D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser joins us to discuss a brewing scandal over top officials getting preferential treatment in the school lottery from the former schools chancellor. Plus, Kojo and Tom interview Virginia's Lt. Governor and gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam.
Washington voters keep a longtime Democratic activist on the D.C. Council. Montgomery County gives its bag tax policy second thoughts. And Arlington County pushes forward with a streetcar project, despite being rejected for federal funding. 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
- Walter Smith Executive Director, D.C. Appleseed
- Roger Berliner Montgomery County Councilmember (D-District 1)
Featured Video Clip
Metro told Montgomery County officials it won’t operate the $120 million Silver Spring Transit Center, citing design flaws in the hub, which is already over budget and two years behind schedule.
Montgomery County Council Member Roger Berliner (D-District 1) said he and his colleagues learned of Metro’s plan from an article in The Washington Post. Berliner called the decision “shocking and surprising,” but added that construction issues “can and will be fixed.” On WMATA backing out of the transit center, Berliner said, “it’s not like they can claim they have no responsibility…To wash their hands of this at this moment in time and say this is all on you, I promise you our county will fight that if necessary.”
Politics Hour News Quiz
Test your knowledge of the week’s local headlines and happenings.
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 who voted so early in D.C.'s last election that people thought he was a late voter in the previous election. Since we have these elections, it seems like about once every two weeks right now.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis one, Tom Sherwood, had a particularly low turnout, under 10 percent. It was never anticipated that the turnout would be high. However, it was quite low, and ultimately, the winner turned out to be the incumbent, Anita Bonds. One of the early favorites, Patrick Mara, of the Republican Party, ended upcoming in third. And Elissa Silverman who, everybody seems to agree, run a very effective campaign, managed to come in second.
MR. TOM SHERWOODI think the big news of it, of this election was the failure of Pat Mara to -- before the election, he was quite confident he'd identified about 17 to 18,000 votes he thought he would need. He thought the Republican Party sent out absentee ballot applications to the party members saying: Look, just send this in.
MR. TOM SHERWOODYou'll get a ballot in the mail. Then you can vote. You don't even have to go in. I mean, they had done a lot of things, and then he just got lower turnout. I mean it was extraordinary that Pat Mara had failed to even match what he had gotten in the biggest race. But maybe running three times is not the greatest thing. And you're right.
MR. TOM SHERWOODElissa Silverman, who was here on this program on your two-hour forum, did a very good job of going around the city and the city wards and offering a new image for the city -- younger, more progressive, all those things that she thought would do well. And what I like to call the dog-part vote, in fact, turned out for her because she had a breath of understanding the city and where we need to go or what we should do. And a lot of people like her and personality but...
NNAMDISupporters were a bit miffed because they felt that the narrative that was carried in some of the media was a narrative that said this is going to be a race between Anita Bonds and Patrick Mara. That narrative clearly turned out to be wrong, like so much else of what is reported in advanced of elections in the city.
SHERWOODYou know, there was mainstream media reporting, you know, when I did my reports, I tried very on the stories that I did just simply to say there was a race, you know, these six people I tried not to say there was a front-runner because there was no indices to which to say there was a front-runner. You could look at money, but then Matthew Frumin would be good and all that.
SHERWOODBut in fact, Anita Bonds, who was -- came under withering criticism for what she said on this program about wanting voters -- voters wanting someone who look like them, meaning African-Americans, in fact, carried the African-American parts of the city to win the election.
NNAMDIVoters in those wards I think got the message that the campaign intended for them to get about that race.
SHERWOODWell, I think the campaign -- I mean, I don't think -- I know in fact that there was an effort to get the African-American vote out for Anita because that's where she was known. Some people criticized her for not coming to some of the forums, but they were in parts of the city where she had very little hope of getting votes.
SHERWOODShe walked back a little of her comments about voters, you know, wants someone who looks like them, saying she'd represent all the people in her -- in the city, not just African-Americans. And it's interesting now to see whether Anita who has to run for re-election on April the 1st of next year, see what she does to broaden that appeal and erase some of that image.
NNAMDITom Sherwood has already voted in that election.
SHERWOODI'm preparing. I believe in voting. I voted the first day.
NNAMDIBut Anita Bonds is well known in the city as a longtime Democratic political operative. So there is not likely to be a great deal of speculation over what kind of councilmember she's likely to be.
SHERWOODWell, she's a smart person. I think -- I don't think we can pigeonhole her as a automatic vote for the old guard. I do think she's a progressive person, so I think -- and that's where the Council is moving even with its 7-6 majority white membership. But I mean just to see what she does, having given the chance now to run for a full term, less than a year from now.
SHERWOODCan we just -- can I just mention...
SHERWOOD...George Jones before we get too far?
NNAMDIWell, not yet. Let's...
NNAMDI...finish with the politics first because I'm wondering if this is of any particular significance for the Republican Party. Or was this just Patrick Mara's loss?
SHERWOODWell, I think the Republican Party -- the city heads of -- of course, was is it -- 30,000? How many voters there are to the alleged 505,000 registered voters. I'm really skeptical of that number. I think the Republican Party has no obvious candidates who can step up citywide. Carol Schwartz was a significant player for a very long time. David Catania was a Republican, but he switched to independent. And so there's -- just at this moment, there's no one who can grab the mantle for this party so...
NNAMDIAnd I guess congratulations are in order for Anita Bonds. Now that we've dealt with that, on to George Jones.
SHERWOODHe just died today. He's one of the all-time greats, country music singers, an incredible voice. And if you hate country music, you can't stand what I'm about to say. But I grew up in the South and listening to country music and still do.
NNAMDIYou grew up in the South? That's such a surprise.
SHERWOODI did. I'd like to point out I'm still in the South here in the District of Columbia. We're below the Mason-Dixon Line.
SHERWOODAnd George Jones, his remarkable life with Tammy Wynette and the ups and downs, what he lived and what he's saying about, just an extraordinary artist in this country.
SHERWOODThank you for letting me mention him.
NNAMDIHe will be missed. But last week, we omitted to mention the passing of Joe Yeldell. Joseph Yeldell, who had been a political player in the District over a period of maybe four decades or so and who, for a while, was the go-to guy in District of Columbia government if you wanted to get anything done.
SHERWOODYes. And Joe, he had a tremendous turnout for his funeral at the Springfield Baptist Church, I believe it was. And I didn't get to go, but it was a great -- many people were there. Joe got into some legal trouble but was acquitted of it later on in his late terms. But, you know, he was just -- he was someone who wanted the city -- he wanted to be involved in the city. And if you were involved in the city, you had to know Joe Yeldell.
SHERWOODAs a reporter for The Post, I would try to ask him, what do you do? And he would say -- at one point, he was the head of the automatic data processing. And so he would just say, ADP. So we got -- for decades, I would look at him. I would say, what are you doing? And he'd say, ADP. And so then we just reduced it. I would see he might go, ADP. And he'd go, ADP. He did not talk to the media very much.
NNAMDIYeah. But he talked to the people who had influence in this town 'cause (unintelligible).
SHERWOODYes, he did. That's why he had influence.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, he is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Joining us in studio is Walter Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Walter, welcome. Good to see you.
MR. WALTER SMITHThank you very much.
NNAMDIDo you have any reflection at all on the election that we just had this past week?
SMITHWell, I do.
NNAMDII knew you did.
SMITHWell, I'll mention the fact that the voters of the District of Columbia overwhelmingly supported the budget autonomy referendum. Every ward went huge for it.
SHERWOODEighty percent or more.
SMITHEighty percent or more. And it's great. And it's a great statement, I think, that the voters supported. And I think it's going to help move things along on the Hill to get this city local control of its local budget.
NNAMDIAnd why does Walter Smith think that? Because he is one of the architects of this whole strategy, but getting it past D.C. voters may be the easier part. Now the matter is before Congress, who still has the power to rebuke D.C.'s referendum. It, of course, has to be disapproved by both houses of Congress, and signed by the president, if it is not, to make it. What are your expectations for the next part of the process?
SMITHWell, I think, right now, it looks unlikely that there's going to be a movement to overturn this. And even if there were such a movement, it would be difficult to succeed. Congress itself, in the Home Rule Act, made it hard for itself to overturn these things when the people pass something. In fact, in the history of home rule, there had been about 5,000 pieces of legislation or referendum or initiatives go up to the Hill for review.
SMITHOnly 24 efforts to overturn and only three were ever overturned. And in this situation, we already know there's bipartisan support for budget autonomy and the president strongly supports it. So I think the chances that it will be overturned are slim, not impossible, but slim.
NNAMDII was about to say -- Tom will say it, no.
SHERWOODWhat about being replaced? Darrell Issa who has supported some versions of budget autonomy -- it says he's working on his own bill. And it could -- and I guess you wouldn't care if it has the same freedoms in it. But he says that, you know, he can move his own bill. I'm just not certain that the Congress will allow the voter referendum to go forward when he can just do it himself.
SMITHWell, they may. And -- but this budget autonomy referendum has always been what we called a two-track strategy. We were hoping there were two chances to get this done. And it looks so far, and Mrs. Norton made statements about this yesterday. It looks so far as if the referendum is actually spurring more conversations about moving affirmative legislation on the Hill to give the city budget autonomy.
SMITHI actually heard a report today that Mr. Issa actually hopes to move his own bill, get it to the president within the 35 days. So the result of the people of the city voting in favor of this is bringing visibility to the issue and is making things happen.
NNAMDIDarrell Issa is -- for those who may not be aware of -- the Republican member who is chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Tom.
SHERWOODJust -- the city has a annual budget of about $10 billion.
SHERWOODOf that, about 6 billion is moneys, revenues locally raised through taxing policies in the District.
SHERWOODAbout 4 billion is federal programs, Medicaid and other things that all the states -- other states get.
SHERWOODSo this legislation, this referendum, if it's approved by the Congress or the Darrell Issa version, would allow the city to, each year, spend its entire $10 billion budget or simply allow it to spend its 6 billion of locally-raised funds every year without Congressional approval...
SMITHIt's the 6 billion.
SMITHIt's the 6 billion. It's an effort by the city to say, we ought to be able to spend our own locally-raised dollar the way we want to. But the last thing you said is important. Under the referendum that was passed, there would still be this 30 days of what you call passive review, which means after the city passes its budget each year, unless the Congress affirmatively overturns it and the president signs it, it would become final, which is a huge advance from where we are right now.
SHERWOODBut it -- but the federal $4 billion -- if -- part of the problem has been that when there has been the gridlock on Capitol Hill and threats of shutdowns...
SHERWOOD...this city has been caught up in that and had to face a federal shutdown because all the money goes through Congress. What's going to happen if you have control over the 6 billion, but then there's a shutdown of the federal government, so the $4 billion, it seems to me, is going to be a very confused governing situation.
SMITHWell, actually, I don't think it will be, because I think one of the primary selling points of getting budget autonomy for the city is that we would not be at risk of the district government shutting down every time the federal government is at risk of shutting down.
SMITHIf this referendum passes up on the Hill, or some comparable version that the Congress itself moves, passes and the president signs it, we will then not be subject to shutting down the District government because our own locally-raised dollars that we want to be able to spend the way the city has said they want it spent will be free to spend them, even if the federal government shuts down.
SHERWOODBut would you be able to spend the 4 billion in federal fund, it's a billion in Medicaid funding?
SMITHNo, but we can't change that. We've never said we could force the federal government.
SHERWOODSo we'd have city workers, government workers who are in fact funded by the federal funds...
SHERWOOD...would not be able to do their jobs, but city workers funded by local dollars would do their job.
SHERWOODIt sounds like the Prince George's County's school superintendent thing -- a giraffe on a donkey.
SMITHWell, but everyone in the country, when it comes to the federal...
SHERWOODWho had the same issue.
SMITH...is at risk. We just want to be as good for everyone else is right now and have control over our own locally raised dollars.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you have questions or comments for Walter Smith. He is the executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. And right now, we're talking about the referendum on budget autonomy in the District that was passed overwhelmingly in this past Tuesday's election, and we'll soon be getting to what might be the implications of that. But, gentlemen, first, I'd like you to put on your headphones because some guy named Ilir in Washington, D.C. is calling us on the phone. This is probably...
SHERWOODThat's probably a crank phone call.
NNAMDIThis is probably Ilir Zherka, former head of DC Vote. Ilir, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. ILIR ZHERKACongratulations to Walter Smith, DC Vote, DC Appleseed and to Washington, D.C. You know, it's fantastic that the people came out and voted so strongly for the referendum. I was thrilled to hear that Darrell Issa's thinking about moving his own bill. And I think that this represents not only a victory for the District, but a new strategy in the fight for full democracy. So I'm excited about that. I'm excited about what comes next on voting rights and on other issues. And I'm especially excited for Walter.
NNAMDIIlir, I want you to stay on line because I wanted to discuss with Walter Smith what may be coming next on voting rights. Walter Smith, let's say this process plays out exactly how you wanted to and D.C. does obtain budget autonomy through this process. What kind of template do you think that this would set for pushing forward on other issues that have been tangled up in Congress, specifically congressional representation for the District?
SMITHWell, I don't want to get out ahead of the strategy here. But there have been conversations that people have had about the possibility of looking hard at other things that could be done locally. I really think the inability of the city to be able to move things up on The Hill affirmatively led people to start looking at whether or not there is authority in the Home Rule Act and in the people of the District to move democracy forward in ways that is not before. And if the budget autonomy approach works, I do think there are other things we can be looking at.
SHERWOODLet's send a cold chill through our suburban listeners. You know, on this program, Darrell Issa, the person who has a lot of control, has talked openly about exploring a commuter tax for the city rather than having Maryland and Virginia squeeze all the money out of the District. So that's an interesting thing which could happen in the future. And also on this very program, Sen. Tim Kaine from Virginia sat right where you're sitting and said that he would support statehood for the District of Columbia, which would really change the economic balance of power.
SMITHIt would. It would. But can I just say...
SHERWOODSo there is a potential, rosy future...
SMITHYeah, there is. Right.
SHERWOOD...starting with this budget autonomy.
SMITHBut can I just say for...
SHERWOODNow, back to Earth.
SMITHWell, yeah. But if there are members of Congress from Virginia and Maryland listening in, one of the things we've done in this new approach is to try to adhere closely to what the Home Rule Act permits and what it doesn't permit. And there is a list of things that are prohibited for the Council and for the people here to vote to change.
NNAMDIAnd we're not...
SMITHAnd the commuter tax is on the list of prohibited things.
SHERWOODBut if we were to become a state, that would not be -- that would be applicable.
SMITHWell, yes, if we were to do that.
NNAMDIBut here -- and, Ilir, you need to hear this, too. I'm looking at an article in last October by Emma Dumain in Roll Call, which says, the Home Rule Charter forbids amendments via referendum on issues such as revising the Height Act, instituting a D.C. commuter tax or establishing local voting rights. Are we sure about that?
SMITHI would say we're not sure about that. Emma always get things right. But that one, I think, is debatable. I'd like to have a debate on that one.
ZHERKAKojo, I think the important here is that the D.C. democracy movement is being very creative and also very aggressive in pursuing full democracy for residents of the District of Columbia. And that's the lesson that came out of the vote on Tuesday. This is a movement that is alive and well and is going to continue to thrive.
ZHERKAAnd people up on Capitol Hill ought to take note because, you know, I think a lot of people figured that they have the District of Columbia in a corner because every time we try to move a bill in Congress, they put riders on or at least threaten riders. And what they need to understand is that there are alternative avenues to success, and this movement is going to take all of those avenues that, as Walter said, are legitimate and possible on the law. But we will explore all those avenues.
NNAMDIWell, you said we even though you are no longer technically head of DC Vote.
ZHERKAI'm a supporter and I'm a member of DC Vote.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much, Ilir Zherka.
SMITHKojo, can I just add one thing to what Ilir is saying? I would not want people on The Hill and other folks listening in to think this is, in any way, a confrontational or in-your-face movement at all.
SHERWOODWhich is what Mayor Gray thought it was.
SMITHWhat we are trying to do here is advance things for which, I think, there is already bipartisan support on The Hill but, for lots of reasons, simply could not move. And we want to find ways to actually use powers locally to move it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ilir Zherka. You mentioned that Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said that this has led to greater conversation about D.C. budget autonomy and the status of D.C. in general. Has she said specifically whether she now favors this way of getting budget autonomy?
SMITHWell, I think that Mrs. -- as you know, Mrs. Norton came out and urged people to vote for it. And in her latest statement, I see that she sees this advancing the ball for us. She had reservations about it, and they were legitimate, I think. There were legal questions. There were political questions. This was always a tricky thing to do. But from our viewpoint, so far, it is working.
SMITHPeople thought there would be a lawsuit. There hasn't been. People thought the referendum would be stopped. It was not. People thought you wouldn't be able to get folks to understand and vote in favor of it. They did. And right now, it seems to be spurring interest on The Hill that wasn't there before to move an affirmative bill. And there doesn't seem to be a movement to overturn this. All good stuff.
SHERWOODThe appropriate committees, the House appropriation and the Senate appropriation, I guess, are the subcommittees involved in this. Both spokespersons, one Republican, one Democratic, said that it's "premature to speculate" what's going to happen going forward with the budget. And I'll prefer independence instead of autonomy 'cause it's a horrible word But -- so it's not clear yet...
NNAMDIYou did -- you get to decide what's a horrible word in the business?
SHERWOODAutonomy. I ask people stories for Channel 4. I said, do you support budget autonomy? And can you tell me what it is? You should have seen the looks on their faces. Only because I'm a nice person that I'm not putting them on TV.
NNAMDIIt's been removed from the Sherwood dictionary. Go ahead.
SHERWOODBut it's -- I'm not confident. I have fully expected Congress to intervene in the same-sex marriage thing, and it did not.
SHERWOODI mean, so that's a good precedent for this city going forward. And the city does have a very strong budget now. It's one of the most -- one of the healthiest budgets in the country for other cities and even states. So there's a lot of positive energy going forward. I just -- I would just want to see Darrell Issa pull a trigger, one way or another rather than just let this -- the more you wait, the longer that something else could come up.
SHERWOODThe Republicans in the House, you know, fearing that they won't be able to attach writers on abortion funding and federal funds and things like that. I can just see roadblocks developing if this doesn't move fairly quickly. What the time table on your mind?
SMITHWell, the 35 days.
SMITHBut those are legislative days.
SHERWOODBut Issa suggested he can move it faster.
SMITHAnd maybe he can. Well, but what he suggested he can move fast...
NNAMDIFor those who don't understand what you mean by 35 days, lawmakers on Capitol Hill will have 35 legislative days to review the referendum language. Any action to overturn it must be taken during that (word?).
SHERWOODIt's more like two months as opposed because you don't count weekends and holidays whenever they're not in session, which is often.
SMITHOur best guess, Kojo, is that the 35 legislative days will run in August -- by August. So by August, this will be the law, and under the legislation that the counsel passed, it is to become effective Jan. 1 of next year, which means there is a possibility, and I know the Council is considering this, we can actually make this the law in the District of Columbia sometime during fiscal '14.
SHERWOODI talked about the positives a moment ago. Here's a negative: The U.S. attorney is still investigating the mayor of this city for his shadow campaign of 2010. If the U.S. attorney were to move and some -- take some action against the city mayor -- and I know you can't comment on whether you expect that to happen or not. Well, let's just say something happens and the mayor is charged with crimes or the mayor is forced to leave office like Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. That would blow a hole in your plan, wouldn't it?
SMITHI don't think it would. I think this isn't about who happens to be in office here in the city. I think this is about the people of the District of Columbia through their elected representatives, whoever they may be, having local control of local dollars. And as you said, this city has a very strong record with regard to managing its budget and its financial affairs.
SHERWOODCertainly since 1999.
SMITHAbsolutely. Better than almost any jurisdiction in the country. And that is what we're looking at.
NNAMDIOne more matter before you go, Walter Smith. There's talk on the D.C. Council of moving forward with a proposal that would reduce the authority of the city's attorney general when that becomes an elected office next year. D.C. Appleseed has testified multiple times against this idea. Why do you feel so strongly about it? And what do you expect will come out of the process?
SMITHWell, I don't know what's come out of the process because the Council is looking at it. But you're right. We have weighed in against this. We think that the Council has spent the last 15 years making the attorney general's office stronger by consolidating legal services in that office. And when the people said we wanted that office to be elected, they wanted it to be independent of the views of the mayor. And that that was part...
SHERWOODAnd the Council.
SMITHAnd the Council. And that was part of strength in the office. What Mr. Nathan has proposed is actually to dramatically downsize the size of the office and to hand authority over the office that is now with the attorney general to the mayor. And in our view, part of the purpose of making the attorney general elected was to do exactly the opposite of that. So I don't think this is a good idea, trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist before the people even have a chance, for the first time, next April, to elect their attorney general. So I'm hopeful the Council is not going to pass this proposal.
SHERWOODI'd like to see them have more power and more power for the attorney general. If you're going to have an election to elect someone, we don't need to elect an administrator. We need someone with authority. And again, we're going to have this election in April, at least the primary. And -- but even now, you know, the new Board of Ethics that Spagnoletti heads over there, it is asking for more power, you know...
SHERWOOD...to recommend removal of public officials, including the elected officials. So there's a move there to get more power there. It seems counterintuitive to take away power from an elected attorney general.
SMITHWell, that's what we think. And you mentioned Mr. Spagnoletti, who is a former attorney general, he actually weighed in against this proposal himself, thought it was a step backwards in the provision of services in the city.
NNAMDIWalter Smith, thank you for joining us.
SMITHAlways a pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIWalter Smith is the executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's a NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for the current newspapers. Tom Sherwood, it seems as if there's a debate going on in the Commonwealth of Virginia about who's raiding the governor's mansion more.
NNAMDIThe chef charged with embezzling from the governor's mansion has, himself, filed a motion in his criminal case, suggesting that Gov. Robert McDonnell's family has taken more than they should from the mansion kitchen themselves, talking about the fact that the governor's wife and the governor's five children took lodging and resources during their residence, bottled waters, cups, Gatorade, taking them to other places, taking them to their college residences, taking them to private parties at Camp Pendleton and the like.
NNAMDIWhat's the difference between living in your home where if you're living in your home and you want to take stuff away for your friends to have a party with, you can easily do that and if you're home happens to be in the governor's mansion?
SHERWOODWell, you know, all of this soap operatic experiences of not only Gov. McDonnell not knowing that his, you know, his wife got -- I mean, his daughter got a $15,000 wedding as gift and what Cuccinelli had to do with his gifts. You know, I'm wondering whether the state of Virginia can actually govern itself and maybe there ought to be a control board just on the courtesy of not being so greedy, you know, just anti-greed.
SHERWOODI mean, it just looks like it's been a candy store there and people have just been taking free airplane rides and free trips, free gifts, free overnight stays, free food. I mean, it's an embarrassment for the state of Virginia, and I think we'll see how it plays out in election. Of course, Mr. McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee...
NNAMDII was about to say it's already playing out in the governor's race.
SHERWOOD...is still trying to explain the cars he was going to build in Virginia but didn't and releasing summaries of this income taxes but not his income taxes. It's really an embarrassment for the state of Virginia which likes to pride itself one of the great places in America.
NNAMDIThe aforementioned Terry McAuliffe has now a proposal saying that no elected official or immediate family member could accept more that $100 worth of gifts from a single donor. Registered lobbyists and companies with registered lobbyists or with business before the state would be banned from giving any gifts other than informational material worth less than $5.
SHERWOODDisclosure is the key issue. I mean, if I can be a little more serious. The real issue here is disclosure. Whether we had it in this city where people were talking about corporate gifting -- and that's one thing Elissa Silverman did -- she ran a very good campaign without corporate contributions. I've always said as a reporter, I think we need to have full disclosure when public officials receive any private gift.
SHERWOODIt ought to be disclosed in some ways so people can have media and individuals and organizations can have a real look at what people are getting. In Virginia, it's just, you know, they have no restrictions on money that can be given in campaigns. They have very few restrictions on money that can be given to family members or associates. It's just -- it's really a cesspool of unregulated conduct, and this -- we're now seeing some of the examples of it.
NNAMDIAnd finally this before we get to our next guest. Everyone is shocked, shocked, shocked at what's going on in the Baltimore Detention Center where it would appear that several female guards have been involved with several inmates, one in particular inmate that is Tavon White fathering five children by four guards at the center, and 13 guards are now arrested in what apparently was a scheme. Now, I say shock, shock because people tend to know -- people who know prisons a lot -- that the inmates do, in fact, run the institution at most prisons, but this one...
SHERWOODWell, not to this degree. They don't have any...
NNAMDI...seems to be beyond the pale. Yes.
SHERWOODThis is, I mean, I'm still -- I have gone back and reread this story a couple of times in Baltimore, but it's extraordinary. And then, one, is it's laughable, it's ridiculous, it's embarrassing. And again, talk about Virginia being embarrassed. The state of Maryland should be embarrassed about the tales of which have been coming out about these 13 female guards and this gang.
SHERWOODAnd then you more serious, you read this thing called the black gorilla family which is -- turns out to be a nationwide gang in all kinds of prisons. So it's not just embarrassing, but it is just unbelievable where there can be that much loose control of what is supposedly a secure facility.
NNAMDIAnd I suspect...
SHERWOODThere's a great picture of that place in Baltimore. Did you see the picture of it?
NNAMDINo, I didn't.
SHERWOODIt looks like some kind of gothic, you know, cathedral thing with turrets and all kinds of things.
NNAMDIWell, I suspect that if they have a conversation with prison administrators around the country, and this might, in fact, lead to such a conversation, they will understand the extent to which national and some international gangs have influenced in this place.
SHERWOODI just want to say one more thing. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein had the greatest line. He said that these guards were in bed with the gang. And I thought, how literal.
NNAMDIAnd figurative indeed. Joining us in studio now is Roger Berliner. He is a member of the Montgomery County Council. He is a Democrat. Roger Berliner, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. ROGER BERLINERAlways nice to be with you, Kojo.
SHERWOODYeah. Well, we'll see what happens next.
BERLINEROK. I'm leaving.
SHERWOOD(unintelligible) introduction (unintelligible) or their -- does Montgomery County even have -- well, you have that jail. But do you have a prison?
BERLINERWe have one of the cleanest and best run correction operations in the country.
SHERWOODWell, that sounds like a challenge.
BERLINERWell, it's a challenge...
NNAMDIFamous last words.
BERLINERIt's a challenge I would gladly accept.
NNAMDIA challenge to the media to start investigating. Montgomery County currently imposes a five-cent tax on plastic and paper bags issued at pretty much every retail business within its borders. You are part of a group this week that proposed rolling back part of their tax because it's creating, quoting an article by Terrible Turque in The Washington Post -- that would be Bill Turque of The Washington Post -- inconvenience and resentment at non-food stores where people are not used to using reusable bags. How so? And what exactly does your proposal call for doing?
BERLINERWell, one, I was very proud to usher through this bag tax through our County Council last year. We literally are one of the only counties in the entire East to have such a tax. I'm quite proud that we do. But even at the time, I was a little skeptical of the scope of the tax because our goal with respect to this tax is to change people's consciousness in ways in which they say to themselves, OK, if I'm going into a grocery store, I ought to walk in with a reusable bag.
BERLINERI think that's doable. And that's the model that other progressive jurisdictions in the West have basically followed. Our county executives, people said to us, no let's make it broader, let's have it be all retail. And I have to tell you that I think the chances of people having the consciousness of walking into a department store with a reusable bag are slim. And so what happens is you have a well-meaning law that then breeds resentment on vary marginal, environmental gains.
BERLINERAnd so my proposal and the proposal of more colleagues -- there are four of us on this bill. I'm somewhat confident that we will pass this -- is basically to say, let's trim this back, which I believe actually strengthens the law, so that it doesn't encompass department stores, clothing stores, jewelry stores, boutique stores and focuses where 99 percent of the plastic that you see in the trees and in our streams come from, which is grocery stores, supermarkets.
SHERWOODYeah. I don't see many shopping bags, you know, with a name and mark, its logo on them in the river.
SHERWOODBut there aren't many shopping bags at all. I mean, it does -- so I do understand that. But as much heartache and interest and fighting that happened here in the city with Tommy Wells about the bag tax, it just seems like it's not even a half step because the real pollution that I see on the roadways of your county and other places and in the rivers are bottles. And there seems to be no political will to go to a bottle bill, to require bottle deposits. Is that ever going to happen?
BERLINERI don't know, and our county has sort of mixed feelings about it because we have a very successful recycling effort under way in our county that captures a lot of these bottles. And so we're pretty confident that we're doing a good job on bottles. We understand the deposit conversation, but we feel on that piece we do a good job, and, quite frankly, we're at the forefront nationally on how we protect our waters and streams across the board.
NNAMDIWell, I know you had misgivings in the first place when you passed this legislation about allowing it to be expanded to all kinds of stores that were not selling any kinds of food substances at all. But your decision now to come up with this proposal to narrow it, is that based on any data or simply based on, like, anecdotal evidence that people who are going to other kinds of stores are calling you up and saying, Roger, you got to put a stop to this?
BERLINERWell, I have to say it's based on human experience, and it's based on -- I take seriously my job as a legislator. And I feel like this is an area in which we are going to need to legislate in the future in the environment, and government's going to have to be at the forefront. And if we squander political capital on marginal environmental gains, I feel like we're not going to be able to do the heavy lifting that we're going to have to do in the future.
BERLINERSo, as a legislator, I look at this and I say to myself, it was a bridge too far. We need to correct it, and, yes, we don't have the "data." We do have plenty of anecdotal information, and we have human experience. And so I just ask you, Kojo: When's the last time you walked into your favorite clothing store with a reusable bag? And it just doesn't happen. And so it breeds the kind of resentment that I think corrodes the capacity of government to do the things government has to do.
NNAMDIBut I haven't given you your answer to your rhetorical question to me of when is the last time...
BERLINERAll right. OK. All right. Do you?
NNAMDIOK. The answer is never. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to comment on the bag tax or anything else Montgomery County. We have such a comment from Diana in Montgomery County, Md. Diana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANAHi. Thank you, Kojo. Great show, as always. And hello to Roger. Diana Conway, and I'm calling a little bit to challenge a bit of your numbers. You said 99 percent of bags come from takeout? Is that a verifiable number?
BERLINERActually, Ms. Conway and I know each other very well. I didn't say takeout, basically. And you're right. I probably was gilding the lily a bit. But what I was trying to convey was that almost all the bags that I have experienced in our streams -- and I've walked our streams and cleaned up the streams, as I know you have -- come from grocery stores, 7-Elevens, CVS's, Targets, Wal-Marts of the world, et cetera, and aren't the big paper bags that you typically get in department stores.
BERLINERSo it is -- in my judgment, we are not going to be harming our environment in this particular manner by trimming the bill. But I do appreciate that, yes, it is certainly possible that a bag does exist from one of these department stores.
SHERWOODYou know, we got...
DIANASo let me ask a follow-up question, please.
DIANAOK. So I am actually one of the people who -- while I live in Potomac, I do require my children, if they expect me to buy them clothing at Montgomery Mall, to take one of the bags out of the back of my car and use it. And people are sometimes a little surprised. Then they say, would you like a bag, and they say, no, they're like, oh, you actually have one.
DIANASo I get that, and I understand your desire to make it less offensive and therefore more easy to comply with, I guess, for the ones that are still affected. My question to you, I guess, is if you're rolling it back here, what other environmental steps are you proposing to make up for the loss of sort of environmental consciousness raising that would happen if all stores, all the stores, continue to have that tax and require that behavior?
BERLINERWell, let me just say a couple of things. One, I do believe we're strengthening the law by trimming it in this way, much like if we trim a tree, we strengthen the tree. So I would say to you -- and I do believe it positions us to have a greater chance of having a statewide bill if we have a better model. I would also say that I don't think we're really harming the environment as a function of this.
BERLINERAnd I would say I personally am open to looking at whether or not we should ban plastic as opposed to tax plastic and paper the same, which is what many communities on the West Coast have done. The administration has consistently said that they want to provide an option in this regard, and I understand that. But, really, what we're trying to do is keep plastic out of our streams, and I am going to continue to look at whether or not we can do more in that regard.
NNAMDIDiana, thank you very much for your call. Are you satisfied with the environmental outcomes thus far? Have you been able to measure them? Is the tax doing what it's been trying to?
BERLINERThe tax is doing it, and I think you see that anecdotally as well. And you see that verified in some of our numbers. People are beginning to shift their consciousness, particularly in grocery stores. You know, people like me, sometimes I forget the -- my bag in my car, and I slap myself across the head and say, really, Roger, you can do better than this. I think people are grudgingly accepting that this is what they should do, and that's why I want to keep it where people can shift their consciousness in a positive way as opposed to a negative way where they get resentful.
SHERWOODI know that city had -- the District has -- when they first did this bag tax, actually was distributing free reusable bags. One of the concerns -- and I see this in the stores that I go into, the grocery stores -- is that some of the poorer people who are buying groceries don't, in fact, have the reusable bags. And I don't know how much of an education effort there has been in the city.
SHERWOODI know at the beginning there was 'cause they passed them out by the tens of thousands up here. I think some of the grocery stores even subsidized that. And it seems to me that in some of the poorer neighborhoods, plastic bags still predominate.
BERLINERAnd we did a big educational campaign. I was part of that, and we passed out a lot of bags, and we continue to pass out a lot of bags for precisely that reason.
SHERWOOD'Cause, you know, some of them are expensive. The reusable bags can be -- they started out like 99 cents, and now they're several dollars. And if you're buying food and you're poor, you may not want that bag. You may rather pay the nickel it costs.
NNAMDISpeaking of buying food or -- and buying food and maybe putting the bags in the trunk of your car and the heat in the trunk of the car, it's no surprise that there's been some conservative backlash against bag taxes and fees nationwide. Some conservatives are arguing that one of the worst aspects of the bag tax is how it affects public health.
NNAMDIOne columnist pointing out recently that reusable bags have been linked to outbreaks of norovirus. He cites studies making the claim that when people don't clean them, the bags carry bacteria. What do you make of this particular argument against the movement to reusable bags?
BERLINERKojo, I think you can find a scientist that will make that kind of statement, like you can find a lawyer that can make any kind of credible argument, and you certainly see that in climate change and all sorts of scientific arguments with respect to that. So is it true that if you walk in with a bag that you haven't cleaned and that it's as dirty as can be, does it pose a health risk? Absolutely. So is there some responsibility that comes with having a reusable bag, to make it clean enough so that you don't get sick?
SHERWOODIt's called a washing machine.
NNAMDII was about to say the same responsibility you have...
SHERWOODYou know, those same people are wearing their socks, and I presume they wash their socks. Just make it a policy that when you put your socks in the washer, that you take some of your reusable bags and put them in there. But don't mix up colors with whites.
BERLINERAnd I'm probably the worst offender. My bag is not all that clean.
NNAMDIHere is Belle in Silver Spring, Md. Belle, your turn.
BELLEHello. I just had a quick question about the impact of the potential rollback on the bag tax with regard to places that are not supermarket, which is that so many stores now -- Target and Wal-Mart -- are having big grocery aisles in their stores. And although I actually still buy my food in Hillsborough Commissary, I was wondering how the tax change would affect people who are buying their groceries in a Target-type store.
BERLINERIt would not change for them. This is designed to ensure that any retail operation that sells a significant amount of food like a Target or Wal-Mart -- in fact, over 2 percent of their revenues come from food. They have to tax the bags.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Belle. One more on this issue is Thomas in Bethesda, Md. Thomas, your turn.
THOMASHi. I was just saying that the bag tax changes the mindset on the store owners and -- because if there's a tax on the bag, they're always going to ask you if you want a bag. Before the bag tax, I remember even if I didn't need a bag, you know, if I was going to carry out what I wanted from -- especially from a retail store, they would just kind of put it in a bag whether I wanted it or not.
THOMASSo I'm actually kind of opposed to rolling back to bag tax to stores that don't sell groceries because it does, you know, it changes the mindset, it changes the sort of -- because they want to provide customer service, you know, they want to give you a bag to try and, you know, just make the experience better or something.
NNAMDII wonder even when the bag tax was in place, would that have stopped department stores from offering people bags in which to carry out their items?
BERLINERWell, I'm not going to say that there aren't salutary effects of the broad scope of the bill, OK? Absolutely, you can point to things like that, and I accept them to be true. I just think they're countervailing arguments as to why its breadth is such that it breathes more resentment than positive, but I hear you.
NNAMDIThomas, thank you for your call. Our guest is Roger Berliner. He is a member of the Montgomery County Council. He is a Democrat. Metro is telling Montgomery County that it will not operate the Silver Spring Transit Center because design flaws have made it too expensive to maintain. You have been monitoring this saga of the transit center closely. As a councilmember, how did react upon hearing this news for Metro?
BERLINERWell, one, let me say, I chair our transportation committee. Two, let me say, I learned about it in The Washington Post this morning. And my colleagues and I on the Council are not pleased to have learned about it from The Washington post this morning, given that this was a communication dated April 12. So there are internal conversations taking place as you can imagine.
BERLINERBut basically I find this a little shocking and surprising that Metro would take this posture at this point in time, particularly insofar as Metro has had to sign off on everything that we are doing with this project. And at the end of the day this project is absolutely going to be fixed. And so to take posture now before it's been fixed to suggest that they have no responsibility when they signed off on the design plans, when they design -- signed off on all the changed orders, when we have a memorandum of understanding with them, this is a dog that will not hunt eventually.
NNAMDIWell, let me take Metro's position for one segment here. That is, you don't know infrastructure flaws like we know infrastructure flaws. We have had infrastructure flaws that have turned out to be extremely dangerous that may have ended in causing injury and death to some people. We're not willing to take that chance again.
BERLINERWell, no one should take that chance. OK? I'm not suggesting they should. I am suggesting to you and I believe that Metro understands absolutely that this is going to be fixed, that all the things that we have found out about this facility can be fixed, will be fixed and would be fixed to their satisfaction. And again, it's not like they claim they have no responsibility with respect to this.
BERLINERThis was a partnership in which every part of this project they were involved in. So to wash their hands at this moment in time and say, this is all on you, I promise you, our county will fight that if necessary. It's not a good play.
SHERWOODI don't blame them for trying to do it but it's -- I mean, I just can't believe that if this were in, let's say, another jurisdiction like, say, the District of Columbia, there would be howls of protests, there would be U.S. attorney investigation of who got what moneys and how it all worked out. I mean, this is -- I'm trying to think of what is a bigger embarrassment to the Montgomery County government than this.
SHERWOODHas there been one that I'm not aware of, that I can't recall? I'm just astonished that this has gotten to be so bad. I mean -- and I would look at the comments in various reports and a lot of people are saying, wouldn't it be simpler to tear it down and start over because -- what's the firm, an engineering firm, that did the review the K -- I forgot...
SHERWOODOK. And I read it this morning. And it says, this is our report based on what we can see, not in what we can't see. It's -- are there unseen dangers that can come along and move? I mean, I just found it -- the very first page says this had -- this report does not -- we're not taking any position on things we can't see. It's -- it was an -- it was a scary report.
BERLINERWell, no one is happy, and this has been embarrassment.
SHERWOODWho gets the blame on this?
SHERWOODWho's been fired? Has anyone been fired, moved, reassigned, put in some clean up detail? I know nothing has happened on this.
BERLINERWe'll recognize what the county did, and the county has now said -- our county executive's people have said, and our council has been posing the same questions. All right.
SHERWOODDavid Dise, whose director of General Service.
BERLINERRight. But David Dise is a good man, and David Dise has acknowledged that we're here to do this over again. He would brought in a special management team simply to oversee this project. But this project was given to the leading design firm in the country, one of the leading contractors in the country and one of the leading inspectors in the country. We turned a project over to the best in the country and we expect them to deliver. And with that...
SHERWOODIsn't there -- don't they have a bond or something for this kind of construction so if there's a problem they'll...
BERLINEROh, yes. So this isn't going to fall back on the country in terms of paying for this mess.
BERLINERThat's right. This is going to fall back on the contractors, on the design firm, on the inspectors. So did we perhaps not oversee this to the extent we should have? That's -- it's a fair shot. But in terms of the construction itself, the design itself, you turn it over to the professionals and you expect the professionals to deliver. And in this instance, they didn't, and we're moving forward. And it is fixable, and it will be fixed.
BERLINERWell, we will know soon but...
SHERWOODIt's two years late now, so...
BERLINERIt is two years late. It's over budget. No one's happy. But it will be fixed in -- the fixing will begin this year, and we're crossing our fingers that it could be done this year.
SHERWOODTurn it to a skateboard park.
BERLINERNo. It is going to be a state-of-the-art facility that people will eventually be proud of once we get pass this very embarrassing...
NNAMDIBack to Metro's position. David Dise, the director of the county's Department of General Services, told The Washington Post that Metro maybe playing hardball here and that this is just an opening gambit of negotiations. What would they be trying to negotiate?
BERLINERThey would probably be trying to negotiate whether or not they're responsible for the ongoing maintenance that could occur. So if they take over the building then it's "their building." We turn it over to them. It's been built to their specs. It's been fixed. It's your building now. And they could be saying, you know, what, we'll take the building but we're not going to take the responsibilities of any costs that arises as function of -- if there's some defects that we haven't seen.
BERLINERYeah, some surprises. So...
NNAMDIWhat would be the back-up plan for the county if Metro simply backs out of this? Who would operate the transit center?
BERLINERWe're not going to get there, Kojo. You know, it just not going to happen. This is too important for Metro.
SHERWOODSkateboard park, I'm telling you. It's going to become a skateboard park in Silver Spring.
BERLINERIt is one of the most substantial transit centers in the region, OK, and it's important to Metro...
SHERWOODAmong the ugliest too.
BERLINERBut it will not be -- it will be a real nice one.
BERLINERSo I don't think we're going to get there.
NNAMDIThe project is already some $80 million over budget. County officials have said repeatedly that taxpayers will not be on the hook for repairs. What are your expectation for how that process will play out? And what preparations do you think, for example, the county should be making for the contractor working on this project to take you to court?
BERLINERWell, one, we're meeting with our contractors and the design people now. They met just yesterday. And our hope is that we're going to roll up our sleeves and fix this, and then we'll let the courts decide liability. But everybody is really on board to say, we'll fight the liability issues later. Let's get this done. Let's get this open to the public. Let's fix it. And let's work out our deal with the Metro.
SHERWOODBruce DePuyt just tweeted that, "I'm a certainly enjoying this 'cause it's in Montgomery County, not the District." And I just want to say he's right.
NNAMDIIn addition to which, Sherwood can't even skate. Roger Berliner is a member of the Montgomery Council.
SHERWOODPlanted trees today. We didn't have time to discuss that.
BERLINEROh, that's right. Arbor Day, you know?
SHERWOODI hope they don't fall on this transit center.
NNAMDIRoger Berliner, thank you so much for joining us.
BERLINERAlways nice to be with you.
NNAMDIAs I said, Roger Berliner is a member of the Montgomery County Council. He is a Democrat. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He is an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODAll right. George Jones, take a moment to remember him.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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