Amid Washington’s graduation season, we look at the craft of writing and delivering commencement speeches. What advice sticks — and what doesn’t?
This week, Alice Rivlin, the former Financial Control Board chair and founding director of the Congressional Budget Office passed away at the age of 88. Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams joins us for a remembrance of his colleague and friend. Then, we examine the District’s 2020 budget, which was approved Tuesday in the first of two council votes, with Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C Fiscal Policy Institute. Finally, we meet Nicole Merlene, a Virginia activist running for state senate.
Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we’re at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper; @tomsherwood
- Anthony Williams Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director, Federal City Council; Former Mayor, District of Columbia (1999- 2007)
- Ed Lazere Executive Director, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute; @edlazere
- Nicole Merlene Candidate, Virginia State Senate (D-District 31); @NicoleMerleneVA
KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking with Nicole Merlene. She's a Democratic candidate for the Virginia State Senate. Joining us in studio now is Ed Lazere. He is Executive Director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Ed Lazere, thank you for joining us.
ED LAZEREThanks for having me.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst and contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, always a pleasure.
TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon.
NNAMDIAnd we'll shortly be talking with Anthony Williams, the former Mayor of Washington. But before we do that, let's talk about Maryland a little bit, Tom Sherwood. Even though Governor Hogan did not sign it, it would appear that the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission on Education in Maryland are going to be funded, because the legislature passed the bill. And while the governor expressed some concerns about long-term funding and the possibility of tax increases, he allowed this to go through.
SHERWOODYes, because he's certainly not against it. He is concerned the $850 million over the next couple of years may not be fully funded. However, the legislature says it is. Everyone is supporting the Kirwan Commission. The final report is not yet out. I think it's been delayed until next year. But the plan is, Maryland wants to spend billions more dollars on education, and it looks like they're going to do it.
NNAMDIWell, they did fund the Thornton Commission when their report came out a little more than a decade ago. But on this occasion --
SHERWOODWell, a decade ago, you know, we were in much more difficult financial times than we are now.
NNAMDISo, it looks like it's going to go ahead. And here, in the District of Columbia, it looks like Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans is going to get yet a second challenger. Jordan Grossman is going to be challenging him, which makes two challengers that he's going have, because Patrick Kennedy is also challenging him. And, of course, the line of attack of both of those candidates is clear. They're going to focus on his alleged ethical lapses and the problems he's been having.
SHERWOODYes. But this is a -- I'd like -- maybe Ed could talk about this campaign. But this is a ward-level raise. Evans is the longest-serving councilmember. And you have to look, what have the candidates done in the ward? Patrick Kennedy has been involved as an ANC Commissioner, I believe. Jordan Grossman has more of a national record. Kind of the national Washington, instead of the local Washington. He has worked on an ANC Liquor License Task Force in Logan Circle. But I looked around. He doesn't have a lot of local bonafides that he's going to have to bring to the campaign. Sort of anxious to see what he does. And I can tell you, he's not the last person to enter this race against Jack Evans. I'm aware that there's going to be another candidate who has far better name recognition. But that person is just not yet ready to say.
NNAMDIAnd why do you want to have Ed Lazere weigh in on this? So he can tell them how not to lose?
SHERWOODWell, no. Ed Lazere, of course, ran for council chairman last year, and didn't win. But in terms of just -- he knows Jack Evans. He knows Jack has a strong position on the budget and how money is spent, and has fought with him on a number of things. But also knows that Jack's been deeply involved in the ethics issues. We're just in the middle of the movie. We don't know how all that's going to turn out. But so far, there've been three different efforts to sidetrack Jack Evans, and they haven't gone very well.
NNAMDIYou've been invited to weigh in, sir.
LAZEREYou know, I think I'm just going to say that I look forward to watching this one from the sidelines, and seeing where it goes.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Anthony Williams. He's the Former Mayor of Washington, D.C. Mayor Williams, thank you so much for joining us.
ANTHONY WILLIAMSHappy to be with you.
NNAMDII want to talk about Alice Rivlin, the economist who chaired the D.C. Financial Control Board, Founding Director of the Congressional Budget Office. She passed away this week at the age of 88. Tom Sherwood wrote in the City Paper that you had both a professional relationship, and you considered Alice Rivlin a friend. She's been credited, of course, with bringing the District back from financial insolvency. It's hard to imagine now, with the booming development here. But what were things like in the District at the time and how did you first meet Alice Rivlin?
WILLIAMSWell, things at the District at the time were well documented by Tom Sherwood, certainly in his work, in all the different media. You had a city where pretty much a lot of the services weren't happening. Every, you know, Human Service Agency was under receivership. Customer service was pretty much low. Still had -- migration was what you face with a lot of American cities, but kind of on steroids. And, you know, five, $600 million accumulated deficit. Pretty much a bad, bad situation. I got to know Alice because I had come to Washington in the federal government in the Clinton Administration. And all the CFOs in the different departments formed something called the CFO Council, for which I served as a vice chair. And we had a number of different official mandates and missions. But, informally, we were pretty much the Alice Rivlin fan club.
WILLIAMSWhen I became CFO -- yeah. When I became CFO of the District, and I knew, obviously, of her work in creating the Control Board and her work in working with cities all the way back to her original job with HHS and Planning and Development. When I had any inkling of running for mayor, I wanted to go and her, you know, guidance and council. And I'm sure Ed would agree -- even though Ed and I disagree on a lot of different things -- Alice was a great lady. Right, Ed?
LAZEREOh, my God. Yeah. I was just really honored to know Alice. Just amazed by her intelligence and her humble devotion to making the city, but also the entire country, just a better place. She was amazing.
SHERWOODMr. Mayor, my condolences again to you, because I know you were her friend. But given her national and international reputation, why is it that she paid so much attention to local Washington? Because, you know, there's a nation stage here where people live here and never get involved on the local level. She was not only involved in the local level, but changed the local level. Why did she do it?
WILLIAMSI think that if you look at a lot of Alice's writing, if you talk to her personally and look and pay attention to her, you know, public pronouncements and talks, she really believed that economics and public policy and government could be a force for good, but could only do that -- you can only do socially responsible things that were politically defensible if they were economically feasible. And she understood, more than anyone. I noticed that somebody wanted me to talk about, you know, the evil Control Board and the Federal City Council, and this and that. I mean, you know, Alice -- let's talk about the 100,000 people and Alice would love the fact that we're talking about her and kind of embedding and incorporating into a remembrance of her a lot of public policy controversy. She would love that. She knew that we had inflate the economy way, way back in the '90s. And she knew that government only has a limited role in the economy.
WILLIAMSA lot of that is just private activity. And she's the first one -- if you talked to her over the last three of four years -- that would talk about the need to moderate, now, the expansion and the impacts in terms of displacement, which is why she was involved in so many different ways up, until the last couple of months before she left us.
NNAMDIYou said of Alice Rivlin that she, quoting here, "Got an often rowdy group of self-interested D.C. pols to see things we never imagined and perform in ways we never expected. She made us better." What do you think politicians and Washingtonians can learn from Alice Rivlin today?
WILLIAMSOh, my God. I think, first and foremost, she really taught us. I mean, we often hear that as a cliché now, almost, but she was like the embodiment of humility and furious resolve. I mean, Alice could play hardball with anybody. I mean, she had played at a national level. But she cared about D.C. She loved D.C. She would set up community meetings, and meetings with, you know, other politicians. And people would say she didn't know what she was talking about. And she'd sit there. And the way she responded, by asking questions, by guiding, by gently cajoling and steering, people realized, you know, "She's making a point." And she was able to bring options and principles and ideas that, you know, got people to cross differences and divides and work better together, and get to a better place.
SHERWOODMr. Mayor, you know, that when you talked about rebuilding the city and bringing in 100,000 people, that has led to gentrification and other matters. And there's been some criticism of that.
NNAMDIYes. As a matter of fact, when we had a discussion on gentrification earlier this week, one our guests, community activist, Kymone Freeman, had this to say.
KYMONE FREEMANMost of the development that we've seen in the city, the displacement in the city was a deliberate act of Former Mayor Anthony Williams, that is also now the head of the Head of the Federal City Council, whose hand is unseen in a lot of these development deals. And we haven't really talked about that.
SHERWOODMr. Mayor, you said more than once, a 1,000 times, that you have to have economic development in order to do the social work that the governments need to do. But what's your response to the criticism you just heard?
WILLIAMSWell, I would say that most of this -- a couple of things. Number one, and Alice would appreciate this. Even, Ed, I think you would agree with this. Most of the displacement is not government activity itself. The government projects where you're talking about different levels of replacement of low and mod housing are only a fraction of the old row economic activity going on in the city. You try to bring investment back to the city and improve the city's finances, part of that is going to be this private economic activity I'm talking about, for which there is displacement, which is why everybody from -- including the Federal City Council -- are looking at ways now that we can build neighborhoods. We can preserve affording housing. We could combine housing and schools in livable neighborhoods, and learn from all lesson in the past. I don't think we do anybody any good by, you know, brining me in front of some tribunal or something and talking about what happened 10, 15 years ago.
WILLIAMSI think we do better by coming together and working together on positive solutions, and learning lessons from the past. What can we do better by way of zoning? What can we do better by getting capital market to work? And I talked about affordable housing. Some of the efforts that the Federal City Council is doing, with the Social Impact Fund for housing and the Housing Conservancy to go out ahead of the real estate way and preserve work force housing. Compliment this with what we should and are doing, with low-income housing, market-rate housing, to create healthy neighborhoods where people have a place in those neighborhoods, and minimize the displacement in the recovery.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, can Anthony Williams run for a third term?
SHERWOODYou know, I would ask him that. But I know what his answer would be. It would be some pithy remark from him. He's not going to do that. But he's very involved in the city and the Federal City Council and a number of things. And I like Ed Lazere might agree with that he just said. But how we get there might be different.
LAZEREYeah. I mean, I look back at our history over the last 15 years and our eagerness to support development, and I can point to moments when the city actually did subsidize projects that promoted gentrification, certainly without doing enough to create affordable housing around them. We put a lot of money into the Wharf, for example, which is, in many ways, really positive development, but also promoting gentrification without building enough planning for what we do if affordable housing there were around. But I totally agree with Mayor Williams that the most important thing is what are we doing going forward to address the fact that displacement is happening at a record level in the District to make sure that we -- so that residents can continue to afford to live here.
NNAMDIAnd to make sure we carry forward a legacy for the late Alice Rivlin. Mayor Williams, thank you so much for joining us.
WILLIAMSOkay. Thank you, guys.
NNAMDIAnthony Williams, is the Former Mayor of Washington D.C. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Ed Lazere and later with Nicole Merlene, who is a Democratic candidate for the Virginia State Senate. If you have comments or questions for Ed Lazere, start calling now, 800-433-8850. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Ed Lazere. He is Executive Director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. And I forgot to ask you: what was the nature of your relationship with Alice Rivlin?
LAZEREWell, you know, it started when I was in graduate school, and I was fortunate to take a course from Alice Rivlin at the University of Maryland Public Policy School. And then when I became the Director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, she reached to me, and we had many interactions where I would seek her advice. And she'd offer her advice on sort of the work that we were doing, and she was a supporter of the Fiscal Policy Institute. She came and spoke at an event with Mayor Williams that Tom Sherwood moderated a couple of years ago, when we reflected on how the city had changed over the last 15 years. And so I just count her as a supporter and a friend.
NNAMDIA mentor, in a lot of respects.
SHERWOODYou ran for office last year. You took a leave from the Policy Institute against Phil Mendelson thinking he was not -- well, saying that he was not progressive enough. You didn't win. You got 40 percent of the vote on your first time out, which is pretty good, but still a significant loss. There are other progressive candidates running. We'll be talking to one later in this program from Arlington. What do you tell the progressive who want to do what you do? Want to win public office, but start from less name recognition, less money, with just a fire to change the system. Now, what did you learn, as a candidate, that you did not know as an activists?
LAZEREThat's a great question. I think I learned that it does take time to get to know people, and for name recognition to build so that people -- you know, I may think that I care a lot about the city, as I do, and that I care about its future and that I have some great solutions. But that only gets you so far in a campaign. People really need to get to know you. So, I encourage everybody who wants to run to make sure that they are out and about in the community as much as possible, talking to residents, talking to civic associations, talking to ANC leaders, so that they -- it's not just that they have great ideas. But they actually get to know people and the city, as well.
SHERWOODMaybe do that a lot more before you actually become a candidate.
NNAMDIThis week, the D.C. Council held its first vote on the 2020 budget, final vote scheduled for the last Tuesday of the month. You have said that budgets reflect what a city values. Based on this $15-and-a-half billion budget, what do you think the District government is signaling that it values most?
LAZEREYeah. It's not only what it values, but it obviously make a difference in all of our lives. You know, the decisions about what's in and what's not in the budget, you know, affects things like whether Metro has the resources to get us all where we need to go, whether we're able to stop the displacement that we were just talking about with Mayor Williams, to address the clear inequities we have in school funding. And when I think about the budget through that, there are certainly always positive things to find in the budget. But there are also many ways in which I'm concerned and disappointed in where we ended up. For example, the budget that the Council just voted on this week gives schools less purchasing power next year than this year, and particularly has cuts in almost all the schools east of the river. And if we're concerned about equity, we cannot be satisfied with that outcome. The budget also substantially cuts funding to our only hospital east of the river, following the closure this year of Providence Hospital, before we know when a new hospital is going to be built. And I am concerned about what that means for healthcare for black residents east of the river.
SHERWOODOn schools, you know, I was just talking to someone from the Deputy Mayor of Education's office this week. And they kept insisting, we haven't cut the budget, the student formulas, all these different things. I said, but when it comes down to specific dollars, schools that need more money are not getting it. At-risk funds are not going. They keep insisting the mayor has not cut the budget, that she's increased the budget. But every school I've talk to -- I'm talking to Amidon-Bowen. We're doing a gala on Saturday night, and they're worried they're losing a staff person there and having to double up teaching, because they are going to get a cut, because they have to pay for security. Security costs are now credited against their budgets, and that ends up being a cut to them.
LAZERERight. It's the people of the schools who really know what's going on, right?
LAZEREAnd certainly, you can look at the numbers. We know that the increase in the funding formula is less than the increase in the average cost of a teacher. It doesn't take complicated math to say, "If your budget's not increasing with the price of a teacher, you can't hire as many teachers as you are this year." And we definitely see, because our school enrollment formula within DCPS is tied to enrollment, that schools east of the river that have been losing students are losing money.
SHERWOODIt's a downward spiral.
NNAMDIAnd you seem to be making the argument that this a kind of opportunity for those schools, because were it not for the pupil spending formula, those schools would be getting as much money as they were getting before, and therefore able to do more for a smaller student population.
LAZEREI mean, certainly, if we care about equity, we care about making sure that our low-income students and students of color are able to succeed. Everyone agrees, right, we have to invest more in them. And so an outcome that says, "We're going to cut what you're getting..."
SHERWOODWell, apparently, the city government, at this point, doesn't agree, because the schools are losing population, student enrollment. Therefore their budget is cut. Therefore they do less with the money they have. Fewer students come. Then they keep cutting the budget, when, in fact, it seems to me we should be spending more in schools that are some of these brand-new, physically great schools. But put more into those schools, not less...
SHERWOOD...to attract the students back, to give them a reason for coming.
LAZEREThat's right. If we don't, then our neighborhood schools, particularly in Ward 7 and 8, will just be on a downward spiral, right? Less money means less robust academic programming, which less students the next year,, and then less money, and it's just a terrible --
SHERWOODLike, contrast it with Maryland, where they're planning to spend billions more in the State of Maryland on schools. And the District seems to be treading water, at best.
NNAMDIDo you have any suggestions for the schools, the DCPS and the mayor would better allocate funding to those schools in challenged neighborhoods, rather than the per-pupil spending formula?
LAZEREYou know, there are a bunch of things. I think, first and foremost, it's just important to make sure that we're putting enough money in the entire system each year to keep up with rising costs. That should just be sort of a mandatory expected thing. And yet, it is not necessarily a matter of course. Second, I think it's really important to focus on our neighborhood schools, particularly in Ward 7 and 8, where the competition from charter schools and from new DCPS magnet schools means they're losing enrollment. We're not going to close Ballou High School. We're not going to close Anacostia High School. And we can't just let them wither on the vine. So, we do need to think about our neighborhood schools in Ward 7 and 8, in particular, in a special way, and make sure that we're adequately supporting them. And then to Tom's comment, there's a portion of our formula within the schools that's intended to address inequities called at-risk funding. And yet year-in and year-out, D.C. Public Schools takes that money, and half of it goes to places that it's not supposed to go.
NNAMDIWe have a new school chancellor, Lewis Ferebee. And checking around with the councilmembers and some other activists they don't see his hand print yet. I know he's early. But it just seems to me this is a crucial moment for the schools, and he doesn't seem to be taking any strong actions about this. I mean, it ends up being a cut to the school system.
LAZEREYou know, I'll give him a chance, and then next year will be his first round with a full opportunity for the budget. And I hope he does recognize the importance of investing in those schools.
SHERWOODCan we talk about Banneker, before we leave?
SHERWOODYou know, the city has Banneker, a high-performing school. The mayor wants to move it to Shaw, where people there in the neighborhood have been waiting for a decade for a new school. And now the mayor somehow has two neighborhoods competing against each other. There are racial concerns about it. Banneker desperately needs better space. Shaw needs a middle school. Where are you on this? I know a lot of people may be listening...
NNAMDIAnd what happened to the idea of putting both schools in the same location?
SHERWOODWell, a lot of parents don't want their middle school kids going with high school kids, I mean...
SHERWOODBut what is -- where is the solution for this? Because it's -- I called it unconscionable that these two neighborhoods have been pitted against each other.
LAZEREWell, that is exactly my feeling, as well. That it is unfortunate that --
SHERWOODOkay, well, we need to hear from you.
LAZERETwo groups of students both -- we need a good middle school and we need a good high school. And we should find a solution that does not pit one against the other. I think the most important thing I want to do is give credit to the Banneker students who were in the Wilson Building. Last week, they were in the Wilson Building this week, in force, talking to policymakers and it was honestly the biggest show of advocacy that I saw this budget season. And they deserve a lot of tribute. I was in the room when the vote happened, and saw how disappointed they were. But they really should take credit for having amazing input influence on this budget.
SHERWOODIt supported middle schools. If we have to have better middle schools in the city in order to keep the students in our school system.
NNAMDIDisplacement and affordable housing, big issue for those protesting gentrification here. The mayor's original budget had a $55 million package of incentives to preserve or build affordable housing. The council made some changes, including cutting spending on the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Where did you think this budget landed on affordable housing, and do you think it goes far enough?
LAZEREWell, it definitely doesn't go far enough. You know, Mayor Williams is right, that the economic pressures that are leading us to lose affordable housing are enormous. But it also therefore means we need an enormous response. If we don't want the city to continue down a path where 10 to 20 years from now, we don't recognize it anymore, and we have almost no black or brown residents living here anymore, we really need to something vastly different. And the mayor started in that direction in her budget in part with an increase in funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I think the thing that concerned me the most is that at the end of the budget, we saw this rare thing happen where the council decided to fund some programs that are important -- our rent subsidy programs -- by cutting other programs. So, they cut the Housing Production Trust Fund after the mayor proposed increasing it. And we should -- just like we shouldn't be putting two school communities against each other, we shouldn't be pitting housing programs against each other. We're not going to solve our affordable housing challenges if we take from one program to fund another. We need to be putting more money into all of our affordable housing programs.
SHERWOODI've read what I think is a very good summary by your organization about what happened in the budget for the first vote, before the second vote. And while, of course, it takes an activist view that there's never quite enough being done in any of these major areas, where would someone see this? What's the online address to see your summary of the budget?
LAZERESure. Well, thank you. Yeah, so the Fiscal Policy Institute website is DCFPI.org, for D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
SHERWOODIt's one of the -- whether you agree with the policies they espouse in it, it's one of the best summaries of what was done, or done to the people in the budget that's going to get a vote on (unintelligible).
NNAMDI(overlapping) On to the phones, here's Leroy in Washington, D.C.. Leroy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEROYYes. You need to get straight on the word gentrification and who's responsible. Mayor Anthony Williams, who was on there a little while ago, he is responsible, most of all -- he and Alice Rivlin. Mayor Williams said: I want more -- 100,000 new people in D.C.. He invited all the people who are here now, taking, placing and displacing people. And that's what gentrification is about. They're spending money on streetcar, and they're cutting...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, let me backup for a second. When Mayor Williams went from CFO to mayor in 1998, were you satisfied with the condition of the city at that point?
LEROYWas I satisfied?
LEROYIf I wasn't, I didn't want it to be worse. That was stupid.
NNAMDIWell, it's not economically worse. In general terms, we were in a big budget hole when the Control Board came aboard. And, in very many respects, it rescued us. But should we blame Mayor Williams for the fact that the 100,000 people came, and now we're looking at problems of gentrification?
LAZEREI mean, I think we should blame all of us. I wouldn't put it just on Mayor Williams, for sure. And the question is, we saw the development was coming. You know, with the example for the opening of the Green Line and the building of the baseball stadium, that those were likely to be places where development would occur. And yet we didn't do enough to preserve affordable housing in those communities to help tenants buy their buildings, to build brand new, affordable housing.
LAZEREWe're not getting ahead of it, and, in fact, we are continuing to subsidize gentrification...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) There was no housing where the baseball stadium was built.
LAZEREBut they could have -- there is housing there now, and the city could have taken that first...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Oh, market-rate housing is there now.
LAZERE...yeah, to build affordable housing. But you look at Union Market, where just last year, the council decided to subsidize that development with $80 million, without asking for any affordable housing in return. And that's clearly a gentrifying area, where the city's moving in the wrong direction. So, we just need to be more thoughtful about getting ahead of gentrification where we can, to create more affordable housing, to do things like buying land by helping tenants buy their buildings. Things like that that can create...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) And the economic force that's...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Leroy, thank you very much for your call.
SHERWOODThe economic force that's kind of sweeping over the city is moving a lot faster than the city government is.
LAZEREWell, that's right. That's why...
SHERWOODAnd that's kind of the basic complaint about gentrification.
LAZEREThat's it. We just need a bold response. You know, we have 3 percent of our budget goes to housing. And I don't know anybody who says that housing is just 3 percent of the city's problems.
SHERWOODThere are views, though, that a lot of people who are moving or making a choice to move, that gentrification is not forcing them out, but they have moved for a variety of reasons. And that the people who are opposing what's called gentrification are kind of lumping in people who are leaving for family or other reasons, moving to the suburbs for convenience, or what have you.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, no, there was a study that was put out a few weeks ago that talked about lower income people who have been pushed out of the city.
SHERWOODThey're lower income, potentially.
LAZEREYeah, there have been two studies this year that have shown that gentrification in the District has been the worst, the fastest in the country, and that 20,000 black residents have been displaced.
SHERWOODOne of those studies, they used part of Arlington for their study, which I thought was a skewing of the results. But even if it were, the basic problem exists.
NNAMDIAre there any last-minute changes to the budget you'd want to see before it's voted on again, at the end of this month?
LAZEREI mean, I would love to see the council find a way to not pit one housing program against another, and find money to build affordable housing, as well as to subsidize renters who need help paying their rent. I would also love to see the mayor and council find ways to make sure that United Medical Center does not wither on the vine.
SHERWOODI was at a D.C. Bar forum yesterday, reporters answering questions from lawyers, which is kind of bizarre, if you think about it. But people asked: what do we think about Mayor Bowser and how she's doing.? I would ask you that question: how is she doing?
LAZEREWhat I often say whenever I'm doing a presentation, is that Mayor Bowser can take a lot of credit for doing really important things, like prioritizing investments to end homelessness and making affordable housing a priority like other -- in ways that previous mayors have not. But it's also -- it's just not enough. I mean, we really are -- the most important thing that we need to do is invest in preserving and creating affordable housing, ending homelessness, and ending our school inequities. And we're just not -- we're not moving into the...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) And you mentioned the hospital, United Medical Center, it's clear that even the council now, they're going to close United Medical Center. And I think part of that is to force the building of the new hospital, if you're going to close United Medical Center, and that's the policy. And they've got to agree on how to get the new hospital built.
LAZEREBut that's a real serious, high-stakes game. We don't have a deal for a new hospital. It take a long time to build things. Construction is always late. The thought that we could close the hospital, the only hospital in the east side of the city without knowing when the new hospital's really going to be ready really is putting D.C. residents in the crosshairs.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) That's pretty much what the mayor did with D.C. General.
NNAMDIEd Lazere. He's executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Ed Lazere, thank you so much for joining us.
LAZEREThanks so much for having me.
SHERWOODI've got ten more budget questions.
NNAMDIWell, Tom Sherwood, the President of the United States wants to change the location of the July 4th fireworks festival celebration, so-to-speak, to another location. And he'd like to be a part of the celebration. I don't know what role he really expects to play, but Muriel Bowser, the mayor of the District of Columbia says, no, it's going to be a logistical nightmare. We're not for this.
SHERWOODI think, personally, this is disgusting. I like the 4th of July ceremony just as it is. I actually asked the mayor's office on Monday about this plan by the President to usurp the national celebration of the 4th of July, and for his plan to give a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And she did not respond then. But then she, later in the week, told Peter Jamison at the Post that she was against it. But that day also -- it's the day we actually honored you, Kojo, with your day from the mayor on Monday.
SHERWOODThe police chief said they're working very hard to work this out, because changing the site of the fireworks from behind the Lincoln -- between the Washington -- the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, and then moving people around just so the President can give a windbag speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is just a corruption of the idea that we could have a celebration. If he wants to be part of it, that's good. He's the President of the United States. But to totally disrupt it, it's just terrible.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, Nicole Merlene. She's a Democratic candidate for the Virginia State Senate. If you have comments or questions for her, you can start calling now, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us in studio now is Nicole Merlene. She's a Democratic candidate for the Virginia State Senate in the 31st District, which includes Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington. Nicole Merlene, thank you for joining us.
NICOLE MERLENEKojo, thank you for having me. It's an honor.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, a federal judge has vacated his own order that would've allowed non-doctors to perform most abortions in Virginia. In this reversal, he said that he didn't quite make the right decision the first time around, and so he reversed his decision. In the meantime, after there had been indications that at least one Republican in the General Assembly was going to bring up abortion legislation, or anti-abortion legislation in the wake of what occurred in Alabama, Governor Ralph Northam said, well, bring it on. I've got my veto pen ready.
SHERWOODWell, yes. That's Governor Northam, trying again to assert himself after his horrific winter of the black face history of his school years. And so he's being much more aggressive in addressing African American issues, women's issues, showing that he's going to be an active governor, despite that terrible stumble beginning of the year. You know, the judge -- you know, the Virginia law requires that a physician perform all abortions. And the activists say that that's not medically necessary. And this is another example of how, essentially, men are interfering with the right of women to control their bodies. And now the case will be heard next week. His stay was lifted, so the law remains in place, but the hearing will be next week.
NNAMDINicole Merlene, do you agree with Governor Northam's position on this? If it comes up, anti-abortion bills, I'm vetoing them.
MERLENEAbsolutely. And I think it also shows and proves the power of state legislators in this day and age, particularly as we're facing a more conservative-leaning judiciary across the river.
NNAMDIYou are running to represent the 31st District, which, as I said, includes Arlington, Lowden, Fairfax Counties in the Virginia State Senate, taking on the Democratic incumbent, Barbara Favola. Many of our listeners might not know who you are. You are born and raised in Arlington, Virginia. You have been active there in all kinds of organizations for many years, including in a civic association in which one writer says, most of the people are more than twice your age (laugh) in that civic association. But this would be your first elected office. Why did you run for this office, as opposed to, say, oh, for the Arlington County board or something?
MERLENESure. So I, one, think that we have really wonderful representation on our board right now. And, two, we live in a Dillon's Rule state. And so when I look at problems that you may think are local -- whether that's everything from utilities to, you know, the boathouse that's going to get built down in Rosslyn, to all of our major roads -- these require state action. And so the lack of action and lack of coordination with our state representatives was very apparent from the Civic Association, all the way to my position on the Economic Development Commission. So, I decided to give it a go.
SHERWOODBarbara Favola, you have criticized her as having a job in which she represents interests that have interests before the state legislature. What are your other criticisms of her, before we get to the politics of your actual campaign?
MERLENESure. So, I think that there's a two-pronged issue, there. One is her job, which states quote -- she seeks to obtain regulatory and legislative remedies for Marymount University and Virginia Hospital Center, two institutions that I admire a lot, but still present an inherent conflict, and to raise funds from grants for institutional development projects and land use. So, those are some of the biggest profit-makers for both those institutions, and I felt that it is not...
SHERWOODDo we know how much she was paid for those representations?
MERLENENo. The disclosures wouldn't provide that.
SHERWOODThe Virginia disclosure is terrible, right?
MERLENEWe have some of the worst ethics laws.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Let me ask you, you're a progressive candidate. You don't own a car. You still don't own a car? You've got to have a car for campaigning.
MERLENESo, I'm lucky in that I am from here, and so I've had very wonderful support from my family, from my manager.
SHERWOODSo, borrowed cars. (laugh) I looked at the fundraising records. There's another fundraising deadline coming up June 2nd, if anyone wants to contribute to that race. It shows you don't have a lot of money, that you've only raised a maximum of $20,000. You have about 7,000 on hand. Of that 20, 5,000 is from yourself. And your district -- for people who may not know -- runs from mostly Arlington, where 60, I think, percent of the voters are, into Fairfax and Loudoun County along the Potomac River. I didn't see any contributions from any people in Fairfax or Loudoun County. Are you getting your name out? We just talked to Ed Lazere, who ran a great campaign last year, but he realized, people just did not know him. And Barbara Favola is well-known and liked for a lot of things she's done in the State Senate.
SHERWOODHow is your campaign working to get yourself known, other than appearing on the fabulous Kojo Show?
MERLENESo, a lot of different ways, and I think that, A., we've more than doubled what we've already brought in from last filing. And we are doing a very good job this quarter. We're being much more efficient than normal campaigns are, and we're putting in elbow grease that no one else is, really. I'm hitting the morning Metros. There's a hashtag, #MerlenMorningMetro. I'm there all the time. I'm hitting -- we've hit over 10,000 doors. We've contacted over 40,000 people at events, etcetera. So, when he's talking about meeting people where they are, that's literally the backbone of my campaign.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Boyd, who said: why did you decide not to take money from Dominion and sign the Activate Virginia pledge? Is it enough that Favola has stopped taking Dominion, or should she do more?
MERLENEWell, A., I am the reason that she stopped taking money from Dominion. If not for my primary, she would not have done that. And so, I'm really proud of the fact that we've been able to move the ball on Dominion, but then also on just general money and politics. This is not an issue of “I don't want to work with you.” This is an issue of “it's influencing the way that you think about a policy.” And so when we need to move forward on bold action, on environmental issues, you can't halfway it. And so, you know, I specifically wanted to target Dominion, but I would say that for any public utility that a state is regulated by.
SHERWOODShe has raised, over her campaigns in office, something like $1.4 million, of which maybe 10,000 or 14, whatever it is, $14,000 has come from Dominion. Is that a significant amount? I think in the long (sounds like) case, that might be considered de minimis for what she does. Or is it just that she takes $1, doesn't matter whether it's 9 or 10,000.
MERLENE(overlapping) Well, I'll tell you about the other dollars, because that might be a small amount, but there's $100,000 from developers, and she voted for the 2016 Proffer Bill, which took away local government's ability to negotiate with developers. She took over thousands of dollars from a towing company and influenced the way that she interacted with the governor on that topic, and has taken thousands of dollars from the towing companies. And she's introduced more bills on towing and tolling than on public transportation. And as someone that relies on that infrastructure, I'm livid that our only Arlington representative sitting on the Transportation Committee has been beholden to special interests and money.
SHERWOODYou live in one of the most congested transportation areas in the country. You're essentially anti-car, in the sense that you want people...
SHERWOOD...out of their cars on transit, on better busing. But there are many, many people who depend -- just like you're have to depend on your car...
MERLENEYeah, so I would disagree with that assessment. I'm not anti-car. I think...
SHERWOODWell, that's what some people are call -- I'm just trying to get...
MERLENEWell, so to set the record straight, I'm not anti-car. (laugh)
SHERWOODOkay. All right. So, where does a private car fit in? There's a new poll out that most people, 69 percent, don't want to pay a congestion tax...
SHERWOOD...going to the District. Do you support a congestion tax for, say, Rosslyn, which is also car-choked?
MERLENESo, I think that there are a lot of different ways that we need to be thinking about our transportation system and cars. And I think that the incumbent and I differ on this. One, when we saw the tanker fall over on American Legion Bridge, the entire region shut down. We need to be forward-thinking about the solutions that we're presenting on transportation on the roads.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) What would those solutions be?
MERLENEA second bridge, further...
SHERWOODA second bridge?
MERLENEI would suggest that we have another bridge that's closer actually to Loudoun County to get us between Virginia and Maryland. And...
SHERWOODMaryland hasn't been very interested in building another bridge.
MERLENEI think we're -- I talk about the fact that we have the legislature that is not communicative with other kinds of jurisdictions from local to other states and localities. I think that's pervasive in their culture, and so I'd like to take leadership on creating a regional approach.
NNAMDIYou've been critical of fluctuating tolls on I-66, saying that they put strains on other roads like I-495, I-395 and George Washington Parkway, and make it difficult for families to plan their transportation. What would be the alternative, in your opinion?
MERLENEThank you. So, one, that position is for HOV 3. For HOV 2, I think it's appropriate, because prior to the fluctuating toll, those users would've not been able to use that roadway, anyway. For HOV 3, I think that it's inappropriate. And people that choose to move further out into the suburbs should be able to plan what car they buy, what house they buy and what their estimated cost to get to work is, so that they can either live close to a Metro station and avoid paying a car payment and insurance, or they can pay less for their home and live further out. But you can't do that when you have fluctuating tolls. And when it's HOV 3, you aren't just riding with your significant other. It's strangers.
NNAMDIHere's Jocelyn in Loudoun County, Virginia. Jocelyn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOCELYNHi, Kojo. Thank you so much for having me on, and happy anniversary.
JOCELYNSo, I am actually a registered voter in Western Loudoun, close to the two bridges into Maryland in Loudoun. But my question for the candidate is actually about potential legislation in Virginia legalizing cannabis, and whether such legislation could involve sort of the social justice measures and equity measures that are being proposed in D.C. and elsewhere, like in New Jersey.
MERLENEAbsolutely. I've been basically screaming about this in my campaign. A. for -- because, currently, with the Republican-held legislature, legalization is not going to be possible. Once we flip the legislature, that would be what I would try to achieve. But for the time being -- for those that over the age of 21. But for the time being, decriminalization will help to reduce children that are incarcerated unnecessarily for small possession of marijuana.
MERLENEAnd I would also say that I think we should be expanding our medical marijuana program. Right now, there are only five, basically, regions of Virginia that receive one outlet for distribution. And Northern Virginia only has one, and I think that we should open the market for that.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Jocelyn. A pushback to your views on transportation from Victoria in Washington, D.C.. Victoria, your turn.
VICTORIAHi. Yes, I'm calling because you had mentioned a bridge going from Loudoun County into Montgomery. My parents live in the Ag Reserve, which is out by (unintelligible) Poolesville area. And there's White's Ferry to get over. And I am strongly opposed to a bridge, because all you're going to create is more developers building, building, building. And it's just -- everything that's happening in Northern Virginia, it's just going to expand. Ag Reserve is going to get abused, and I really strongly oppose that. Let's figure out...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Your turn Nicole Merlene.
MERLENEThank you. So, A., I don't think that we should expand into any park system. A fundamental part of my entire platform is making sure that we not only preserve our parks, but expand them. And so any kind of encroaching into our park system, I would not support. And so, obviously, there needs to be a relationship with Maryland, and we need to figure out the best placement for that type of development.
NNAMDI(overlapping) You said that your parents moved to Northern Virginia because of the quality of public schools. And you've been critical of the fact that education funding has not been restored to pre-recession levels. If you're elected, how will you accomplish that?
NNAMDI(overlapping) Boosting education spending.
MERLENESo, there is a formula, basically, that the State of Virginia uses to allocate education funding. And the State of -- or Arlington County and Alexandria actually have reached the maximum that we get, and so we only receive 11 percent of our school funding from the state in Arlington County. In Fairfax and Loudoun, they both have not reached their total funding, but I think that reassessing how that formula is made up would be in order once we flip the legislature.
SHERWOODTransportation is such a big issue, I want to go back to it. I was looking at the interview or the answers you gave the Greater Greater Washington Post about cars. And you were talking about -- I'm going to quote it from you. "Ultimately, though, transportation funding is in need of fundamental reform. And in the long term, we must transition from a gasoline tax, which pays for the roads, to a vehicle-miles-traveled tax." So, what does that mean? Does that mean the car, you would pay taxes based on how many miles you drive? What is that? Was that you? Do you remember saying that?
MERLENEYeah, so, the miles driven, I think, is also kind of along the lines (unintelligible) tolling...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) For (unintelligible) emitting vehicles.
MERLENEYeah, and so my ideas on tolling, for example, that would be, like, a fixed-rate toll for the distance, rather than, you know, the time of day, for example.
SHERWOODOkay. It just sounded like we'd be charged taxes based on how many miles we drive, as opposed to...
MERLENEI don't know how you'd exactly implement that, but...
SHERWOODI just took it off of George -- Greater Greater Washington's interview, or questions to you.
MERLENEYeah--no, it'd be similar to tolling, but again, fixed-rate, based on distance.
NNAMDISpeaking of tolling, here's Paul in Vienna, Virginia. Paul, we're running out of time, so please make your comments or question brief.
PAULYes, I live in Vienna, Virginia, and I travel around the Northern Virginia area a lot. And a constant problem that I have is the more and more of tolling. You know, we add another toll lane and charging people, but there's no regular lanes to make more traffic available. You know, just charging people to go on the road is not helping what you do to further the traffic funnel, I should say.
MERLENEYeah, and this is exactly what I mean by a fundamental change in how we think about transportation, because we aren't forward-thinking and thinking about solutions. We're kind of remedying our existing infrastructure, rather than looking forward. And so that's exactly the type of solution that I like to bring to the table. And I would just note that of the 12 priorities that my opponent had put forward at the beginning of this legislative session, not one talked about transportation. Not one talked about affordable housing. And those are two things that are the most important things for this region, and I thought that that was just not okay.
SHERWOODYou've been active in Rosslyn. I've got to ask you about the gondola. (laugh) Are you for or against the gondola? People make fun of it. Other people say it could be a very efficient way of getting people across the river to Georgetown. What do you think?
MERLENEYeah, actually, I served on the gondola study committee, so I am not for the gondola. I know why the study exists. It was to eliminate the GUTS bus for Georgetown University, get buses off the road. I think that there are other ways to do that, including improving pedestrian access. Particularly if you're coming from Rosslyn on the left side of the bridge, you can barely even walk there. So, there are remedies to that without building a gondola. And then, I mean, they, jokingly, on April 1st, said that they should put a zip line there. But at least it would be entertaining. (laugh)
NNAMDIBut the gondola would be so cool. Okay.
SHERWOODSupposedly, it would run, like, every six minutes. So it would be a constant stream. It would destroy the look at the Key Bridge, but...
MERLENELet's make biking and walking a little bit better there.
NNAMDINicole Merlene is a Democratic candidate for the Virginia State Senate, in the 31st District. Thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you.
MERLENEThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIToday's Politics Hour was produced by Mark Gunnery. And if you haven't heard already, we're throwing a party at the Howard Theater on June 6th to wrap up our Kojo 20 celebrations. We'd love to see you there. You can find all of the details...
NNAMDI...at KojoShow.org/20. And that's it for today. What do you plan on doing this weekend, Tom Sherwood?
SHERWOODAmidon-Bowen Elementary School Gala Saturday night. We're going to raise some money for the school at the Capital Yacht Club.
NNAMDIGoing to listen to the blues on Monday night. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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