In author Jabari Asim's fictionalized St. Louis -- the 'Gateway City' first introduced in his short story collection 'A Taste of Honey' –- characters come to grips with the fallout of the civil rights era in surprising ways. We talk with Asim about the fictional world he created and examine the realities of how we deal with race in America today.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
One of the closest political contests in Virginia heads toward a recount. D.C.’s mayoral candidates spar for the first time in a forum. And a gubernatorial candidate in Maryland picks a a political novice for a running mate. 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
- Phil Mendelson Chairman, D.C. Council (D)
- Chris Zimmerman Member, Arlington County Board (D)
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson talked about the 2014 mayoral election, which includes four current Council members and Mayor Vincent Gray, who has not yet announced whether he’ll run for reelection. Mendelson called it the “silly season,” when candidates simplify and centralize their positions. But, Mendelson said he plans to remain neutral during the upcoming campaign. “I do not have a candidate at this time, and given the fact that I have to preside over Council meetings, chances are very high that I will not be picking favorites,” he said.
Politics Hour News Quiz
MR. MARC FISHER…aimed to get the mayor elected four years ago. And that's happening while six otherwise sane people begin spending their days and nights knocking on doors and beating each other up in a ceaseless series of debates, all in an effort to take Gray's job. What is wrong with this picture? Why do people want these jobs? Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC4 reporter and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. And he knows the answer to that question.
MR. TOM SHERWOODWell, you know, it's a great job. If you're the mayor of the District of Columbia, you're in the nation's capital. You get to, you know, be driven around in a car. And you run an $11 billion, almost $12 billion budget. You get a nice box at the Nat. Stadium. You get a box at the Verizon Center, although I don't know why anyone would go see the Wizards, the way they play.
FISHERThey did win two games in a row.
FISHERAnd then they lost.
SHERWOODYou know, one of their players was in the paper, in the Post this morning, complaining about how they don't play as a team. And that's what's been the problem for more than a decade. So being mayor of this city is like being governor, county commissioner, chairman, mayor, you know, everything. It's a remarkable job. It's a difficult job. And of course people want to have it.
FISHERAnd you were at the first debate of this rather short campaign season that is now beginning with the primary coming up in April, a change in the election calendar in the district. What did you see there that gave you some sign of hope that this is not going to be yet another slog through 100 debates where they say the same things over?
SHERWOODWell, you know, I think Jack Evans or one of them said by the end of the series of debates each candidate can recite the others perfectly on what their stands are. And that's important, but, you know, the debates are good because they do get around. This was by the D.C. Bar, six candidates, Tommy Wells, Andy Shallal, Reta Lewis, Jack Evans, Vincent Orange and Muriel Bowser.
SHERWOODAnd it's very clear Tommy Wells is running the hardest about corruption. He starts his opening statement -- he's a Ward 6 councilmember and he ends his statement by saying we have a mayor who is corrupt because of the way he ran his campaign in 2010 and he wants tougher ethics rules.
SHERWOODAnd all of the candidates are in favor of tougher ethics rules. Wells says it more than anyone else. Jack Evans, a longtime Ward 2 councilmember poses himself as the most experienced, who understands the budget from beginning to end. And he probably does understand the budget from beginning to end. And then Vincent Orange, who got in at the last minute to get into the debate, is there. Muriel Bowser, the Ward 4 councilmember. You know, she essentially is recreating the Fenty team in many respects. She has her own things to run on, but she's doing kind of the Fenty run.
FISHERIncluding posters of exactly the same shape and print.
SHERWOODSame color, same whole thing. And then Reta Lewis, who has a national and kind of international experience, has lived here in town, but has not been part of the local Washington. And she showed that she's going to have to step up her knowledge of the city and the way it works. It's one thing to have met with attorneys general of the United States in a meeting, it's another to know what the attorney general of the District does. So she's got a steep learning curve, but she's very nice and pleasant. People like her. It's just the question is what substance does she bring?
FISHERAnd Andy Shallal, the restaurateur who jumped into the race a couple weeks ago. How well informed did he seem to be? Is he a serious candidate?
SHERWOODWell, he is -- no but Andy, this is his first time running for office. To dismay of some of his progressive supporters he has said he will take corporate donations. Tommy Wells has said he will not do, the others will. But Andy knows the issues. He's had any number of forums. He owns the Busboys and Poets franchise.
SHERWOODThere are four or five of them now. He's a progressive Democrat. He wants to lower the voting age to 17. He wants one percent of every budget to go to arts and humanities. He says he stands in Anacostia, at the Frederick Douglas home and looks across the city. He says the mayor shouldn't be counting cranes, but asking what are those cranes doing to the poorest of the poor in the city. So he has a clear cut message. Can he mount up a campaign? We'll see.
FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us a kojo k-o-j-o @wamu.org. And we're going to bring into the conversation now the chairman of the D.C. council, Phil Mendelson. He's a Democrat and he has an unusual role to play in this mayoral race. He's not a candidate, but he has to run a council where you have four members who are announced candidates for mayor, you have a mayor who is an unannounced candidate for anything, as yet, and there's a dynamic there that I would imagine would make governing over the next several months a bit different from what's come before.
MR. PHIL MENDELSONInteresting. John Wilson used to refer to this as the silly season. And we will see, increasingly, as we get closer to the election day, that there seems to be some motivation for or against an issue based on how one reads the politics. Much more than ordinary.
FISHERAnd yet, among these four council candidates for mayor, there's not a huge difference in sort of basic principles and approach to government, is there?
MENDELSONWell, I think there is. And I think that's always a problem with electoral politics, is that the pressures on candidates to simplify their message and often to go toward the center, with regard to their message. If one looks closely at their records, one will see a difference, a difference in terms of attention to detail in policy making. And also some members are more conservative on issues more, you know, may be more labor friendly or less labor friendly, but one has to look closely to see those differences. They're there.
SHERWOODDo you -- I think you're staying out of the race as you, I think, normally do, but do you have a candidate that you would support now? Would you support Mayor Gray if he were to run for reelection?
MENDELSONI do not have a candidate at this time. And given the fact that I have to preside over council meetings, the chances are very high that I will not picking favorites.
FISHERWell, we do believe that David Catania is going to run in the general election next November. So you'll have -- at least until April you'll have four candidates and then you have another councilmember.
MENDELSONYeah, I don’t know…
SHERWOODThat's quite the corral.
MENDELSONI've heard the rumors and, you know, in this business rumors are always very interesting. But, you know, I don't know for a fact whether Mr. Catania's going to get into the race.
FISHERAnd your own feelings about Mayor Gray? He's under investigation. People want the U.S. Attorney Ron Machen to act. Ron Machen, someone described to me, he has pretty much laid out at the beach, but he's still gathering all the grains of sand to be very clear exactly what happened or didn't happen in 2010. Your own thoughts about how that investigation impedes the work -- if it does -- of council and the government because the mayor's under this -- not a cloud, but a wet blanket hanging over the city.
MENDELSONI think in terms of the work of the government, we've gotten used to the cloud. And that's not to judge whether that's good or bad. We've gotten used to the cloud. I think it's very unfortunate that -- well, the whole situation is unfortunate, but the government is running pretty well. We're not having the kind of difficulty with spending -- controlling spending that we've seen in the past. And I mean, spending, as opposed to revenues. Because revenues have been quite nice. I mean you look at the agencies and I think the agencies are -- I want to say much healthier than we've seen in the past.
MENDELSONAnd by that I mean whether agencies are actually functioning. You know, government is actually about governing. And that's often lost sight of in elections. And the government is running pretty well.
FISHERCan you point to any specific areas or policies where the mayor's problems have inhibited this government, have prevented him from pushing forward any initiatives or his agenda?
MENDELSONI am sure that if I took some time to reflect on it I could come up with some, but there's nothing that comes immediately to mind, which I think makes the point that we have gotten use to the cloud. I think initially the cloud was holding things back, was depressing the work of the government a bit. And we'll see, you know, if there are more plea bargains that are announced -- because every time that happens we then spend some time dealing with the fallout from that. And if there are more than we will have to deal with that.
MENDELSONYou know, I do have a sense that prosecutors tend to respect a window around elections. And in a way, that's unfortunate because really the business of what happened in 2010 needs to be wrapped up.
SHERWOODAnd it certainly does. Let me give credit to the mayor. Well, he said, when this was happening, the constant drumbeat of whether he was going to quit, whether you were going to become acting mayor right away, he said -- he and his lawyer, Bob Bennett, both said the same thing. There's nothing he can do to change what's happened, whatever happened.
SHERWOODBut he was just going to go out and try to be the best mayor he could be and do the things he wants to do. So whether he's in office for one more day or the rest of his term, he can say I did the best I could. And a lot of business people around town and community people say he has done that. He's continued the policies of Mayor Williams and Adrian Fenty. And that he's -- Muriel Bowser says you've got to do more as mayor than just continue good policies, but he's achieved that goal. So if he steps aside or is forced aside or doesn't run again, he can say, I did the best I could. Would you agree with that assessment?
MENDELSONYeah, I would. That has been his focus and that is what he has been accomplishing. One can argue over whether certain policies could be different or better or certain agencies could be better. Certainly there's room for improvement in a lot of areas. You know, we still -- not in the last couple of weeks, but we hear too many stories about EMS, problems there. I think that we could be doing better in terms of employment for District residents.
SHERWOODWhat about the fire department? You used to be the chairman of the Judiciary Public Safety Committee. And while the noise around the fire department has settled down right as of this moment, there are still a lot of concerns that the fire department is not on the right trajectory -- the fire chief.
MENDELSONThe fire and EMS department does need improvement.
SHERWOODDoes it need a new fire chief?
MENDELSONThere are way too many vacancies or budgetary pressures with overtime, EMS has gotten better, but, you know, we do hear these complaints about EMS. Morale is terrible. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to improve fire and EMS.
MENDELSONThe point that I was making was that there is room for improvement, but if you look at the agencies and whether there are as many problems today as there were let's say a few years ago, I think we see fewer problems today.
SHERWOODAnd Chief Ellerbe?
MENDELSONAnd what about Chief Ellerbe?
SHERWOODWell, should he stay or go? There have been calls for his resignation. There's been, you know, kind of the usual discontent within the fire department with whoever is chief. But do you think he should step aside?
MENDELSONI have stayed out of that public discussion. I don't know…
SHERWOODWhat have you said privately? (laughter)
MENDELSONWhat have I said privately? Well, you'll have to discuss it with me privately, Tom.
FISHERWell, our guest is -- on "The Politics Hour" -- is Phil Mendelson, the chairman of the D.C. Council. And Chairman, as I was reporting a story in Shaw the other day and just going around talking to residents about this enormous surge of development in the neighborhood, the new O Street Market development is opening up this coming week.
FISHERExactly. With a giant supermarket in the old market structure and several apartment towers surrounding it. Obviously, there's the usual concerns about gentrification, about African Americans saying that they're being priced out or pushed out from the neighborhood. But overall, people were saying this is amazing progress. That the city has continued to move forward and has this building boom even when much of the country is still suffering from the economic collapse…
FISHER…a couple years ago. And many of the folks I talked to said that they gave credit for this boom to the vision that Anthony Williams put forward when he was mayor, which was interesting hear, unsolicited from people of different races and backgrounds. What's your sense? Who would you credit for this boom that we continue to see in the city or do mayors really matter when it comes to that? Are there larger economic forces at work that are determining this?
MENDELSONI think there are larger economic forces at work. But that's not to say that mayors don't matter or that the government doesn't matter. I think there's a dynamic with regard to urban life. And I mean by that, the life of cities, that we don't fully understand. Why is it that the population dropped dramatically from roughly 1950 until 2000. Why is it that the population has turned around? We are seeing other major cities in the United States where population is growing. Not like the District of Columbia. I think there's a psychology out there that we don't, we as policymakers, don't fully understand.
SHERWOODWell, success breeds success.
MENDELSONThat's true, but I think also that maybe the American dream is a little different. I don't want to get too global here, but when I was growing up the American dream was about getting a quarter acre of land in the suburbs and commuting. And it's different now. It's that people like the energy of living in a city.
FISHERIt's amazing to go into these new apartment buildings and see that they're being constructed -- these are apartments that are renting for $3,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, rent per month. And yet, the rooms in these buildings are tiny, and intentionally so. Well, first of all because the developers want to pack more units into the available space, but also because they say that's how people live, to your point. And that people are basically using these apartments as bedrooms, almost exclusively, and they eat out and they entertain themselves out and the building has all sorts of rooftop amenities to provide for that. But it is, as you say, a different way of living.
MENDELSONYeah, I think there's a lot of that. But, you know, it doesn't change the fact that people want to live in the city and that's a good thing. At the same time it presents problems, such as continuing gentrification and the fact that we're not doing enough to maintain and increase the supply of affordable housing. And how you define affordable housing, workforce housing, there should be more workforce housing. I think that makes good economic sense for the city.
SHERWOODYou know the city has a policy for housing. The mayor's put aside $100 million in the current budget to help fund more affordable housing, but affordable housing for whom? I mean is workforce…
MENDELSONWell, that’s what I was saying, workforce.
SHERWOODAnd most of these new places, the ones in Southwest and Southeast near where I live, you know, there has to be 20 or 30 percent set aside for lower income people.
MENDELSONYes. And we should do that as well because we should be -- for one thing, we shouldn't be forcing people out of the city.
SHERWOODWell, some people are just saying, my house is worth a lot more and I'm willing to go buy that quarter acre in the suburbs, I'm going to move because this is more money than I ever expected for my home, not realizing if they would just stay another year or two -- I nearly moved to the 14th Street area back in 2000. People said, why are you going to move there? I said I know why I would move there. Now, I probably wouldn't want to afford to live there, with the new things there, million dollar apartments.
FISHERWouldn't want to or couldn't?
SHERWOODYou picked up on that distinction (laughter) didn't you?
FISHERThat's Tom Sherwood. He's the resident analyst here on "The Politics Hour." I'm Marc Fisher from the Washington Post. And we are talking with D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson. You can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And yesterday we saw President Obama take a big step back on ObamaCare, make some concessions about mistakes that he says were made by him. And now he's essentially giving states and the District some options about how to go forward on continuing the healthcare policies for those who were getting these cancellation notices.
FISHERWhat's your sense of where the District will go on this? Will they follow the president's lead or the Commissioner William White, who's running this program for the District, actually hinted strongly that he opposes this idea?
MENDELSONYeah, and my understanding is that insurance commissioners in some of the other states have also thought the events of the last day or two don't make good sense from an insurance point of view. You know, the District is one of -- I believe it's 14 states that has set up its own healthcare exchange. There are a lot of subsidies. There are federal subsidies on an individual level related to ObamaCare that I think a lot of folks don't realize when they talk about what the costs of premiums are. But we've set up our own exchange. The exchange opened for business October 1st. I have not heard of any problems.
MENDELSONIn addition, the District provides Medicaid at, I believe, up to 200 percent of the poverty level. And so -- and this goes back to roughly 2000, roughly 13 years that we have tried to expand eligibility for, you know, medical -- for insurance through the -- what was it called? The Healthcare Alliance for a number of years.
MENDELSONAnd we've actually led the states in terms of expanding the ability of the number of people who are eligible for health insurance.
SHERWOODBut if there's a delay in the young people who are going to be the backbone because they are the most healthy…
SHERWOOD…if they don't have to sign up for another year, we know how people procrastinate on things like buying things (unintelligible) …
MENDELSONYeah. Well, the issue here is kind of -- on a micro level I think the District's doing everything that it can do and should do and we're being successful. And on a macro level, the economics are such that a much larger population in the District needs to be participating in these new programs.
SHERWOODI want to go back. We talked about the investigations, but I want to talk about the openness? One of the things at the forum Muriel Bowser has said, the city ought to be more open, the needs to file FOI requests, it's too much. I've made a request for some documents. And I was told, well, you need to pay $16.32. Well, my station can certainly pay that, but if I were a citizen wanting to know something, I'm not sure why we have to pay anything to get the documents from our government. But what has the council done?
SHERWOODYou've opened up the breakfast meetings, where reporters used to be kept outside. Now, you opened those meetings up more, but what can the council do to be more open and transparent? Or do you think you've reached the goal and that you are open and transparent?
MENDELSONI don't think we've reached the goal, but I also think that we have a done a lot over the last few years to be more transparent. Some of it is access to documents. Some of it is the public's ability to see and understand the process.
SHERWOODAnd when people are meeting.
MENDELSONYes. So you mentioned the breakfasts. The council meets typically for breakfast before a legislative meeting. And I think those meetings are important. Some people feel like, oh, they're open so now we shouldn't talk about anything so we shouldn't have the breakfasts. I find that we are able to talk about things and that the meetings are useful and they are open.
MENDELSONWe do need to look at -- this gets a little away from your question. I think we need to look at the FOI laws. On the one hand sometimes it's unnecessarily difficult for individuals who want information. You know, if you want a document, you want a copy of, I'm not sure what I want to -- a letter that the mayor sent, just give you the letter. What's the problem?
MENDELSONOn the other hand, we get these FOI requests every email that mentions Tom. Not even Tom Sherwood, mentions Tom between the year 2000 and 2013. And…
SHERWOODThose can be burdensome.
MENDELSONCorrect. They can be burdensome. I remember a couple years ago at a performance hearing with the police department I asked about FOI requests and they were getting so many very, very broad FOI requests that they had at least one person working full time on reviewing documents and processing those FOI requests. I'm not sure that that's in the best interest of government. There's an issue that you want to know about, Tom, we should be forthcoming, with regard to what's there.
SHERWOODI'd like to -- this is a -- this openness thing -- I complained bitterly in 2011 and so did the TV stations when the police department moved to encrypt the radio of the general…
MENDELSONI remember. I had a hearing on that.
SHERWOODYes. I know you had a hearing. I think it was February. And where the main line of the police radio traffic -- not the secret tact line that you've got, they can talk on privately without anyone hearing them, but the main flow of information line, what the police department is doing was encrypted so that citizens can't know what it is and the police departments can. Now, because of that, the fire department wants -- it's now emboldened. It now wants to encrypt its radio so we won't be able to hear the fire calls. And it seems to me we're moving down to shutting down -- as opposed to opening the government, we're shutting down the government. But we can have access.
MENDELSONWell, I wasn't aware of the fire department going in this direction.
MENDELSONBut I remember that Chief Lanier -- I had a hearing and it was not an easy issue. My view was that the police should continue to make these communications available to the media. The chief made the point -- which the fire chief cannot make -- that there are criminals who can listen to these police channels and know that, yes, the police have figured out that I’m in this building and they're going to surround this building and so I get out of the building. She could point to specific examples where this had happened.
SHERWOODShe could point to a handful out of tens of thousands.
MENDELSONCorrect. The fire chief cannot do that.
SHERWOODWell, I just call it to your attention because I…
SHERWOOD…personally, as a journalist think we should sue the city if this continues because you're shutting off information people need.
FISHERD.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is our guest on "The Politics Hour." I'm Marc Fisher with our resident analyst Tom Sherwood from NBC4. We started this discussion by talking about the effect that this mayoral race might have on the way in which some of your colleagues on the council take up issues.
FISHEROne of those issues that lends its self to campaigning is the whole question of living wage, the minimum wage. And there are four competing proposals that have been filed, with the most generous calling for a wage of $12.50 an hour. And there's also the issue of this being part of the region where you have Virginia and Maryland, that are perhaps interested in talking about this, perhaps not.
FISHERThe District's current rate of $8.25 is a dollar more than the federal minimum and both Virginia and Maryland use that minimum. So as you move forward on this discussion of what the living wage should be, first of all, what kind of -- how important is it to get a deal that includes the suburban jurisdictions and second, how do you get past the various grandstanding efforts on of the part of your council colleagues?
MENDELSONWell, in terms of the grandstanding, we have to just work our way through it. But the reality is that the minimum wage debate that's taking place today is an evolution from the debate over the last half of a year about a living wage requirement on large retailers, which you know…
SHERWOODThe Wal-Mart bill.
MENDELSON…was not called the Wal-Mart bill.
SHERWOODWell, we called it the Wal-Mart bill.
MENDELSONAnd it was vetoed by the mayor and the veto override fell short of the two-thirds necessary. But in the course of the debate, many people, including the business community and the mayor, said that there should be a broad-based increase in the minimum wage, rather than a targeted effort at a few businesses. And so that's what we're now discussing. And a lot of people who opposed the large retailer bill support increase -- or said they supported increasing the minimum wage. And that was before we got to the campaign petition time. So that's the context we're working in now.
MENDELSONAnd I hosted a -- or not hosted. I participated in a press conference with councilmembers from Montgomery County and Prince George's County and legislation has been introduced in both jurisdictions to increase the minimum wage. And what all three jurisdictions are looking at is $11.50 in three years, which would be roughly where the federal minimum wage would be today if it had kept up with where it was in 1968.
SHERWOODAnd Virginia, which is an economic competitor to Maryland and D.C., has shown no interest.
MENDELSONThat's true. And I believe that, you know, well, we know as a fact that most of the minimum wage jobs are in the food service and food preparation business. And it's not likely that McDonalds is going to close down all of its D.C. stores and move to Virginia because it has a lower minimum wage. There are a lot of studies -- this is an area that's been studied tremendously. And there a lot of studies and there is not clear evidence that would support the implication, Tom, that, well, the District's minimum wage goes up everybody's going to go to Virginia.
FISHERAnd do you have any reason to believe that Virginia's attitude will change under a new Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe?
MENDELSONI don't want to speculate there. But I do think…
SHERWOODI think with the 60 -- there's 100 members of the Virginia House. I think of those, I think 66 after the election -- maybe 66 are Republicans.
FISHERRight. That's not going anywhere.
SHERWOODI think (unintelligible) …
MENDELSONBut I don't think we should look at Virginia for this.
SHERWOODAre you going to be at the -- Wal-Mart was telling me the other day it thinks it will open its first store, the one downtown on New Jersey, maybe at the first of the year. Will you be at the ribbon cutting? (laughter)
MENDELSONWell, thank you for the invitation, Tom. I hadn't looked at it until just now.
SHERWOODWell, that would be a yes or a no question, I think.
MENDELSONWell, most things, I'll look at my schedule. (laugh)
FISHERSo that's right down the middle between the yes and the no. Let's hear from Al, in the District. Al, you're on the air.
ALYeah, I'm calling in reference to the taxicab industry. I'm a cab driver myself, you know. And with the system that's chaotic, you know, they installed the meters or whatever in your car and they don’t give any instructions or anything on it. Does the D.C. government regulate these vendors that's doing this stuff? I don't think they have any oversight for it, you know, the way things are operating.
FISHERTaxi drivers have been under a whole bunch of new regulations of late. The new dome lights, the new credit card system and so on.
MENDELSONYeah, the taxi commission, which regulates the taxicabs, as well as the taxi industry, has been looking to upgrade the quality of taxi service, as well as require some consistency in service. I know there's been some controversy about some of the specific proposals. You know, if a taxi driver's having problems with the meter vendor, I would think that the recourse is to go to the taxi commission for help. You know, regulation isn't about just imposing burdens. It shouldn't be about imposing burdens. It should also be about protecting taxi drivers from vendors who are acting improperly.
SHERWOODWell, I'll say I've covered some of this. And this has been a long-running battle. Some of the cab drivers did not want to do -- I mean, I've talked to Ron Linton, the chairman of the taxi commission about the cost of the new dome lights, which are uniform and they're easy to read and see. And the cab drivers were told they would be $200, almost $300.
SHERWOODBut now when they are buying them from the vendors, it's like $500. He said the reason is the cab drivers didn't, at the initial time, go onto the website or buy them from the maker, when they could have gotten the cheaper one. Now, at close to the deadline where they had to have them or be off the street, they had to buy them from a vendor. The vendor marked them up.
SHERWOODAnd so there's been -- I think the consistent thing here is that starting with Adrian Fenty, he said we're going to have an up-to-date, modern, recognizable cab system. There are 20 million cab rides in the city every year. More than half of them, 10 million of them are people from not in this region. They didn't know what a cab was. They didn't know if it was a Virginia cab, a Maryland cab, or what cab it was. And they say, so we're going to make this system work. And as the chairman said, we had a couple hundred people this week at the taxi commission complaining. He said we've got another 6,500 cab drivers out earning a living.
FISHERWell, we also have an email from Dillon, and he says, "I was curios to know what the chair thinks of the very public bickering and cursing between the councilmembers. What is the beef between Barry and Catania and has it always been there?"
MENDELSONWell, that's kind of like old news. And in fact…
FISHERIt's something that goes back a ways.
MENDELSON…I think that it's an important point that that kind of internal strife has diminished significantly. I mean I'm really kind of stunned by the question.
SHERWOODAnd also we should point out, you know, Marion Barry may fight like hell with you at the moment we're on the dais, and then when you walk out into the hallway he's talking about what we're going to do next week on some other bill. It's not that personal. It sounds personal, but it isn't.
MENDELSONWell, that's true, but the emailer, he's referring to a fight that was very much in the news. But it was in the news in February of 2011. And in fact, one of the things I've tried as chair is to defuse some of the tension that was there a year or two years ago. And I think the council is much less tense. Oh, we do disagree on issues. And we should disagree on issues. But we're more civil about it. And we're not embarrassing ourselves.
FISHERThe council is poised to approve a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. And Mayor Gray said last month that he supports that, but this will, of course, bring up the age old question of what will Congress do, in the event that this passes. And then another question is, if you decriminalize possession, what does that do to your enforcement efforts on the sales side of the equation? Is there an ethical or moral issue there, if you're saying it's okay to use it, you just can't acquire it?
MENDELSONWell, yeah, there are those kind of dilemmas. But what is pending right now is a decriminalization bill, so there would still be a penalty, but it wouldn't be being arrested and prosecuted and possibly looking at jail time.
MENDELSONI believe that's correct. It would be fine. And it's for -- I think the amount that they're talking about it is under an ounce. It would still be a felony to distribute. You know, a drug dealer would still be subject to criminal prosecution for a felony. You know, what we've seen across the country is an increasing acceptance of marijuana.
MENDELSONOr recognition that marijuana is not the kind of dangerous drug that we see with other kinds of drugs. And so what we've been doing is we have been criminalizing people -- the way I like to put it is that what we have done in America, as we have said that the way to treat substance abuse is to put somebody in jail, rather than to give them medical treatment for their drug habit.
MENDELSONAnd marijuana, I think, is the easiest drug, with regard to how to (unintelligible) that problem how to deal with it. And so there is the decriminalization legislation that's going through. What will Congress do? I've been nervous about that. And of the four bills, I think, that in the history of Home Rule have been overturned by Congress, one of them had to do with marijuana and decriminalizing it. It's instructive to me that at the public hearing the federal government and the prosecutor's response to this legislation was mute. Do I want to say mute? Muted.
SHERWOODMute, as in no noise. Not moot as irrelevant.
MENDELSONCorrect, as in no noise. So, I mean, very little noise, if any.
SHERWOODWell, one of the -- there are two issues that I've heard about it. One is that to decriminalize it because the arrests are woefully imbalanced and that 90 percent of the arrests for minor possession of marijuana come with African Americans when we know that people across the city in every direction.
MENDELSONCorrect. That is part of the problem.
SHERWOODIt is part of the problem.
MENDELSONBut we're also -- what we're doing is we're taking somebody who has no history of violent behavior, no other criminal behavior, and we're giving him a criminal record.
SHERWOODRight. The other thing I heard -- and I don't know how important this is, but that the city past medical marijuana has taken a woefully long time to fill those places up and running, but that if you, in fact, decriminalize marijuana, then people who might want marijuana won't go to these heavily-regulated places. And they'll be out of business.
MENDELSONThat's possible. However, if you think about it, the medical marijuana scheme -- and I don't mean that in a negative way -- is one that involves cultivating marijuana legally, selling marijuana legally, which would remain illegal on the streets with the decriminalization.
SHERWOODBut it would be illegal for me, though, to go there and buy an ounce of marijuana from a medical place if I don't have a doctor's thing? That would be...
MENDELSONUnder the current law.
FISHERYou wouldn't be able to do it, theoretically.
MENDELSONUnder the proposal for decriminalization, yes.
SHERWOODSo we'd be encouraging a black market for the sale of marijuana for people who can legally possess it and pay a fine.
MENDELSONEncouraging a black market, or there is a black market?
SHERWOODWell, encouraging -- continuing the black market.
FISHERLooking the other way.
SHERWOODJust seems a little fuzzy.
FISHERAnd you've gotten no direct indication from anyone in Congress that they're going to put a roadblock on this?
MENDELSONI've gotten none.
SHERWOODIn the federal...
MENDELSONNow that's not to say, well, let's just all sit back and not pay attention. But I've gotten none.
SHERWOODWill we expect it?
MENDELSONI believe that what happened in 1981 was that the U.S. attorney went up to the Hill and said, you know, this is just unacceptable, and this is antithetical to law and order. That's not happening.
SHERWOODThis would ease the workload of the U.S. attorney's office.
FISHERHave there been any discussions between the District and the U.S. attorney about enforcement policy now, even before this decriminalization occurs?
MENDELSONWell, there are always discussions.
MENDELSONIf you mean between the Council and the U.S. attorney, I don't chair the judiciary committee any longer. I used to work very closely with the U.S. attorney's office on legislation. I believe that they have -- you know, I believe that they continue to testify when they want to and pay attention to legislation.
FISHERBut I asked because, if you look at the arrest records, there's still a significant number of marijuana-related arrests, and they're not all dealers. A lot of them are users. So there is...
FISHER...something of a disconnect between the discussion going on in the Council and the enforcement activities of the police and the prosecutors.
MENDELSONYes. But I'm not sure how to -- what to do about that. I mean, I talked recently with the chief about it. And the chief makes the point that they get a lot of calls for service from citizens who say, you know, somebody's smoking a joint on the street and, you know, do something about it. Citizens complain about open use of marijuana and other drugs. And other drugs are far more serious and do need -- do require a law enforcement response.
SHERWOODBut they do have some discretion whether they can use the evidence of seeing someone with marijuana, smoking marijuana, to go in and maybe find more substantive, more serious crimes that person might be involved in.
MENDELSONIf you're talking about a search...
SHERWOODIt's a gateway, yeah. If somebody's smoking marijuana, it's a gateway to search them to see what they're doing.
MENDELSONWell, to search them, yes. It could be, yes.
MENDELSONAnd then that'll be dealt with as part of the decriminalization.
FISHERLet's hear from Stephanie is calling from Alexandria, Va. Stephanie, you're on the air.
STEPHANIEHi, Kojo, (sic) thanks for taking my call. I wanted to ask Councilman -- the chairman his thoughts -- I'm part of a restaurant group in the area, the neighborhood restaurant group, and we have several...
FISHERAnd I think we have lost Stephanie there.
SHERWOODWe had some audio issues.
FISHERWell, if we get Stephanie back, we will speak with her. I'm Marc Fisher from The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo today. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. And we will have to leave it there with Phil Mendelson, the chairman of the D.C. Council. Thank you very much for being with us.
FISHERAnd, Tom, turn to Virginia now, and as we're going to welcome Chris Zimmerman, member of the Arlington County Board. Chris Zimmerman, long-time leader in things transit and transportation in the metropolitan area. He is leaving the Arlington County Board, and there'll be a special election to replace him. And he's leaving to serve as vice president for the nonprofit Smart Growth America, so staying in the general policy -- same general policy bailiwick. But, Chris Zimmerman, why leave the county board midterm?
MR. CHRIS ZIMMERMANWell, first, thanks very much for having me and hello to Phil if he's still there.
ZIMMERMANYou know, I've really enjoyed the opportunity I've had for almost 18 years now to work on my hometown of Arlington County. And it's been a really good run, and, you know, I very much enjoyed doing it. And I'm very proud of the things that we've been able to accomplish here and working with other people in the region, like Councilmember Mendelson. But I've done it for 18 years, and I think I've reached a good stopping point in terms of the projects I've been working on.
ZIMMERMANI'm really anxious to be able to bring some of the same kind of ideas and lessons that we've learned to other places. I know there are a lot of communities around the country that are struggling with some of the same issues. And, you know, many of them are actually looking for help. And, you know, I think I can do something useful that way.
FISHERAnd tell us about your new job at Smart Growth America. Are you going to be turning America into Arlington?
ZIMMERMANWell, I think that all over the country there are people interested in how they deal with challenges, like the fact that, you know, there isn't as much federal help anymore, and budgets still have to be balanced. And the way we've been doing things for a lot of decades in, you know, most of the country has a lot of problems, one of which is it makes it more expensive to run. If you have development patterns, for instance, that, you know, don't take account of the cost of infrastructure and maintaining services with very dispersed patterns of development, you're basically making government more expensive to run.
ZIMMERMANAt the same time, you don't get a lot of the economic benefits. Furthermore, places are finding that, in order to attract the kind of workforce that, you know, the employers are looking for now, especially the kind of creative folks that are the engine of the innovative economy, you know, the knowledge economy as people say that we seem to be entering into here, you have to have places people want to be.
ZIMMERMANAnd more and more place making is a large part of that, so, you know, I think creating great places in every community and finding the ways that you can leverage that, that's a scene you're going to see all around in both big metropolitan areas and in smaller towns as well. I think a lot of the comeback of the District of Columbia that you were talking about earlier has to do with the fact that, you know, people are looking for these areas that are compact, that are walkable where people can get places without getting in and out of their cars five or six times a day.
ZIMMERMANAnd that, I think, is a trend that is going to continue, especially when you look at the demographic patterns. And, you know, again, Phil touched on this earlier, but, you know, around the time I was born, more than half a century ago, half of American households had kids in them. You know, it was mom, dad, and a couple of kids. And now we're up to the point where two-thirds or more of the households are singles and couples.
ZIMMERMANAnd we know that over the next decade or two, about 80 percent of the growth in households is going to be households that are singles and couples. And it's just a different kind of environment that we're going to have to build for.
FISHERYou can join our conversation with Chris Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board, at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODMr. Zimmerman, the big issue here in -- first of all, congratulations on your service of the time you spent in public office. You've always spoken bluntly, and to my knowledge, correctly about things. And so that's good. We have in the nation's capital the issue over the height limit and whether or not to put in high-rise buildings. But I'm not sure what Arlington's rule is, although you have to worry about planes landing at National Airport. What is your -- what are your thoughts about the height limit in the District of Columbia outside the monumental core area? Should the city entertain high-rise buildings?
ZIMMERMANYeah, I'm not an absolutist on height issues. And I guess that shows from, you know, the approach that I've taken in Arlington. You know, I think you really do have to judge that in large part on the basis of the area that you're planning to develop and what's around it and particularly how well it is served in terms of transportation.
ZIMMERMANIn Arlington, we have basically a narrow corridor, a couple of narrow corridors that are served by a string of metro stations. And that's a very high-capacity line, but it also linear. So that tends to force, you know, density narrowly and close to the station, and so, you know, you go up. And there's a lot of value in going farther up, at least up to a point. We do have limits, of course, as well. And in the most dense areas we have, the most intense areas, Rosslyn and Crystal City, the, you know, the aviation limits are a big factor.
ZIMMERMANYou know, part of the question is, how much density do you want to add, not just in terms of what's desirable but, frankly, what can the market bear? So, you know, one of the things I look at is, you know, what do you -- how much density do you basically already have on offer and how much do you think the economy's going to be able to, you know, fill that up in a period of 10 or 20...
SHERWOODAnd Rosslyn and Crystal City have tried to humanize their big ugly buildings with (unintelligible)...
ZIMMERMANYeah, there is no -- it's really not what's going on at the top, not the height so much as what's going on on the ground.
SHERWOODIt's the street level.
ZIMMERMANThe street level is the most important. The problems with Rosslyn and Crystal City in the past were basically at the street level. And good urban design is absolutely essential if these places are going to work.
FISHERWhen you -- in Arlington or in the District, the kinds of smart growth initiatives that you advocated in your current position and presumably will in the future often meet with some pushback on a kind of a class basis where you have long-time residents, whether they're African Americans or otherwise, who say that a lot of these smart growth policies lead to a much higher income level coming into the city or coming into the suburb and pushing out those who were there before. What is it about -- as you look at spreading the smart growth concept across the country, how do you confront those issues of class?
ZIMMERMANWell, I do think that social equity has to be an important part of our policy approach. It's, you know, about transportation. It's about, you know, urban design, things like that, but equity does have to be a part of it. And, you know, that's why affordable housing has been a large part of the program here in Arlington, and continues to be. And in my last few months in office, it's particularly what I'm focusing on with the Columbia Pike corridor planning.
ZIMMERMANBut I don't think there's inherent conflict here. The problem is that what we have right now is a country that built for so many decades for basically a market that was moving out into suburban and exurban areas and wanting that house on the quarter-acre lot that we overbuilt that tremendously. So now the market's changed, and we have a tremendous move back toward more urban areas, including existing urban areas, and creating some newer walkable areas in places like Arlington.
ZIMMERMANAnd the demand is simply outstripping the supply tremendously and driving the prices up. And since we have a very skewed income in our country right now for a lot of other policy reasons, that's particularly exacerbated. And so, you know, we -- and we don't -- the supplies take a long time to catch up 'cause what do we add every year to built (unintelligible) environment, one or 2 percent maybe. It'll take a long time for the market to balance not just in this region but around the country.
SHERWOODAnd for this -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.
ZIMMERMANWell, I was going to say, so in the interim, we do have to have policies as part of our plan to capture some of that growing value and make sure we have space for people of low and moderate income to live in all these places and that we preserve some of these communities that have been here for, you know, for generations. That's a large part of what we're trying to do specifically with the Columbia Pike corridor here in Arlington.
SHERWOODI want to remind you we can't curse on this program. But I want to ask you about Metro. And it's the horrendous news from the Red Line the last couple days, and Mr. Sarles, the general manager, had to apologize. President Obama's apologizing for ObamaCare. And Mr. Sarles is apologizing for the mess-ups in the Metro. Do you have any apologies to make?
ZIMMERMANListen, you know, I'm a Metro rider, too, so (unintelligible)...
SHERWOODWhat is your thought -- seriously, I want to ask you about Metro. What can you -- I know the Silver Line is very exciting in Virginia and the opportunities to -- I can't wait to take Metro to -- and use Dulles again. I haven't used it 'cause I don't want to go out there, but I'll ride it when I can get there. What are your thoughts about the troubles that Metro is having?
ZIMMERMANWell, let me say, you know, I think in your comment that kind of points to what a lot of the issue is. There's always excitement for wanting to plan a new line, a new station extended somewhere. You know, in the time that I've been involved, you know, we saw the system finished with the Green Line open. We saw the first extension with the Blue Line to Largo. We saw an in-fill station on Florida Avenue and then this -- the new extension going out into Tysons and Dulles.
ZIMMERMANAnd every time I turn around, there's another proposal to extend Metro farther into places, you know, Prince William County or something like that, which I'm not sure is a necessarily great idea. But that's part of the problem, is that everybody wants to extend Metro. On the other hand, putting money into the system to maintain it and to build up the core capacity of the system, that's been really hard.
ZIMMERMANThere hasn't been federal money available for it. You know, everybody wants to put into expansion, but, you know, how do you get the funds to maintain what you've got? More than a decade ago, we produced -- when I was on the Metro Board -- a proposal for just that. We had a core capacity study, and it said, if you just want to keep the share of the market that you have now -- not growing transit even, but just keeping the same share going forward the next 30 or 40 years, you need to do a number of things.
ZIMMERMANAnd it outlined the kind of projects, which, frankly, were billions of dollars of projects, because it's a big system and a big metropolitan area. And, you know, around that time, Maryland elected a governor who, you know, wasn't so interested in transit. The Virginia voters turned down a referendum on transportation funding, and, you know, a lot of folks in the District said, well, you know, the suburbs should be paying more.
ZIMMERMANAnd, you know, those were all reasons to not fund things. And we spent a decade with people finding the reasons to not fund things. You know, I don't think you're going to really be able to have the system work the way people want unless we face up to the fact that funds have to be put into it. And Metro doesn't have those funds. They have to be provided from somewhere.
FISHERWhat -- and...
ZIMMERMANI think a reason why a compact to do that where the federal government is actually a player, which is the big thing that's missing here -- remember, our big employer does not pay taxes and does not contribute to the operation of the system. If you were in a typical city where it was a big industry, they'd be participating in some way.
ZIMMERMANThe federal government has never been in that role. They pay their gas bill. They pay their water bill. They pay their electric bill. But they're not providing for the system that is providing a huge amount of the trips of the workforce that comes every day to serve the people of the United States.
FISHERVery briefly, Chris Zimmerman, we're going to take one more call from Claudia in Fairfax. Claudia, you're on the air.
CLAUDIAHi. Thank you for taking my call. This is more like a comment, and I could take my response on the phone. I've been working in Arlington for more than 10 years, and I've seen the transformation of the county over this time. And I think it's wonderful, the new buildings and the new concept in the county. But I've seen how the county has pushed poor people out and out in the county, especially from the north section, and now we're going to the south.
CLAUDIAAll the new development in the Tyson area has pushed poor people out completely. All the social services, now they moved from the (word?) section out in the south of the county. I (unintelligible) people by metro, by bus, so I (unintelligible). Thank you.
FISHEROkay. Great. Thank you, Claudia. Chris Zimmerman, just a quick answer. We have a little time left.
ZIMMERMANYeah. I mean, unfortunately, the market and, you know, a lot of the other bigger forces driving our economy are pushing poor people out. The county is struggling to counter that. That's why we have over 6,000 units of committed affordable housing, about 15 percent of our rentals stock, and that's why we are trying to, you know, do more to make up for that gap.
ZIMMERMANIt's not that the county doesn't want the diversity here. On the contrary, it's very much a commitment on the part of Arlington to try and maintain the diverse community that we have. But it is very difficult to do in the face of the kind of economic forces that we're confronting.
FISHERAnd in just the final few seconds, we should note the passing of this week of Ron Kirby from the Metropolitan Council of Governments who was tragically shot and killed in his home in Alexandria. Ron Kirby was very valuable to many local government officials as well as to reporters in the region. What was his great contribution in just a sentence?
ZIMMERMANIt's hard to sum up in a sentence. Mr. Kirby led the Transportation Planning Board for this region. That's our big transportation region (unintelligible) body for 26 years, I think. That's, you know, a lot longer tenure than most of us have had in any, you know, similar role. And...
FISHERWe'll have to leave it there. Chris Zimmerman is a member of the Arlington County Board. He's leaving soon to serve as vice president of the nonprofit Smart Growth America. And our resident analyst is Tom Sherwood of NBC 4. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post sitting in for Kojo. Thanks so much for joining us. "The Politics Hour" is produced by Michael Martinez. The managing producer is Brendan Sweeney.
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