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Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell talks with prosecutors as an ethics investigation picks up pace. D.C.’s fire chief continues to take heat from rank and file firefighters and their union. And a drunk driving charge adds to the list of controversies threatening the future of a Republican Maryland lawmaker. 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
- David Grosso Member, D.C. Council (I-At Large)
- Mark Herring Democratic Candidate, Attorney General, Virginia; Member, Virginia Senate (D-District 33, Loudoun/Fairfax)
D.C. Council member (I-At-Large) David Grosso voted in favor of Walmart raising the minimum wage to $12.50. On the Politics Hour, he says he has been fighting Walmart coming to the District for a long time, because he thinks it drives down wages across the city and puts officials in a position where they are giving citizens poor options for employment.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to The Politics Hour, starring Mr. Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Mr. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. And you earned the title Mister in this business after you've been doing it for, shall we say, a while. And Mr. Sherwood has been doing it for a while -- I didn't even realize how long until I discovered it today -- from when you started in Atlanta, correct?
MR. TOM SHERWOODForty-nine years, 1964.
NNAMDIForty-nine years ago. So from now on, he will be known as Mr. Tom Sherwood. Not. But, of course, before we get to our guest, we usually talk about a couple of issues in the news, one of them involving Maryland Delegate Donald Dwyer Jr., who had recently pleaded guilty to drunken boating. And just this past week, he got picked up again with a charge of drunken driving. He's not even been sentenced yet for the drunken boating charge.
NNAMDIThat's gonna happen on Oct. 25. Tom, clearly, there are those who are already calling for his resignation. He has said he will not run again. He has a problem, and that would not be so bad if the problem did not involve endangering the lives of other people.
SHERWOODYeah. This is not funny. You can laugh about -- you know, people usually laugh at drunks, but drunk driving is a horrific thing. It causes mayhem on the streets and in the nation. And Mr. Dwyer clearly has a more serious problem than maybe we thought at the beginning with the first, the drunken boating thing, which got a lot of ridicule. But he has a serious problem, and he should put the people of Maryland first, to get them out of harm's way and then decide what he should do with his life.
NNAMDIOn the first occasion, he quickly apologized, said he was drunk. It was his fault.
SHERWOODAnd he's getting...
NNAMDIOn this occasion, he has not made any public appearances or any public statement since it happened.
SHERWOODYou know, repeat offenders, in the world of drunk driving, is significant. And if he has personal health issues that are affecting him by his drinking, I mean, clearly he should address that as the number one concern for him and his family. But as a representative of the state, the House Speaker Busch, you know, said it's unbecoming of a legislator. Well, that's a polite way of saying it, but he really ought to focus on his personal problems.
NNAMDIOn to the commonwealth of Virginia, where, this week, Gov. McDonnell's attorneys and attorneys for his wife met with prosecutors in the U.S. attorneys' office in an effort to convince them that they should not face criminal charges. The U.S. attorney, Neil MacBride, is quitting at this point. He is retiring. Even though there's work to be done, he says that he doesn't think that he is necessary to do that work at this point.
NNAMDIBut, of course, the notion that the governor and his wife's lawyers are, quote, unquote, according to The Washington Post, "huddling with prosecutors" to decide whether charges should be launched has raised questions in some places, particularly in the District of Columbia, about whether there are other officials here who might receive similar treatment.
SHERWOODTrue. You know, I don't think there's been -- maybe I missed it 'cause I've been busy with other stories this week. Has there been any leak of what occurred during these negotiations -- meetings between the governor's lawyers?
SHERWOODThe governor has a lawyer. His first lady has a lawyer. And they met with prosecutors. But I don't believe I've seen any leaks since then. To me, that sounds -- if I can just be the journalist of 49 years -- that sounds pretty serious. If I were the Gov. McDonnell and things look -- started looking good, I might try to leaf that, give me some positive press.
NNAMDIIt's not happening.
SHERWOODSo -- but who knows what's happening? But -- and then there was a very telling remark in that Washington Post story that, you know, the prosecutors tried to get these criminal cases of public officials out of the way and outside of an election season.
NNAMDIYou mentioned in your Current column that that may have some relevance for what's going on here in the District.
SHERWOODWell, you know, Mayor Gray is preparing. He's acting like a candidate. He's proud of what he's done as mayor, and he keeps acting like he wants to be a candidate, although he hasn't said whether he's gonna run. And U.S. Atty. Ronald Machen, who he won't speak to -- the mayor won't speak to the U.S. attorney -- is -- people think is nearing a decision on what he's gonna do about Mayor Gray's 2010 campaign investigation. There's been a lot of damaging news, and we're all waiting.
NNAMDIAnd if the U.S. attorney is gonna do anything, the guidelines indicate he wants to do it before we are in the heat of election season. We are in the heat of election season in Virginia, and the governor's problems may be having an effect on the polls there because the polls, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, show Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate, ahead by six points over Atty. Gen. Ken. Cuccinelli. Do you think the governor's problems are a factor there?
SHERWOODWell, I would not say me personally, but I would say the people, observers of the race, clearly show that the -- Gov. McDonnell's troubles have slipped over, sloshed over, spilled over, whatever the right word is, into the -- Ken Cuccinelli's campaign. I would think the poll had an important number. It kind of matches what Larry Sabato has been saying. Both of the candidates seem -- appear to be disliked, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli.
SHERWOODThey have 35 and 34 percent approval ratings that -- and here they are trying to lead the commonwealth of Virginia, and their approval ratings are dismal. So I think it shows you the kind of campaign we're stuck in, and clearly Gov. McDonnell's problems have affected it.
NNAMDIWell, our guest will certainly raise the ethical issues that have been caused by the Gov. McDonnell investigation by the U.S. attorney. He joins us in studio. Mark Herring is the Democratic candidate for attorney general of Virginia. He's a member of the Virginia Senate. He represents the commonwealth's 33rd district. Sen. Herring, thank you for joining us.
STATE SEN. MARK HERRINGThank you very much for inviting me, and it's really good to be back on the show.
NNAMDII couldn't help noticing that that same Quinnipiac poll also said that 82 percent of the people polled said they did not know enough about either the Republican candidate, Mark Obenshain. Eighty-eight percent said the same about you, the Democratic candidate. But we thought that here's -- if you don't know anything about the candidate, here is what the candidate is confident that you will find out about him.
NNAMDISen. Herring, apart from that, what would you like the voters to know about...
SHERWOODOK. We're -- for those of us who are clueless, well, we have an explanation, please?
NNAMDIThat's an old song by The Rovers (sic) called "To Know Him is to Love Him."
SHERWOODOh, I thought maybe he had someone -- wrote it or something.
NNAMDINo, no. "To Know Him is to Love Him" is an old song. And since 82 and 88 percent respectively don't know anything about the candidate, we are sure that the candidate feels that if you know him, you will love him. So what else would you like the voters to know about you, Sen. Herring...
NNAMDI...apart from the fact that you're lovable? (laugh)
HERRINGWell, again, thank you very much for inviting me back on the show. And as you mentioned, I'm privileged to represent the 33rd Senate district, which includes much of Loudoun and parts of western Fairfax counties. And over the last several years, we've seen our current attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, bend and twist the law in order to impose policies on Virginians that are way outside the mainstream, and my opponent, Sen. Obenshain, would be a continuation of the same.
HERRINGHe said that they are like peas in a pod philosophically and that Cuccinelli is a role model to follow, and he'd pick up the baton and keep running in the same direction. I think the office has been way overpoliticized. I wanna take that kind of politics out of the office and put the law first. And, you know, something else we've seen, we've always known it's important to elect people who are honest and people of integrity.
HERRINGWe've been reminded of that over the last few months in Virginia with the ethics scandal involving Star Scientific, the governor and Cuccinelli, and I'll return ethics and integrity to the office of attorney general.
SHERWOODYou are in the midst of the campaign. The poll is a respectable poll. Do you have any indication otherwise? I mean, nearly -- more than three quarters of the voters don't know you. One, you have to get yourself known, but you also have to do it not only what you do, but to move ahead or beyond or outside of this terrible governor's race.
HERRINGWell, I think it's still before Labor Day. I think once Labor Day comes, more people will begin to focus on the down ballot races. So it's not unusual that a lot of the attention has been focused on the governor's race, as well as the unfolding scandal with Star Scientific.
SHERWOODAre you doing -- can you tell us anything? Are you doing anything new, different about social media, or do you have a -- I don't know how you're doing fundraising-wise compared to your opponent, but you're fully prepared to go into the fall season with the...
HERRINGAbsolutely. And we're doing a lot with social media and Facebook, and we're picking up on the fundraising effort. So we'll be doing a lot of the traditional commercials on TV, social media, Internet and getting the word out, you know, as we go around the state. It is a really good feeling, and I know it's still early. But the things that I keep hearing from voters around the state are that this Tea Party agenda intransigence on trying to -- on getting things done is really wearing thin on Virginians.
HERRINGAnd that's where Ken Cuccinelli, E.W. Jackson and my opponent, Sen. Mark Obenshain, have been. And they're ready for fundamental change in the office of attorney general.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. The nonpartisan State Integrity Investigation gave Virginia a failing grade, rating it 47 out of 50 states in terms of risk of corruption. Please put your headphones on because the question I was gonna ask you following that is apparently the same question that Sayid (sp?) in Arlington, Va., wants to ask. Sayid, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAYIDOh, yeah. I have a question to Mark right now, like with all this nonsense with both McDonnell and Ken and the gift, what's your planning in future it will never happen again?
NNAMDIWell, I know you've released a four-page document outlining your plan, but can you make it a little shorter for Sayid?
HERRINGSure. Well, first of all, let me reiterate just how serious an issue this is. Early on, when the story first broke back in April, I called for an independent federal investigation. I contacted the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section when I heard that first allegation about a sizable gift to the governor or to his family about his daughter's wedding. I also had heard about unreported gifts and stock ownership in that very same company with our attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli.
HERRINGI felt it was important that Virginians get answers. We needed an independent investigation, and I called for that. I have continued to call on the governor and Ken Cuccinelli to return or reimburse the company for those gifts, and, you know, Cuccinelli still has not done that. And I have released this five-point plan to help restore integrity in state government. Let me cover a couple of the key points.
HERRINGFirst of all, we need an ethics commission that's independent to administer and enforce ethics and conflict of interest laws in Virginia. That commission can also review areas where we may have some gaps that need to be filled. Second, we need an -- a complete gift ban, and that gift ban needs to be extended to immediate family members. And, third, we need to strengthen our penalties for violations of those ethics and conflict of interest laws.
SHERWOODThere was a proposal to have a special session, that this was so besmirching the reputation of the state of Virginia that people, some people, felt the legislature should rush back into session and do something to calm things down. Did -- where were you on that? Apparently it's not gonna happen now. It doesn't matter, but...
HERRINGWell, no question that these are very serious issues. They -- and matters. They have tarnished Virginia's reputation, and we need strong ethics reform. I think what's important is that the investigation continue, that we get all of the facts about what happened so that the legislature can make comprehensive ethics reform and address all of the areas in a thoughtful way to make sure that we do what's needed to make sure it doesn't happen again, or, if it does, that those who don't exhibit the kind of ethics that we need to and that we expect suffer, you know, the penalty, serious penalties.
SHERWOODThe -- Mark Obenshain, your opponent, said that he has proposed some tougher legislation for ethics issues. And he said, should he be elected attorney general, he'll live by those whether or not they're passed, that he will be tougher than whatever the laws are.
HERRINGWell, I, too, will make sure that even if the General Assembly doesn't enact those laws that my office as attorney general and my family will abide by them. But, you know, I do wanna take this opportunity to point out some very serious differences between Sen. Obenshain and myself on these ethics issues. I mentioned when the story first broke, I was the one that called for a federal and an independent investigation early back in April, and Sen. Obenshain was silent.
HERRINGI've called on the governor and the attorney general to return and reimburse Star Scientific for those gifts. And I think even on this show a couple of weeks ago, Sen. Obenshain was ambivalent and kind of waffled on that. And later, he said, well, that's a political calculus. You know, it's not a political calculus. It's about doing what's right. And when he had the opportunity to vote for a gift band in the legislature and the Senate, a gift ban on legislators, he voted against it. He voted to kill it. So the idea that some -- that Mark Obenshain, Sen. Obenshain...
NNAMDIThe implication or the inference I'm drawing is that you voted for it.
HERRINGIt was -- I was not on that committee. It was a committee vote, and he voted to kill it in committee. And so the point I'm trying to make is that we need to make sure that we elect someone who has the integrity, who can restore the confidence and the ethics to the office. When given that opportunity in the legislature, he voted against a gift ban, and that's wrong. And we need to make sure that we can restore integrity to the office.
NNAMDIWhen he was on the show two weeks ago, Mark Obenshain also said that he believes it's the duty of the attorney general to protect all laws of the commonwealth that he sees as constitutional regardless of personal opinion of the law. Would you, for instance, defend Virginia's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage which is an institution that you support?
HERRINGKojo, I support marriage equality, and I am committed to protecting and defending the rights of all Virginians. And as attorney general, I will make sure the powers of the office are used to promote equality. I think Virginia's ban on gay marriage is wrong and -- it's wrong, and it's not good public policy. Now the Supreme Court has recently ruled on a case overturning and striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.
HERRINGI thought that was the right decision for the Supreme Court and is moving in the direction of having a more inclusive and equal society across our country. At the same time, the Supreme Court sent back California's challenge to the marriage ban, gay marriage ban, and the effect of that was to nullify California's law. And so that calls into question other states' laws, including Virginia. Now, there may be times when I will be called upon to defend a law that I personally disagree with as a matter of policy, and I will do that.
HERRINGBut, you know, if -- it's important that that law be one that's constitutional, that doesn't violate Federal law. And, you know, as I look at the Supreme Court decisions, and I will continue to look at those and others, I am skeptical that Virginia's law will be able to maintain constitutional scrutiny.
SHERWOODSince we have a big Northern Virginia audience and you're from Loudoun County, I'd like to announce that I was in Tysons Corner West last week, and I saw the flyover Metro Silver Line being built there, and I saw tremendous construction everywhere. And, of course, we sat in traffic every time we tried to turn somewhere. What can the attorney general do in the state government to speed better transportation issues?
SHERWOODI know the legislature passed the governor's transportation plan, but somebody has to implement that plan. What's your message on transportation? And I feel sorry for the people who just look like they're stuck in traffic all day as a way of life.
HERRINGYeah. Well, you know, how many times have you had guests on this show sitting in this very seat, having to explain that once again Virginia did not do anything about transportation? Year after year, you've had guests say that. You know what, this year, we did something about it. And to his credit -- while I have some strong differences with our current governor, to his credit, he introduced a transportation bill.
HERRINGAnd you know what happened? Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly started working together, and we made some reasonable compromises in order to move Virginia forward. I voted for that transportation bill because I felt it was the right thing to do. It was progress for Virginia. In the meantime, my opponent, Sen. Obenshain, continued to have his ideological blinders on and voted against the transportation bill. We were a couple of years away from not even being able to make the federal match for construction dollars.
HERRINGAnd so, you know, we talk about the problems in Congress where it's so hard for -- it's seemingly intractable differences between Republicans and Democrats. You know, I think, we need elected officials who are gonna work together to solve problems. We were able to do that after years of trying to figure out what we were gonna do on transportation funding. I was there and supported it.
HERRINGSen. Obenshain didn't. And now on implementation, it's gonna require people in elected office at all levels to be the kind of people who can work together to implement it.
NNAMDIOur guest is Mark Herring. He is the Democratic candidate for attorney general of Virginia. He's a member of the Virginia Senate. He represents the commonwealth 33rd district. You can call us at 800 -- well, you already have. So if somebody is trying to get through now, you better go to -- by email to firstname.lastname@example.org because the telephone lines are filled. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Here now is Alex in Warrenton, Va. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXHi. Yeah. I just -- I had a question for the candidate. And members of Ken Cuccinelli's office were recently found to have given legal advice to oil and gas companies on how to avoid paying royalties to families in Virginia whose land they're drilling on. And I was wondering what the candidate would do to reverse that policy and to make sure that Virginia families get paid the money they are owed by these gas companies.
NNAMDIFirst and foremost, was that a policy as far as you know?
ALEXWas that a question for me or for...
NNAMDIFor you, Alex.
ALEXI don't know if that was a policy, but it was a practice.
NNAMDIOK. Here is Sen. Herring.
HERRINGWell, thank you. And it was an action that the attorney general took. And what the attorney general did was weigh in, provide strategic legal advice from the attorney general's office to an out-of-state energy company in a case where Virginia landowners were just trying to get what's rightfully theirs, and I think that's wrong. It was wrong for the attorney general to weigh in, in favor of the out-of-state energy company over Virginia landowners. And it was compounded.
HERRINGThat, you know, wrong action was compounded when we learned that the out-of-state energy company had contributed over $100,000 to Ken Cuccinelli's campaign for governor. And those types of conflicts of interest have to be avoided. An attorney general cannot be seen as someone who's gonna be influenced by those types of campaign contributions. And the attorney general, of all offices in the state, needs to exhibit the very highest standards.
HERRINGAnd that's not the only instance in which Ken Cuccinelli has had these types of conflicts. Under pressure, he has had to recuse himself from two other cases. One of them involving Star Scientific which has, you know, been in at the center of the ethics scandal with the governor and the attorney general, where the attorney general own stock in this company and, at the same time, was supposed to be handling a case to prosecute a tax collection against Star Scientific. Meanwhile, he's getting lavish gifts and not reporting them. Those types of conflicts are wrong.
NNAMDIBut you are -- you're not running against Ken Cuccinelli. You're running against Mark Obenshain. What does that have to do with Mark Obenshain, your opponent's candidacy?
HERRINGWell, what it has to do with is that Mark Obenshain has said Ken Cuccinelli's conduct in office has been a model that he would follow, that he would be a continuation of the same and take the baton and keep running in the same direction. I would do things differently, and I would make sure that the office has the very highest standards when it comes to ethics and conflicts of interest.
SHERWOODDo you have any -- I know you're running for attorney general, but you've spoken freely about the candidate for governor. Do you have any views on the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, Mr. Jackson, E.W. Jackson?
SHERWOODBecause it seems to me -- and I don't cover Virginia every day, but it seems to me that the Democrats, at least in more private than public settings, feel quite almost -- I don't wanna say giddy but quite good about the Republican ticket that you're running against, that you're all, on the Democratic side, benefiting from each other having such candidates that tend to be controversial, at least in Northern Virginia where a lot of your votes are.
HERRINGWell, I think as a ticket, we work very well together. And when you contrast the things that we're talking about, the issues that we're working on, and have a track record of working on, it's about coming together, solving problems, where the Cuccinelli, Jackson, Obenshain ticket's track record has been one that's tied closely to the Tea Party, where there just seems to be an intransigence to make reasonable compromises.
HERRINGAnd the ticket as a whole is focused on things that are important to Virginians. It's trying to make sure that, you know, that people get better jobs, that our children get better education, good health care, and those are things that Virginians really wanna have. And Terry and Ralph and I are committed to being on their side.
SHERWOODOK. Now, let me follow up that by asking -- it is extraordinary, in my understanding of Virginia politics and having -- that Terry McAuliffe's low approval rating, it's either 34 or 35 percent in the most recent poll, is that he has this, kind of, reputation, again is kind of, a personality of a used car salesman. I say that knowing my father was a car salesman. I apologize to all of you out there. But just that he's a little too much -- I don't -- I wanna find the right words. He's too much of a showman rather than a workhorse. How is a Democratic Party try to tamp that down to show a different side of Terry McAuliffe?
HERRINGYou know, I think…
SHERWOODOr do you agree with -- I'm sure you've heard the criticisms, so you don't have to criticize your own candidate for governor. But I'd like for you to.
HERRINGWell, I think the more people get to know Terry, the more they're gonna like him. And he is focused on the right priorities for Virginians. And I think that's why you see the poll numbers where he seems -- and again, it's early, and it feels good. But they're focused -- Terry and Ralph and I are focused on the issues that Virginians want us to be focused on, instead of, you know, the extreme Tea Party issues of Cuccinelli, Jackson and Obenshain.
HERRINGAnd that's been my opponent Sen. Obenshain's record as a senator. Let me just run through a few of them. He introduced and sponsored legislation that -- known as the personhood amendment that would take a woman's right to choose a way and ban various forms of -- common forms of birth control. He called the ultrasound bill commonsense legislation. He introduced legislation that would require women to report miscarriages to the police. On guns and public safety, he's opposed to comprehensive background checks.
HERRINGHe's opposed to closing the gun show loophole, introduced legislation to allow guns in bars. He has not supported efforts and opposed efforts to ban discrimination in state employment based on sexual orientation. On one after another of those issues, he and I could not be farther apart.
SHERWOODDo you think Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton will come into the state and campaign for the Democratic ticket than their friend Mr. McAuliffe?
HERRINGYou know, I'm not sure what their plans are but...
SHERWOODWould you welcome them?
HERRINGI would certainly welcome them.
NNAMDIOn to Joe in Middleburg, Va. Joe, your turn.
JOEHi. Yeah. It seems to me that domestic abuse is a growing crime here in Virginia. And I'm wondering what the attorney's general -- attorney general's office could do to help prevent domestic abuse.
HERRINGDomestic and sexual abuse is a very serious matter. It's a serious crime. And we are taking it seriously. There are more things that we can do, though. I worked with groups to strengthen our laws and penalties against sexual and domestic violence. And, you know, one other thing, I proposed that I will do as attorney general is to institute what's called a lethality assessment program. And what that does...
HERRINGA lethality assessment program. Some other states' attorneys general...
NNAMDILike your presence on this program, it's lethal. (laugh)
SHERWOODI was thinking like trees and leaves. All right. Go ahead. I'm leaving the a program now.
HERRINGWell, let me explain it a little bit more. In some other states, attorneys general have instituted this kind of program. And what it does is provide information and a protocol for first responders like police when they encounter a domestic violence situation. And they can talk with the victim to try to make an assessment about whether the victim might be at risk of further violence.
HERRINGAnd if so help the victim to get the help that they need in the community so that we not only strengthen and toughen the penalties for sexual and domestic violence, when it occurs, but we're also doing what we can to try to prevent it from happening more.
NNAMDISpeaking of violence, we're almost out of time, but you can't talk about Virginia without talking about gun control. We're seeing states around the country ratcheting up gun control legislation in the wake of recent tragedies. What types of measures do you support in this area?
HERRINGWell, I talked -- I just touched on one of the key differences between me and Sen. Obenshain. We need to take guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are the dangerously mentally ill. And that starts with comprehensive background checks. It is hard to believe that six years after the shooting at Virginia Tech, we still have not been able to close the gun show loophole. That's got to change.
HERRINGMy opponent Sen. Obenshain does not support closing the gun show loophole, does not support comprehensive background checks, and I do. It's a big issue. We need to take this step in order to help keep our streets and families safe.
NNAMDIMark Herring, he is the Democratic candidate for attorney general of Virginia. He is a member of the Virginia Senate who represents the commonwealth's 33rd District. Sen. Herring, thank you for joining us. Good luck to you.
HERRINGThank you very much. I look forward to coming back.
SHERWOODDo we have a quick time for a transition question to him?
NNAMDISee how cleverly he phrased that? Transition question, I like that. Yes.
SHERWOODAs he gets up and gets out.
SHERWOODThis is -- today at 1:50 or so is the second anniversary of the earthquake. Where were -- do you remember where you were in Virginia on the earthquake two years ago?
HERRINGI was in Loudoun County, in Ashburn. And the reason I remember that is because once it happened, we had some difficulty calling to check on our son who is home. And so it was a vivid reminder about that.
NNAMDII was sitting in this studio scared, getting ready to run out. But I was interviewing a very young woman who is HIV positive, and she had no fear in her eyes whatsoever. And that's what anchored me in this chair. Otherwise, I would have run off.
SHERWOODI was in the newsroom because we went on the air immediately. This is the low depths of the newsroom at that time. Me and Liz Crenshaw, our consumer affairs reporter, anchored our first breaking news of the earthquake. And I've never been in that anchor chair since, and that would be a good thing.
NNAMDIWell, it shook up the world apparently by having Tom Sherwood in the chair. Sen. Herring, thank you very much for joining us.
HERRINGThank you again for having me.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, the D.C. fire and emergency services, there is clearly a lot of confusion there. Two fires being investigated and then the allegation that the Chief Kenneth Ellerbe forcefully grabbed the cellphone of one of the firefighters about a picture of the burning ambulance as it appeared on the firefighter's union Twitter account. Regardless of the long history that both you and I know of that fire department and its problems, there does seem to be a crisis of confidence in Chief Ellerbe.
SHERWOODIf it's possible, this is a new low. And I interviewed Chief Ellerbe this week and he told me on camera that he didn't snatch this phone from this firefighter. Supposedly the firefighter was taking a cellphone picture of a burning ambulance and the firefighter -- a 33-year-old firefighter alleges that the chief snatched the phone from him and injured his wrist. And he has filed a criminal complaint.
SHERWOODI mean, that is just extraordinary. In a ranking -- as I reported this week, in a paramilitary organization like the fire department and the police department, to have someone in your ranks to file a criminal complaint against you is just extraordinary. So I do think it shows the depth of the problems that the chief is having. Now, I know that the mayor and the chief and the Deputy Mayor Paul Quander are gonna have a press conference on Tuesday.
SHERWOODThey're gonna rollout some new ambulances and some new fire equipment. They're gonna say -- and they're gonna talk about the new hiring of emergency medical technicians. They're gonna do a lot of things to put in a much higher gloss on the fire department, that things are better that they've been in the media. I don't know. I'm just thinking as a reporter, again with 49 years, that maybe once they've done this on Tuesday, maybe the chief can declare a victory and move on. But we'll see.
NNAMDIIf that happens, then you'll have the opportunity to make that declaration on our broadcast because he'll be our guest on Wednesday at noon here, so you might want to tune in to hear that and whether it will happen. Just a quick political note before we get to our next guest who, after all, is a politician. Everybody knows or a lot of you know the television series "The House of Cards" that airs on -- I guess its Netflix.
NNAMDIFormer congressman Barney Frank was very upset after -- now that he has more time on his hands -- watching "House of Cards" because he talks about -- writes about -- took the time to write about an episode in which quoting here he says, "In another preposterous episode, the police commissioner of Washington -- a nonexistent position -- is summoned to a post-midnight meeting with the Kevin Spacey character's chief of staff and is persuaded to release a congressman from a drunken driving charge by the promise of aid in his campaign for mayor."
NNAMDI"In fact, the citizens of Washington deeply resent congressional refusal to let them make their own decisions about public policy. They're so angry at Congress most of the time -- with excellent reason -- that accepting any intervention of that sort by a congressional leader would be the dumbest thing a mayoral candidate could do. I have never seen that kind of involvement by a congressional leader in a Washington election." I think he doesn't like the show very much.
SHERWOODWell, first of all, he's writing this from Portland, Maine, where he's having a nice summer, and I hope he does. But, you know, reality, facts are not the basis for fictional shows. And so it's -- I don't -- I'm surprised he's -- he wrote the whole column and really criticizing how the "House of Cards" shows an unfair image of political people making deals and the power of people to do various things. I thought it was a nice summertime reading, but I wouldn't take it too seriously.
NNAMDIAnd just to know how residents of the District of Columbia feel about their relationship to Congress, tomorrow when there are those demonstrations marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of them starting at 8:30 in the morning, will be about statehood (unintelligible)
SHERWOODYes, it'll be at the World War -- the D.C. World War I Memorial, right there on the Mall near the World War II Memorial. And people really need to plan, though. We just -- the Park Service just today announced that Independence Avenue, which is the easiest way to get there, is gonna be closed to all vehicles. So you're gonna have to walk. I mean, this is the 50th anniversary march.
SHERWOODThere's a lot of old people like me and others, and there's got to be some, I hope, some support for people. The fire department says it is prepared for first aid and all those types of things. But there's a lot of road closure. People will have -- should be prepared to walk and go early.
NNAMDITom is not old. He's just mature. Sometimes he's not that either. (laugh) Joining us in studio is David Grosso. He's a member of the D.C. Council. He's an independent who holds an at-large seat. Councilmember Grosso, thank you for joining us.
COUNCILMEMBER DAVID GROSSOYeah. Good afternoon, Kojo. Hello, Mr. Sherwood. It's good to see you.
NNAMDIThat's right, Mr. Sherwood. New details that have surfaced about the influence of the businessman Jeff Thomson's money on local elections have thrown the District's campaign finance laws back in the spotlight. You have backed legislation with Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie to create a public financing system for political campaigns. How would it work, and what specifically about the status quo are you looking to change?
GROSSOYou know, as we know, we've been following over the past several years the trials and tribulations of what's been going on with Jeffrey Thompson and other candidates for office. And the question really is how do we change the structure of campaigns, how do we change the way we elect people to office in the District of Columbia so that we can try to eliminate the opportunity for corruption during that process.
GROSSOYou know, I think one of the ways to do that and what I put forward with Councilmember McDuffie is to have public financing of campaigns where you have low dollar matches so that you are encouraged to get more people engaged in the process to give donations and then ultimately have those donations mean more in the process by being matched by the government through a matching process and plan.
SHERWOODThat's one of the most -- it's done in New York and a couple of other places. But just for people to kind of wrap their heads around it, how would it work? If I'm a candidate and if I agree to provide -- campaign on those standards. So I go out and raise $100 or whatever the...
NNAMDIFirst, you have to raise $5,000.
SHERWOODYou have to raise $5,000. And then after that, how does it work? Do I get matched 50 percent or one for one?
GROSSOIt's actually four to one. As the proposal, we can, you know, tweak that as we go forward. It's certainly one of the things we're looking at tweaking. The -- you have to match -- you have to get $5,000 raised upfront to qualify. And you also have to qualify for the ballot. So...
SHERWOODCould I just give myself $5,000 and then qualify?
GROSSOAt this point, you have to get $5,000 in matchable donations. So it'd have to be less than $100 each, and so that would be a significant number of people who have donated.
NNAMDIThat is intended to indicate that you are a credible candidate.
GROSSOAlong with the signatures that you would have to get to qualify for the ballot. Then you would get matching at that point. For every dollar that you raised or $100 that you raised, you get four-to-one match.
NNAMDIBecause you'll get a four-to-one match, good government scrutiny leader, Dorothy Brizill, has said that this proposal is the equivalent of campaign earmarks for politicians. What would you say?
GROSSOWe had a really good hearing on this about a month and a half ago in Kenyan McDuffie's committee and we had experts come in from around the country, Connecticut and other areas, that talked about their experience with this type of program and it really hasn't led to that type of problem. What it's led to is given an opportunity for people that normally wouldn't be able to run for office because they couldn't afford to do it, being able to run for office and be engaged in the government process.
GROSSOSo, I think, it's just a different focus and something that we should focus on is how do we get more people in the District of Columbia engaged in the political process so that we can have a better government and a better, you know, political atmosphere.
SHERWOODYou are an independent. Why not -- you can -- some people believe, no one in office apparently, but most -- why not get rid of the party designations? Why not have nonpartisan elections for the government seats?
GROSSOI've spoken out previously in support of that. I actually think the local elections with nonpartisan politics would be...
GROSSOI think the mayor and the Council should be nonpartisan in D.C. I have pushed for that and will continue to push for that. I think it's important.
SHERWOODWill you put it in the bill just to see it go down in flames? (laugh)
NNAMDII was about to say good luck with that.
SHERWOODBut I mean, you have to put -- you have to, you know, get these things up there so people will talk about them even if they're gonna be defeated.
GROSSOI completely agree with you in that effort. And one of the other aspects of it that I think is important to note is that I also asked to dissolve the Office of Campaign Finance and reconstitute it at the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability because, really, when you look at these issues, it's about ethics. It's not about elections. It's about people acting properly when it comes to money.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, if you have comments or questions for David Grosso. He's a member of the D.C. Council. He's an independent. He holds an at-large seat. On what issues do you see this influence of the campaign money flowing to candidates most? WAMU 88.5's Patrick Madden connected a lot of the dots earlier this year between campaign finance information and deals offered to developers, for example.
GROSSOI think that Patrick Madden's article on it was right on point. The reality is that we still have contracts coming to the D.C. government -- coming to the D.C. Council after they've been approved by the mayor's office to move forward for this final approval at the Council. For me, that's another, so to speak, bite at the apple when we've already been through the budget process and hearings and oversight process we're supposed to be doing.
GROSSOAnd what happens in my mind is it may be unconscious. It may not even be an over, you know, action. But the councilmembers are gonna be influenced by the campaign money that they raised. They're gonna be influenced by lobbyists that come in on behalf of these contracts, and it raises a real problem. As a result, I voted present -- and continued to vote present on all these contracts as they come before the Council in an effort to say I'm not gonna put my stamp on this in regards to the problems that it could raise.
NNAMDIWe should mention that series was by Patrick Madden and Julie Patel. Tom?
SHERWOODYes. As of now, Tommy Wells of Ward 6 is councilmember's candidate for mayor, and he's -- I think he is the only one who has renounced any court -- corporate contributions. He says he won't accept any, and your proposal would ban corporate contributions. It has to come from individuals, not from corporations.
SHERWOODDo you have a candidate for mayor in this fight?
GROSSOYou know, as you know, it's still pretty early in this process. I don't have anyone at this point that I'm getting behind. But, you know, you should know from my past short experience on the Council, I will get behind somebody. I believe it's important to be engaged. If we ask the public to be engaged, I think we also have to get engaged, and I'm still kind of weighing my options. I'm curious to see how it comes down with the investigation into the mayor's previous election and (unintelligible)
SHERWOODIt's possible you might support the mayor?
GROSSOLike I said, I haven't really made a decision yet on this. I mean, I'm literally weighing the options. I'm gonna see how that comes down. I think if the mayor is forced to resign, then I think that opens up a whole different prospect of who (unintelligible)
SHERWOODThey will have Phil Mendelson as acting mayor.
NNAMDIDavid Grosso shakes his head, as if to say, and you say that to say? (laugh)
SHERWOODWell, I'm just saying then the Council will have to pick someone to be Council chairman again, and then it will just, you know, will just be like that.
NNAMDIWell, just pick the best, a person who is the best.
SHERWOODOh, the best? I'm the best.
NNAMDIThe best. Yes. Anne, you are on the air. Go ahead, please. (laugh)
ANNEWell, thank you so much. I appreciate this call. Mr. Grosso, I certainly understand the cost of running for elections in any -- whatever, local, state and the federal. And I certainly think the way you're gonna go is you put out there who's contributing to your campaign. However, why should I as a taxpayer have to fund your campaign or anyone else's campaign? I think this is unacceptable. And if I as a taxpayer -- I know they're doing it in the other states, and I know that Washington state is trying to do it as well to fund the Council or (word?) the Council's elections.
ANNEHowever, why should my tax dollars that are going to pay everything else, plus allowing me to continue to live and work and rent and what have you, have to pay for your campaign? If you can't find the money, then let corporations or whomever donate, but make it open so everyone sees who's contributing to your campaign, buying you off or whatever, and make sure that independents and make -- that the primaries are opens rather than caucuses. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnne has been listening to Mr. Sherwood. Go ahead, David Grosso.
SHERWOODYes. I think that's what I've suggested.
SHERWOODSo defend yourself, Mr. Councilmember. (laugh)
GROSSOI think it's an excellent question and concern that's been raised a lot during this process. You know, the reality is is that more transparency never hurts anything. I think the more we get out what's going on in the political process, in the elections process, the better off we are. I will argue, though, that right now, currently, the people of the District of Columbia are financing campaigns as much as they are willing to get involved.
GROSSOThe problem is is that when they give you their donation, it's often undermined by the corporate, you know, money that comes in, the LLCs, the bundling that happens, and so people don't feel as engaged as I'd like them to be engaged. So for me, I think what the match does is is it makes it possible for somebody to give a small donation and then actually get the match that'll make it show that it has more, you know, impact and be more significant.
GROSSOSo I hear what you're saying, and I'm gonna have to make the argument to the public that it's worth investing in the politicians and in the political process in an effort to try to remove the corporate influence that's happened over the entire life of this city since we've had home rule and try to bring a new day when we can actually have an advent of more engagement from the public.
NNAMDIAnne, thank you for your call. But perhaps the buck doesn't stop with campaign finance. Earlier this year, after a vote on a telemedicine bill, your colleague Mary Cheh essentially said that you did a favor to the insurance industry, a place where you used to work for CareFirst. How does the Council establish trust again with citizens that they're not simply doing the bidding of the CareFirst or the Pepcos of the world?
GROSSOI think it comes down in your record. I think it's what you're arguing for, what you're fighting for and whether or not you can show that it is for the better of this city and for the good of the whole city. If you -- I mean, certainly, you're gonna have issues where it looks like you're favoring one company or another or one activist group or another. But in the end, it really comes down to what it is that you're being judged on.
NNAMDIWell, in this case, it was a section of the bill that would require health insurance in the city to pay for health care services provide -- provided remotely via interactive audio and video used now for an increasing array of check ups and treatments. What would you -- what were you against about that?
GROSSOIn fact, I was very supportive of it, Kojo. I was saying that what we should do, though, is allow the free market to determine what the price should be for those services.
NNAMDIAnd she wanted the price to be the same cost as it would be if you happen to walk in to the office.
GROSSOIn fact, she wanted to be the same price and -- or no, actually, the rule was no less than. And I think in reality, though, the legislature has a role to play here but has a limited role when it comes to telling businesses how to do one thing or another. It's about being a more business-friendly city for me. It had little to do whether it was CareFirst or any other insurance company. It had to do with being business friendly. I very much support telemedicine. I think it's an important part of delivering health care.
SHERWOODSpeaking of business friendly, you have voted to make Wal-Mart pay 12.50 an hour for wages and benefits. Wal-Mart says that's not business friendly at all. That if this bill was signed by the mayor -- and I should just point out, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told me on the phone just moments before we went on the air that he now intends to send the bill to the mayor by next Friday. You passed 8-to-5. You were one of the eight.
SHERWOODAnd this -- Wal-Mart says, after a decade of wooing us to come to your city, you've changed the ground rules, and we will not go forward with the three stores we have under construction, and we probably won't go forward with the three additional that we have planned. What's business friendly about the big-box minimum wage law?
GROSSOYou know, I think that it's important to distinguish when you're an elected official between, you know, different entities. And I think Wal-Mart is a different entity altogether. And I have...
SHERWOODDifferent from big meds?
GROSSOFrom a small business, from -- yeah, I mean, from...
SHERWOODFrom big medical?
GROSSO...delivery of health care in small businesses in the District of Columbia. It's a very different thing. So, you know, for me, it should be no surprise to people that I've been fighting against Wal-Mart coming to the District of Columbia for a very long time because of this issue. I think it drives down wages across the city. I think it will put us in a position where we are basically giving people worst options for both employment, as well as for goods and services than before. And, you know, I think it's just a bad approach altogether. So...
SHERWOODMuriel Bowser, the councilmember who's also running for -- said, why don't we just call this the anti-Wal-Mart bill to be honest if we're doing this? But big groceries, big other stores, who have union support and -- they were exempt from this law. Why -- if you're gonna raise the minimum wage, which ought to be raised nationwide, but if you're gonna raise it, why not just be fair and raise it in the city?
GROSSOI actually think we should consider raising the minimum wage. But I also would've been happy to say that this is the anti-Wal-Mart bill. I'm not afraid of that approach. I have helped to work on as a staff member on the Council on the big-box legislation when I worked for -- previously on the Council. And for me, I just think Wal-Mart is the wrong approach and the wrong approach for our city.
SHERWOODSo would you say this is kind of like Mayor Fenty? When he was running for mayor, he wasn't supporting the baseball stadium. Would you say it's OK with you if Wal-Mart abandons the city? No, no, no, it's not abandon. That's not the right word. That's not fair.
NNAMDIIf Wal-Mart refuses to open...
SHERWOODIs it OK with you if Wal-Mart reneges and leaves the city and that's OK with you?
GROSSOI think if they refused to open three out of six of their stores, I don't think that's gonna hurt our city at all.
SHERWOODBut they're all six? I mean, they just say, we're gonna leave the city.
GROSSOI think that would be OK. Yeah. And I have told them that.
SHERWOODIt's OK with you?
NNAMDIThe Uber wars have returned to D.C.'s conversation about its taxi system. Uber launched a new lower cost service earlier this month that already has rankled regulators. This time, the taxi commission says the cars, the so-called UberX service is using, are not allowed under their rules. Tommy Wells, who's go on to bat for Uber, tweeted a few days ago that he continues to believe that the taxi commission should be abolished. How do you see it?
GROSSOI've been engaged in this issue since I got on the Council. I think -- I am on the committee on transportation and the environment. I think that Ms. Cheh -- Councilmember Cheh has done a good job leading the effort on this. And I certainly support her work to support Uber and to other innovative ideas on how we can do a better job getting people around the city in a cab service or taxi service.
GROSSOI think the Taxicab Commission has completely dropped the ball on this one, both in the regulations that they put forward earlier this year and now also with the sedan regulations. To think that it matters really, you know, whether or not it's a big sedan or a small fuel-efficient vehicle is -- seems to me to be a kind of unacceptable.
GROSSOI would actually support -- and I've talked to Councilmember Wells about this and also Councilmember Cheh -- support completely eliminating the DCTC, the D.C. Taxicab Commission, and putting those functions into other government entities, such as to the Department of Public Works or, you know, in California, the Public Service Commission handles the regulation of this type of innovative ideas and what's happening in their, you know, in their state. So I think there's a better way to handle this. And I would be supportive of looking into that.
SHERWOODYou know, Ron Linton, the chairman -- the head of the Taxicab Commission, the office -- I mean, I think he, you know, he served the city a long time in many ways. And I think he's worked pretty regularly and pretty hard to try to adapt to fast-moving technology. But a lot of people think he hasn't succeeded at whatever his intent was. I'm giving him credit for the intent.
SHERWOODSome people think, well, the mayor's office has been less than enthusiastic about this because the cab drivers supported the mayor for his election in 2010. But it does seem -- and I'm not sure who the chairman of the commission is now, the restaurateur Paul -- so he said this week -- I'm sorry, I can't remember his last name for a moment. He said that we need to have a comprehensive rewrite of the rules to make sure that everything -- that we can have taxicab services here.
NNAMDIYou got about 20 seconds, Councilmember.
GROSSOYou know, and I think they've tried to do compressive rewrites, and they failed. And at this point, we need to probably step in and have a legislative fix on this again. I think that Mary Cheh tried it last year, and we need to do something more here. The problem is that Uber is good for the city, and, you know, they're causing problems (unintelligible).
SHERWOODCan we say Ben's Chili Bowl before we go?
NNAMDIDavid Grosso -- yes. Ben's Chili Bowl, was it at 50 years?
NNAMDIFifty-five years. David Grosso is a member of the D.C. Council. He's an independent who holds an at-large seat. Thank you for joining us.
GROSSOThank you all very much. Appreciate it.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Working this weekend?
SHERWOODYes, I am. Congratulations to Virginia Ali at Ben's Chili Bowl.
NNAMDIIndeed I do agree.
SHERWOODI'll be working tomorrow.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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