Elections are coming... but is gun control?
Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson discusses his hopes for the upcoming elections. What issues are Republicans focusing on? How will Virginia’s changing demographics and redrawn districts affect their party’s chances? And will the party affiliation with Donald Trump will help or hurt their odds?
Then, Montgomery County’s Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) joins the show to talk about vaping regulations, a new police chief appointment and a bill that would prevent workplace discrimination based on natural hairstyles. Plus, the county’s Charter Review Commission is studying whether or not it should expand the County Council to have more district council members and eliminate two at-large seats.
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 Cydney Grannan
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 writing for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with Gabe Albornoz. He's an At-Large member of the Montgomery County Council. We'll be talking very shortly with the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, Jack Wilson. Tom, before we start talking with the chairman of the Virginia Republican Party let's talk a little bit about what's going on in D.C. where the auditor Kathy Patterson has said that the D.C. ethics agency, the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability did not investigate a complaint made by a whistleblower in 2018 alleging that city officials steered improperly millions of dollars to an affordable housing developer with political connections. That story by Fenit Nirappil in The Washington Post.
SHERWOODYes. This is a whistleblower case in part in that Kathy Patterson, the D.C. auditor, says that the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which is the ethics office for the government did not take seriously a complaint by a whistleblower. That the Mayor Bowser's administration had a list of people who had applied to do affordable housing and a developer low in the list who did not rank high was inexplicably moved to the top of the list and got business. Patterson, however, goes on to say that BEGA itself, which is supposed to be monitoring and governing ethics violations is not doing its job.
SHERWOODThe BEGA office was created several years ago by then councilmember Muriel Bowser as part of an effort to overhaul laxed ethics laws in the city. And she helped create it, and it's functioned fairly well over the past few years. But there's been a discussion about its open meetings. An office where Tracy Hughes was summarily dismissed and not reappointed, because she was apparently too aggressive. At least that's what people think. So it seems to me that maybe it's time for the Council to take another look at BEGA, this ethics office, and see if it's doing its job.
NNAMDIAnd everybody knows how you feel about transparency. But the D.C. charter schools seem to be making the argument that they cannot allow more transparency, because according to the head of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools they just don't have enough money to be able to do it, because they don't get quite as much money as they D.C. public schools do. And therefore they can't afford to be spending money pursuing or going along with FOIA requests made by people like you.
SHERWOODThere was a public hearing this week about the charter schools and moved by the Council to make the charter schools subject to the city's simple, I think, Freedom of Information Act. The charter schools -- I can't remember how many they are, but they have about 40,000 students. Half the student population in the District of Columbia goes to charter schools. They were setup in part so they could be free to the bureaucracy of D.C. public school system so they could hire teachers, administrators, create programs. And then educate kids and have less to do with bureaucracies.
SHERWOODHowever, teachers, parents of the kids cannot figure out what's going on in some of these schools. Many have gone out of business. The Charter School Board has put many out of business when you find they've done bad fundraising. They misspent the money. And the charter schools are funded essentially by D.C. taxpayers. And so the argument is yes, you're separate from all the bureaucracy of the public school system. But you ought to be at least able to tell your parents and the city how much money you've gotten, where it went, how much you're paying your administrators, how much you're paying the teachers, how the money is being spent.
SHERWOODThat's the argument. The charter schools are arguing, well, we need to be independent from all of these rules. And David Grosso and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson who head the hearing this week are basically saying, yes, you're independent, but you've got to be accountable. And so that's where this argument lies. And so they probably will be brought under the FOI Act. The question is how far.
NNAMDIWe'll have to see how that turns out. Joining us now from the studios of VPM in Richmond, Virginia is Jack Wilson, Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. Chairman Wilson, thank you for joining us.
JACK WILSONGood afternoon. Good to be with you.
NNAMDIThe stakes are high in this election. Your party controls the House of Delegates and the State Senate by a slim margin. How confident are you that Republicans can maintain control of the General Assembly? And what will it take in this last month to do it in a state that seems to be turning increasingly blue?
WILSONWell, I'm very optimistic that we are not only going to hold both bodies in the General Assembly, but I'm looking to actually increase our majorities in the House of Delegates.
WILSONWell, I think it's been shown out in district by district across the commonwealth. Our candidates are being somewhat outspent by a lot of out of state money coming in. But as we normally do as Republicans, our candidates and our volunteers work much harder. And it's reflecting in some of the polling data we're seeing. I'm very pleased where we are about a month out from Election Day.
SHERWOODIs there any particular race now of a seat in the House or the Senate held by a Democrats that you think you have a good chance of flipping back to Republicans? Any particular one you want to highlight?
WILSONWell, we've got a number your way. Obviously we're keeping a close eye or optimistic that Tim Hugo will continue to hold his seat, but some of those that we lost in 2017 up in northern Virginia and in the urban crescent down towards Virginia Beach I think we're being very competitive in. We've got folks such as Randy Minchew coming back. Ian Lovejoy is running well in the 50th. And DJ Jordan in the 31st, which is more Prince William. But we've got a number of strong candidates up that way that are running really strong. Rocky Holcomb in the Virginia Beach area is running well. So I'm optimistic that we're going to pick up some of those seats. Obviously we're having to hold some of them that we're dealing with, because of the redistricting. But we're playing offense in a number of districts.
SHERWOODMr. Chairman, this is Tom Sherwood. I was reading about you in Bearing Drift is one of the online sites that deals with conservative Republican Party politics and conservatism in general. And it had nice things to say about you. It says that you are the first chairman of the party, who was willing to stand up and do what's right. "Jack Wilson is not afraid of the extremists." And in this Bearing Drift article it was talking about the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. You say there's a much broader Republican Party at work in Virginia.
SHERWOODBut one of the issues that you cannot control is President Trump. President Trump has never been that popular in Virginia. As you know, back in 2016 Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were favorite to be the Republican nominee not him. Now we've got this new controversy with Ukraine. I won't get into all the details of that. But the Democrats keep saying that their fight over the guns issue, the aborted special General Assembly session. Their support for healthcare issues and Trump's rough personality and his declining polling in Virginia is going to help the Democrats score big victories in November.
NNAMDIIndeed last week on this broadcast political scientist Rachel Bitecofer said that -- quoting here, "Trump has been the worst thing that could have ever happened to the State Republican Party in Virginia."
WILSONWell, since 2016 The President has done an excellent job of coalescing the Republican Party in Virginia. And we are a united party in support of the President. But what the Democrats, I think are overlooking this year compared to the midterms that they had last year and then in 2017 was those were more nationalized elections. In 2017 we had a statewide gubernatorial race. We also had last year a United States Senate race. This year these are local races. The State Senate and the House of Delegates are neighborhood races. They're not national races. And so our candidates are going out door to door meeting with their constituents listening to what their concerns are, and that's what we're focusing on.
WILSONAnd I think the Republicans are hearing back from constituents that they are very fearful of what will happen if the Democrats take control of the General Assembly given that they already have the Governor's mansion. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe was quoted earlier this week in an event saying, "You know, we're going to win both houses. And when we do we're going to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. You know, enact gun control laws." What he didn't say, we're also going to enact legislation to allow abortions up to the minutes before birth. He said, "We're going to create a new Virginia." What he meant to say was, we're going to create a Virginia that's more like New York. And I think the Republican elected officials and our candidates out there are getting that feedback. And there is a palpable fear of what Virginia will look like if the Democrats take control.
NNAMDIThat's the voice of Jack Wilson. He is the Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. He joins us from the studios of VPM in Richmond. Mr. Chairman, should Republican candidates in your view be trying to distance themselves from the President?
WILSONNo, again, these candidates are running local races on Virginia issues. Clearly there are issues at a national level that our voters are concerned about. But this election is about the local issues in Virginia. And The President obviously is important to the Republican Party. He's important to the Republican Party of Virginia. But the national issues really don't matter as much in these local races where folks are more worried about transportation issues, education issues, tax issues. Again, it's interesting. This week Virginians started getting some tax refunds from the commonwealth all because of what the Republicans did this last session in the General Assembly. And so those are the issues that matter to our voters this November.
WILSONObviously we'll have The President on the ballot again next year in 2020. And we're looking forward to a spirited campaign then. But 2019 is about control of the General Assembly and making sure that Virginia doesn't become the next California or New York.
SHERWOODWould you like for President Trump to come in and help weigh in on some local races like he has done in other states?
WILSONWell, there are some. And, you know, fortunately a lot of the strength that he's got in southwest Virginia in some of our rural areas, we've got solid conserve Republicans running in those races. And so, frankly, I think the President's got more important things to focus on in Washington right now than some of these local races. But we'd welcome him in for sure.
SHERWOODLet me ask you about one of the races I think is very interesting. And that's our good friend Joe Morrissey. He's down around the Petersburg area. I think he might be part of Chesterfield County. I'm not sure. Joe Morrissey was a state delegate. He ran into trouble, because he was dating an underage person who he subsequently married and had children with. He was disbarred. There was all kinds of issues about him. This year he ran again for a State Senate seat. He defeated Senator Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg. And he's considered a wild card. Governor McAuliffe, who you mentioned a moment ago, and Dick Saslaw, the Democratic leader in the Senate, were both down there this week for a big barbeque with him.
SHERWOODHe's going to be running against an Independent. There's not a Republican on the ballot. But if he wins this Senate is divided only by two seats. People are saying that this guy -- if he wins the Senate seat -- will be a powerbroker because he might tilt with the Republicans. He might tilt with the Democrats. And even at that same party was -- I'm trying to find his name here, A state radio host who was the chair.
WILSONOh, John Fredericks.
SHERWOODJohn Fredericks, who was the chairman of President Trump's 2016 campaign in Virginia. But now he's supporting Morrissey. What do you know about Joe Morrissey? He could be the linchpin in the Senate after November.
WILSONWell, again, if we get to that point and it's a 2020 Senate I'm pretty confident unfortunately that, you know, Morrissey would side with the Democrats in organizing the Senate etcetera coupled with The Lieutenant Governor. But you're right. I think, you know, the Democrat Party in Virginia has not been all that kind to Joe Morrissey, and so I don't know that Joe Morrissey necessarily feels that he needs to be kind to them. So I think from my understanding of Joe is he'll take issues issue by issue. And he's not going to toe the party line just, because Former Governor McAuliffe and Dick Saslaw came to a barbeque for him.
SHERWOODAnd where do you see the assessment of Governor Northam apparently surviving the blackface incident early this year? Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax has now sued CBS for $400 million saying that they misrepresented the interviews they did with two women, who have accused him of sexual misconduct. That doesn't seem to be playing in these local races.
WILSONWell, it is in an indirect fashion. Clearly the Governor is not out. I have not seen any photographs with any of these local Democrats arm in arm with Governor Northam or the lieutenant governor or the attorney general for that matter. They've been able to pick up some of their fundraising through, you know, the national focus and the Democrats trying to take over the General Assembly. But normally if you have a governor, a lieutenant governor and an attorney general in races that you're to slip the entire General Assembly to the other side they'd be front and center in those races. But they're hidden. And they have to be because Virginians still recognize that the governor's blackface or KKK robe experience is racist and detrimental to the Democrat Party.
SHERWOODLet me ask you one more about a local race here in northern Virginia and that's in Loudoun County. John Whitbeck, your predecessor as the party chairman is running to -- for the county executive seat there, the chairman seat there against the incumbent Phillis Randall. Do you have any horse race handicapping on that race?
WILSONI am keeping an eye on that one obviously. I'm a good friend with John. And from what I can tell he is extremely poised for victory in November. I think he is out working her, outraising her and he's right on the issue. So I'm confident that John is going to win that seat. And I think that will be good Loudoun County. It will be good for the Republican Party and it will be good for the commonwealth.
NNAMDIAnother local race, State Senator Amanda Chase, who represents Virginia's 11th State Senate District has made headlines recently for getting kicked out of the Chesterfield County GOP. The reason the local GOP gave her her removal was that she's supporting an independent candidate for Chesterfield County Sheriff. She seems to have an ongoing feud with the current Republican sheriff Karl Leonard, who is running for reelection. She is also vocally pro Trump. But do you support her even though her local GOP does not?
WILSONYes. And the party still supports obviously. She's the Republican nominee for that seat and we will support her. We actually did a mailing for her about a week ago. Obviously my preference would be that whatever spat there is between Senator Chase and the sheriff could get resolved and that she could join the ticket in support our nominees from the top to the bottom. That's still my hope. But as the senator we're supporting her and working for her reelection as well.
NNAMDIHere is Karen in Maryland. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENOkay. Hi, there. My question if there's a response to this is in Virginia is there a definition to either a Republican or a Republican candidate other than a box check on a voter registration application? Is there anything more to being a Republican than that a box check on the voter registration application? It's not a criticism. It's a question.
NNAMDIWell, would you ask the same question of a Democrat in Virginia?
KARENI absolutely would.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, here is the chairman.
KARENWell, frankly, in Virginia we don't have registration.
SHERWOODYou don't register by party.
WILSONSo you registered and you don't register by a party affiliation. So in order to be a Republican many times you're a member of a local Republican committee, which is organized under the Republican Party of Virginia. If you want to be a nominee you run in our Republican run nominating processes. And that's how you become a Republican.
SHERWOODOn the ballot if you've got -- is the candidate identified as a Republican nominee or the Democratic nominee or the Independent?
WILSONYes. They are. If you've gotten the party nomination through whatever party nomination process, a convention or a primary, if you're the Republican nominee you'll have an R by your name.
SHERWOODKojo mentioned Rachel Bitecofer's remarks about the influence of Trump on your campaign. She also said it's a matter of whether the Independents who don't identify with the parties turning out, the registration deadline is October 15th in the state. There is no early voting. To what extent is the Virginia Republican Party doing get out the vote efforts statewide, because you don't have as much money as you'd like to have?
WILSONWell, we won't be doing as much statewide. We'll be doing our GOTV efforts in the very targeted districts that we're focusing on where we thing that effort will make the difference between now and Election Day. And again, on the House side that's probably anywhere between 15 and 17 House of Delegate races that we think are in play. And of those only about five are districts that we currently hold. So we're being on the offense in at least 10 to 12 Democrat held districts. Obviously the Senate side is a little bit more competitive. What everybody agreed probably are the four competitive races are held by Republicans. We need to win all four of those, but I'm optimistic where we are at this point in the race.
SHERWOODWhere are you going to be election night? I know you're going to call in to Kojo. But where are you going to be?
WILSONI have -- that's a month away. I'm not sure where I'm going to be at this point.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Brian who said, Jack Wilson, the Chairman of the Virginia Republican Party is now joining other Republicans, who are blatantly telling untruth. He just claimed Terry McAuliffe wants to quoting here, "Up to the last minute abortions, it's unfortunate that nobody called him out on that blatant untruth." What would you say in response to that?
WILSONWell, again, all I'm referring back to is Delegate Tran's bill from this last session of the General Assembly where she was seen on video in a committee hearing basically agreeing that the bill she had proposed, which had been co-patroned by many Democrats in a similar bill on the Senate side allowed for abortions up to the minute of birth. That bill, if the Democrats take control of the General Assembly will become law in Virginia. The governor no doubt will sign it. I mean, he went further than that earlier this year. So that bill will become law if the Democrats control the General Assembly. And it's consistent with the laws that have been passed in New York and elsewhere. And that's what the Democrats are pushing for.
SHERWOODWhat is the Republican Party position on abortion?
WILSONWell, the Republican Party is a right to life party.
SHERWOODAnd that means what? Does that mean no abortions?
WILSONLife begins -- I mean, really I think where the Republican Party is this is an issue that has already been decided by the Supreme Court. Till that changes there's really not a whole lot to discuss about it other than trying to limit further expansion of abortion rights that kill babies.
NNAMDIWe talked about the blackface scandals involving Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring and the assault allegations against Justin Fairfax, Virginia's Lieutenant Governor. Do you think those scandals are in fact giving Republicans an advantage in this campaign?
WILSONWell, again, had those scandals not occurred you would have had three statewide elected officials on behalf of the Democrats being able to go out do rallies, joint fundraising events, campaign events with their candidates. They can't do that. And, frankly, I would love to have an incumbent Republican governor right now able to go out and campaign for our House of Delegate and State Senate candidates.
NNAMDIGot to talk about the gun issue. There's been a major fundraising around gun rights and gun control in Virginia for this election. The National Rifle Association donated over $200,000 to House of Delegate majority leader, Tom Gilbert. But the NRA is being outspent by Everytown for Gun Safety, the New York based gun control group that has donated $2.5 million to campaigns in Virginia. How do you think the gun issue will play out in this election? Will these donations force gun control to the center of conversation for Republicans?
WILSONWell, it really -- I mean, the Democrats try to politicize that tragic event in Virginia Beach. And then The Governor doubled down on that by calling the special session of the General Assembly this summer. And the Republican leadership showed what conservative rational leadership looks like and suggested that the Crime Commission of Virginia study all the various pieced of legislation that were proposed and see what made sense that could have prevented the tragedy in Virginia Beach and elsewhere. We're used to being outspent. I mean, the gun control group spent money in 2017. They spent money in 2015.
WILSONVirginians respect their Second Amendment Rights. And we're going to continue to support the Second Amendment. Our candidates are supporting the Second Amendment. And we'll see what the Crime Commission comes up with in November.
SHERWOODWhen you took the job -- again, you've been fairly blunt about your chances as a party in the state and you're optimistic as you said. You said at the time that, "None of us is under illusion that the next months or years will be easy in Virginia for Republicans. The Democratic trend in Virginia was built over many years due to a variety of factors. And the political landscape will not change overnight." So what will be your minimum expectation on Election Day? What will be a success? If you hold both chambers, if you just -- what will be the measure of success that we will hold you to as you go forward after November? What are you looking to see?
WILSONWell, frankly the minimum is we need to control and hold one of the bodies at the General Assembly so that we can stop the bad stuff the Democrats want to do from happening. So controlling at least one of the bodies of the House of Delegates or the State Senate will be a victory. The Democrats have been crowing how they're going to take both of them and take Virginia blue since they, you know, won in 2017. So stopping that trend and holding at least one body at the General Assembly would be success. Again, I'm optimistic we're going to hold both and in fact increase majorities in the House of Delegates. That would be a success as well.
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left, but there's also the fact that demographics are changing across Virginia with some areas getting bluer, because of it. The last remaining Republican representing Fairfax County in the General Assembly is Tim Hugo who represents district 40, but here we have a hopeful. Here's Joe Galdo in Fairfax, Virginia. Joe Galdo, what are you running for?
JOE GALDOI am a Republican nominee for chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Fairfax County. And I just want to echo what Jack Wilson said. These are local elections and not only are the state elections very important. But here in Fairfax County we have a clear choice between Republican candidates for the Board of Supervisors and Republican endorsed candidates for the School Board. But as I talk to voters and to --
NNAMDIIn an increasing blue county.
GALDO-- echo what Jack said, as well, that they do not want to see Fairfax County turned into a New York City. We have a lot of issues, and when I debated my Democratic opponent, Jeff McKay, he said, we don't want to talk about the problems. Fairfax County is the most affluent county in the country. Well, yes, it is. And those who are affluent don't have a problem. But we have an affordability problem in Fairfax County. We have 50,000 jobs --
NNAMDIYou're beginning to sound like a Democrat.
SHERWOODI don't think Mr. McKay has said that he doesn't want to talk about the problems.
GALDOWell, Republicans --
SHERWOODBut let's be clear, he's not here, and I don't want to create a debate for him. I don't believe he said he doesn't want to talk about the problems. He has a different perspective on some of the problems, but go ahead.
GALDOAnyway, Republicans get a bad rap. We do care about people. We care about workers. We care about diversity.
NNAMDICare about affordability.
GALDOWe care about affordability.
NNAMDICan't run all of your campaign issues, at this point, because we're running out of time. We only have about 30 seconds left.
SHERWOODLet me, very quickly, how many Republicans are on the Fairfax County Board?
SHERWOODThe ones who are running are -- how many candidates are there?
GALDOWe're running -- there are nine. I think we have eight candidates. We have candidates in all but one magisterial district.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're out of time, but Joe Galdo, good luck to you. And, Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, also good luck to you, and thank you for joining us.
WILSONGlad to be with you.
SHERWOODLook forward to talking to you on election night.
NNAMDISure do. Going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with Gabe Albornoz. He's an At-Large member of the Montgomery County council. You can start your calls for him now, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us in studio now is Gabe Albornoz. He's an At-Large member of the Montgomery County Council. Thank you so much for joining us.
GABE ALBORNOZHonor to be back, Kojo.
NNAMDIThis will be of interest to our guest, Tom Sherwood. The Maryland law curbing nicotine sales to youth takes effect. That was in a piece in the Washington Post by Erin Cox on September 29th. It increases the buying age for tobacco from 18 to 21 for everyone except active-duty members of the military -- something I could never understand, but that's another story. And Derek Davis of Prince George's County plans to introduce legislation in January to completely ban vaping products, which public health officials contend make E cigarettes more appealing to young people.
SHERWOODWell, this is a national controversy. This is a national crisis. This is a national health issue. The CDC, the Center for --
NNAMDICenters for Disease Control.
SHERWOOD-- Disease Control, right, and the Food and Drug Administration just, in the last couple of days, have put out a new report about the number of people who have died, the people who are getting sick, urging people to think again before they use a vaping product. And so, all the states -- this may become a federal issue, since it will be banned, because too many people are dying, too many people are getting sick. And too many people are mixing vaping tobacco or nicotine-type products with marijuana and other substances. It's a true health crisis confronting the country.
NNAMDIGabe Albornoz, on top of a county bill that restricts vape products from being sold within a half mile of schools, you've recently taken aim at flavored electronic cigarettes, not allowing those products to be sold within a mile of schools. How effective will these regulations be, and why not an outright ban on flavored E cigarette products instead of putting restrictions on them?
ALBORNOZWell, we believe that we need to forge a strong partnership in alliance with our federal partners. And you're absolutely right, Tom. This is an epidemic and national issue. The Health and Human Services Committee, which I chair, held a joint work session this summer, and we found that approximately one in four high school students are currently vaping. This is increased by a rate of 900 percent over the last five years. And as many as one in 20 middle school students are vaping.
ALBORNOZAnd it's these flavored components, or those products that we know are attracting a number of youth. There are as many as 7,000 flavors available, which include things like cotton candy, mango, Piña Colada. And I think that that is a huge issue. And so, the flavor ban, within certain areas where we know youth congregate, is going to have a positive impact and deter the next generation of youth from accessing these products.
SHERWOODDo you not think it would be better just simply to ban vaping products?
ALBORNOZWe don't believe we have the jurisdiction to outright ban the products. And so we are using a zone text amendment that is similar to the one --
SHERWOODI'm sorry, a what?
ALBORNOZIt's a zone text amendment.
SHERWOODOh, don't explain that.
ALBORNOZIt'd be a good name for a band.
SHERWOODYou know, I think we should point out, also, that the Maryland secretary of health, Robert Neall, has issued an order statewide that any healthcare professional needs to report, within one day, the treatment of anyone for any kind of vaping-lung issue --
SHERWOOD-- so that they can get a better handle on what this is. This is unlike OxyContin, which we allowed people to die and become addicted without really cracking down on it. But now, we're trying to catch up there. It seems like health officials and elected officials are trying to get ahead of the vaping crisis.
ALBORNOZThat's exactly right. And when you think about it, if we could go back several generations, knowing what we know now about nicotine use and the generations that ended up addicted on these products, what would we have done differently? How can we take the lessons learned? And we're trying to do that now through legislation at the local level. And we're hoping, at the national level, they catch up, too, because we can control the sale within retail shops and stores within the county. But what we can't control is E commerce and the sale of these products online.
NNAMDICounty Executive Marc Elrich appointed Marcus Jones as the Montgomery County Police chief. He's the current interim chief, and this after Mark Elrich said that he was not going to appoint Jones. It's been indicated that Marcus Jones will be approved by the Council. What's your take on the police chief?
ALBORNOZSo, I have known Marcus for 10 years. I used to be the co-chair of former County Executive Leggett's Positive Youth Development Initiative. And then Commander Jones served on the same committee. And so I've seen firsthand his dedication to the community, the decades of service that have built up a very strong reputation, both within the police department, but also among policymakers and the community. And so I think Marcus is going to do an excellent job and will be able to carry our police department forward and build off of what is already a very strong foundation.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to critics like the Silver Spring Justice Coalition that expressed disappointment, saying that his leadership is not going to be transformative? It'll be more of the same.
ALBORNOZWell, I respectfully disagree. I have seen Marcus work on issues related to community policing, specifically around youth. And I know that he is very open to change. He's very open to identifying, you know, best practices from other jurisdictions. And I think to become a true change agent, you also have to have the trust of the rank-and-file and of the police department as a whole, and the community, in many ways, as a whole. And I think Marcus already has a lot of that. And so this really puts him in an even better position, in my opinion, to institute change.
SHERWOODThe county executive had said that he was looking outside of the county for the 1,300-member force, because he wanted someone to deal with some of the issues in the changing demographics of the county, so that the police department would be better trained for de-escalation, various cultural differences among people and just people on the street, de-escalation. And to make sure police officers understand what profiling is, in that you can use some discriminatory thought to decide to stop someone who you might not stop otherwise.
SHERWOODThe concern from Mr. Elrich was that someone from within the department would not be aggressive enough. And so you're saying that you think the new chief will be.
ALBORNOZI think he will be, and I think that, you know, we as elected officials need to hold all of our department heads and departments accountable. And so this is something that we will be looking at closely. I happen to serve on the Public Safety Committee, as well. And so we will check in frequently with what I believe will be Chief Jones, and make sure that we are carrying out the changes that we would like to see happen.
SHERWOODUsually, people will say, well, it's just a few bad apples that are -- do you have a sense that the department overall is pretty well-run? It just needs to maybe raise the focus of some of these issues?
ALBORNOZWell, even within the interviews that I had the opportunity to have with some of the candidates, some of the national candidates that were brought in, they acknowledge that Montgomery County, in many ways, is already a gold standard among other police departments across the country. And you can certainly argue that we need to adjust to the changing demographics, and we will. But I think one of the areas that I've heard Police Chief Jones talk about -- which I think absolutely needs to happen -- is many of the measures that we use to track the success of officers currently are punitive in nature. How many traffic stops, how many arrests.
ALBORNOZWhat we also need to do is proactively look at how many positive interactions did they have with the youth? How many community sessions and meetings did they attend? So that we balance out some of those punitive measures with more community policing tracking.
NNAMDIA lot of your constituents seem to be on the phone lines for you, but we have to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Gabe Albornoz. He's an At-Large member of the Montgomery County Council. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Gabe Albornoz. He's an At-Large member of the Montgomery County Council. A clarification about voting procedures in the state of Virginia, Tom.
SHERWOODI said during our conversation with Jack Wilson that there is no early voting in Virginia, and there isn't. There's no plan for people to go vote as a matter of convenience. Some people were confused by that, because there is absentee voting, where you can have a reason where you can't make it on Election Day. You can go to an elections office and get an absentee ballot, but you have to have a reason why you can't vote on Election Day. Absentee ballots are available, but that is separate from early voting, which is simply allowing people a chance to vote before Election Day.
NNAMDIOkay. Here's Evan, in Bethesda, Maryland. Evan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVANThank you. I had a question for the councilmember about the recent rise in the fee for school bus safety citations for drivers. And, basically, my question is, why was it necessary to double the cost of those fees from $250 to $500, when it seems to me that $250 is already a pretty significant fee. And was the purpose of this related to safety of school kids, when there really isn't such a problem? Or was it more a way to raise funding for the transportation system without having to raise taxes?
ALBORNOZWell, I appreciate the question, Evan. We held a joint committee session with our Public Safety Committee and Education and Culture Committee to talk about this very issue. And we were shocked with some of the video images. And because of the increased traffic flow within the county, and also because of the advent of technology like Waze, you have a lot more people trying to subvert 495 and 270 and cutting through neighborhoods to try to get to work just a little bit faster. And that has increased a lot of traffic on our local streets, which has increased what we feel are safety concerns.
ALBORNOZAnd we were also shocked to see just how many vehicles were just flying by these buses without any concern for the safety of the children involved. And so we did feel that the need to increase the fee is related to public safety, and will help improve the safety of our children.
SHERWOODWill the money go for anything in particular?
ALBORNOZI'll have to get back to you on the specifics of how the money is intended to be used. Our hope is that with the fine as high as it is, that that will deter people from accessing it in the first place.
SHERWOODWell, I have a one-sentence rant on all this: transportation is falling apart in every jurisdiction in the region.
ALBORNOZYes, you got that right.
NNAMDIA bill that would allow 5G cell towers in Montgomery County was introduced this week after being tabled last year. 5G antennas are small cell towers that allow for faster internet and greater connectivity. We got an email from Rick from North Potomac, who says: this week you announced co-sponsorship of a zoning ordinance that will make it easier and faster for wireless companies to install cell phones just 30 feet from buildings intended for human occupation. However, residents are not allowed to speak at tower committee's meetings. The committee is comprised exclusively of unelected county staff, with no resident members. How will your bill allow residents' input regarding proposed cell towers to be heard?
ALBORNOZWell, there will be a public work session on this issue, as there is with all of our bills. And we actively solicit feedback and input from residents regarding all our bills beyond just those individual opportunities to testify at those sessions. And we have received a lot of feedback regarding this particular bill. But I do believe that ensuring that we have faster speed, enhanced reliability and expanded capacity of our wireless network has a number of different benefits, which include -- when it comes to making sure that people can access more small business development opportunities. It will help with telecommuting.
ALBORNOZIt will also help with the technology of our first responders. There are numerous benefits to expanding wireless access within jurisdictions.
SHERWOODIs this a health issue at all with these cell towers, or is it just a visual pollution, or both, or what?
NNAMDISome people believe it's a health issue. The science supposedly says that there isn't.
ALBORNOZYes. There are both concerns. We've tried to address that a couple of different ways through this bill. The setback is actually set at 60 feet, not 30. And we want to use existing utility poles, and switch those out with these particular wireless poles to minimize some of the disruption to communities. And there hasn't been, that I have seen, any sort of credible analysis from a health concern perspective. And so I think the pros outweigh the cons on this one.
NNAMDILet's talk about your political future for a second .
SHERWOODOkay. Short conversation, or long?
NNAMDILast month, County Executive Mark Elrich endorsed a review of the Montgomery County Council structure, and even offered suggestions on how to restructure it. Now the county's Charter Review Commission is looking into cutting back At-Large positions and creating more district-based council positions. One suggestion that I saw is that there should be nine district-based council positions, even though currently there are nine members on the entire council, plus four At-Large. That would make it 13, which would, in my view, reduce your influence on the council. But what do you think about this potential restructuring of the council?
ALBORNOZWell, I think it bears analysis, that we have not changed the current council structure since 1986. And we're going to exceed 1.2 million people after this next census. And so there does need to be a review to make sure that we are providing the appropriate level of constituent services for an ever-growing population. I will say that being an At-Large member has been extraordinarily beneficial in that if you have a number of individual districts, things can get very parochial, very fast. And having a countywide perspective, I think, has a benefit.
ALBORNOZNow, the number of At-Large seats is certainly something that bears worth analysis, but I think that I'm proud of the constituent services that I and my colleagues currently provide. And people also need to remember, we have an extraordinarily central office staff to the council that is there through various councils. And that includes legislative support, public information office, and a variety of other supports that makes sure that we're trying as best we can to be as responsive as we can to constituents.
SHERWOODHow difficult is -- Montgomery's a huge county.
SHERWOODVery just personal aside here, how often do you get around the entire -- you represent the entire county. You live in, where?
ALBORNOZI live in Kensington.
SHERWOODKensington, and like --
NNAMDIYou have a helicopter?
SHERWOOD-- family, I think four children?
ALBORNOZFour children, yes.
SHERWOODYou have a full life.
SHERWOODHow often do you get around to the four corners, roughly speaking, of Montgomery County?
ALBORNOZI get around often. My record for a day is seven events, and those were in five different zip codes across the entire county. And I know my colleagues, my At-Large council members are also very diligent about ensuring that they get to as many events and functions and civic association meetings as they can.
SHERWOODBut if you have more local districts then that allows more focused attention on particular neighborhood issues.
ALBORNOZYou know, I'm very proud, also, of my district colleagues. I think they also do an excellent job of covering their respective districts. And I know they work diligently and hard. And it's a little bit counterintuitive, but district councilmembers almost have a higher obligation to go to events within their own districts and have an even higher level of expectation than At-Large members, because, obviously, a lot of folks want to see them in their communities.
NNAMDIWhen you're free to roam. Here's Joanna, in Silver Spring. Joanna, your turn.
JOANNAHi, Gabe. So, Fairfax County, Washington, D.C., Prince George's County and Baltimore City are all funding legal representation for immigrants detained by ICE without restrictions, based on prior criminal convictions. Why is Montgomery County the only county in the DMV still insisting on excluding people, because of prior criminal convictions?
ALBORNOZWell, thank you, Joanna. I appreciate the question, and we are proud to have added to our budget, in this fiscal year, additional resources to expand our reach and make sure that more of our immigrant brothers and sisters have adequate representation, which we know significantly increases the likelihood of them being able to seek asylum and secure immigration status that we believe is necessary.
ALBORNOZThis issue is important in that we have to forge a strong partnership and alliance with our state's attorney's office, but also our law enforcement officials, to make sure that we are on the same page when it comes to ensuring we have clear communication. And I do believe that the addition of the -- you know, with more resources, we'll be able to reach more people. And this is a policy that we will continue to revisit, I think is a good thing.
NNAMDISpeaking of resources, the county executive is pushing the county to move toward a two-year budget cycle, a suggestion that's been met with resistance from council President Nancy Navarro. What's your view?
ALBORNOZI think, in principle, the County Council agrees that there's some merit in having a two-year budget. But there's understandable dispute and questions about how to get there. And I think that it's important for the Executive Branch to present a clear and concise plan on how specifically we're going to phase in this approach, because it's ultimately the County Council that has fiscal authority in the county.
SHERWOODLet's go back to immigration for a moment. In the District, Charles Allen, the councilmember, is proposing legislation to really disengage with ICE, the federal agency, prohibit detaining anyone -- even with a 48-hour notice from ICE -- says the city won't share information or release other details about people being held to ICE. And that ICE would have no physical access to prison, to the county jail or any other city building in order to detain someone. I mean, this would be a clear break. What do you think about that?
ALBORNOZWell, in our county, we recently passed an executive order that was supported by the County Council that put into policy what had been a practice for a number of years, which essentially confirms that our county will not, under any circumstances --
SHERWOODYou're a semi-sanctuary county.
ALBORNOZ-- yeah, under any circumstances comply -- you know, to try to carry out federal law. That's not our job. And we do try to strike a fair and reasonable balance. You know, there are, unfortunately -- in a very positive note, immigrants are much less likely to commit crime than the rest of the general population. This has been borne out to be true across the country. And that's no different in Montgomery County.
ALBORNOZBut I think when there are serious crimes and offenses that have been alleged and may have occurred, then I think there are circumstances in which we have to strike a reasonable balance to ensure the safety and security of everybody involved.
NNAMDIWe've only got about 40 seconds left, but the Montgomery County Board of Elections voted against adding a 12th early-voting site in Montgomery County. The board has a Republican majority. I couldn't help notice that the 12th site is in the White Oak community that has a predominant population of people of color.
SHERWOODAnd the Governor appoints that board. It's not a local -- they're all Republicans, but the Governor appoints it.
NNAMDIHow much different do you think that 12th site would make?
ALBORNOZI think it would make a big difference. White Oak -- when I was the director of the Recreation Department, there were three recreation centers in the White Oak area. So, I'm very familiar with that community, and it is one of the transportation deserts that we have within the county. It's not as well served as other parts of the county, and so I think there's significant merit to adding a 12th site. And my colleagues are unanimous in that support.
NNAMDIGabe Albornoz, thank you for joining us.
ALBORNOZThank you, Kojo, and thank you, Tom.
NNAMDIToday's Politics Hour was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up Monday, the demographics and communities near local universities are shifting. We'll discuss the balance between neighborhood and college identity. Plus, there are now dolphins in the Potomac. Is this a sign of cleaner waters, or an alarm bell? That all starts at noon, on Monday. Going to Georgia, through open streets this weekend?
SHERWOODThree miles of Georgia Avenue closing on Saturday for four hours. Good luck if you're trying to catch a bus.
NNAMDIHave a wonderful weekend. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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