Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich is running for County Executive with public financing and plans to take on developers. Kim R. Ford is challenging fourteen-term Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton for her seat. We talk to both of them about their campaigns and look at the biggest political news of the week.
A sprawling corruption case consumes Prince George’s County. District shoppers brace for the arrival of Wal-Mart. And the Pentagon takes a second look at plans to relocate thousands of jobs in Northern Virginia. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
- Jim Dinegar President and CEO, Greater Washington Board of Trade
- David Robertson Executive Director, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
- Wendy Weiner Organizing Director, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400
Politics Hour Extra
Wendy Weiner, Organizing Director of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, talks about her organization’s concerns surrounding the planned opening of four Wal-Mart stores in D.C. by the end of 2012:
Jim Dinegar, President and CEO, Greater Washington Board of Trade, and David Robertson, Executive Director, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, talk about Metro’s future and what the service can do for riders right now:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to The Politics Hour featuring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our guest analyst. He's our resident analyst. He's a reporter at NBC 4 and a columnist for the Current newspapers. He joins us in studio. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
MR. TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon. Good afternoon. Happy to be here.
NNAMDILast week, during this broadcast, we heard that Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson and his wife, Leslie, newly elected to the county council, had been arrested by the FBI. Since then, we know you've heard all the details, the phone call between the Johnsons with instructions to flush a $100,000 check down the toilet and the now world-famous physical feat of stuffing almost $80,000 into a bra. The Johnsons have been charged with tampering with evidence and obstructing justice. They are assumed innocent until proven guilty. But several questions remain.
NNAMDIYou can call us with your answers to those questions even as Tom Sherwood and I discuss them. Question one: Should Jack Johnson resign before his successor Rushern Baker's inauguration on Dec. 6 in order to avoid embarrassment? Or should he attend and pass the traditional baton, so to speak, since he has not yet been convicted of a crime? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. 800-433-8850. Question two: Should Leslie Johnson be sworn in and take her seat on the county council on Dec. 6? Why or why not? And Question three: Do you think Prince George's County does indeed have a pay-to-play culture or is the county being smeared with too broad a brush because of the actions of a few people? 800-433-8850. Tom Sherwood, that final one is a question that county officials seem to have been ducking for the past week or so.
SHERWOODWell, if this were not radio, I'd say we would start this program with a moment of silence for Prince George's County. It’s a huge embarrassment. It's not just some county employee being arrested. It's the head of the county government. It's the wife of the county, who's going to be on the council in Dec. 6, unless she decides not to. This is a huge embarrassment. The legal system would decide whether or not they're guilty. But the county is in turmoil, and too many of the county leaders there are simply speaking up at all.
NNAMDIWell, I can...
SHERWOODIncluding Rushern Baker.
NNAMDII have one answer why they're not speaking up. Here's what you need to understand about Prince George's County. All of its elected and appointed officials, all of its upscale residents are essentially part of its tourist board. United in their resolve that the nation's most affluent, predominantly black jurisdiction must never be confused or linked to closely with its next-door neighbor. So for those of you who refer to the county as Ward 9 of D.C., a place to which some poor residents of D.C. are forced to migrate, that's a no-no.
NNAMDIAn even worse violation; referring to the county as PG County. Too much like D.C. You don't hear anyone referring to Prince William County as PW. Prince George's County residents (laugh) will tell you. It's seen as a kind of slur by Prince George's County officials. So you've got to understand their sensitivity in responding to accusations that the Johnson's alleged criminal behavior is somehow typical of Prince George's County. No one will concede that at this point who is in a high position or an upscale resident of the county.
SHERWOODWell, this -- you know, what we -- we don't know how much more there is to come. You know what, for several years, we've been hearing about the investigations and The Post did that big story in 2006 and all the contracts that Jack Johnson had given out. Because, you know, in Prince George's County, Jack, the county executive gives out the contracts. And he was saying, I'm only hiring people of integrity. And, I mean, this is just a huge story. We've had the county executive and his wife, a council -- soon to be a council member. We've had three police officers and six others involved in the alleged drug-running, gun-smuggling system.
NNAMDIAll kinds of stuff. Yes.
SHERWOODSo where is -- you know -- this may be a third leg of the story to come, more people in the county.
NNAMDIIt would seem that way.
NNAMDIThey say that they've merely tipped -- touched the tip of the iceberg. So we're asking your responses. Should Jack Johnson resign before his successor Rushern Baker's inauguration, Dec. 6? Should Leslie Johnson be sworn in and take her seat on the county council on the same day? And do you think Prince George's County does indeed have a pay-to-play culture? 800-433-8850 is the number to call.
SHERWOODI just wanna mention that The Gazette had an interesting interview with Harry Hughes, a blast from the past from Montgomery....
SHERWOOD...who succeeded Marvin Mandel. And he says, it's very important for Rushern Baker, who's gonna be the incoming county executive, to do more than just say, oh, we're gonna run an ethical organization. He says he's got to speak up. He's got to make it clear by word and deed that this kind of pay-for-play activity, whatever its legality is at this moment, is not gonna happen under my watch. It was great to even hear from Harry Hughes. Again, he's 84. And this is the first time I've seen him speak a great deal for a while.
NNAMDIAnd as I recall, when Harry Hughes was elected governor of Virginia, the salary of the governor of Virginia then was a $25,000 a year at that point.
NNAMDIAnd of course, they raised it. And one of the reasons they raised it was to avoid corruption.
SHERWOODWell, we ought to pay people for, you know, running that -- you know, I don't know what the state budget of Maryland is, but the city budget of Washington is $10 billion. We pay our mayor $200,000. You know, you pay properly for people running such big organizations.
NNAMDIOnto Danny in Bethesda, Md. Danny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Danny. Oh, I'm -- that was my fault, Danny. Danny, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANNYYes. Thanks for the time. I'm answering your question with regards to if the couple should stay in power or not. Both of them should resign and get locked up for a very, very long time because it is a shame that they are taking away taxpayer's money in this tough times, especially. They are very hypocrites. And I think that investigations should keep going, because there's more thieves in the Prince George's government. Thank you. I'll take my answer off the air
NNAMDIHey, Tom, you want this one.
SHERWOODWell, you know, one -- some people would say, well, you know, it's not fair that Jack Johnson's wife, Leslie, have not been convicted of anything, so therefore, they're not criminals in the legal sense of the word. But there's another reason for them to resign. That is because they are a political distraction and embarrassment and as a service to the county. And I don't know exactly what happens if Jack Johnson resigns -- who takes over for the last week of his term or two weeks of his term? But the fact is they could step aside, so they would not be a distraction.
NNAMDIIndeed, county council member incoming Mel Franklin on several shows, both Bruce DePuyt and the Plotkin show has been saying that several members of the county council have apparently approached or are approaching Leslie Johnson to ask her not to take her seat on the council precisely because it would be a distraction, and apparently, if she does take her seat, they're planning to make sure she has no committee assignments, no office staff and very few resources.
SHERWOODWell, one of the issues I think -- I like to think of it -- I read it in The Gazette article to be clear about it. But, you know, there's like nine members, and she's a crucial vote on who's gonna be the next chairman of the council. So there's some concern, but if she doesn't vote, there could be a four-four tie as to who will be running the council.
NNAMDIHere is Charles in Langley Park. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHARLESYeah, I agree with your previous caller. I think Jack and his wife, both of them, should find a hole somewhere and wait for sentencing or trial, but they need to get out of the way. They're an absolute embarrassment to the community at large, to the black community and, most specifically, to the Caribbean community from which Jack, I understand, hails. Jamaica...
NNAMDINo, no. Jack is from South Carolina.
CHARLESOh, okay. Well, I was under the impression he was from Jamaica.
SHERWOODWas it’s an embarrassment to the people of South Carolina then.
CHARLESWell, anyway, they're definitely an embarrassment, and they need to get out of the way and let some people with some credibility to step in and take over because they've embarrassed everybody.
NNAMDIOkay, Charles, thank you very much for your call.
SHERWOODThere was a Washington Business Journal poll -- there's a viewer-reader poll online showing like 78 percent of the people thought this was a terrible embarrassment for the county. It's going to be hard to get over it.
NNAMDIAnd we got a tweet from Dilo (sp?) online, who said “The people didn't vote for a potential felon. Had they known of the charges ahead of the election, Leslie Johnson may not have won.” Here now is Mike in Severn, Md. Mike, your turn.
MIKEHi, guys. I went to College Park, and my wife taught in the county, so I’ve got a soft spot for Prince George's County. And I agree with all the previous callers. They should go away as quickly as possible, you know, just to kind of -- so this county can start to move on from this. It -- the one thing that I took away from it, though, was I was very happy that law enforcement dug into this and found this corruption. You know, it always reminds me of, you know, Third World countries and the corruption that goes on there, how the United States really aggressively goes after that with our public officials. And if I'm a resident of the county, you should take solace in the fact that there, you know, we're gonna continue to focus on that, so that this doesn't creep into the culture again.
NNAMDIOkay, thank you for your call, Mike. Here's Yvette in Bowie, Md. Yvette, your turn. Go ahead, please.
YVETTEHi, Kojo. I'm (word?). I just want to say that -- two things. I am a proud Prince Georgian. I've lived in this county for -- I don't know -- almost 15, 16 years, and I'm a community activist. I work hard for my county, and it is a shame that Jack Johnson and his wife have to end their tenure like this, but it's not a surprise. And I have two things to say. I'm so disappointed in the commentary that I've seen on The Washington Post, WPLC, these various websites with very racist comments about how this is typical for African-Americans and that they shouldn't be surprised because black people steal et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
NNAMDILet -- allow me to clarify for our listeners that you're not talking about what the Post editorial said. You're talking about reading the comments sections that follow those article that individuals have been saying, correct?
YVETTEVery correct. Thank you for the clarification. And I just want to say that it is a character flaw, not a racial issue, because if you look, this is not -- Jack Johnson got caught up in it, but it's -- and sadly, it's not the first time that it has happened in Prince George's County as most people read the article. That was, I believe, in Sunday's Washington Post. It is definitely a black eye for our county, but just as we got past it, back in the 1960s and early '70s, I believe that we will get past this, but that also depends on Mr. Rushern Baker and the people that he brings in. And I must say that I was most disappointed in Mr. Baker when he didn't come out and say that. While there's no law against Leslie Johnson being seated, the right thing to do is for her to step down. He actually said -- and I believe it was on WTLP -- I'm sorry. Not WTLP. It was on Channel 8 when he was speaking with Bruce DePuyt that it was that she should be seated. He was wrong, and if that....
YVETTE...that's the kind of leadership that we're expecting from him then Prince George's County really does have a long way to go. Thank you.
NNAMDIYvette, thank you very much for your call. See, Tom, somebody is watching Bruce DePuyt after all.
SHERWOODWell, you know, that's one.
NNAMDI(laugh) So far, there's one, Bruce. Here's Carol in Hyattsville, Md. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLWell, thank you so much for taking my call. I've lived in Prince George's County since 1960. With regard to our problem with the Johnsons, I think both should have the dignity to resign, so that Rushern Baker can get into office and begin to get the county back on a good footing. As far as the cozy relationship between developers and politicians, I'm a veteran of a number of zoning hearings in the past. And believe me, eventually, I just threw up my hands and said what's the point. There's no question that there is a culture of coziness between developers and politicians.
CAROLWhether there was any criminal activity involved, I have no way of knowing. But I -- even here in Hyattsville, there was a question of what to do with our armory in Hyattsville. And some politicians were involved in that, and I had some questions about...
CAROL...that process. So in any event, there's nothing new here, folks.
NNAMDIThank you. (laugh) Move along. There's nothing new here, folks.
SHERWOODWell, you know, one thing we haven't mentioned, Rod Rosenstein, who is actually the U.S. attorney. I mean, he was...
SHERWOODThe -- it seems like a month ago that he had a press conference last week to announce this in chilling detail and handled it very well, I thought. And I thought he ought to be mentioned.
NNAMDIAnd I think we ought to mention what a lot of Prince George's County residents probably want us to mention that Prince George's would not be the only jurisdiction in the United States with allegations of cozy relationships between developers and politicians.
SHERWOODWell, you know, those of us who live in the city wonder if their voting rights should be taken away because they obviously can't rule themselves.
NNAMDISo you -- well, I know you'd bring that up. That's another discussion for another date. Thanks to all of those of you who called on this issue, but we do have to move on to other issues. One of those issues, Tom, the Defense Department's Office of the Inspector General is studying the transportation management plan and environmental impact of the department's decision to shift more than 6,000 workers to the Mark Center in Alexandria by next year as part of that of that BRAC, the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process. Congressman Jim Moran says there's gonna be too much congestion on 395.
SHERWOODWell, you can call it environment. You can call it all those things. But what it is, is it sounds like a huge mess. It means people will not be able to get to work. The whole idea of BRAC was to consolidate places and save money and to make it better to get the work done in the Defense Department. And this is just a huge mess.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, there's the other issue of Sen. James Webb announcing yesterday that he was releasing his hold on all pending Defense Department nominations. That was three weeks after he said he would block them until he received more information about the Pentagon's proposed closure of the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command. He said yesterday, he finally received the information he sought, though he's still complaining about the delay.
SHERWOODYou know, a part of this problem is just something like the joint command has, like, something like 6,000 jobs that Virginia is worried about in the -- and, you know, it's one thing to talk about cutting the federal budget and cutting spending and all that, but when people start cutting things, all the local political and civic leaders start screaming.
NNAMDIVirginia Governor Bob McDonnell was elected vice chairman of the Republican Governor's Association this week. Just thought you'd want to know. You're listening to the Politics Hour, featuring Tom Sherwood. He is our resident analyst. Tom is a reporter at NBC 4. He's also a columnist for the Current Newspapers. Joining us now in studio is David Robertson, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID ROBERTSONGlad to be here.
NNAMDIAnd joining him is Jim Dinegar, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Jim Dinegar, good to see you.
MR. JIM DINEGARIt's good to be back. Thank you.
NNAMDIJim, you could fill up a library these days with the rants and recommendations that riders have for Metro about crumbling ceilings or faulty escalators. But you've put out a report, claiming that the real problems with Metro have to do with how the system is organized and governed. What's your case?
DINEGARWell, that's where it starts, Kojo. The Board of Trade teamed up with the Council of Governments in order to address what should be addressed first, the governance of Metro. We've heard the complaints for way too long, the requests for more funding. The confidence is declining in the system. It's declining on the part of the riders, the public, the business leaders, the local government officials, the funders, the federal government, all the way down the road. And the system is deteriorating. It's long overdue that someone or some groups step in to really address what needs to be addressed first, and that's governance. Everything flows from governance, so we're not pointing a finger blaming governance for all of the problems. But to fix the problems, really, you need to start at the top. And that's the governance system, holding the board accountable, and then the board in turn holds the management accountable. It's just not being done.
NNAMDIYou say that Metro's director needs to be able to operate the way a CEO would operate. I can just hear the critics now saying, there go those private industry guys again. How would you apply a more private sector or business style approach to Metro?
DINEGARWell, if everyone's in charge, no one's in charge. And that's actually been the case over at Metro for too long. So get a general manager in there. Give him or her the ability and responsibility to act as the CEO of the organization, and then hold him or her accountable, along with the rest of management. But don't get into the micromanagement if you're a board member. Don't start working around the general manager and sort of cutting his knees off. Really get to it so that you have a general manager who acts and is the CEO, hold accountable, and then the board is responsible for setting the policy. The board is responsible for the governance of the system, not the management of the system.
SHERWOODAnd Mr. Robertson...
NNAMDII was about to say one more before Sherwood takes over because, after then, I won't get a chance to ask a question. Mr. Robertson, why do you both seem to feel there's a danger allowing elected officials' influence on the Metro Board?
ROBERTSONThere really isn't a danger. We think elected officials bring a lot of strengths to the board. We think we wanna have a clear job description so that those elected officials or non-elected officials that are appointed are transit experts. So one of the things the task force is called for is better aligning what the needs and the skills are for the WMATA Board. Right now, you just get appointed because you get appointed, and there's no sense of terms or your authority or your responsibility. And that picks up some of the micromanagement and mission creep that Jim talked about. We think, that with a higher level of engagement by state officials, governors, mayors, to chairman of the council in the federal government, we're gonna provide the guidance necessary so that somebody actually watches what the WMATA Board is doing. Right now, that really doesn't happen.
NNAMDIHere's Tom Sherwood. I'll be back later, maybe.
SHERWOODTune in next week. One of the issues got fairly hot when I started asking around about it was that your proposal that there be a commission -- that the governor of Maryland, the governor of Virginia, the mayor of the city, the federal government, appointing super chairman of the board who's now chosen among the board members and that that chairman would also be -- would be stronger. Well, we're hearing that from Virginia, for example, Governor McDonnell, who wants more say so on Metro, oh, that's a great idea. And then you heard from the congressmen, Jim Moran and Connolly, oh, no, no. Northern Virginia depends on the Metro system. The Northern Virginians should decide who's on this board. And the city is worried, as I mentioned at the press conference there, they were worried that kind of authority would weaken the city's influence in Metro (word?) it would still have a veto in the budget and then the expansion of Metro, it would be outnumbered and other decision should be made by the chairman appointed by the suburbs. Mr. Robertson.
ROBERTSONWell, you know...
SHERWOODThat wasn't a question...
SHERWOOD…that was a rant.
ROBERTSONThat's okay. It's a good rant and we've heard that as well. I think the real opportunity here is to find individuals that care about the regional dimension of this. You know, there's no Arlington perspective on safety versus a District perspective on safety. I live in Arlington. I get on at Rosslyn. I get off at Union Station. There's -- you know, you want the system to perform at a regional level across the board. We're looking for folks and we'd acknowledge this and the task force report. There are some interim steps. We want the WMATA board itself to appoint from among its ranks a regional leader to take over that role and responsibility. But down the line, if we are successful with Compact Amendments and we think based on the past that's -- there's a real shot for that, that we can get somebody that is essentially that 13th additional member that can provide some long-term stability. One of the things we've talked about, we've got a lot of change up in WMATA general managers, fairly stable WMATA board.
SHERWOODThat was kind of astonishing to me. I think you said yesterday that in the last five years, there had been two general managers and two interim general managers. And we have an interim general manager now.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're talking with David Robertson. He is executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Jim Dinegar is president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. And we're talking about their report on how Metro needs to be reorganized. If you have comments or questions, 800-433-8850. The Post news story said, and I'm quoting here, that, "The task force is not convinced that elected officials are able to adopt a long-term, regional perspective.' For example, they may elect to postpone a vital investment to avoid service cuts or fare increases that are unpopular with their local constituents. In part, they can do that by using the veto power. And you called for curbing or eliminating the veto power of individual board members. For a lot of politicians, that's a non-starter. Why?
DINEGARWell, if everybody plays defense then we're never going to have a regional system. And right now, if you have the veto and you can veto which you're going to have for lunch at the board meetings, it's an abuse of the system of using that veto. Instead, it should be relegated to just talking about budget issues and system expansion. And then, perhaps, later on, this commission that we've called for could really look at whether or not the veto should live on, because it really has been abused. The system itself is deteriorating. As I mentioned, the confidence is lacking and shrinking daily. And so things need to change.
DINEGARWe're not calling for a whole new structure and a whole new bureaucracy. We're actually saying the key players involved, the two governors, the mayor, the council chair, federal government, the other appointing officials really need to get together on an annual basis, frankly, at least twice. Set the policy. Hold the board accountable. Make sure board members show up. Make sure that a board chair isn’t just rotated year in, year out. And then you've got a one-year shot and everything's in churn. Instead, have some consistency. There needs to be consistency among the chairmanship and this passing parade of general managers is just harmful to the system. It seems to be that the longetivity is among the board members and not among the management.
SHERWOODThe longetivity, what a great word. Now for the riders, Mr. Dinegar -- I said your name wrong, Mr. Dinegar, you said there was some immediate things that could be done and then the longer term things. What are, for the riders, the immediate things that you think should be done?
DINEGARWell, the immediate thing's that needs to be done is to bring the leadership together, the different signing authorities, the two governors, the mayor, as well as the different appointing authorities and start setting the direction and holding the board accountable. And then that general manager should also be brought on board and be made the CEO. Those things can be done immediately. Restricting the veto authority won't require an act of Congress. It requires the board to get together and say, we agree. It should only be used for budgetary items and system expansion, not every time somebody's thesis.
SHERWOODAre we close to having a new general manager? I know you're not part of the -- that process. But we don't have a general manager at Metro.
DINEGARWell, this report was designed to be done in -- and given to the Board of WMATA in advance of the new board year and in advance of them selecting a new general manager. We understand it's down to about eight or nine candidates. They've had some of those interviews and I expect they'll continue for the next couple of days. Shortlist that. And it wouldn't be surprise to find out they select a new general manager by the end of the year.
NNAMDIHere is Lara in Washington, D.C. Lara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LARAHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I have a comment and also a suggestion. I grew up in the Soviet Union and lived in Moscow and St. Petersburg. And there are very good Metro systems there in both cities. Also, I lived about for one year in Munich in Germany. I've never -- I do not remember ever having any problems in those -- in the subways of those cities. At the same time here, you know, I've waited for like half an hour. The elevators aren't working. The escalators are not working. It's just amazing. Maybe they should go and take a look at what went on there and learn from them. After all, quote, America, the greatest country on Earth. And at the same time, they cannot fix the problem.
NNAMDIWell, there are Metro systems not only in foreign countries but in several American cities that some would argue work better than this. And, David Robertson, I'm assuming that you looked at a lot of governance systems of these various Metro systems that allegedly run more efficiently than ours, have you?
ROBERTSONWe certainly did. The task force did a very extensive examination of transit systems, not only in the United States but around the world. We brought in a lot of experts, the Transportation Research Board, experts in academia. And we wanted to look what were the common links or the common attributes in some of these higher performing transit systems and, you know, things like rotation of chair in terms of chair. We found out, in many ways, we're the exception rather than the rule. And to back to Jim Dinegar's point, we think some reexamination of fresh independent look at governance, which is what this task force did, gives some models for changed behavior and changed policy making by WMATA.
DINEGARWe didn't come with this report to bury Metro. We actually did this report to enhance the confidence that people would have in Metro by understanding that the changes at the top will lead to improvements on ridership, on escalators, on safety and more. It's the second biggest transportation system -- the transit network in the country. And it frankly has been a jewel for the greater Washington region for a long time. It's just been tarnished. We wanna make sure it's get restored and restored quickly.
NNAMDIYou come not to bury Metro, but not to praise them either. (laugh)
SHERWOODWell, you know, you talk about a management shake up of governance where you got to choose of shakeup, but no one in the news conference and no one today has yet said, how was the union contract affecting, helping or hurting Metro? Is -- does there need to be any changes in how the unions of Metro are treated?
DINEGARWell, I would say that when we brought this group together, and I called an all-star team on the governance reform, we stuck hard to the governance side of things, setting the policy, understanding the way that boards work, the best practices from around the country and around the world. It's because we didn't get into the management side of things, the funding, the transit side of things, there are other experts on that. But, clearly, the entire union issue is a very big management issue. It's a very big cost center for WMATA, and those things need to be addressed.
SHERWOODI was thinking in what Michelle Rhee did with the teacher's union and three years of negotiations but came out was a contract both sides pretty much like.
DINEGARWell, but having the two governors, the mayor and the federal government really step in on this and help set the direction more at the outset of the year, I think we'll absolutely have ramifications for contracts down the road.
SHERWOODAnd I have another quick question, is it -- does Metro have enough money? Is this how it's spending and how it's organized?
ROBERTSONOur group looked at that pretty carefully. We did a dedicated funding task force that resulted in dedicated funding a couple years ago. And we're pleased by that. This report acknowledges -- and we heard this from a lot commentators, it's just about money. We just need more money. Throw more money at it, and we'll get it done. We acknowledge, and the report is pretty clear in this, we think more money probably is needed. There's not gonna be a quick fix for a lot of these long-term capital and operating issues. But that throwing more money at this without the link to governance, we think, is not gonna be the long-term solution for WMATA.
NNAMDIIf you have your own comments or questions about how Metro is governed -- the governance system, call us, 800-433-8850. Jim Dinegar?
DINEGARWell, and the comment on funding is, really, if the confidence is not restored, who's gonna put more money into this? The federal government is not going to put more money into it. The states won't put more money into it. The riders won't look for fare increases if you can't deliver the trains on time and get to the station safely. And so unless the governance is address immediately and we think a number of these changes can be done immediately, then that lack of confidence will lead to less funding, not more. And frankly, no one will have the ability to go ask for more.
SHERWOODSenator Barbara Mikulski was very critical in Metro and it's -- the responses to the deadly accidents and other issues there. Did she have any input into the program when you briefed her? And what does she say about your various proposals?
ROBERTSONWe've met with Senator Mikulski and many other members of the region's congressional delegation going into this, and really valued their contributions. We also -- as a pre-brief, we met with the staff of the region's congressional delegations. And there's, you know, some areas of opportunity and some things that, I think, will need a little more attention and review. But generally, we've gotten a very positive reaction from the region's congressional delegation. They see their riders understand the challenges that WMATA has. The federal government depends on WMATA to move 1,000 of federal workers every day. We all have a stake in this outcome.
SHERWOODI was in the Metro Farragut North Station just yesterday looking at hole in the ceiling, which wasn't Metro's fault. The city transportation people dug a hole in this Connecticut Avenue and made concrete fall. But what was interesting to me as I talked to the people or the passengers. And they all had the same comment in different word, is that they are worried about Metro and they love Metro.
NNAMDIYes. Well, it's a love-hate relationship that people have...
SHERWOODThey're worried about it not being the Metro system that they want.
NNAMDICorrect. David Robertson, when you say that the current governing structure is ill-suited to considering the long-term health of the system, what are the kinds of long-term issues you think the system needs to be addressing?
ROBERTSONWell, certainly capital funding is gonna be one of the chief issues. We know that we don't have the level of resources to replace all of the cars that we need to maintain the tracks. We also need a stable fare structure, one that encourages people to take Metro. But the third piece that everybody talks about but not enough, quite frankly, is the MetroAccess service for persons with disabilities. And that is a financial ticking time bomb for WMATA. And to the extent that we have a governance system, as Jim Dinegar said a moment ago, that raises the confidence of the riders, and the funders, and really all the partners, business leaders and others, we think we're gonna be more successful to not only raise the revenue but make sure that they're spend wisely.
SHERWOODHow much is MetroAccess? Do you know what roughly the budget is for MetroAccess?
ROBERTSONNot off the top, but it's a growing -- it's the fastest growing element of their budget.
NNAMDIWhat would you say to the people who argued that the current structure at least allows room for people who represent the interests of both the suburban and the urban pieces of the system?
DINEGARWell, there would be no change in representing those interests. It's just to act more as a regional system, not the system where it's just Northern Virginia and just Maryland and just the District of Columbia. This is a regional system. This is not one bus route that doesn't go across the region and just stays in the District of Columbia. And so the more we think about this is just this ward or just this section, we lose sight of the fact that this is the second largest regional transportation system in the country. It really has been a jewel but it's falling on difficult times. And people, the riders, the business leaders, the government leaders want it fixed. This report was to address at the source of governance, the fixes that need to happen now for the long-term benefits.
SHERWOODWell, we talk about the Metro system, generally you tend to think of the trains, but you know, buses play a big role. I know that Jim Graham and the city has been concerned that the rail system, I think, subsidizes the bus rates. Is it -- do I have that correctly?
SHERWOODAnd he's always worried that one goal would be to raise the bus fares to a more cost level. And he says that would be devastating for people who have to work and ride the buses too. So he's worried -- that's one aspect. But would that be -- would that be solved in your management shake up, that the buses would still be available?
DINEGAR(laugh) You're gonna keep calling it the management shake up and we'll get phone calls back at the office, but this is...
SHERWOODWell, you use the word governance, we know. That's too many syllables.
DINEGARWell, there's a -- the big distinction between governance...
DINEGAR...and management is the management is on the staff side of things and...
SHERWOODOkay. But the bus riders? Where -- do they come out all right in the governance change?
DINEGAREverybody comes out better because it needs to be a system that's preserved and enhanced. And what we're seeing right now is the underwriting of the buses, the underwriting of the MetroAccess is putting the entire system at risk. In addition, there are a variety of different -- what will be considered marginal bus routes, as it relates to the number of riders, and so the occupancy of those buses because they were decisions with the threat of the veto and all the rest -- well, make sure I've got a bus on the corner of 4th and Main -- is not the way to run a system. Management should be able to use the metrics of ridership to determine where buses go, how often the trains are running, where MetroAccess goes, and that's not the case with all of the micromanagement that's been happening at Metro by the board.
NNAMDISo, let's say you get your chance to revamp the board and revamp the governance, how do you accomplish that without disrupting the system? What would be the process?
ROBERTSONWell, there's probably two or three steps that need to happen and fortunately some of them can happen immediately. WMATA board itself can look at things like the rotation of the chair. It can also look at the committee structure, the orientation, strengthening the role of the general manager to be a true CEO. All of those can happen immediately. Also, the mayor and the two governors, the council chairman, essentially the commission that we want to have a more hands-on role with WMATA, those public officials can also meet fairly rapidly and provide that guidance, as Jim Dinegar mentioned, to make sure that the appointments that are gonna be made in the coming year are with that regional mindset.
ROBERTSONSo, couple of things that can happen quickly. Yes, some of these will take a compact amendment. That is harder. We know that, but we've had success in the last couple of years. We amended the compact to add the accommodations that were required for the Metro-dedicated funding. It's not an impossible task. When we launched this effort, we were told by many folks, be bold, don't pull punches, don't hold back, consider what we need, not necessarily what our fears or limitations might be. Compact amendments are tough, but they're doable.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're running out of time. And I'd like to move on to another topic before you gentlemen leave, especially for you, Jim Dinegar. In a few minutes, we're gonna be speaking with the union official about Wal-Mart coming to the District of Columbia. What is your view of that? What you do you think the company is going to bring to the city and to the neighborhoods where it sets up shop or are you against the whole thing?
DINEGARNo, absolutely not against the whole thing. The greater Washington region is thriving in many respects and we are a strong market for a number of the retailers. This is going to be a very big shot in the arm as it relates to retail moving into the District of Columbia -- four stores, big stores, big opportunities for a lot of people to spend their money locally as opposed to out -- in the outer suburbs. It's also bringing jobs into the District. And so, I know that the unions have some very strong cases and some big issues that they need to address in balance and on balance. This is a very good thing for the District of Columbia. If we squander this opportunity then those stores will not be here and we'll be struggling along by having our residents in the District of Columbia go elsewhere to do their shopping.
NNAMDIWe might hear a slightly different view later in the broadcast. But one more question about WMATA governance from Keith in Washington D.C. Question or comment, Keith. Go ahead, please.
KEITHYeah, I just want to echo that I think it's a great idea that they consider electing some of the officials. My problem with that that was the inclusiveness of all the towns. And, you know, I remember when Metro was established and built and it opened up the very first day. I don't think it's intended on being the sole or should I say the primary source of commuting for commuters. And, you know, the best way -- and this is very hilarious what I'm about to say, but that the best way to make people in the city appreciate Metro, especially the subway system, is to make them go to New York and ride the subway during that rush hour. (laugh) They'll love it.
NNAMDIDavid Robertson, care to comment on that?
ROBERTSONWell, we're certainly very proud of our system. It's, we think, a stellar system. We just need to keep it that way.
NNAMDIDavid Robertson is executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIJim Dinegar is president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Jim, good to see you again.
DINEGARSame here. Thank you.
NNAMDIIt's the Politics Hour, featuring Tom Sherwood. He is our resident analyst. He's a reporter at NBC 4 and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Tom Sherwood, now that the new chairman or the incoming chairman of the D.C. City Council Kwame Brown's at-large seat is vacant, the D.C. Democratic state committee is going to be filling that seat for a relatively short period of time. But it's fairly controversial because they don't fill the ward seats. And filling this at-large seat, some people feel, for a short period of time gives whoever the state committee appoints to that seat a leg up in the eventual election to replace Kwame Brown.
SHERWOODWell, you know, that's the way they're -- the party bosses -- and they love it when I say that -- there are 81 members of the Democratic state committee and, you know, they are the party activists. They have all their elections. They get elected from around the city. They meet. They fight. They have -- they go to the conventions, and they are the party activists. And the charter allows for at-large seats only, not the ward level seats, for the party of the person who's left the office before the term was up to appoint an interim person until there can be a special election.
SHERWOODAnd that's what they're gonna do. They have a big process for it. There's gonna be a lot of people angling for the job. And then there are gonna be a lot of people running for that at-large seat in the early spring.
NNAMDIWell, you didn't mention who the frontrunner is for the position in the same way that...
SHERWOODWell, because there isn't a clear frontrunner. I mean...
NNAMDI...in the same way that Loose Lips mentioned it. Loose Lips said that Vincent Orange appears to be the official frontrunner. Why? As far as LL can tell, it's because Orange has been busily telling people he's the frontrunner.
SHERWOODWell, no not -- Vincent Orange, who ran -- who was a Council member from Ward 5, ran for mayor and then he ran...
SHERWOOD...more recently for chairman. And -- but he is the National Committeeman, I think. That's the title he has in the state party, in the D.C. Democratic Party. And he is well-liked. He's well-known. And I'm sure there are people in that committee that want him to be -- and I don't know if he's gonna win that seat or not. There are several other people running. So we're just gonna have to see. But I think the election will be determined by the special election, which, again, is gonna be in early spring.
NNAMDIWell -- but how about the argument that by appointing him to the position, he becomes immediately an incumbent? And once he's an incumbent for the time he's in office, he'll be able to use that to raise money and get support. And that places anybody else who wants to run at a significant disadvantage.
SHERWOODWell, then change the charter. I mean, if people don't like the way it's done -- I actually didn't quite realize until recently that the -- but this was done back when, was it, Marion Barry became mayor and John Ray was appointed? I don't remember all the ins and outs, but that doesn't -- but the fact is, this is the way the system is set up. And, you know, it's entirely possible that the state party, the Democratic State Committee, can appoint someone. And then someone else will run against him saying, you know, I'm gonna run against the party bosses, you know, elect someone who will be answerable to the people, not the party apparatus. So it's just called politics.
NNAMDIWould you consider running? I've heard you're fairly popular in the city.
SHERWOODWell, you know, I'd have to consider -- I'd have to quit my job to consider that.
NNAMDIRemember, your job actually has a salary. And if you lose in the election, you won't be having any income at all.
SHERWOODWell, you know, as I like to tell people no matter what I'm doing, the city is only as good as the people active in it.
NNAMDIOkay. Whatever that means. It's official. Wal-Mart is coming to D.C. The company announced this week that it will open four stores in the city. I should tell you the location of those stores. One on the side of a former car dealership on Georgia Avenue, Northwest. That's near Missouri Avenue where the Fenty headquarters were. At New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road, Northeast, as part of a new mixed-use development on New Jersey Avenue, Northwest, and at East Capitol and 58th Street, Southeast. Joining us in studio now is Wendy Weiner, organizing director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400. Wendy Weiner, thank you for joining us.
MS. WENDY WEINERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThe president of your union told The Washington Post this week that this is a, quoting here, "wolf in sheep's clothing." Why does he feel that way?
WEINERWell, I think Wal-Mart tries to come into communities. Especially now, they're really making a play to come into urban communities. They make a lot of promises about what kind of jobs they have, about what kind of commitment that they'll make to the community. But what we've seen in places where they do actually operate, that that is not always the case. And people find out the reality after they've welcomed them in, and I think that is what the concern is that he was referring to.
NNAMDIIf you had -- have a comment on Wal-Mart's intention to set up shop -- four shops, so to speak -- in Washington, D.C., you can call us at 800-433-8850. For it or against it, why, why not, 800-433-8850.
SHERWOODThe issues over Wal-Mart have been long-going. But the United Food and Commercial Workers -- is that the right -- 400?
SHERWOODBut just tell people -- I looked you guys up to make it clear. You guys represent the workers at Safeway, at Giant...
SHERWOODAnd is it your concern that if Wal-Mart comes in with non-union wages, lower wages, it will undermine your workers, or just the people who work for Wal-Mart?
WEINERIt's a combination of both. I mean, I sit here today as the organizing director for Local 400, but I'm also part of a coalition, the Campaign for Living Wages and Healthy Communities, which is a coalition of D.C. residents and D.C. organizations. And so we have a real concern about Wal-Mart undermining our members' existing jobs. I mean, we've really seen in the last 20 years that it used to be that you could go to a retail -- to a, you know, retail food store and these were really jobs and people can support themselves and support their families. And that's changed dramatically, and it's changed dramatically in large part because of the Wal-Mart effect, as Wal-Mart being the largest retail store in the country.
WEINERAnd so we believe as part of this coalition and also Local 400 that we have an opportunity in Washington, D.C. now to say, we do need good jobs in D.C. We do need healthy and fresh food in our neighborhoods. But we don't wanna do that at the expense of people who live in neighborhoods, and we don't wanna do that at the expense of good jobs. So that if Wal-Mart wants to come into D.C., they should make commitments that are enforceable to the residents of Washington, D.C. about what kind of jobs that they are gonna provide.
SHERWOODI asked Wal-Mart and got some notes from them...
SHERWOOD...since they're -- Wal-Mart is not here.
SHERWOODAnd it says that despite all the national news has been over Wal-Mart that it would provide competitive wages equal to or better than those offered by competitors, including unionized grocers, that $41 million was spent in the Washington area at Wal-Mart stores and that the District ought to be part of that, that it would have -- and it would expand quality of grocery and other items to neighborhoods that are poorly served now by either union or non-union businesses.
SHERWOODWhat's the general response to that?
WEINERWell, there's a lot of different points that have to be responded to on whether they provide wages and benefits that are competitive with our members who work for responsible employers. I would have to ask Wal-Mart to be transparent about how they come up to the figures that they're coming to because myself and my colleagues, over the past number of years, have spoken to hundreds and maybe thousands of Wal-Mart workers across the country. And we just don't come up with the same numbers that they put out there.
WEINERSo I think if we had a conversation that involves some transparency, we would understand. And we also think that parity with responsible employers, not is just about wages, but it's also about pensions and health insurance. And also, the one thing that you really can't put a price tag on, which is about having a voice on the job and being able to have some say in your destiny, which is what our members can by being united in the union.
SHERWOODDo your union workers and your union get involve with the issue that if Wal-Mart comes in with a 50 or 80,000-square-foot store or these urbans -- new urban stores that they not only will affect the workers as you see it, but also that the smaller businesses around those stores may.
NNAMDIBefore you respond, allow me to go to Deconty (sp?) in Baltimore, Md., who seems to make -- want to make that precise point. Deconty...
NNAMDI...you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
DECONTYYeah. Thank you, Kojo. Yes. No Wal-Mart in D.C. Look, I live in Baltimore. Sometimes I drive all the way to go and shop in Adams Morgan and, you know, different, nice, cool places in D.C. You know, because of the different variety on U Street, all those little small nice shops. Wal-Mart coming there -- Wal-Mart, you know, would change the whole texture. And you know what? You know, people are destroying the city here in the name of good jobs. Wal-Mart don’t offer any good jobs. So -- but you know what? Politicians like Wal-Mart, you know, but we, we shoppers and, you know, people who are kind of like, you know, open to different things and, you know, different varieties, don't like no Wal-Marts. D.C. is a nice place. No Wal-Mart. Thank you.
NNAMDIThat, Tom Sherwood, is what I would call a rant.
SHERWOODI wasn't clear what he was saying.
NNAMDICare to respond to that, Wendy Weiner?
WEINERI think he was pretty clear on how he feels about it. And I think that there are lot of residents of Washington, D.C. who probably feel similarly. And what we're saying, as part of this coalition, isn't necessarily that no Wal-Mart can come into Washington, D.C. But we're saying that if Wal-Mart comes in to Washington, D.C., that they should make a real commitment to the community about what kind of jobs they're gonna provide, who are they gonna hire, that they have to provide -- that they have to hire residents of Washington, D.C., that they have to give opportunities to people who don't necessary get opportunities easily, that we have to make sure that the environmental impact of these stores is well considered and that the traffic impact is well considered. I live near that New York Bladensburg Road area and that's a scary traffic part.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you live there because what real estate agents, as you know, like to say is location, location, location.
NNAMDIAnd what they'll say about that New York Bladensburg area is that there's no significant affordable shopping in that area and that people in that neighborhood deserve some.
WEINERI think that's a good point. And I don't think that we disagree that there shouldn't be access to affordable shopping and that there shouldn't be access to healthy food in all communities. We think that there are potentially alternatives to Wal-Mart for that. And we also believe that, like I said before, that if Wal-Mart comes in, that we -- that they should sit down with the community and the coalition of which we're a part of and create a real community benefits agreement that's enforceable, that has some teeth to it, so that we can all exist and then it's a win-with.
SHERWOODBut do you say...
NNAMDIIf Wal-Mart were to say, okay, Wendy Weiner, we're willing to do that. Would you be surprised, shocked?
WEINERI would be surprised and shocked on one hand, but on the other hand, I know that for their business plan and for their need to grow, they need to break into urban communities. And so it seems to me that for Wal-Mart to grow as the business that they wanna grow as they enter these urban communities, it would make a lot of sense for them to say, okay, we're gonna think about this differently. Because one point I think is really important is that Wal-Mart -- it has two plans, one to grow in urban communities and the other to go internationally.
WEINERAnd outside of the United States and Canada, wherever they grow internationally and there's a union presence and a real community presence, they negotiate with the union and they have relationships with the union, in China, in Chile, all over the world. So why do workers in China have access to a voice on the job and have some say in what's happening in their stores and workers here can't?
SHERWOODWhat would you and, I guess, the Washington -- the late Josh William's -- the labor council so...
SHERWOOD...doesn’t have the word labor in it, they'll never get it correctly. What do you plan to do as organized labor to lobby the council, lobby the incoming mayor, Vincent Gray...
SHERWOOD...to put in these safeguards, these bumps that you think need to be in there before Wal-Mart…
NNAMDIThe mayor-elect cautiously welcomed the announcement, quoting here, "I wanna make sure workers are treated fairly and earn fair wages."
SHERWOODAnd he says he's gonna be -- making jobs his number one issue.
NNAMDIYou have about a minute, Wendy Weiner.
WEINERWell, we understand that jobs should be the number one issue. We think that there are legislative vehicles that could enforce and hold Wal-Mart accountable to any promises that they make to the community. And we look forward to working with the incoming mayor and the city council to make that happen.
NNAMDIWe had a caller who can't stay on the line who says, four stores is way too many. Gwen in D.C. says maybe one because they'll have a negative impact on small business.
SHERWOODWell, this is a 68 square -- 69, whatever it is, square miles. There's room for stores. It's just to make sure that everybody is happy with the way the stores operate.
NNAMDIWould you believe we still have one minute left? What sense do you have of how neighborhoods are responding to the incoming arrival of these stores?
WEINERI have a couple senses. I think that people are excited about the option of having access to affordable products and to food, where they don't have access to that. But I also understand, and this is confirmed in polling that we've done, that people think those stores should come in and offer living wages. And...
SHERWOODBut these stores -- Wal-Mart is going aggressively into groceries (word?)
WEINERWe understand that clearly.
NNAMDIWendy Weiner is organizing director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400. Wendy Weiner, thank you very much for joining us.
WEINERThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's a reporter at NBC 4, a columnist for The Current Newspapers and the candidate for the at-large seat on the D.C...
SHERWOODNow, you tried to get me to move to Virginia. Now, you're trying to get me to run for office. You know, I'm a very strong person in my own right.
NNAMDII'm trying to get rid of you completely.
SHERWOODI'm waiting to see what next shoe to drop in that centipede out in Prince George's County.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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