Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld talks about the future of WMATA and what reopening will look like. And D.C. Councilmember Vincent Gray walks us through city budget and gives us an update on building a hospital east of the Anacostia River.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam called for a special session this week to consider a package of gun control bills in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach last Friday. Guns & America Reporting Fellow Alana Wise joins us to discuss the political implications in the lead-up to the 2020 Virginia legislative elections.
This week, D.C. Councilmember David Grosso reintroduced a bill that would decriminalize sex work between consenting adults. He joins us to discuss that legislation, a bill that would make it illegal for the District to discriminate against current or prospective government employees for medical marijuana use, and more.
On Wednesday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s highway expansion pla got the green light. Montgomery County Councilmember Tom Hucker joins us to discuss what that means for his county.
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
KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to The Politics Hour starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our Resident Analyst. He's a contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon, everyone.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with Tom Hucker. He's a member of the Montgomery County Council representing District 5. And then shortly we'll be talking with D.C. Councilmember At-Large, David Grosso. Joining us in studio now is Alana Wise. She's a Reporting Fellow with Guns & American. Alana, thank you for joining us.
ALANA WISEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIBefore we get to the gun situation, Tom Sherwood, because we're going to be talking about the gun situation in Virginia, the local races in Virginia. Of course, the primaries are all coming up on Tuesday and it would appear that the Justice and Public Safety Political Action Committee funded by George Soros is pumping a lot of money into particularly two commonwealth attorney races in Fairfax County and in Arlington. Why?
SHERWOODWell, a lot of --
NNAMDIAlmost a billion dollars.
SHERWOODWell, a lot of progressive candidates are running in Fairfax and Arlington and other places around the state, in Northern Virginia particularly. But, you know, Virginia benefits from this being essentially an off year election. Virginia has all these elections in odd years and so there's less national pull. You know, the presidential race is not till next year. Congressional races are not until next year. Most gubernatorial races and those types of events occur in even numbered years in this country.
SHERWOODBut Virginia has it in off years. And so you have all these candidates are running. They're very progressive. The Democratic Party is struggling over how much the progressive party is going to be involved in the national party and what's happening from Trump on down and so Soros is known to give tons of money. Has given money in Fairfax County, the attorney's race.
SHERWOODCommonwealth attorney's race and in Arlington, because they are progressive candidates who we've had on this show where they think they can make a change and help move the Democratic Party into a more progressive view going into 2020.
NNAMDIProducing a rare situation in which the challengers are raising a whole lot more money than the incumbents.
SHERWOODYes, it's very rare in the state, but I think you have just seen what's happening. And I think in another two years, another four years, in another off year election, you'll see the same thing.
NNAMDIAlana Wise, this week Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a special session in the Virginia legislature to tackle gun control laws in light of last week's mass shooting in Virginia Beach. What exactly is the legislature going to tackle when it meets in July?
WISESo that stands to be seen actually. Obviously what Governor Northam wants to see is there to be some discussion in voting on increasing gun control laws including universal background checks on gun purchases, reinstating Virginia's previous one handgun a month law. But what we've seen from republican top brass so far is that they've said, even though this is completely your prerogative to call this session, we've going to spend this time focusing on what we want to focus on including increasing time for criminals, who use guns in the commission of a crime as well as instituting mandatory minimums on some crimes. So what will actually happen on this session as opposed to what Governor Northam wants to see still stands to be seen.
SHERWOODAlana, criticism has been that the governor has made this announcement for July, which is July 24th special session that he did it one, to help repair his own image in the state, and also to help the democrats in the June 11th primary. Is that only republicans making that allegation?
WISESo what's tricky is that the timing of the situation that happened last week is going -- no matter what, it's going to be seen as political by somebody.
SHERWOODEverything is political.
WISEEverything is political. And when you get something so close in an election year, so close to actually when the votes start being counted, no matter what he does is going to be viewed by some people negatively. That being said Governor Northam has previously made pushes for gun control and his republican adversaries in the House and Senate have been pretty successful in keeping those efforts at bay.
SHERWOODEven some national political reporting, I actually among others reported that Northam made this announcement for a special session with Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring. It was the first time they had been seen together in a public event since the brouhaha early in the spring about blackface and sexual assault.
WISEYeah. So it was very interesting to see the three top democrats in the Virginia politics all standing on the stage after these cascading allegations, again, of blackface, of sexual assault. But it was in their -- could be seen in their view as fairly good optics to be getting in front of a situation that took so many lives in Virginia Beach. And be seen as a unified front trying to push for tighter gun control regulations after something like this happened. So as far as the politics of it, they obviously do exist. It's impossible for them not to exist at this stage. But as to how much they're playing in the decision making on the timing and all such as that it's almost immaterial as it's going to happen at this point.
SHERWOODBut back when they had the Virginia Tech shooting when 2007, there was another -- after every one of these horrific shootings there is an uproar, do something locally, statewide, nationwide, but even after Virginia Tech very little was done. I think Tim Kaine was governor then. I think there was no background checks or anything like that. Some of the basic things that gun control advocates would like to see. So prospects for success are kind of iffy at this point.
WISEWell, they're fairly slim. As I mentioned before, Governor Northam has pushed for gun control regulation before. This isn't his first time, but I will say that the governor and others are kind of riding this momentum especially leading into Virginia's election later this year and even 2020 later down the line. It's a very popular thing among democrats at this point to have one issue at the very least that they can all be seen as unified on. And on that issue is gun control and the wake of shootings we've seen in Parkland, now this in Virginia Beach and others. One point that we're seeing out of candidates out of every state including nationally and on a local level is a push for tighter gun control laws among the democrats.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned the previous session. What gun laws were in front of the legislature this passed regular session? And what became of them?
WISESo the same laws that Governor Northam mentioned in his press conference earlier this week are the laws he'd like to see brought back again -- brought back to the session again. And those include universal background checks on gun purchases, reinstating what had been a long standing law in Virginia regarding one handgun per month purchases. These laws, again, did not make it to the floor. They were squashed pretty summarily in the previous session.
WISESo what Governor Northam is trying to do is ride the momentum of this atrocity that happened last week and see if there's any way he can maybe turn some minds and change some opinions on that. That being said as I mentioned before Governor Northam does not have many allies on the republican side. He's fighting an uphill battle. Republicans hold a narrow majority in both the State House and State Senate. So as to whether or not he'll see these things actually come into fruition stands to be seen, but the chances aren't necessarily in his favor.
NNAMDIHere's Tom Sherwood, I hear Alana saying that the governor has two chances, slim and none.
SHERWOODPretty much. You know, let me just read this briefly with the statement from the republican party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson, who's been on this show before. I'm just going to -- a very quick sentence here. He wrote, "We weep for the people of Virginia Beach. That Ralph Northam would take advantage of this tragedy to try and boost his own disgraced image is disgusting." So that's the tone of the republicans going in to --
NNAMDIWho hold majorities in the House and the Senate at this point.
SHERWOODEvery seat in the legislature is up in the June primary and then in the November election. So this is going to be quite something to see in Richmond in July.
NNAMDIAlana Wise is a Reporting Fellow for guns with Guns & American. Thank you so much for joining us.
WISEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWell, as you noticed Councilmember David Grosso is already in place. So you'll have to make a quiet exit from the room as we turn our attack on David Grosso. If you have questions or comments for Councilmember David --
DAVID GROSSOOur engagement, it's an engagement.
NNAMDIIt's an attack. If you have questions or comments for Councilmember David Grosso give us a call 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. As we so mentioned David Grosso is an At-Large councilmember in D.C. David Grosso, thank you so much for joining us.
GROSSOKojo, thanks so much. And again congratulations on 20 year anniversary of your show, it's pretty impressive.
NNAMDIThank you very much. We had our final Kojo 20 event last night at the Howard Theater and Tom Sherwood was almost on the dance floor.
GROSSOAnd live tweeting.
SHERWOODYou know, I felt the go-go music. But I didn't move to it.
NNAMDIConversation was impossible while the go-go music was playing. On Monday you introduced legislation that would decriminalize sex work in D.C. What is the legal status of sex work in D.C. now and how would this law change it?
GROSSOCurrently right now it is illegal for people to engage in sex work in the District of Columbia, which is the purchasing or selling of sex. The law that I introduced, which is the reintroduction of the law I introduced it also in 2017, would decriminalize sex work between consenting adults. So it would allow consenting adults to agree to exchange money or other things for sex in the District of Columbia. It would not legalize sex work in the District of Columbia. There would be no legal framework created. So basically what we're doing is saying, let adults do what adults do and stop criminalizing their behavior.
SHERWOODSo how would that work? I mean, New York and other states are considering decriminalizing sex work. Would there be fines? And then who would know who's doing sex work for pay? Would you have to wait till some prostitute person is abused or in some way mistreated in order to know that's even happening? How would the industry look if your bill passed? If a prostitute or a woman or a man who wanted to sell himself or herself how would it in fact work if your law were employed?
GROSSOFortunately there is a lot of experience in this area. In New Zealand for the past almost 20 years they've had decriminalization of sex work and really what it does is simply take away the criminal aspect of human beings being human beings. And so if you were to engage in a deal with somebody where you wanted to exchange sex for money or for housing or for something like that you would be able to do that without the fear that the police were going to set you up or intervene.
SHERWOODBut you would have to do it in some private place. I mean, Logan Circle and other places have a terrible problems with street walkers. Street walkers would still be illegal.
GROSSOYeah, we're not changing the laws when it comes to public nuisance issues. People are not going to be able to engage in sexual activities on the street or in cars. They're not going to be able to walk up and down the street.
SHERWOODWould you have a business? If I had a house say in Ward 3 in Tenleytown where I used to have a house and I decided I wanted to be a sex worker. Could I then have people come to my house like a business and have sex or would I have to get a license from the city?
GROSSONo. There wouldn't a license and you could conduct it however you thought it was appropriate. Obviously you couldn't do it in a way that hurt -- bothered your neighbors. But if you wanted to -- if you had an apartment and you wanted to engage in commercial sex work in your apartment, I think that's a better approach than what we have now.
SHERWOODCan you advertise?
GROSSOYou could advertise. You could -- the reality is right now we just push it underground. We have no ability to know what's actually happening. We push people out on the street to do it. The fact is we're constantly in fear when you're engaging commercial sex work now.
SHERWOODNo registering of sex workers or no licensing.
GROSSONo. None of that, you would just take away the penalties.
NNAMDIThat's the difference between what you're doing and legalization.
GROSSOThat's correct. It would just be taking the criminal aspect out of that particular act. You know, consenting adults exchanging sex for some good, for money or for something else.
NNAMDIThis isn't the first time you introduced a sex work decriminalization bill. You previously raised it in 2017, but it did not get a hearing then. What's changed?
GROSSOWe've done the kind of what I think the groundwork that it takes I think to get this through the Council now. The sex worker advocates coalition is a group of people that have engaged in the advocacy around this at farmer's markets, going door to door, really a major campaign. And the group continues to grow. One of the leaders is the group HIPS, which employs former sex workers, which also supports sex workers today. This is something that we've really worked on to try to build the momentum and the credibility that it's important to our city. All you have to continue to ask yourself though is what we're doing is not working. How can we do it better?
NNAMDIWhen you raised this two years ago some Washingtonians criticized that saying it would make it easier for human traffickers to skirt the law. How do you distinguish legally between people, who make the choice to enter sex work and those who don't?
GROSSOKojo, that's a great question and it really gets to the core of I think the debate. We continue to have issues around coercion and trafficking as illegal in this city. And what this is going to do though is it's going to bring a lot of this work out of the shadows so that the people that engage in commercial sex work can be partners with the police and partners with the government to find minors, who are illegally trafficked or find people that are being coerced or forced to do this against their will. And then report them to get to the authorities to get them help. Right now you might know of somebody that's in the industry, who is a minor who is being trafficked, but you're afraid to go forward because you don't want to engage with the police, because you're doing something illegal yourself.
SHERWOODDo you have any cosponsors?
GROSSOYeah. We have three main co-introducers and one cosponsor. So it's gone up.
SHERWOODYou need seven votes, right?
GROSSOWe need seven. So we're working on it, but I was really pleased that my colleagues joined me this year. And in fact Councilmember Charles Allen whose committee was referred to cosponsored it on the dais. And I think we're making progress. And it's not something we're going to come to easily or lightly and we need to hold hearings and really engage in a community discussion on.
NNAMDIDo you have any concerns about Washington becoming a sex tourism destination if this passes?
GROSSOI do not have any concerns about the District of Columbia being a sex tourism destination any more than it already is. You know, you have people that are here on vacation. You have people that are coming here for business, who are engaging in commercial sex work illegally now. What I'm saying is let's stop criminalizing people.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back, we'll continue this conversation with At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Grosso. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking with Tom Hucker. He's a member of the Montgomery County Council. Joining us in studio now is David Grosso who is a member of the D.C. Council. He is an At-Large member of the Council.
SHERWOODAnd Mr. Grosso, are you going to run for reelection next year?
GROSSOI'm going to spend the summer working on this talking with my family and make a decision in the fall.
SHERWOODWhat's your inclination? Vince Gray, who's running for Ward 7 said that unless something significantly changed he would run again. So can you go that far?
GROSSOWhat do you think this is, The Politics Hour?
SHERWOODThat's right. It is The Politics Hour. We've got lots of questions for you. And you want to promote one event, but you have to answer this question first. You don't know yet.
GROSSOI have plenty of time to make this decision. I haven't made it yet, but I did want to quickly plug politics and arts which is a fifth annual free concert at the John A. Wilson Building on Thursday June 13th at 5:30 p.m. I'm partnering with Washington Performing Arts and this year we have the entire event emceed by "The Ask Rayceen Show" host, Rayceen Pendarvis. So come on down and hear a lot of local arts next Thursday evening at the Wilson Building.
SHERWOODAll right. Good times are over. You introduced a bill to -- and you tried to get it in the budget, but you couldn't, on the mansion tax. The Millionaire Mansion Tax where you would raise property taxes on properties above a million and a half dollars. Currently it's 85 cents per $100 of value. But under your bill a new house that was worth $1.5 million you would raise the tax to a dollar and a quarter per $100 of assessed value and $1.50 per assess value for anything over five million. The city is almost rolling in money. Why are you raising more taxes or want to raise more taxes?
GROSSOThe challenge we have in the District, which I think is a very good challenge is that we have to have a balanced budget every single year. And so in order for us to provide more services, so mental health services in schools, homeless services, we have to raise the money. We have to actually provide a balanced budget. So to do that, I have to find what is called a pay for it every time I introduce legislation. And in this regard, one of the areas in our cities -- I think it would a most equitable approach would be to look at property tax.
GROSSOWe have one of the lowest property taxes at 0.85 percent in the entire region. And it would seem to me like if we could just take some of the money that people have earned, have gained in the value of their house, and put it towards these services I think our city would be better off over the long run. And so this is something that I've introduced. My guess is it won't get a hearing. It's in the committee on Finance and Revenue with Jack Evans and my guess is he won't even hold a hearing on it, but the fact is it's something that we should have as a conversation here.
GROSSOI'd rather do this than increase the sales tax, which has been a proposal. I think it's more equitable to do something that touches the people that have the most income in our city to spread that money out to the people that need the services.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Candice, how would the decriminalization bill look in the light of Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA? Trump's attempt to make it easier to cut down on illegal sex trafficking online. Would D.C.'s law make it legal to traffic for sex online again?
GROSSOWe are not allowed to go against federal law. Both SESTA and FOSTA are acts that were passed in Congress that prohibit the use of the internet to advertise for sex work. So people who are engaging in commercial sex work would have to find other ways to make their services known.
SHERWOODThe Attorney General Karl Racine is suing more parents for violating this city's rule that you have to live in the District to send your kids to public schools. Has the school system gotten a handle on who's even attending our schools? Do they know, who's attending our schools? I mean, this is great work that the attorney general is doing for couples here and there or families here and there. But people would like to know, do we know who's attending our schools? You're the education chairman, I ask you.
GROSSOTom, as the Chair on the Committee on Education I have spent my entire five years as that chair looking at this issue very closely and trying to have better data so that we do know who's in our school buildings. But not because we're trying to get people in trouble, but because we're trying to do more to encourage students to attend school and to participate every day in their education. What the attorney general is doing I think is important. We have to make sure that the seats that are for our residents are reserved for our residents. And if someone would like to come in and take advantage of our high quality education system, then they can do that. But they're going to have to pay just like people would have to pay to go to a Maryland school.
SHERWOODIt's good news that people want to come to our schools.
SHERWOODBut they ought to pay their share if they're not living here.
GROSSOThat's right. And so I appreciate Attorney General Racine engaging in this and I think it makes a good example. And hopefully it would slow people down from trying to cheat the system.
SHERWOODCan I just follow one quick -- the Banneker Shaw decision about where the Banneker High School should go and where the Shaw School should go tore the Council apart. Very narrow vote. Vince Gray only changed his mind as he told us as we reported last week when he had a private meeting with Mayor Bowser out in Las Vegas. Anita Bon switched her vote. It was racially, you were the only white person in the Council who voted for this. Both schools -- and people say -- I said it was unconscionable that you had the city -- had Banneker and Shaw fighting with each other when both schools are badly needed. So what is the status of that?
NNAMDIYou fought to keep Banneker at its current location and you introduced an unsuccessful amendment that pushed back against funding cuts for the school.
GROSSOI actually fought -- the amendment that I offered would put Banneker on Rhode Island Avenue at the old Shaw Junior High site in support of what the mayor was trying to do. And the reason I did that was because I did not want to see a delay in the modernization or construction of a new Banneker High School. They have waited too long. It is the number one academic high school in the District of Columbia. It's 98 percent African American students and 74 percent girl students.
GROSSOThe reality is they deserve a new high school. So I was fighting hard to make no delay and to make sure that that building got built as quickly as possible. Unfortunately there were promises made in the past to the Shaw community that they would have a standalone middle school on that site. Times change and right now the mayor and her team and the education sector are not prepared to even build a standalone middle school yet. And so they were going to use that site for the Banneker project.
GROSSOWhen time is right I support a standalone middle school in the Shaw community and we have made sure that on that site there is room to do both. You know, a couple of my colleagues then moved an amendment that said that they would actually go into the Banneker Junior High site up on Euclid Street.
SHERWOODDid you support that?
GROSSOI supported it.
SHERWOODWell, part of the problem though is people think the mayor is going to move Banneker and give it the school it deserves and then redevelop the Banneker site -- the current Banneker site and give it to developers to develop. And in a couple of years --
GROSSOCrazy rumor, Tom. Let me just say.
SHERWOODIt's not just a rumor.
GROSSONo. It is a crazy rumor. The reason it's a crazy rumor is because that is federally controlled land there that can only be used for recreation or educational use. You can't just turn that over to developers. You'd have to get a whole federal law through that changed the use of that land in the first place. So that's just a crazy rumor.
SHERWOODWell, the developers are thinking about it.
NNAMDIHere's Martha in Washington D.C. Martha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARTHACouncilmember Grosso, I have a question about a video I saw yesterday that was put out by the Center for Education Reform. It's called "End the List" about the 12,000 students on wait lists for quality seats in high performing public charter schools and the fact that the D.C. government is not releasing close to a million square feet of abandoned school buildings to these charter schools. And I wondered where you stand on this? And if there's something that you can do to get Mayor Bowser to release some of those buildings, which are supposed to go to schools as a right of first offer?
GROSSOI appreciate the question and we definitely work on this issue on a regular basis. I have seen the video and I understand the push for more buildings to be released. The mayor indeed announced this week that she is releasing the Ferebee Hope School in Ward 8 for first right of refusal for charters. If they want the building they can redevelop it for that purpose. And, you know, it's important conversation right now. I just had this with the Deputy Mayor for Education and also with Scott Pierson on a hearing we had on the Master Facilities Plan on Wednesday where I asked them what type of charters are you opening? Why are you opening new charters when we have so many empty seats in DCPS schools?
GROSSOThere are charters that are still under enrolled. What is the point here? They talked a lot about the need for high quality seats, which I appreciate. They also talked about an often forgotten aspect of this which is innovation and the innovation that charters bring. And we just I think have to have a public conversation about where we're going and whether or not we still want to have schools like Anacostia High School that are enrolled under 50 percent while we're still opening lots and lots of news schools. Maybe we ought to focus on the issues we have in front of us today and then tackle the need for more seats in the future.
SHERWOODThat's what the Shaw families fear. That the mayor's going to say, We don't need a Shaw school. You guys can just go off somewhere else.
NNAMDIWell, that's the undecided question. There's a study being conducted even as we speak as to whether or not there is in fact a need at this point for a Shaw Middle School. We'll have to see what happens with that. But last week some employees of the Department of Public Works received a memo telling them that if they're medical marijuana users they need to find an alternative treatment within 30 days. Despite marijuana being legal both for medical and recreational use here in D.C. What's going on here? Do you know what's going to happen at the end of those 30 days?
NNAMDIWell, that's the undecided question. There's a study being conducted, even as we speak, as to whether or not there is, in fact, a need at this point for a Shaw Middle School. We'll have to see what happens with that. But last week, some employees of the Department of Public Works received a memo telling them that if they're medical marijuana users, they need to find an alternative treatment within 30 days, despite marijuana being legal both for medical and recreational use here in DC. What's going on here? Do you know what's going to happen at the end of those 30 days?
GROSSOI believe that they're going to lose their jobs, but I don't want to speak out of turn. It's why I wanted to move the emergency...
NNAMDIYou introduced the emergency legislation...
NNAMDI...which would stop District agencies from discriminating against current or perspective employees for using medical cannabis.
GROSSOAnd I feel like we have an obligation. We know of 144 cases over the past year where people have been either not given the job that they were originally offered because of their medical marijuana card, or lost their job or put on suspension because of it. This needs to be -- an issue needs to be treated just like we do with all other prescription drugs. There's a federal law that protects people from discrimination if they are prescribed something by their doctor for their medical reasons. That's no different than our medical marijuana card.
GROSSOSo, in the District of Columbia we need to catch up with the times. We need to move a law that says you can't do this anymore. Now, I understand there are some safety-sensitive positions that need to be watched out for. And, certainly, my colleagues raise that, and that's why I waited on this to try to get it done on the 18th of June. But the fact of the matter is, we're not telling people to go to work intoxicated or stoned. We're saying, look, when they have a medical marijuana card and they need that for their treatment after work and non-work hours, they shouldn't be put in a bad position and lose their job because of that.
NNAMDIWe've only got about a minute.
SHERWOODPaid family leave, big fight over getting paid family leave in the city. It's going to start next year. Taxes start in July, but the tax office -- and there have been reports that getting businesses to start collecting the tax money, it's a problem. It's not rolling out very well. Are you concerned about getting paid family leave taxes in-house, so they can be distributed next year to people who need...
GROSSO(overlapping) Tom, I'm not the least bit concerned. I think that the system that they're putting forward, the program that they're developing is going to be topnotch. The actual calculation of the tax starts in July. The first quarter of collection actually doesn't end until September, so there's time to get it right. We're going to have this thin up and running. We're going to collect the taxes, and we will be providing paid leave to District of Columbia residents by next year. It's a huge-huge...
SHERWOODSummer, like next summer.
GROSSOYeah, next summer. It's a huge accomplishment. It's something we should all be very proud of.
SHERWOODYou could run for reelection on that.
NNAMDIHe's running. David Grosso (laugh) is an at-large member of the DC Council. Thank you so much for joining us.
GROSSOThanks for having me, guys. And again, congratulations on your 20 years.
NNAMDIThank you, sir. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with Tom Hucker, who's a member of the Montgomery County Council. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to the Politics Hour. Quickly, Tom Sherwood, why is the Virginia Transportation Commission asking the Metro Board to release the findings on the investigation of Metro board member and DC councilmember Jack Evans?
SHERWOODWell, the four-member Ethics panel of the Metro board earlier this year looked at all the issues and allegations surrounding Jack Evans and his problems with promoting his private business as a councilmember and as a member of the board and chairman of the board. It did its investigation, and then concluded without taking any action. Normally speaking, like they did with Jim Graham on the Council, the Ethics panel investigates. And then if they find something should be done, they take it to the full board. In this case, they didn't do anything. They just stopped the investigation.
SHERWOODAt the same time, Jack Evans announced that he was not going to run for yet another chairmanship. And he's been chairman for three-and-a-half years. He said the two are not related, that he's going to remain on the board, but he's not going to be chairman anymore. But there's a push for Metro to be -- the board more transparent about what happened with Jack Evans. And I don't think the issue is yet resolved.
NNAMDIJoining us now in studio is Tom Hucker. He's a member of the Montgomery County Council, representing District 5, who was last seen on the dancefloor at the Howard Theater last night during the Kojo 20 Event. Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us, and thanks for showing up last night.
TOM HUCKEROh, well, I wanted to be there to support you. You do so much for the community. I'm really grateful for your 20 years.
NNAMDIOh, that's the end of my being nice to you. (laugh) This week, Maryland's Board of Public Works voted to let the state move ahead with Governor Hogan's highway expansion plan. It's the public-private partnership to add toll lanes on I-270, the American Legion Bridge and the Maryland sections of the Capital Beltway. You're chair of the Transportation and Environment Committee, and you were at that board meeting on Wednesday. What are your thoughts on the vote? Is this now a done deal?
HUCKERIt's definitely not a done deal, and I'm hopeful that it will change before it becomes a done deal. I'm disappointed in the substance of the vote. The county executive and I testified back to back and asked them to delay and to give themselves some time to get it right and work with us collaboratively and adopt several amendments that are in our alternative plan here.
HUCKERThey chose not to delay, but they did sort of charge the Maryland Department of Transportation with working with us more collaboratively in the future. That hasn't been the practice the last 18 months. And Comptroller Franchot added and passed four amendments to make the plan a little bit better.
SHERWOODThis is Governor Hogan's $9 billion plan to add lanes to the Beltway, I-270. And I think he still wants to get control of the Baltimore Washington Parkway. In that vote this week, though, he agreed to -- or some thought it was a compromise -- to do I-270 lanes first. But others have said...
NNAMDIAnd delay the ones on American Legion Bridge and 495 by two years.
SHERWOODIndeed, delay them, yes. American Legion Bridge is a horrific problem. And I was talking to a developer who won support of the governor's original plan, who was telling me -- or business person, not a developer -- who said, what's going to happen now is Montgomery County and Prince Georges County are going to find the Beltway is going to be worse for years to come because of the opposition of local leaders not to embrace the program as Hogan originally introduced it. And doing 270 is going to help the north-south, but not the people going east-west.
HUCKERWell, that's one point of view. (laugh) The change from the governor wasn't what we requested at all. And the governor incorrectly described his own plan. It was never 495 as phase one and 270 as phase two. His plan has 270 up to 370, up near Gaithersburg, as well as the American Legion Bridge and 495 all the way to 95, as phase one. Our concern is not the western portion of 495, where there's a broad right-of-way there. And we certainly agree and we've been asking for years for relief on the American Legion Bridge and the western portion of 495. But the concern is between 270 and 95, on the Beltway, where all the conflicts are, Holy Cross Hospital, Sligo Golf Course, the YMCA and dozens of homes.
SHERWOODWe should be clear, just for people to know, that the Board of Public Works, the governor and the...
NNAMDIGovernor, treasurer, comptroller.
SHERWOODRight. They voted -- all this did, just so people will know, nothing is -- all it did is allow the state to start receiving proposals from private companies that would build and maintain these roadways. And they would not -- it'll be another year or more well before anything is decided on who's going to do it and what's going to be done. So, that's the time period you hope there'll be some reconsideration. Nothing's happening immediately.
HUCKERThat's absolutely true. People need to know that. This was just the first of the votes in the Board of Public Works to allow the P3 law be used to receive solicitations...
SHERWOODPublic private partnership.
HUCKERCorrect, thank you. The board meets every two weeks, really. And so I think there's opportunity -- if the board wants to -- to go back and correct and improve the governor's amendment. They could work with us to add the American Legion Bridge or the west portion of 495, which was in our original request. They could be running reversible lanes, as we asked, all the way up to Frederick. And they could be making the additional improvements that are in our alternative plan that I mapped out and released on Monday.
NNAMDILinda in Rockville emails: the Board of Public Works approved an amendment to the P3 transportation build that would allow the Montgomery County government to interact with the Maryland Department of Transportation on transportation changes to I-495 in Maryland, but did not authorize the county to have any involvement in phase one to changes I-270. Will the county insist on also being involved in this segment of the proposed plan?
HUCKERWell, we are limited -- yes, we want to be as involved as we're allowed to be. The trouble is, the federal law, the NEPA law that governs this doesn't allow the county council or the county executive to be a cooperating agency. So, we don't really have legal rights. We have to act through the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which is the cooperating agency as a landowner that's affected. And so, unfortunately, we don't really have the rights we should. We certainly want to be in the room and at the table, and not on the menu. (laugh) So far, the governor and MDOT have really not adopted any of our feedback.
NNAMDIHere's John, in Silver Spring. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHello, Kojo and Tom. Thank you for taking my call.
JOHNUnlike the purple line P3 that had broad community support, Governor Hogan's lane expansion project P3 is controversial at best, and obviously opposed by local communities and legislators. I'm calling to ask what are the likely reasons the governor's rushing through a project like this over the objections of local communities?
SHERWOODGreat question. What's the politics?
HUCKERThis being the Politics Hour. Well, you have to ask, I think, the governor for the...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) No, no, we can't ask him. He's not here.
HUCKERHe's not here.
SHERWOODWhat do you think the politics are?
HUCKERI don't -- well, I don't think this project is going to succeed without the involvement of local governments. We've been asking for -- we're 100 percent for congestion relief. We have been asking for much of what's in this plan for years, but it was drawn up by consultants and MDOT staff in Hanover, Maryland, and not with local officials' involvement and the expertise of our transportation planners.
SHERWOODAnd mass transit gets a sliver of attention. Some monies may be set aside for transit, bus, but all of that seems to be pushed away. We're headed for more roads and more cars.
HUCKERWell, you're right. It's 100 -- a great fundamental flaw and original sin in their plan is it's 100 percent highway plan. We have a transit-first policy in this area, and yet it doesn't include transit at all. Now, Governor Hogan, if he were here, he'd say, I've invested more in transit than any other governor. And that's great. He deserves some credit for that, and I said that to him. And your caller's absolutely right. But we need to have a balanced plan that uses roads to get people to transit, and also invests in transit.
HUCKERIn Virginia, by contrast, 10 percent of the toll revenue is dedicated to transit projects, so we could be expanding transit in Virginia. We should be doing twice as much as Virginia's doing. Instead, we're doing nothing.
SHERWOODSo, are you saying he's stuck in the past?
HUCKERAs drawn, the plan is really a 20th century -- a mid-20th century approach to a 21st century problem. We want to include transit. We want to include transportation demand management to encourage people to use telecommuting, employers to incentivize telecommuting, bus rapid transit, car share and other things like that are part of it.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) The Washington Post has this new poll out, though, that says, you know, 85 percent of the people use private cars, and 62 percent of the people in this region use them daily for commuting purposes. And that's this huge wave that you're -- psychology that you're fighting against. Cars are still king, I think is the way they said it.
HUCKERI'm glad you called it a psychology. Polls repeatedly show more and more people would like to use transit, but they don't have good transit options. And now that Metro's improving and we're investing in bus rapid transit, we are going to have -- we need to continue, as a region, to do deeper investments in transit and to transportation demand management to help drivers not go all the way to their employer, but use transit to get there, even if they don't live right...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot voted in favor of the plan after adding four amendments, one of which sets up a study on the feasibility of building a monorail to connect Frederick and Shady Grove. What do you think? Could a monorail help alleviate traffic in VA?
SHERWOOD(overlapping) There's no room for a gondola. (laugh)
HUCKERYeah. I think that's a great idea, and needs to be studied. They're also studying expanding MARC and running it -- we propose running it all the way down to National Landing, across the river, to connect Maryland workers with Amazon HQ2.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) That's Crystal City, if anyone wants to know what National Landing is.
HUCKERIn Crystal City. Sorry. I'm trying to use the new terminology. And also expanding the Red Line. We have multiple good transit options. We should be studying and using them all.
SHERWOODWhat about making Metro affordable? Jack Evans, the chairman of the board, currently, he has said that the region and states and Maryland and DC ought to just step to the plate, put money into Metro and cut the fairs to 3 to $5, so people will use it because it's financially a smart move for them to use it. And that would get people out of cars.
HUCKERI agree. I think the states, under the new agreement, are going to be putting more into Metro. We have, as a council, pushed against fare increases in the past, and we're going to continue to do that. And we want the state to step up and meet its responsibility, and especially the federal government, and fund Metro. We're the only, you know, metro system historically that...
SHERWOODThe federal government's the missing piece in this big puzzle.
HUCKERCorrect. That's right.
NNAMDIThis vote moved ahead before an environmental impact study or traffic study can be completed, which is why Maryland Treasure Nancy Kopp voted against it. We got an email from Josh Tulkin, who is state director for the Maryland Sierra Club, who says: our region is in violation of the Clean Air Act's ozone standard. And the author of the study that MDOT cited says that highway expansion won't improve air quality. Is it possible this whole highway will turn out to be illegal under the Clean Air Act?
HUCKERIt's possible. I'll leave the legal analysis to others, but Mr. Tulkin's worked very hard to engage the public on this. And this is why there's such deep and broad concerns about this. I think last time I was here, you mentioned I had a town hall on a week's notice, and 700 people showed up. We’ve also had, you know, the unanimous concern of -- the Montgomery County and Prince Georges County Council were very concerned about this, and have been very outspoken. And I'm hopeful that after the board meeting, we're going to be, now, at the table in a more collaborative posture, but we shall see.
NNAMDIWe have Montgomery County callers on other issues, too. Here is Anthony in Silver Spring, Maryland. Anthony, your turn.
ANTHONYHi, councilmember. I attended the police forum last night, and I heard a lot about police profiling and a number of other issues. And I also heard that the Council's going to consider legislation on civilian review boards. Could you tell me more about that? What is your position on that issue?
HUCKERSure. Thank you. We're at a time of great transition in our police department. Our longtime chief, who overall did a great job, Tom Manger, stepped own. We've had a lot of assistant chiefs leave recently, and we've had some incidents that have ended up in the news. It's a very, very difficult job, and we're going to be choosing a new police chief soon, the county executive will, and confirmed by the council.
HUCKERI was at the community policing forum, as well, last night. I heard a lot of very troubling stories. I am grateful to all the folks who bravely came forward and shared their stories in a public setting like that. It's not easy to do that. We need some change in our police department. It's going to really start with the chief, but it's going to be a change in culture. You know, it was interesting. They passed out a survey, Kojo, and it said: what are the characteristics you want to see the most in the next police chief?
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Survey at this meeting?
HUCKERAt the meeting, yeah. And the top three that came in, of course, understandably, were an appreciation of diversity and integrity and honesty. And, you know, certainly, that's what we want in a police chief. That's what we want in every single department head, and we should get rid of any that don't have those things. We also need, you know, a good manager who has experience running a large police department, doing the right thing, because...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) This is a criticism of Chief Manger, who has served for so long, and was pretty well widely respected?
HUCKERI'm not critical of chief Manger. He's very widely respected. I worked closely with him. He did a good job. It's a very, very difficult job. We have a very large and rapidly changing county. It's incredibly diverse. We have three of the top ten most diverse cities in the country. And, like any large institution, they change slowly. You know, we have great teachers, but they are much less diverse than our school population, because we pay them well, and they stay in place a long time. So, large institutions like the police and the teachers tend to be whiter and have stayed in their jobs for a long period of time. We need to change the culture of the police in many ways.
SHERWOODI just got a Tweet about the flat fare for Metro, and someone pointed out to me that if you have a flat fare, then poor people pay a larger portion of their income than well-to-do people do in Metro, if you have such a flat fare. Something to be considered.
NNAMDIHere now is Sarah in Rockville, Maryland. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SARAHOh, thank you. Councilmember Hucker, I just wanted to thank you for your recent initiative to get lead out of the water fountains in the kids' schools around the county.
SARAHI'm excited about that. What's next, though? Are you going to try to, you know, do the same thing in other county buildings, like the rec centers, libraries?
NNAMDIGetting lead out of the water, for those of you who may not have heard properly.
HUCKERRight. I recently passed legislation unanimously that establishes a much lower and more health-protective standard for lead in school drinking water fountains. We had been going by an outdated state standard of 20 parts per billion. I lowered it to 5, which is the same standard they have for -- the FDA has for bottled water. The good news is the school system is going along with this. They already took 200 fountains out of service that came in above the old state standard, and they're taking another 250 or so out of service.
HUCKERIt's incredible. We've been serving our kids water with too much lead in it for a very, very long time. Lead is a horrible, persistent environmental toxin that destroys their brains, as you know. And, yes, Sarah, the legislation -- I've asked the Parks Department, the Recreation Department and our libraries to all give me a cost analysis of replacing their fountains, as well, and to conduct the testing. And they're all in the process of either replacing their fountains or conducting their testing. But I expect it to be done by the end of the year.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Sarah.
SHERWOODIn that Post poll, Stephen Fuller of George Mason University -- noted expert on regional issues -- says the region keeps growing farther and farther out, while there's a cause for more density around Tysons and other places in Bethesda. The region continues to well past Loudoun County. Remember when Loudoun County was trying to preserve the western half of Loudoun County? Good luck with that. And you guys have land you want to preserve, but it's growing so much, that all of these discussions about more roads and more lanes, transit, we're just not going to be able to keep up. And we're headed towards this kind of land-lock area of Los Angeles.
HUCKERRight. I think, obviously, we need transportation policies and housing policies that reflect our land use priorities. More and more people want to live in, you know, denser, urban communities. And they want them to be vibrant, and they want to be able to get by without using a car, or using...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) But they're also moving to Prince William and farther. I mean...
HUCKER(overlapping) Well, why are they doing that? Because housing costs are too high. There's a recent study that came back. Only forty-five percent of Montgomery County employees live in Montgomery County, only 45 percent. And there's all kinds of -- you know, some, of course, you know, might have a spouse with a job in Baltimore, and they want to live in Columbia. Some live where they grew up, in their parents' house, for legitimate reasons. But many people want to live in Montgomery County and cannot, because our housing prices are just too high. And we haven't been building housing at the rate we need to keep up with the population.
HUCKERSo, if we're doing that and using creative strategies to get more housing near our urban centers, we wouldn't need as much sprawl development -- as much transportation...
SHERWOODAre you optimistic these problems will be solved?
HUCKERWell, that's an ongoing -- that's what we do every day.
NNAMDIRockville is considering whether or not to join Washington, DC in banning single-use plastic straws, with some exceptions. The rule would require restaurants and carry-outs to only offer compostable or recyclable straws, unless a customer requests a plastic one. What do you think of that idea?
HUCKERI'm glad they're doing that. There's been a lot of recent press. We all know how much -- we have way too much solid waste. We produce way too much solid waste, and we don't recycle enough. And there's been recent press about these islands of plastic floating around the Pacific. Of course, we should get rid of plastic straws. This is already the law. In Montgomery County -- not in the municipalities like Rockville -- it is poorly enforced. And I need to work with our new DEP director, Department of Environmental Protection, to do better enforcement of our law.
SHERWOODAnd there has to be exceptions for people with disabilities, because I learned very early that people with disabilities, if you have a metal straw or a glass straw and they have physical disabilities, it can break or it can damage their teeth. So, there has to be some recognition of not just casual use for people.
HUCKERThat's right. Absolutely. And many, you know, big restaurants have moved in this direction. I was at Kava and -- what's the other pizza chain recently -- and, you know, they only have paper straws available. And when you travel -- we think we're very environmental around here, but when you go to Annapolis, you go to Florida, many coastal communities, all the restaurants are already using paper straws. There's no reason we shouldn't be.
NNAMDIDavid emails: Elrich is pulling the Animal Services Division away from the police department, why? Elrich and Andrew Cline claim the mission of this division is incompatible with the mission of Montgomery County police, but have refused to explain. ASD is a law enforcement agency and belongs in the MCP. Why should we pay for an unnecessary restructuring?
HUCKERI would have to ask the county executive. I haven't heard about that proposal yet.
NNAMDIYes, the animal service (all talking at once)...
SHERWOODCathy Lanier once told me in an interview I did with her, the former police chief of the District of Columbia, that she'd only fired her gun once in her long career as a police officer, and she shot a dog, a vicious dog.
NNAMDIWell, obviously, it wasn't a police dog in the situation. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Tom Hucker is a member of the Montgomery County Council. He represents District 5. Had a very busy night last night, (laugh) obviously. Thank you so much for joining us.
HUCKERThanks so much for having me.
NNAMDIToday's Politics Hour was produced by Mark Gunnery. On Monday, we'll chat with the director of the National Museum of Natural History, as the museum's long anticipated new fossil hall opens to the public. We'll explore what it takes to put together an exhibit that covers four-and-a-half billion years of history. That's all for today, except for we quiz Tom Sherwood about his weekend plans.
SHERWOODIt's Pride weekend, and we wish happy Pride to everyone.
NNAMDIYou plan on going to any of the events this weekend?
SHERWOODI'm going to go to the parade, and to the event on Sunday on Pennsylvania Avenue.
NNAMDITom Sherwood. He's the resident analyst -- our resident analyst. He's a contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Thank you all for listening, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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