Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy discusses his efforts to address gang violence. Plus, D.C. Councilmember Trayon White joins us to recap the "grocery march" protesting food deserts east of the Anacostia River.
“Thundersnow” rocks the D.C. region, testing the District’s new mayor. Maryland lawmakers place bets on gambling proposals. And a former Virginia pol rolls the dice on another run for the U.S. Senate. 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
- Ken Cuccinelli Attorney General, Commonwealth of Virginia (R)
- Peter Benjamin Member, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board of Directors; Former Chief Financial Officer, WMATA
Politics Hour Extra
A caller from Virginia talked about the difficulty of getting health insurance coverage in the state because of a pre-existing condition. “He’s doing nothing to help thousands of Virginians who can’t get health insurance,” the caller said of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli claimed that prior to becoming Attorney General, when he was a state legislator, he had been trying to enact a law that would allow Virginians to buy health insurance across state lines but that insurance companies came out strongly against the measure. “I think that now, that would be better received,” Cuccinelli said:
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli says he’s against providing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents. In his State of the Union Address, President Obama advocated for a bill (The DREAM Act) that would provide a path to citizenship for certain immigrants in this situation:
Peter Benjamin, a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, says that both the safety of the Metro system and the rehabilitation projects that are planned are at stake in the battle to secure federal funding for public transit:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. It's been a rough week in the Washington area, especially starting Wednesday with the snowstorm. But while the rest of us were without power and freezing cold in our homes, not so for the resident analysis on this broadcast. Tom Sherwood, a reporter at NBC 4 and a columnist for the Current Newspapers, was warm and comfy in his apartment, in his condo in Southwest.
MR. TOM SHERWOODYes. Co-op, please.
NNAMDICo-op. I'm sorry.
SHERWOODIt's not just a mere condo. It's a co-op.
NNAMDIYes, it's a co-op.
SHERWOODThat means we pay more for it. But the fact is, it was nice. I went right through the heart of town during the storm. I drove around, and, you know, I was probably the only fool that did that. I was actually driving around to see how the city was doing, but then I got to my home and put my feet up on an ottoman and turned the TV on and watched my colleagues at Channel 4 News.
NNAMDIStop, stop. This is supposed to be a broadcast about "The Politics Hour," not about you having a good time...
SHERWOODWell, the politics, I mean, was...
NNAMDI...while everybody else was suffering with the snowstorm.
SHERWOODYeah, well, the politics of it is the newsroom was saying, where was Sherwood? Isn't he supposed to be out on the street suffering like the rest of us?
NNAMDINo. Well, apparently, he wasn't on this occasion. I'm happy to report that I -- people in my neighborhood now have our power back as of this morning, but there are still thousands of people in the Washington area who have not yet had their power restored. And The Washington Post reports that Pepco waited until 8:30 Wednesday night, when I was still stuck on Military Road, before they called for outside help. And they did so as a result of a conference call that was initiated by BG&E. If Pepco had a black eye during Snowmageddon, Snowpocalypse last year, the eye was virtually shut this time around.
SHERWOODWell, you know, Pepco said that the wavering forecast of what to expect made them wait to -- before they made the calls for the additional crews. But having -- given, you know, what happened last February, you would think, just from a public relations point of view, they might have prepared to have crews called in earlier. I'm not -- it's not clear to me, still, even -- despite hearing that explanation -- why they waited so long because they have a tremendous public relations problem.
SHERWOODI mean, they went out after the -- last year, in the Post that -- a spectacular story about how they were -- their whole equipment system was falling apart. They acknowledged they had fallen down. They were going to do all these millions of dollars of fixes, may affect their rates coming -- going forward. And it looked like they were back on top, and then this storm comes. And then they didn't call out reinforcements.
NNAMDIWe got this. That was their -- we got this.
SHERWOODRight. But you...
NNAMDIThey apparently didn't.
SHERWOOD...you know, and your power is back on. Is that right?
NNAMDIMy power is finally back on, but I am nothing compared to the thousands of people, especially poor people who cannot afford to go to a hotel for a night...
NNAMDI...who are still cold in their apartments. How about the grade you can give Mayor Vincent Gray on this? This was his first major issue that he had to deal with. On Wednesday night, according to reports, he said we were well prepared for the storm. That turned out to be a misspeak, so to speak.
SHERWOODWell, I think the city was well prepared in order to get things up, and what we were not prepared for was the -- a fast-moving storm and the evacuation efforts to let everyone go home early. The federal government, with 200,000 employees inside the Beltway, said everyone could go home two hours early.
SHERWOODAnd there was no -- for all the -- and I'm just going to say, all the talk about being prepared for some type of terrorist attack and how we're going to evacuate people to the north and evacuate people to the south, and we're going to do this, and we're going to do that. None of that preparation was put in place for this storm. There was no -- I asked the city officials, did you talk to Arlington? Did you had -- there were no -- I drove around town, as I mentioned before. There were no police officers directing traffic.
SHERWOODThere were no traffic control officers doing routine traffic. There -- at rush hour, there are traffic control officers keeping the intersection -- you know where they were? They told us -- the public works said, oh, well, we took them off the streets to put them in snowplows. So everyone's left to their own, and the thing is replicated all along. There were no park police officers, to my knowledge, blocking the access to the parkways that were already jam-packed to keep people from -- more people going there. There was just no coordination on a regional basis.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's a reporter at NBC 4 and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. Joining us on this broadcast will be Peter Benjamin, who is a member of the board of directors of WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. He's just completing a term as chairman of the board. And we'll also be talking with Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general for the Commonwealth of Virginia. So if you have comments or questions for either of those gentlemen, you can prepare them while -- you can prepare your questions while Tom and I talk a little bit more about -- well, there were reports this week that in City Paper and then other places -- Loose Lips -- reporting that the mayor's Lincoln Navigator and his council chairman's -- Kwame Brown's Lincoln Navigator both cost about $2,000 per month each, which taxpayers have to pay.
NNAMDIAnd we made some fun of that in our billboard because this is a cutting budget time. But, hey, Adrian Fenty drove a Lincoln Navigator up until, oh, 2009 March.
SHERWOODWell, it's just cars are expensive, and you want the mayor of the city and, I guess, the chairman of the council also to be able to get around to do their jobs. They would -- I don't think it was a smart thing for Mayor Fenty to drive himself around because, you know, if you're being driven as an executive of a city, you can read reports.
NNAMDIYou got time to work while you're driving. That's -- it helps.
SHERWOODYou can make phone calls. You can -- actually, you can stop along the way...
NNAMDII'm trying to get a driver.
SHERWOOD...without parking. All those -- but the cars are expensive. I thought the Ford Motor Company had some kind of really inexpensive thing for government officials. Maybe they had to stop doing it for ethics reasons. But, you know, do we need to pay $2,000 a month for a SUV? I think, well, maybe if we have enough snowstorms, we do. But I would think not.
NNAMDISchool vouchers seem to be on their way back to Washington D.C. with a Congress that now has a majority House and more Republicans in the Senate. House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced legislation this week to revive a school voucher program for District of Columbia students nearly two years after Congress began phasing it out. Of course, it is opposed by Mayor Vincent Gray. It is opposed by the American Federation of Teachers, of which the Washington Teachers Union is a member, but it is coming back because, frankly, a lot of people, including former D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, are all for it.
SHERWOODWell, you know, in the District of Columbia, we always have politicians who snarl and whine about how they don't want Congress to be dictating to the city what it does or not do. And then some of these officials and former officials and alleged supporters of independents for the city of Washington go to the Hill...
NNAMDICan't wait to go to Congress when it's something they want.
SHERWOOD...and to go around the local government and get this program done. You know, the program -- it's a good program. Several -- a couple thousand young people, who couldn't otherwise afford it, get to go to private schools, and they're -- all the way through graduation. But, again, it's the interference of local affairs by Congress. And we're going to see more of that from the Republican House although I think the Democratic Senate may not be as amenable to some of these issues.
NNAMDIHow do you think Metro performed during the snowstorm, Tom Sherwood?
SHERWOODWell, are you talking about Metro the transit system with the trains? Or are you talking about Metro the transit system with the buses?
NNAMDII'm talking about Metro the transit system, period.
SHERWOODI knew you were. Well, based on my reporting, based on what all the reporting I saw, heard and did, because I didn't actually ride the system during this, the train -- there's very little complaining about the trains that I know of. And we'll know more about that in a moment. But there's some question, in this evacuation sense, why were the buses still out in the midst of this fast-moving storm, and they got caught? And so, I think, that's an issue there. But we'll maybe get some answers.
NNAMDIAnd the trains -- but the trains apparently did pretty well during the snowstorm. We bring this up, in part, because joining us in studio right now is Peter Benjamin, member of the board of directors of WMATA. He, this week, completed his term as chairman of the aforementioned board of directors. He's a former chief financial officer at Metro. Peter Benjamin, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. PETER BENJAMINKojo, it's a pleasure to be here with you, and I want to let you know that my power is still off.
SHERWOODBut he lives in Montgomery County.
NNAMDINo, I'm sorry. I hope your power comes on very soon.
BENJAMINBut Metro did bring me here early. I got to your studios early because Metro is running so well.
NNAMDIWhat is the board's assessment of Metro's performance during this week's snowstorm?
BENJAMINI can't tell you for the whole board, but I think...
NNAMDIYou no longer speak for the board?
BENJAMINI think that -- correct. I think that we did very, very well, both in bus and in rail. Rail, as you know, did continue to operate throughout the storm, which was really, really good. And it was right on the margins of what we can, in fact, do above ground with our rail system. Buses were confronted with the same problems that everybody else did. And you can argue about, you know, where's the point where you pull those buses off the street in order to preserve the buses? And to what degree do we have a responsibility to try to get people home? That's a close call.
SHERWOODYeah, by the time you think about and decide whether to take them off is too late because the buses were already caught in the -- and then they couldn't get the emergency crews to the buses. The one on Connecticut Avenue, for example, that turned sideways and blocked three lanes, was stuck. And then no one could get to it because the traffic came up and blocked it. So you're just stuck.
BENJAMINYou're right, Tom. It's a difficult call. And, as a storm like this develops, the staff is trying to make that balance all the time, hearing reports from supervisors, hearing from the bus operators themselves, what they're experiencing. And by the time it gets to the point that it gets really rough, it is hard to get out, especially if there's bad traffic.
SHERWOODI know that the city and the urban suburbs cannot have an officer or a traffic control person at every corner. But wouldn't it have been helpful for the bus drivers, too, if some of the major intersections -- New York Avenue, 16th Street, 13th Street, Constitution Avenue, 14th Street -- had traffic control people to get some of the cars out of the way so the buses can, in fact, operate?
SHERWOODI know you don't want to criticize anyone.
BENJAMINRight. Tom, we're faced with the same traffic issues that everybody else is. So if anything can help everybody move, it certainly helps the buses move. And, to the degree that people want to give buses priority, we're all in favor of that. We'd love to have more priority lanes for buses.
SHERWOODAnd do you -- are you part of any grand scheme evacuation plan of the nation's capital, should there be an attack?
BENJAMINI am told that practically every organization says that one of the ways they're going to evacuate is on Metro.
SHERWOODIt's not -- I hope it's not snowing when that happens.
NNAMDIWell, let me tell you how bad the traffic still is and how it's still messing people up. We mentioned earlier that we're having Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia Ken Cuccinelli on the show. He was supposed to appear in advance of Peter Benjamin, but he got stuck in traffic. So he's arriving late, but then he also has an appointment on Capitol Hill at one o'clock. So, Peter Benjamin, I'm going to ask you to stay even as we continue our conversation with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and invite calls for the attorney general at 800-433-8850. Or you can raise those questions at our website, kojoshow.org. Peter Benjamin, you have invariably been very generous with your time with us. Will you stay?
BENJAMINI'd be more than happy to.
SHERWOODMaybe you have some questions for the attorney general. I mean, he has some Northern Virginia issues and Metro and Metro funding...
BENJAMINHow do you do?
NNAMDIAs the attorney general says everybody else has...
SHERWOODI thought you were...
SHERWOODI thought you were going to say that he was on the phone 'cause he couldn't get here because of horrible traffic...
NNAMDINo, he's not that...
SHERWOOD...he's right here in studio.
NNAMDIHe's not that kind of guy. When he says he's coming, he's coming. He might get held up in traffic, but he joins us now in studio. Ken Cuccinelli is attorney general for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thank you so much for joining us.
ATTY. GEN. KEN CUCCINELLIKojo, always a pleasure. Tom, good to see you.
NNAMDIWell, let's cut straight to the chase. A federal appeals court in Virginia decided this week to expedite a review of the lawsuit that you submitted challenging the new federal health care law. It looks like we're on track to hear oral arguments in May, but you hinted this week that you're still thinking about asking the Supreme Court to take up the issue immediately. What argument would you make for the Supreme Court to do this, given that the federal appeals court says, we're moving as fast as we can?
CUCCINELLIWell, you're correct. We're scheduled now in the Fourth Circuit to be arguing the week of May 10. We haven't -- a hard date isn't set, but it's that week, which is a relatively expedited schedule for them. In the motion -- we filed a joint motion with the federal government, and they drafted it. And in the motion, they noted that this was of the utmost national importance, which is an interesting thing to say when you're not agreeing to expedite the case. That's almost exactly what the Supreme Courts Rule 11 says, is that would be a condition for expediting a case. So, you know, that give us a little something to think about. And we'll have to see how we think it's best to proceed.
NNAMDIYou and the...
CUCCINELLII mean, if Gov. McDonnell wants us to hurry, we're talking to the folks in Florida, where there are 26 other states, and Oklahoma has just gotten started.
NNAMDISo Gov. McDonnell, the attorney general and the Obama administration are all in agreement, hurry up.
CUCCINELLIWell, yes. I guess, it's a matter of degree, is the real question. How much hurry up? This isn't a normal case. There was no trial. There were no witnesses. There are no depositions or documents. It is a pure, legal argument. The only facts, if you were, in the Virginia case are the existence of the Federal law and the existence of Virginia's Health Care Freedom Act. We're unique -- somewhat unique among states in having our own law that says you can't order a Virginian to buy health insurance against their will. So that's a conflict. That's why we filed separately. But...
SHERWOODYou were criticized for filing separately, thinking that people accused you of showboating and all of that, but the -- you are, at least, winning this so far at this point.
CUCCINELLIYou know, we're 6-0 on the legal questions that you've got to win. We won four in the motion to dismiss, and we had to win all four to survive. And we won both constitutional arguments in the district court, the first one being that the commerce clause doesn't give Congress the power to order us to buy a product like this. And the second one was the federal government's fallback argument that the penalty you have to pay, if you don't buy the health insurance, is a tax. And Congress has vast taxing power. Well, no court anywhere has accepted that argument so...
NNAMDIWhy the sense of urgency, though? Because the individual mandate, the component of the health care law that you argue makes it unconstitutional doesn't go into effect until 2013. Why the urgency of the appeal?
CUCCINELLIThat's an excellent question. And the simple answer is -- and it explains part of Gov. McDonnell's interest in seeing us move along as quickly as possible -- our estimates in Virginia for what it'll cost us just to put in place the pieces to implement -- not to buy one more person, one more bit of health care, but just to restructure and to put in place the elements in the Virginia government we need to comply with the law -- we estimate will cost between $20 and $30 million over the next two or three years. Particularly at a time when we have strained budgets as we do and every dollar is precious, that is a painful cost to bear if, in fact, we're not going to go forward with this. But the state doesn't have the option of just sitting back and saying, well, let's see what happens. That would be irresponsible. We have to proceed and prepare to have the elements in place necessary to comply with the law if it stands.
SHERWOODAnd what is the most advantageous outcome for you if you were to prevail? Would Virginia simply just be not part of the national law? Are you seeing that this law would be overturned by any adverse court ruling that you're seeking?
CUCCINELLIThere are a number of different alternatives, but whatever the final outcome is, it will apply to everybody. I mean, this is a constitutional question. The constitution doesn't mean one thing in Virginia and something else in Florida. It means the same thing everywhere. And we have asked that the entire bill be stricken -- the entire, now law, be stricken, and the reason for it is twofold. One, there's no severance clause, and the severance clause is common in legislation, though not in all of them, and it says if any part of this bill is found unconstitutional, everything else survives.
CUCCINELLISo you just sever out the offending provision -- easy to understand. This bill doesn't have that. So then what? What happens then is the court could take any -- a couple of different approaches. One is they could simply quarantine the damage, if you will, and take out the individual mandate in anything depending on it, which is all of the private insurance pieces. And the federal government has conceded that all of those have to go if the individual mandate falls because they're all dependent on it.
SHERWOODWe'd be back to square one on any major health care reform.
CUCCINELLIWell, no. There's still all the Medicare, Medicaid and, also, all of the, you know, hundreds and hundreds of pages of about 400-plus other aspects of the bill that don't touch on that. We're arguing that because they literally didn't have a vote to spare in the Senate. It never went through a committee. It wasn't considered by committees in the House in an amendable form. And it only passed by less than 1 percent -- three-vote margin there, three votes to give -- that the legislative bargain theory, which is that this is so critical to the legislative bargain, the piece of legislation would have never passed without it. And, again, the federal government in their briefs has called this the lynchpin of the legislation. That's their term, and, I think, that's accurate. The question will be does the court want to strike the whole law or carve out pieces of it?
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is attorney general for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli. Here is Ben in Arlington, Va. Ben, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENGood afternoon, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a small business person, and I live in Virginia. And, you know, Ken Cuccinelli talks a lot about the constitutional principles at issue here. But, you know, I don't hear anything from the GOP or Mr. Cuccinelli about the problem of people not able to get insurance in Virginia. And let me just tell you a little bit about my experience. I just have a small business. I had worked for a bigger company. My COBRA was running out. I started looking for private insurance for me and my family and was denied because of a pre-existing condition. And it wasn't something like, you know, smoking or being overweight or something.
BENThis was just a small dermatology matter that had already been cleared up. I think there are thousands of Virginians who can't get insurance for these kinds of conditions -- for acne, for migraines, for allergies, for trivial things. And Virginia has no safety net. There's no high-risk pool available like there is in 34 other states. So when Mr. Cuccinelli, you know -- go tell his high horse about the constitutional principle and getting back to, you know, the traditional definition -- the color squad. You're doing nothing to help thousands of Virginians who can't get health insurance. And now, basically, you know, the basis that he's using is so bogus...
BEN...and the argument that government doesn't have a right to make someone buy something. You know, the state of Virginia makes me buy auto insurance, and, if I don't buy -- and I have to pay, too...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Mr. Cuccinelli...
BEN...and that's exactly...
NNAMDI...respond because time is running...
NNAMDI…short. And he's not on his high horse here. We've put him in a low chair.
NNAMDIMr. Attorney General.
CUCCINELLII can attest to that. First, let's take -- let's start at the back and work forward your auto insurance example. States can order this. That is consistent with the Constitution. That's what Massachusetts is doing. With respect to auto insurance -- which is the example I hear the most about -- states can order you to buy auto insurance. Frankly, they could just order you to buy it. The states are not limited by the U.S. Constitution like the federal government is. That's why the 10th amendment says everything else, all the other powers are left to the states and the people. The states have a great deal of authority, in fact, more than the federal government, which is not often thought about these days because the federal government exercises so much authority, but -- so the state can order this while the federal government cannot.
CUCCINELLIWith respect to the bill itself, you know, in a 2,700-page bill, there's got to be something in there that everyone would like. I mean, there just has to be. It's so enormous. And I understand that there are challenges with health care reform. When I was in the State Senate, before I became attorney general, I tried to address some of those. For instance, allowing Virginians to buy health insurance across state lines. A lot of people don't know that's not legal, and it's rather surprising that it's not legal. But it's not for an ordinary Virginian. And in Virginia, compared to our sister states in the District of Columbia, we have the highest monthly insurance premiums -- save for North Carolina -- which is not necessarily what everybody would think.
SHERWOODOh, just on that point -- because I thought that was a very good point -- someone prompted that they did. If you allowed buying insurance across state lines, unregulated states like Mississippi -- the companies from those states would have bogus policies, and people would be ripped off.
SHERWOODEven though there's no regulation of them.
CUCCINELLITheir insurance -- first of all, as a state legislator, you can pick and choose what states. You can decide Mississippi is enough to sufficient standards and so you can buy it from 49 states but not Mississippi. That's perfectly fine. The key -- it was brought to my attention by -- to me by a constituent who said, look, Virginia doesn't cover developmental deafness. My child is false in that category but Colorado does. Can you mandate it in Virginia? And I said well, how about if we just get you the right to buy a Colorado policy? Would that do the trick? And she thought about it for a moment and said, yeah, that's all I need. And so I tried to do that and ran into the wall of insurance companies who, you know, manage to lobby folks the other way. But I think that now, that would be better received than it was (unintelligible)
NNAMDICan we -- Ben, thank you for your call. But implicit in Ben's question is this, as far as your argument against the individual-amended goals, how do you respond to people like Ben who can argue that the mandate really isn't about something people can choose to do or not to do -- because we're all going to eventually consume health services anyway -- that the choice you base your argument in really is not much of a choice because in our lifetimes, each one of us will, at some point, need health care?
CUCCINELLIWell, the federal government at various points during the case has talked about this about as being a means of financing that that's really what's an issue and that's why they say in their briefs that if the individual mandate does not survive, then the private insurance pieces need to survive because it is what makes them work. So one thing that Dr. Hazel, who is the health and human resources secretary for Gov. McDonald of Virginia, pointed out to me nearly a year ago -- and it was very good point -- he said, look, health insurance doesn't equal health care. Everybody talks about it like they do. Now, look back at Massachusetts. They've had, for a number of years now, a program like the national one, and they're essentially, by regulation, making a lot those insurance companies run in the red. Well, they're cutting down what they offer. They're cutting down health care available. Somebody's going to choose what that -- what you get. And right now we're more in control than we would be under this bill. Now, mind you, we have left the legal discussion here.
CUCCINELLIWe are in a policy discussion, and my first obligation as attorney general is simply to defend the Constitution and Virginia's statute.
SHERWOODAnd the caller did make a point and raise the issue, and I interrupted your answers -- I apologize. There is no safety net. Is there a safety net in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including health care?
CUCCINELLIWell, we have, you know -- we have Medicaid and Medicare and...
CUCCINELLIRight. Exactly. And people who, by income strata and so forth and age, in one case, fit in to those categories. I will say Virginia is frugal about those programs relative to sister states. But, frankly, I think, that's the way a lot of the other states are going to have to go, given the federal budget and the dominance of their dollars in our Medicaid and Medicare funding.
NNAMDIOn to Michael in Washington, D.C. I can't seem to click on Michael in Washington, D.C. So I will raise the issue myself. It has to do with the fact that several state legislatures in Virginia have announced bills, at least two bills that target your authority and your office's ability to investigate academic inquiry as fraud. How do you interpret those proposals? And what would losing that authority mean for you? You argued that you have a right to probe academia as part of an inquiry into whether fraud was committed in the application of U. S. and state grant money.
CUCCINELLIYeah, the focus here is dollars, tax payer dollars, and it's not what they're doing in terms of research or what have you, except insofar as they're pulling down money and making statements to get that money. If they say, A, therefore, I qualify for the state grant, and they get the money, and A is not true, that's fraud on a pure dollar basis. And that's what's being attacked right now. And they're struggling with those bills because they're trying to make a defense of academic freedom. But academic freedom really isn't an issue if you're lying about what you're doing with state dollars. That's really the fundamental issue.
SHERWOODBut the argument is...
NNAMDIIs this your belief that most -- is it most of your belief that most of the climate change studies that indicate global warming are, in fact, fraudulent?
CUCCINELLIOh, no. Mind you, the term fraudulent implies there are some knowledgeable lie in there. There's plenty of room to debate what's going on in the climate. And I think, unfortunately, it's been so politically driven for so long, I mean, 20 years or more, really back into the '80s, I guess, that it's -- there hasn't been a lot of objective -- truly objective analysis of this. And before I went to law school, I was an engineer. So I have something of an appreciation for the scientific method and the process that should be going on here. And there's so much grant money, including state grant money that has been poured into this area. And money attracts people. And all we're doing right now in Virginia is making sure that truthful statements were made to draw down that money that came through the University of Virginia, my alma mater.
SHERWOODI know you don't have a lot of time. I want to switch if I can just quickly to politics. George Allen, former state legislator...
CUCCINELLII've heard of him.
SHERWOOD...former governor, former senator, announced this week that he intends to run for his old Senate seat again. He is running for it now, whether Webb announces -- Jim Webb, the incumbent. Are you supporting Gov. Allen in his attempt to get that seat back?
CUCCINELLIRight now, I'm sitting back. It's been my habit, typically, to not engage in races before the year of the race. For instance, we have state legislative races this year, 2011. And I had a number of people who -- long-time allies of mine asking for endorsements in those races. And I would not answer those questions until after that we got passed the November elections. And I would expect to maintain that habit in the U.S. Senate race for 2012 as well.
NNAMDILikely to be an interesting Republican primary there. Tom, you...
SHERWOODYes. And I've one more politics issue, because it's interesting. Are you -- don't -- you don't describe yourself as a Tea Party conservative. You're conservative, right? How do you describe yourself? Just make it quick.
NNAMDIKen Cuccinelli is attorney general for the Commonwealth of Virginia. That's how he describes...
SHERWOOD(unintelligible) just ask my question. I won't try to -- I won't --or here's...
CUCCINELLIThat's a more basic one. I would say I'm conservative, but I don't really fit -- you know, I'm not a square peg that fits in that round hole necessarily on a number of issues that...
SHERWOODAnd given the federal state relationships, you know, Virginia is one of the strongest states when it comes to military spending.
SHERWOODIt's just -- it's the heart and soul of American (word?).
SHERWOODI just wanted, as a conservative -- you think -- this week, just maybe today was the announcement that the military is going to move forward very quickly with the getting rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and that openly gay men and women will be fully accepted in the armed services.
CUCCINELLIWell, it's not a policy change that I wanted to see. But in my role and as attorney general, what we've been evaluating is we've got some people who want to say, well, can we maintain it for the National Guard? And that looks, to say the least, like it would be a very difficult thing to do even if they wanted to. And we couldn't keep any of our funding. So that's one of those where the state likely is going to have to follow the federal approach just to stay on defense generally. And the conservative question a moment ago, I will say this, is that from a standpoint of fiscal responsibility, I've watched some Republicans, newly-elected, say, oh, well, you know, defense is off the table for cuts.
CUCCINELLIAnd I have spoken to each of them about that as I have -- had the opportunity to do so. Seems to me when you're spending, what, 30 or 40 percent more money that we're taking in at the federal level, you can't reasonably take anything off the table, including defense and including in a state like Virginia. If we're going to actually work together, by which, I mean, on a bipartisan basis, tri-partisan with senator from Vermont, Sanders, I guess, then we really can't take anything off the table. I mean, what legitimacy is there for person, congressmen A, to say, well, my program ought to be off the table. But you can't take anything off the table. That's just not a legitimate way to go about reordering our financial structure. And the state -- you know, Commonwealth of Virginia is going to be heavily impacted by that.
CUCCINELLIA lot of that rolls downhill.
SHERWOODNorthern Virginia and Hampton Roads (unintelligible).
CUCCINELLIOh, absolutely, enormously.
NNAMDIFinal question. We're trying to make sure you're just as late for your next appointment if it weren't for this one.
NNAMDIIn the State of the Union address, the president advocated for laws that could afford undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children a path to citizenship. And Maryland lawmakers have introduced a state-level version of that so-called DREAM Act that would make in-state tuition benefits available to those kinds of immigrants. Where are you on this issue? Should it come up in the Commonwealth of Virginia?
CUCCINELLIWell, it has come up in the form of debate in years passed. And I am not supportive of offering in-state tuition benefits to people who are not here legally, whether they were brought here or came themselves. That's -- you know, we have challenges enough with our state university system, both funding it and the competition to get in it from Virginians who are here legally. You know, I really think something more along the lines of a return and come back program ought to be in place. And that one area that we do horribly is processing people who were trying to follow the law.
CUCCINELLII don't know how much you all have come into contact with this. But, I mean, they lose files. They do -- it's horrible. It's really a major disincentive. And there aren't many things in federal government that I would like to see us put more effort into. I'd rather see us scaling it back. But that's one where I think it's going to be important to emphasize the legitimacy and the importance of good, quality legal immigration. We've got to put in place the infrastructure necessary to accommodate it. And we don't have that right now.
NNAMDIAre you going to run for governor next time around?
CUCCINELLII don't know yet. I don't know yet.
SHERWOODYou're technically saying you're going to run for re-election as attorney general...
CUCCINELLIThat's the plan right now. Yes.
SHERWOODBut not right now.
CUCCINELLII'm just not closing the door on everything else.
SHERWOODAnd you're not going to run for the Senate seat, though.
SHERWOODWe got one off the table.
NNAMDIShould Tom Sherwood run for an at-large seat on the D.C. City Council? He's been asked to.
CUCCINELLIWhy not? Why not?
SHERWOODYou know I would be...
CUCCINELLIHe might be...
SHERWOOD...you now what, I would be good if I did, but I don't think that's going to happen.
SHERWOODNot going to happen. Ken Cuccinelli is the attorney general...
CUCCINELLIThank you for having me gentlemen.
NNAMDI...for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thank you so much for joining us. You're listening to the politics hour...
CUCCINELLIPeter, thank you.
NNAMDI...starring Tom Sherwood. He is our resident analyst. He is a reporter at NBC 4 and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Still in studio with us, he generously agreed to wait through the interview with the attorney general is Peter Benjamin, Member of the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority where he, this week, completed a term as chairman of the board of directors. He's a former chief financial officer at Metro. Peter Benjamin, we talked with you at the very beginning of the process of looking for a new general manager for Metro that what Metro was really looking for was Superman. This week, you picked your man, and it's Richard Sarles unfortunately, not Clark Kent, the guy who was holding down the temp assignment in the first place. Why did the search ultimately come back to Richard Sarles?
BENJAMINI think because when he goes into the phone booth he comes out as Superman. That's the answer. We did a very, very wide search. And when I was here earlier, I did talk about the fact that we had a responsibility to our writers and to the people of this region to really find the very best person. And we did in fact, as a search committee, interview a substantial number of people. We looked at hundreds as possibilities. It was a substantial amount of interest and we did interview a substantial number of people. We then came down to basically three candidates. One of those was a person in the private sector. And this was the person that we felt was, as an experienced CEO, the best indicator and the kind of person we could get in a private sector. We then...
NNAMDIIt wasn't Donald Trump, was it?
BENJAMINNo. It was not.
BENJAMINThen we did the same thing in the public sector. We found somebody who didn't necessarily have an awful lot of experience in transportation or transit, but was a public sector person who really understood what public sector service was all about, what public service was, and had experienced turning around big organizations and dealing with it. We found the best person in that category. And, finally, we looked in the transit industry. And we talked with a lot of people in the transit industry and we decided that the candidate that best represented the capabilities that we're looking for in the transit industry was in fact Richard Sarles. And we presented all three of those candidates to our board, and one of the statements each one of us made that was on the search committee to the board was we have given you the best in these categories. If you choose anyone of these, we will feel you have made a good choice. The board talked with those people. We all had discussions with them and with one another, and we decided that Rich Sarles really was the best of those three.
SHERWOODNow, when John Catoe, the former general manager, was reappointed and signed a new contract, he was also appraised as the right person to continue to work that he had started and move forward. But since then, you're going to have a new -- significantly new Metro board. And you've got -- and the board wanted to find someone who would be much more of a CEO, and there's been these proposals to reform Metro so that the CEO will be less of a person who responds to the board as someone who actually have the authority to take action. Will Mr. Sarles have that authority to take action rather than trying to reach consensus on that board?
BENJAMINWell, I believe, Tom, really, that we have had a CEO for quite awhile. It has been a position that we on the board have maintained it. We do policy and the CEO does management. And if you go back as far as Dick White, he had the label CEO, and I think in fact we did not interfere in the legitimate management activities of any of the general managers. We have very carefully laid that out and that's even in Rich Sarles' contract.
SHERWOODHe's a very mild-mannered person. He's was on NBC 4 this morning. I watched it, and he's very pleasant. He's very nice and he's -- I'm just wondering, do you need somebody with a hard fist?
SHERWOODAn edge to get -- to break through some of the troubles?
BENJAMINWell, I think one of the things that I have learned working with Rich Sarles over the last year is that he -- I wouldn't say hard edge -- he is the kind of person who commits to a job, works at it, and then produces. And he holds his staff to the same standard.
SHERWOODI can say, people say that about you. You're very polite and very nice, but you're very direct and try to get things done. But he's got an urgent mandate here to restore public confidence and fix the system.
BENJAMINAnd I think one of the things I've heard, as you know, I've been with Metro for over 25 years now and so I know a lot of the people that are out there. And the comment that I hear back from an awful lot of employees is we respect Richard Sarles because he demands a quality job on time and therefore that's what we produce. So I think that capability that you're talking about, Tom, this man definitely has.
NNAMDILet me follow up on Tom's question by quoting David Alpert of the Greater Greater Washington blog. He wrote that there are not many reasons to believe that Sarles will suddenly attack the long-term issues in organizational culture that need fixing at Metro. So what should his assignment tell us about what the board's immediate priorities for Metro are?
BENJAMINWell, I think one of the things that I saw and I believe the rest of the board saw was that when Richard Sarles showed up, he did immediately attack the organizational issues. He did immediately focus on the safety culture. He realized that that was something extremely important, started working on it and did it in a number of different ways, and did it apparently quite effectively, given the changes we've started to see happen.
SHERWOODWhat about his ability now to -- we call these -- now he's the permanent director -- because nobody's permanent. I don't know. We've got to find a better way to say what the person is. But now that he has the job, it is not interim, is he going to hire the people he needs? Is he just been like chomping at the bit to hire people to bring in to do the kinds of things he wants to do?
BENJAMINWell, Tom, he's certainly been disadvantaged. One of the things that any top-level executive is going to want working for a chief executive officer is to know who that chief executive officer is and not be brought in by somebody who might disappear after a few months. So he has been unable to really attract the best and the brightest. He has, in fact, pulled in some people that I think are extremely good, but it's a hard thing to do under those circumstances, and he now has people that he can say, look, at least for the next three years, I'm going to be here because I have a three-year contract. Come work with me and let's get this done. And I think there are a lot of people who respect Rich Sarles.
NNAMDIWe have our phones back now, so you can call 800-433-8850. 800-433-8850. What do you think of Metro's decision to keep Richard Sarles on as the general manager? He is no longer interim. He is now going to be the permanent, if you will, general manager. What is your view on that and he needs to be doing? 800-433-8850. It's -- Tom, I interrupted you.
SHERWOODDoes he have the authority to tell the metro police not to waste time on those random bag searches? Is that something he can do or is that left to do Metro police department?
BENJAMINHe certainly has the authority to instruct anybody within the staff as to what they should or should not do.
SHERWOODDoes he have the authority to -- I'm going to come up with the complaints I've been hearing about Metro apart from the reliability (unintelligible) equipment...
NNAMDIThe random bag searches make no sense.
SHERWOODI don’t' understand them. I don't understand them either, but other people ask me that. Then the other one they ask -- and I've mentioned this to you before -- is do you go into a Metro station or in the train stations, and then those kiosks, which are encased with glass, and there's one or two employees in there and they are loathed to interact, most of them are. Some of them are very friendly and nice, and I enjoy them. But most of them, as I've watched them, are loathed to interact (word?)...
NNAMDIYou're invading my space.
SHERWOODAnd so, can we take the glass down so that at least you can least approach them? Can he -- can Mr. Sarles order that?
BENJAMINCertainly, Mr. Sarles could order that. I don't think the issue that we have has to do with glass, Tom. The issue we have has to do with how we select those people. And we are not allowed to select those people based upon their orientation towards customer service...
SHERWOODThey are the face of your Metro system.
BENJAMINWe understand that. But there are set of union rules that constrain the selection of those people...
SHERWOODWell, management had to obey the rules.
BENJAMINThose rules actually go way, way back. And one of the things that Metro labors with is a set of contracts that it inherited, that it never really negotiated to begin with.
SHERWOOD(unintelligible) Metro was put together.
BENJAMINBefore Metro was put together.
BENJAMINWe picked up contracts...
SHERWOODSo the bus -- yeah.
BENJAMIN...from the bus companies that we came to. And we were constrained, in a degree, to which we could make changes to those.
SHERWOODI just think a lot of the workers actually would like to – would do their jobs and want to do their job. But these contracts were – even if you want to do something, you can't do it because the union rules don’t allow it – and I'm a strong union person. It just seems to me that there ought to be a reworking of the whole compact, not just the management of Metro and the board, but how the union is part of the going forward, too.
BENJAMINWell, I think we need to have a lot of respect...
BENJAMINWe need to have a lot of respect for unions because, as you point out, they do a lot to represent the legitimate interests of those employees. And that's something that we have to constantly deal with. I think one of the biggest issues that happens, once you get this far into a set of contracts with the union, is anytime you want to change something, either the union or management, it costs something.
SHERWOODA lot of -- there are a lot of barnacles.
NNAMDIIs the board likely to operate any differently, likely to have a new character with its new members and new leadership? Chris Zimmerman from Arlington County, who's talked about Metro at least 100 times on this show, is gone. D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells just joined. You picked up a federal member last year in Mortimer Downey. Cathy Hudgins from Fairfax County is replacing you as chairman. Can we expect anything different in the way the board operates or in its style of operation?
BENJAMINI think what we have done over the last year when Mort Downey joined us and Marcel Acosta, both for -- from the federal government, is we saw that bringing some new views and different ways of looking at things was extremely productive and very valuable. We now have four more people who are coming in, and probably one or two after that. And so I would expect the tenor of the board to change to reflect the kinds of views those people have, their insights and their abilities. And in people like Tom Downs, for instance, we have somebody with enormous experience in the transportation industry.
SHERWOODThis is really a reset of the management of Metro at this point. Now, what about the proposal from the Board of Trade and the Council of Governments that there would be even more shakeup in the way the board is run, that more power would go to the states as opposed to the local jurisdiction?
NNAMDIOrganizational overhaul. How do you feel about that?
SHERWOODIt sounds like -- do you need to go that far? It sounds like maybe with the work you guys have done now, maybe you don't need to go that far.
BENJAMINWell, that's an issue that we need to explore and we need to explore very carefully. And we have committed, through the creation of our own governance committee, to work on just that issue in the same way the governors have established their own task force, which is now looking at those recommendations and exploring how they should be dealing with it. And we would like to work together with that task force and really see what should we do, what shouldn't we do. If we do something, how should we do it? What are the likely impacts?
SHERWOODAnd meanwhile, this is -- Metro is run by a centipede of legs, and one more leg is Congress, the Republicans in the House.
NNAMDIHard to get to that. It's the New World Order on Capitol Hill right now. Republicans now in control. House is threatening to cut back on all kinds of federal spending. But pick it up, Tom.
SHERWOODRight. You know, you reached that terrific agreement where each of the jurisdictions would put in $50 million a year and the feds would put in 150 million. You need to have 300 million to help fix the system. But now there's talk about cutting out some of these federal dollars. Who on Metro has the power to go up to the -- on the House side and, you know, get them right with the system?
BENJAMINWell, certainly, that's a responsibility that all of us have. We do have our own government relations organization within Metro reporting to the general manager and CEO, and that is one of their responsibilities. But that doesn't mean that those people on the board -- and there are many of us who do have that capability, who do interact with various members of Congress -- shouldn't be talking to those people and trying to get their assistance. And as you point out, Tom, not only is the $150 million that we just recently started to get from the federal government at stake, because if you go back to the 2008 levels of appropriations, that 150 million wasn't there. But all of the money that goes around the country for public transportation is at stake -- not maybe every penny of it, but a cutback, and that can severely affect not only us but other transit agencies. And you all know how hard we have to work right now in rehabilitating our 34-year-old rail system. If we don't get that money, both safety and rehabilitation will, in fact, be at stake.
NNAMDIThe president tried to make the case for, quoting here, "investment" in his State of the Union on Tuesday night, including investment in our infrastructure. His Republican opponent simply said that investment is just another word for spending. What did you make of what the president had to say? And what investments or spending, do you think, are necessary for Metro?
BENJAMINKojo, that's exactly what I was just talking about. We are in a situation where we need to reinvest in our basic infrastructure. We are in a situation where our system is 34 years old. We need to replace track. We need to replace power systems. We need to replace those arcing insulators that are causing the problems right now and causing us to have delays in our system. We need to be replacing our rail cars, which the National Transportation Safety Board called for. We need to replace our power systems, which were actually originally built for six-car trains, and they now have to be rehabbed and rebuilt and put -- new equipment put in for eight-car trains.
NNAMDIYou described an outdated system.
SHERWOODYou're basically building a new system. Well, they'll joke about building a plane while it flies.
BENJAMINThat's absolutely right. And that's one of the things that we need to do better in communicating to all of our riders, and that is we have a two-track railroad. While you're building on one of those tracks, you've got to be single tracking on the other one, which means we're getting in people's ways on weekends and the evenings, and sometimes in the middle of the day, trying to do this work.
SHERWOODI want to talk about the buses, tens of thousands. How many people a day ride the bus, roughly?
SHERWOOD400,000 people. The buses -- are the buses -- are we getting enough buses? Are the routes being streamlined? Or how are the buses doing? Because...
BENJAMINThe buses, in fact...
NNAMDIA lot of people feel that buses are a stepchild to the trains.
BENJAMINAnd that's been one of those interesting issues, is we were first a bus company before we were a rail company. And lots of people think of Metro only as rail. Bus is an extremely important part, if not for -- if for no other reason than that's how an awful lot of people get to the rail. But bus also is the only way a lot of people can travel. And it's the most effective way for us to expand the ridership of Metro overall -- that is, providing better quality bus service. And we are working with the jurisdictions on improved bus service. We are buying new buses. We are replacing our existing buses to make them far more effective.
SHERWOODAnd the fare increases. There was a drop in ridership. Is the ridership going to tick back up? How is ridership compared to the fare increase?
BENJAMINActually, what we were able to do is -- rail ridership actually is doing pretty well, and that's where the fare increase was most significant. What we are able to do is look very carefully at what the employment picture looks like and how that relates to our ridership, and there's a very close correlation. And since a very large percentage of our ridership is people going to work, when the jobs disappear, they tend to ride a lot less. And that's what we think is happening. I don't think it's related to the fare increase.
NNAMDIYou used to be chief financial officer at Metro. The budget numbers don't look very good at the state level. How closely have you looked at those state budgets as the red ink has been piling up? And what chances do those budget crises have of affecting long-term Metro projects?
BENJAMINWell, there's always a concern that the states will not be able to continue to fund Metro at the level that they have in the past. However, one of the things that I do have to point out is they always have and they've always increased every year. That's because of the heavy commitment that states have to public transportation in this region. And those states and in Virginia, very heavily, the local jurisdictions, which are the people that really are paying the very large portion of the total. That commitment has, every year, caused us to go up and up and up in the amount of money -- maybe not as much as we would like, but always up.
SHERWOODWhen are we going to be able to ride Metro trains to Dulles Airport, so I can go take a plane from Dulles?
BENJAMINThat's a question you have to ask the Airport Authority because they're the ones that are building this.
SHERWOODBut then their term date is set. You're going to use it, right, so?
BENJAMINWe will be the ones that operate, but they're the ones that need to build it.
SHERWOODI'll call Tara Hamilton at the Airport Authority and ask her.
BENJAMINThat's a good idea.
NNAMDIOr you can get a lot of exercise riding your bicycle out to Dulles Airport to catch a flight.
SHERWOODI'm not going to North Park, not even to Tyson's Corner.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's a reporter at NBC 4 and a columnist for the Current Newspapers. Peter Benjamin is a member of the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. This week, he completed his term as chairman of the board of directors. He's a former chief financial officer at Metro. Peter Benjamin, thank you for your consideration and staying for the entire hour while we interviewed the Virginia attorney general.
BENJAMINKojo, thank you for having me. It's always fun to work out.
SHERWOODYou're still on the board, right? You're still on the board.
BENJAMINI am still on the board.
SHERWOODYou're just not the chairman. We'd love to have him back.
NNAMDIHe's not going any place. He is going to be back on this show. There are questions as to whether Tom Sherwood might. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Thank you for listening.
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