to 120 schools. Here in Washington, there's discussion of closing 20 or 30 more schools.
SHERWOODDoesn't the school system there as it does it here have to be financially sound?
SAUNDERSIt does have to be financially sound. But there are a lot of misnomers when we talk about this whole competition model in treating the government as a service provider, as a competitor. What we have -- most people look at reform and say, oh, reform. That's a change. That means good. But when we look at historical approach to reform, there was an audit done of former Chancellor Rhee, whereby she said the changes will cost about $10 million. It ended up costing the city $40 million.
SAUNDERSAnd so this whole notion of what we do, how we do it and how fast we get it done is going to be very, very important in order to sustain success in the District of Columbia.
SHERWOODCan we just wrap up on Chicago? The -- I think the delegate assembly of the 25,000-member union is going to be meeting at two o'clock this afternoon, Chicago time. There is some hope that the strike is over. On your way over here, have you heard anything on backchannels that this is about to happen, that there will be children in the schools come Monday morning?
SAUNDERSWell, I'm optimistic. On my way over here, what I've heard is that they're working very hard to try and get it done. There is some optimism that it may happen. But what's most promising is that solutions appear to be on the table and the resolution to the problem exists.
NNAMDIWe talked with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, where your union and the Chicago union is affiliated, while we were in Charlotte. And she had worked previously with the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. And traditionally, the unions in this country, or in particular, the teachers unions in this country whether we're talking about NEA or AFT, have been aligned with the Democratic Party.
NNAMDIYet it has had problems with Democratic mayors in cities like Newark, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. One gets the impression that there's a bit of pressure to heal this rift in Chicago because it could have some impact on the whole election that's coming up. Do you feel that kind of pressure from where you sit?
SAUNDERSI absolutely do. And I tell you I feel that way because there are a number of things that are relevant to Chicago, the model, -- the union model, the historical model is now quite different. Social media makes it different. The fact that Chicago has a dispute and teachers in Washington, Philadelphia and New York, Chicago and San Francisco are wearing red, and they're coordinating not only the wearing of colors but also the contribution of dollars.
SAUNDERSWe've got teachers in the District of Columbia who yesterday sent pizzas to teachers on a strike line Chicago. And so union density, I would argue, in this age of Internet accessibility is much more different than we've ever thought about. And it's amazing, but we're actually looking at a potential to have a little bit more power. I think that's going to be one of the real reasons. The strike fund, how long you can stay on strike often time is contingent upon the size of the strike fund.
SAUNDERSBut what we're looking at is the ability to increase the strike fund from contributions elsewhere, has actually made the strike fund a little bit more potent.
NNAMDIContribution that some people, I guess, would think would normally go to the Democratic Party for its campaign. But not...
SHERWOODThat would be a separate entity of the unions, not directly from the unions.
NNAMDIThis is true. Gentlemen, please don your headphones. There are a lot of caller who would like to address this issue. We will start with Mark in Washington, D.C. Mark, it is your turn. You are on the air. You're talking with Tom Sherwood, our resident analyst and Nathan Saunders, the president of the Washington Teachers Union. Mark, go ahead, please.
MR. MARK SIMONHi, Kojo and Nathan. Good to talk with you. This is Mark Simon. I'm actually the former president of the teachers union in Montgomery County. And I agree with Nathan that the parallels between Chicago and D.C. are huge, but I disagree a little bit about what's motivating that strike in Chicago. You know, I know Karen Lewis, and I think that one of the reasons that teachers are so united in Chicago and why they have such support from parents and from the public -- it's overwhelming.
MR. MARK SIMONFifty-five percent of the public support, the teachers. The reason is that the strike is about dueling visions of education reform. It's about dueling visions of what is good for kids. And it's kind of -- it's a long-simmering reaction to what some people call the corporate reform approach.
NNAMDICould you give a short synopsis of that long-simmering dispute?
SIMONYes. I think teachers have been locked out of the development of reform strategies. There's been an over-reliance on standardized testing. There's been a skewing of what's taught to the content of what's on the tests. There's been a rash...
NNAMDIWell, let's say Nathan Saunders and others agree with you on all of that. What do you see as a solution to this dispute?
SIMONWell, I just this we need a debate in this country, and I think the media has not really been covering the debate. And...
NNAMDIWell, I got to tell you, Mark, and I'll say this to you, Nathan Saunders, when we talked with Randi Weingarten and she said yes, there is a debate going on inside the Democratic Party in which she feels she is a part of, she also feels it's a healthy debate. What do you feel?
SAUNDERSWell, I certainly think it's -- there is some conversation and conversation is expanding. It's moving outward and it's good. It's healthy for the Democratic Party as well as teachers. But what were looking at now -- I agree with Mark's notion of the involvement of the rank-and-file teacher. It needs to -- the rank-and-file teacher needs to understand that you could not divorce yourself from these issues by going into your classroom and say that I teach 30 kids and that's the union business and that's not necessarily my business.
SAUNDERSUnion density in this country is very, very low in terms of public employees as well as the private sector. And so this notion that the unions are incredibly powerful in comparison to the past is a notion that's really moving downward.
SHERWOODBut it really is true. Within the public sector and government, public sector unions are much more powerful than the private sector unions.
SAUNDERSI would agree.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call, Mark. We now get to the inevitable debate, an email we got from Jennifer, which will be followed by a phone call from Ryan. Here's Jennifer's take, "Teacher's unions, in my opinion, lose sight of what is really important, the students. Teachers who under-perform should not be rewarded. That's the bottom line. And D.C. public schools have improved because of Michelle Rhee although D.C. government and teachers like to ignore that fact.
NNAMDIThe very fact that those teachers in Chicago went on strike at all shows that the students are not important to them. Teachers should get fair pay and better benefits but -- sure. But they -- the teachers in Chicago presumably -- are out of line". On the other hand, here is Ryan in Chevy Chase, Md. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, Kojo. I -- my question was because -- Adrian Fenty had -- was a guest on "Diane Rehm Show" yesterday, and I hear you all talking about Chicago strike. And I'm wondering why is it that Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee get all this credit for improving the school system when their efforts were shown that all it did was increase corruption and fraud by principals and teachers to receive this dangling carrot, the bonus money that we were...
SHERWOODWell, that's not true. That's an editorial opinion, but that's really not a accurate representation of the issues over cheating scandals and/or that. But go ahead with your question. I don't want that to be left hanging out there as if that were true.
RYANI mean, well, was that legitimate? I mean, what -- is that accurate that that actually did occur?
SHERWOODWell, there's been all kinds of investigations into the cheating scandals. It was all prompted by the cheating scandals in Atlanta. And there has been some finding of cheating at one school, particularly there are some question about whether the inspectors looked far enough. But I don't think that the sum and total of what the Fenty-Michelle Rhee era was in the city, that there was just cheating in schools. I think there's a lot of bureaucratic reform, a lot of changes made with the agreement with the teacher's union that it's signed.
SHERWOODThere's been some further improvement of what they call the IMPACT system of judging the teachers. I think progress has been made although it has not been easy. And I think Mr. Saunders ought to comment on that 'cause I think he would agree with that.
NNAMDIRyan, you got a final question.
RYANNo, that's it.
NNAMDIOK. Ryan simply had a comment. It's your turn, Nathan Saunders.
SAUNDERSWell, there have been some improvements, particularly under Mayor Gray and his approach. IMPACT modifications have been made. There are a lot of lessons learned. There's less emphasis on test scores now. There was a reduction. In Chicago, that's one of the major issues, what percentage of the student test scores should go onto the teacher evaluation. In the District, we are at 35 percent. I'm waiting until two o'clock to find out exactly what they agreed on in Chicago because I'm -- inquiring minds want to know.
SAUNDERSI've asked for a lower percentage. I thought it was -- it should be around 20 percent, but we went from 50 down to 35 percent. We've got fewer classroom observations. Teachers can get back to the creative act of teaching. And we've got less anxiety amongst teachers. But there's still a lot of work to be done.
NNAMDIOn to Tom in Washington, D.C. Tom, your turn.
TOMGood morning. First off, I'd like to say victory to the Chicago Teachers Union strike. I haven't heard that from Mr. Saunders. He implied it of course. But it's -- it is necessary to win this fight and I hope...
TOM...my -- why?
TOMOh, why? Because teachers have been taking it on the chin for, God knows, over a decade now in this political campaign called education reform, which is basically union busting in a very complicated (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIGlad you said that. Is that the way you see school reform, Nathan Saunders, that it's basically about union busting? Some people believe that it's corporate-driven corporations want to take over the public schools and that this whole notion of education reform is really about union busting.
SAUNDERSThere's a valid argument that it very much is. Public education in the United States amounts to a $500 billion-a-year industry. And when the economy is not doing well and contracts are not as available in some areas, there is a tremendous look at what government privatization opportunities exist. And public education for some individuals are more about profit than actually teaching. Interesting enough, some of the same individuals are the ones that create criticism for the teachers unions.
NNAMDIYeah. But it got -- in this education reform movement, you've got signed up the secretary of education, Arne Duncan. You've got the president of the United States, Barack Obama, and his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Are you suggesting that they are either victims of or co-conspirators with those people who simply want to bust unions and have corporate takeovers of the education system?
SAUNDERSWhen we look at education reform, the teachers union themselves have been some of the biggest proponents of reform and improvement.
NNAMDISo said Randi Weingarten herself. Yes.
SHERWOODWell, there's no anti-education or union feeling here in the District that I can tell. I know that changes were made, but these D.C. school systems had a 40 to 50 percent increase in its budget over the last eight to 10 years. Just a huge amount of money's gone. It's now $1.1 billion or something like that.
SHERWOODIf you see this as an assault on the teachers union, what -- I listen to corporate people on CNBC saying that education and the lack thereof is holding back this country's next economic boom, that teachers -- that school systems aren't teaching and that we don't have education -- we don't train young people for jobs anymore. There's no -- very little vocational education. There's very little -- I mean, I don't know why they see it like this. Spanish is not required given the growth in Spanish language in elementary schools.
SHERWOODIt just seems like people want to fire under education to make changes, and unfortunately they see the unions as one of the blocks no matter how accommodating you can sound here today.
SAUNDERSWell, let me...
SHERWOODSo it seems to me it's a big political hurdle that you have to get over in some way.
SAUNDERSLet me say here…
SHERWOODWhich you're trying to do here today.
SAUNDERSLet me say there are a number of reasons why this country is not where it should be or where we want to see it. One of the issues outside of education is poverty. One of the issues many argue is our tax structure and how...
SHERWOODWell, let's just stay with poverty because I hear this again in these national debates that poor children can't learn because they come from bad families. So the families don't have responsible parents in the home or an elderly or a grandparent might be caring for them. And in this city we have, you know, we have breakfast programs, we have lunch programs. We now have a snack program, a virtual dinner program for some children.
SHERWOODEighty percent, as you've mentioned earlier, 80 percent of the 350,000 students in Chicago are -- come from poverty families, families officially on the line of poverty. But as -- but others will say poverty is not a reason a child can't learn if the school does its job.
SAUNDERSOK. Let's -- now, you're speaking to an educator, Tom.
NNAMDIYou only got about 90 seconds left of education.
SAUNDERSAll right. First of all...
SHERWOODI've tried to filibuster.
SAUNDERSOh, yeah, I see. Technically, it's 80 percent of Chicago students qualify for free and reduced lunch, not 80 percent are in poverty.
SAUNDERSNow, so let me go right at you on that.
SHERWOODYou have to be pretty low for that. Go ahead.
SAUNDERSBut the point is this, that we are the ones -- the labor unions, the teachers who are union members are the ones who are constantly fighting for our kids to get resources in some of our neediest schools. That is the reason why we are concerned that when it comes to testing and focusing on grades all the time or standardized test with regards to the teacher evaluation, that that's the improper place to do it.
SAUNDERSWhere we say we're for parents and jobs and the employment in the communities because a child coming from a household where the parents are intact and employment is present is a child that's going to do better no matter what. If you send a kid in a classroom hungry, the first thing he's going to think about is getting some food, and the last thing he's going to think about is getting that education.
SAUNDERSAnd so there are a lot -- these things are not against one another or contrary to one another. They work together in unison. What teachers are saying is that we should not be made to bear the brunt of all of society's problem.
SHERWOODYou are the -- you are effectively first line offenders, front line offenders. I mean, frontline defenders -- sorry, I got that wrong. Frontline defenders, right? I mean, you do face children who are hungry, who have dysfunctional families. That has to be part of...
SAUNDERSAnd that's what we're advocating for.
SHERWOODThat has to be part of your teaching instruction.
PROF. JAMIN RASKINAbsolutely. And that's why we advocate for them and that's why we make sure our programs are together for them from health care to family support programs and alike.
NNAMDINathan Saunders, he is president of the Washington Teachers Union. Nathan Saunders, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers, who, if he drives through Maryland, probably drives through the E-ZPass lanes because Tom would have a transponder and he would be paying. But it would seem that a lot of people have been zooming through those E-ZPass lanes in Maryland without transponders, not paying and not having to get any fine or any form of sanction against them. So they're technically scofflaws, but there are so many of them that several major rental car companies are involved in this.
SHERWOODWell, you know, E-ZPass, I didn't realize, is, just as you said, the promotion for the show, is exactly what it is. It's easy to pass right through. I didn't realize how easy -- I don't have a transponder or whatever you have to have on your dashboard.
SHERWOODI will pay if I go on those roads. But, you know, it is a very small percentage. It's less than 1 percent of the people who go through the toll booth who don't pay. It's much higher in other states. In Delaware, the -- it shows 3.5 percent of people don't pay. And millions of dollars are here at stake, and there's very little Maryland does, apparently. That's what prompted the storm. Maryland doesn't do much.
SHERWOODIn Virginia, if you get, like, three passes or something like that, there's a -- you can have -- be hauled into court. You can have other tax measures taken against you. So it's stunning. I don't know -- I wonder if the figure has jumped up now that people have seen the story and say, well, the -- I always felt like if you went through the toll booth, a cop would chase you and pull you over. And now that turns out not to be true. So I say go at it, folks.
NNAMDIJoining us in studio now to see if he endorses this go-at-it entreaty from Tom Sherwood...
SHERWOODI only say that in jest, in case anyone thinks I'm serious about it.
NNAMDI...is Jamin Raskin. He is a member of the Maryland Senate. He's a Democrat from Montgomery County. Care to comment at all on how people have been riding through the E-ZPass lanes 'cause it's so easy?
RASKINI mean, it's an absolute outrage and a scandal, you know, and my constituents are really upset about this. Nobody likes a tax cheat, and nobody likes an E-ZPass scofflaw because, one, they're not paying, and a lot of -- some of these companies have been racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overdue E-ZPass fees. But also, they're skating right by while other people are waiting in line. And so...
SHERWOODThe scandal is not going after them, not the fact that people go through.
RASKINWell, they're both kind of a scandal. I mean, you know, it can happen, I guess, accidentally to people. Sometimes people have the E-ZPass, and it doesn't register or, you know -- that can happen. And mistakes are made, and nobody begrudges somebody the right to pay later if there's a mistake or something. But this is a whole different thing. This is -- people have somehow figured out that they can keep racking up the notices and the fines, and they're not paying it.
RASKINSo I know that lots of my colleagues have been in touch with the Motor Vehicles Administration and State Highway Administration. And there will be a very severe crackdown on this, and if it doesn't happen administratively within the next several weeks, believe me it will happen legislatively when we get back to Annapolis in January.
SHERWOODDelegate Stephen Lafferty of Baltimore County brought this up. How did it happen to come up? Was he just looking at this? He's looking for revenue? Do you happen to know how this came up?
RASKINI think it came up quite by accident in a hearing, and he just began to pursue the question of people who hadn't paid. And, yeah, obviously you don't want a police officer to swoop down and create a big traffic jam right at that point. And I think that the initial thought was, well, you send people the bill later. That's great. You take a picture of the license plate. You get them the bill. They -- you tell them there's going to be a fine.
RASKINBut what's happening is that there apparently is a very tiny percentage of scofflaws -- and apparently a lot of them are not Marylanders -- who are just not paying. And so that's -- we've got to look at the full range of civil and criminal sanctions to crack down on these people, including, you know, stopping them if they get caught, you know, doing it again.
NNAMDISpeaking of not Marylanders, I'd like you to circle back to Washington, D.C., for a second because I know of no one who has greater expertise in constitutional law and the lack of voting rights in the District of Columbia than you do. And it is being reported today that Washington is going to get its statue of Frederick Douglass in the U.S. Capitol. The House and the Senate have finally voted this out.
NNAMDIEach state has two statues in the U.S. Capitol. A compromise was reached by which the District of Columbia would have one Frederick Douglass. The other one that we have standing in Judiciary Square, the one of Pierre L'Enfant, has not made it. Eleanor Holmes Norton, our congresswoman, has said she is determined to get both statues in there.
NNAMDIIt has been reported fairly prominently in our hometown newspaper, The New York Times, whereas The Washington Post had only a very, very small piece on it. And given the fact that The New York Times has reported it with a photo of the statue of Frederick Douglass and -- well, how big is this?
RASKINIt's a big deal. I know the people of Washington would rather have two senators than two statues, Kojo, but nonetheless it is progress. And Frederick Douglass is a point of great pride both to Washingtonians and to Marylanders, and he, in some sense, symbolizes the unity and the solidarity between Maryland and Washington, D.C. He was born a slave on the Eastern Shore at the Wye plantation.
RASKINHe escaped to Baltimore, where he worked. He became a national abolitionist leader in oratory, of course, and ended up becoming the marshal of the District of Columbia and occupied other offices there and still has, you know, kind of family scattered around our region. So I think it's a big deal for Frederick Douglass to go up in the United States Capitol.
SHERWOODHalf a loaf. You have two statues, which is, as Kojo mentioned, is what every state has. What would you suggest the city do with Pierre L'Enfant statue? I have my idea. If I were an activist as opposed to a balanced journalist, I would drag it down to the mall and have the mayor try to forcibly insert it into Congress and see what they do with it rather than lying down the street, being wrecked. That's what I would do if I weren't a moderate, middle-of-the-road journalist. What do you think should be done with Pierre?
RASKINAha. You know, I hadn't thought about it, Tom. It reminds me of when I was in college, there was a storm that toppled over the statue of Louis Agassiz, who is a famous racist scientist, at Harvard. And the late great Stephen Jay Gould said, when the statue tumbled in the sidewalk, that he always preferred Agassiz in the concrete than the abstract. But, you know, look, I think that D.C. should be treated the same way that the states are treated for this purpose.
SHERWOODOoh, that means he's for commuter tax.
NNAMDIUh-oh. You're talking to a Maryland elected official.
SHERWOODThat's -- that included commuter tax?
SHERWOODReciprocal income tax policy?
RASKINThe way that that works in the places that have it like New York, New Jersey, is it's negotiated among the jurisdictions. And so...
SHERWOODAll right. None imposed like a fiat.
RASKINYeah. So I would say that whatever is negotiated among the jurisdictions is what we should have.
NNAMDIIt's not two seats in the Senate and the seat in the House. It is one statue in Statuary Hall. But is this a victory, if you will, that should be celebrated in the District?
RASKINI absolutely think so. You know, this reminds of the debate over the Washington Redskins name. And, you know, I'm a lifelong Redskins fan, and I'm thrilled about what's happening with the team. And it would be a great moment to abandon that name and create a new name inspired by Frederick Douglass, something like The Liberators or The Emancipators, which I think was the name of his newspaper.
RASKINThere are lots of things that we could do. But Frederick Douglass, you know, as much play as he gets, is still very much an unsung resource and treasure to our area, and so, you know, we can't say enough about him.
NNAMDIWho should have probably been in Statuary Hall anyway, not just for being a resident of the District of Columbia.
RASKINNationally, yeah. I mean -- and in fact, if you look at the statues in Statuary Hall, he arguably is the person who belongs there the most in terms of being a national leader and catalytic change in the history of the country.
NNAMDIWell, on to Maryland. The presidential election may not be much in doubt in Maryland this fall, but voters will have plenty of questions to answer on Election Day. They'll decide the fate of the state's same-sex marriage and DREAM Act laws, its new congressional map, its gambling program. Which way do you think the wind is blowing on any or all of those questions right now?
RASKINWell, let's see. I think the big and altogether positive surprise, looking at it nationally, is that the marriage equality question is going so well right now. Remember, it's never passed at the polls before in, I think, its 30 times it's been put to the voters as a measure, and it's never passed. But...
NNAMDII think you got a boost from the Democratic National Convention…
RASKINAbsolutely. I think we got a huge boost from President Obama, who took a very clear and courageous stand on it and said he stands with marriage equality like Vice President Biden, like President Clinton, like everybody else at the convention. Even Vice President Cheney, by the way, is in favor of marriage equality now. And George W. Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, has spoken out for it. So we're seeing a huge upsurge of support for equality. It's an issue where you can feel public opinion changing almost on a daily basis. Republican...
SHERWOOD...convention muted whatever. There were bits and pieces of it that was social issues popping up. They were pretty...
RASKINAnd that's very telling.
SHERWOODYes, I thought so.
RASKINIt's very telling that they don't see a lot of political traction and mileage in going after marriage equality anymore. And we're seeing huge support from Republicans in Montgomery County, independents across the state. And what's interesting is the DREAM Act also seems to be gathering wide support across the state because people think it's fair to give these kids -- who've grown up in Maryland, whose parents have been filing their taxes -- a shot just to go to the community colleges at in-state tuition rates.
RASKINThey already can go. It's just that they can't afford to go because they're paying the rate of out-of-state students. And so it says if you grow up here, you live here, you graduated from our schools, you can go if you can afford to pay the in-state tuition rate.
SHERWOODIt's somewhat distasteful that we have to have votes on civil rights issues like marriage equality or the ability to go to a community college.
RASKINI'd go further. I'd say it's wrong, but the Supreme Court has not acted yet. Now the Supreme Court seems like it might be on the verge of doing something about marriage equality, but we're not quite there yet. Yeah, I mean, look, I think it's a naked violation of equal protection to say we're going to set up this institution that's got hundreds of rights and duties and privileges built into it that families need that's, in some sense, the pillar -- the social pillar of society.
RASKINAnd yet we're going to exclude a population of millions of people across the country from it because of who they choose to marry and who they choose to love. And, you know, we will look back on this time as a great moment that we're finally breaking through all of the prejudice and bigotry around the nation.
NNAMDIOur guest is Jamie Raskin. He is a member of the Maryland Senate. He's a Democrat from Montgomery County. I've been looking at the dueling commercials on casino gambling coming to Prince George's County. On the one hand, one commercial says that the Baltimore Sun newspaper said that the promises made by casino gambling's advocates and supporters are exaggerated.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, I see casino gambling's commercials telling me that they're going to be helping little children, old people. They're going to be bringing education to the state. Which way do you think this one will turn?
RASKINWell, the voters, the last time this was at the ballot, did approve the slots gambling by 58 percent. Not in my District. I voted against it. And I've always thought that as a form of economic development, it's a low road because it doesn't increase the pie. It just slices the pie up differently. And generally, it means that wealth is flowing upwards. On the other hand, I've got to say we have not put forward enough other kinds of economic development projects.
RASKINAnd that message is getting true to people that there will be several thousand jobs involved in this project. And so, you know, if I had to guess, I would suspect that it would pass. I don't think it's going to pass in my district. And I think we would much prefer to see a different direction for economic development on our state.
SHERWOODWell, the state of Maryland is certainly surrounded, you know, by West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware, which are heavy in making all these former slots parlors into full-fledged casinos. City of Washington's not going to have one because Congress probably wouldn't allow it, and Virginia shows no interest in it. But, you know, if this were to pass, there's going to be a huge battle over how that casino gets built at National Harbor or somewhere else.
RASKINYeah. Well, and I think we're already seeing the different casino concerns dueling both in Annapolis and now statewide with all the TV ads that Kojo references. I mean, look, this is a national trend. I mean, Massachusetts just went to it. And again, I think we've got to look at it in a national context. We've not come up with other meaningful forms of economic development, and so many of the states are lunging towards the casino gambling. And obviously, there is a kind of race to the bottom.
RASKINAnd one of the things that moves people about this is, look, if our people are just going to be going and spending their money in West Virginia or Delaware, why not keep it here? But at that point, you know, you are talking about a kind of shrinking or steady pie.
SHERWOODBut you could also have any number of thousands of Virginians who in their heart of hearts want to gamble. And they could just go right across the Wilson Bridge and pop right into National Harbor. And it'll be -- it's like our baseball team in Washington. I think one statistics had 60 percent of the people come from Virginia. I see that as kind of a commuter tactic.
NNAMDIFootball team similar, too.
SHERWOODBut they play out in...
SHERWOOD...you know, it's a Virginia corporation named for Washington playing in Maryland.
NNAMDII shouldn't have gotten you started.
SHERWOODDon't get me started on that. But it would be -- I can see the economics of a casino getting the 20 million visitors who come to Washington, right down 295. People in Alexandria and other places come right over to Wilson Bridge.
RASKINWell, and I think that's an...
SHERWOODI can see an economic argument for one.
RASKINYeah. And that's the argument that I think moved a bunch of my colleagues, which is, you know, you've got millions of people come in and visit the nation's capital. And if you can get a water taxi traffic going from downtown Washington, you know, out to National Harbor...
SHERWOODWe have express buses to New York for eight bucks. You can have an express bus to the National Harbor.
RASKINYeah. You know, and the thing that people don't like about it...
SHERWOODWe just (unintelligible).
RASKIN...is the idea that we're preying on our own citizenry. And, you know, there are people who are nervous that, you know, it does lead to bankruptcies and family dysfunction.
SHERWOODYou can see -- you can go watch people play the lottery and the slots and they pour money in. They buy $200 tickets on Powerball drawings and would -- barely improving their chances to win with 200 tickets than they had with one, and they spend money.
NNAMDII wanted to get back to the ads I've been seeing for a while because ballot questions are not subject to fundraising limits in Maryland. How do see money affecting this process?
RASKINWell, money is going to be central to the process, especially because the ballot is so complicated and there are so many things going on there that it's going to take a lot of money to pierce the sound barrier, remove people. Now, I got to say on the marriage equality question, you know, the pro forces, which I'm part, have done a very good job educating and moving people. So we're hoping that people are going to be resistant to a last-minute blitz of anti-marriage propaganda that might be coming in.
RASKINBut I think that like on the casino question, I think that the money is going to be very important, and there are dueling, you know, casino interest that are pumping a lot of money in on both sides. Now, the Supreme Court said -- this was a long time ago before Citizens United -- that corporations have a right to spend to the heavens on ballot questions as opposed to candidate races. But we're going to be seeing, you know, hundreds of millions -- billions of dollars spent in the candidate races. And that is going to be an important part of what happens in the presidential election in November.
NNAMDIHave you pointed out that there are casinos in Maryland that object to the casinos going to Prince George's County (unintelligible) ?
SHERWOODYes. In Arundel, Maryland Live's afraid it'll Maryland kind of barely alive.
SHERWOODBut -- now, you've made me forget the question I was going to ask. Oh, yes, the ballot. Has the ballot yet been printed in Maryland?
RASKINI don't think it's been printed. The ballot language has been approved.
SHERWOODWhat is the ballot language for marriage equality, same sex? Is it a simple question, are you for it or against it? Or is there convoluted questions? I'm just thinking it's going to be a lot...
RASKINNo. The secretary of state in the State Board of Elections did an excellent job of making it very clear and transparent. I don't have the language in front of me, but essentially it says, you know, do you favor giving gay and lesbian couples an equal right to marry in the state without requiring any church to engage in any marriage ceremony that they don't want to perform?
SHERWOODAnd the DREAM act itself, I bet to get that to a ballot statement is got to be fairly difficult, too. Is that...
RASKINYeah. I think they were also admirably concise and cogent in dealing with the language there. But that also says, you know, should in-state tuition rates apply for community college students who are undocumented, you know, so long as they can demonstrate their parents have been filing taxes, they registered for the draft and so on.
SHERWOODThis ballot will be so complicated and so long actually that it could discourage some people and could cause lines more so than normal for people voting the presidential race. People want to be vote in blue state Maryland for Obama or whatever. You're going to have a lot of questions. I can't think of any other Maryland ballot that's been this inclusive of so many different thing.
RASKINYeah. I mean, it is a new trend that we're seeing. And, you know, the Republican Party has not seen success at the polls in terms of getting people elected. So this is part of their effort to say, well, let's put particular issues to the people to see if we can tease out our voters. It will make the lines longer on Election Day and, you know, we encourage everybody to educate themselves before they get there so they don't have to spend that much time.
SHERWOODAnd you have early voting...
SHERWOODAnd early voting, too, right? Don't you have early voting in Maryland?
RASKINAnd we have early voting. And so people can use the early voting option as well.
NNAMDIThere has been some talk of you making a run for attorney general for the state of Maryland. But in an interview in January of this year, you said that while you were considering it, you had a lot to think about. What are your thoughts now and what will be the factor that pushes you to or not to start this campaign?
RASKINWell, no, I'm planning to run for reelection at the state's Senate, Kojo. I, you know, I was obviously flattered when people were suggesting I do it. My friend Doug Gansler is off running for governor, so somebody needs to do that job. And it is a job that may be of interest to me one day, but I just became the majority whip of the Senate. I love my committee, the judicial proceedings. I love representing my constituents in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
RASKINAnd as you know, I'm also a law professor at AU, and I get to teach. I get to write. And I've got a lot of other projects going, so it's not the right time for me to think about a statewide run.
NNAMDIJamin Raskin, he is a member of the Maryland Senate. He's a Democrat from Montgomery County, who, for the time being, we have not been able to push into running for attorney general.
SHERWOODWe don't have -- we only have 30 seconds left. Actually about the speed cameras in Prince George's County will now have cameras watching the cameras 'cause they keep -- they're being vandalized. You have...
RASKINWhich cameras are going to watch those cameras?
SHERWOODThat's right, I know.
SHERWOODIt's going to be like a...
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He is the watcher of the cameras watching the cameras. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Do you return to full-time work next week?
SHERWOODI will return to the office. I can't say I'll be working full time.
NNAMDIThank goodness. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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