Many people chose to serve their communities on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We meet some folks who serve year-round and approach volunteerism in ways you may never have considered.
Just over a year ago, D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit in an attempt to win full voting rights in Congress for D.C. residents. On Tuesday, November 26, the case will be heard in front of three federal court judges. D.C. Appleseed Executive Director Walter Smith talks with Kojo and Tom about the fight for D.C. voting rights, and his strategy of going through the courts instead of through Congress.
Suhas Subramanyam was elected to District 87 in the Virginia House of Delegates, which includes Loudoun and Prince William Counties. Subramanyam is a lawyer and served as a technology policy adviser for the Obama administration. He joins us to talk about the election and his priorities heading into the Democratic-lead session.
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 and contributing writing for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon, everyone.
NNAMDISaw you did two profiles in the City Paper this week. One of Colbert King, and the other --
SHERWOODJulie Lawson, who's the Clean City person. You know, they asked me to do two this year, because I did one last year for you. And they said that was so good, I should do two this year.
NNAMDIWell, they actually decided to make you work for a living this year. That's what happened. Later in the broadcast, we will be talking with Suhas Subramanyam, who is a member-elect of the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 87th district. Joining us in studio now is Walter Smith. He is the Executive Director of D.C. Appleseed. Walter Smith, thank you for joining us.
WALTER SMITHThank you. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Walter is here to talk about the fact that the voting rights issue in the District will soon be going to a courtroom near you. Tom Sherwood, let's start talking about all things Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. Several developments during the course of this week. Council proceedings, residents' opinions, and the news, however, has to do with the recall effort.
SHERWOODYes. Just this week, the effort to recall Jack Evans submitted its petition signatures to the Board of Elections. And this is breaking news. Just in the few moments before the show started, we got the first public reaction from Jack Evans's side of the equation. Lawyer Don Dinan told The Kojo Show in a message just a few moments ago that they are still in the midst of reviewing the petition submitted for the recall. But they believe 20 to possibly 30 percent of them are either fraudulent -- the word they used -- or illegible, in which case they would not be counted. They say they will file an official response to the recall petition effort Tuesday or Wednesday, at the latest. And they will ask the Board to Elections to throw out the recall effort, which would force a special election to remove Jack Evans in February, if it goes forward.
SHERWOODNow, I have talked to Adam Eidinger, who is leading this recall effort. He has said that there may be an effort to throw out the petitions, that if they are thrown out for any reason he will seek to legally challenge it, because he thinks the Ward 2 voting roles are inflated, and they've had to collect far more signatures, 10 percent of registered voters, than they legally would be required to do otherwise.
NNAMDIAnd the Evans lawyers are saying that even if the petition is upheld that it would only precede the primarily election by like 10 weeks.
SHERWOODYes. We possibly will face him up to four elections in the next year. If this recall goes forward, there will be a balloting in Ward 2 on whether or not to recall Jack Evans. If that passes, then there will an election to replace Jack Evans. And then, whoever that happens there, there will be a regular primary for the 2020 election for Ward 2 in June. And then there would be a November general election. Evans's people say, "Look, if you want to throw me out, let the voters of Ward 2 decide by just going to the primary and vote." But, of course, the recall people say his egregious behavior ethically is such that he should be removed from office.
NNAMDIWalter Smith, feel free to chime in at any point during the course of this discussion. As I said, there were several developments in this week's D.C. Council proceedings on the Jack Evans investigation. Care to talk about that?
SHERWOODWell, you know, the Post survey -- there was a Washington Post survey that said seven in 10 people thought Jack Evans should resign. In his favor, Jack Evans's favorability was only 4 percent, a drop of 29 percent. But I think one of the strongest and most interesting numbers out of the survey was 67 percent of the people asked about Jack Evans, 65 percent said they didn't have enough information to make a comment one way or the other. So, that was pretty surprising, 64 percent thought he should resign. Seventy percent, I think, said he had done something wrong. But that's an extraordinary number that didn't have enough knowledge to have an opinion.
NNAMDIAnd the Council this week heard from the attorneys who completed the investigation --
NNAMDI-- into Jack Evans, so we'll -- go ahead.
SHERWOODWe should just point out, the O'Melveny Law Firm that had been hired to look into Jack Evans, and found at least 11 instances of ethical violations, made their presentation. The problem, some people think about that, is that Jack Evans is not being invited back to the D.C. Council himself until December 3rd to give his response to that lawyer's report. Most of the lawyers I've talked to, whether they like Jack Evans or not, think that's a very long distance between the two, where one side gets to tell their story, and then two weeks later, you get to come in and defend yourself. That seems like a long break. But Mary Cheh, the Chair of Committee, says, "Well, we've got holidays and all kinds of other things, and Evans has to respond." So, it's a mess that is ongoing.
NNAMDIThat's how due process is working in this situation. Before we get to Walter Smith -- and Walter, I promise we will get to you. Let's talk a little bit about the fact that Marc Elrich, the County Executive in Montgomery County, is not adopting or accepting the housing targets set by COG, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Urban Institute. He says because they imply that the growth of low-wage jobs in Montgomery County requires a certain amount of housing. He does not see that kind of growth of low wage jobs in Montgomery County. What's going on there?
SHERWOODWell, housing in one of the most desperate needs in the entire region. We talk about it a lot in this show. The question is, where are you going to put housing, and what kind of housing are you going to get built for people who are in need, both low-income people and middle-income people? The Council of Governments did a report that suggested, with I think the Urban Policy Institute --
SHERWOOD-- Urban Institute, suggested that Montgomery County, one of the largest jurisdiction, needs about 23,000 more units of housing, most of them affordable or low-income. Marc Elrich, who is considered a progressive, has questioned those numbers. He points to Fairfax County, which is equally in the size and is growing faster than Montgomery, saying, "They're not being asked to provide this many low-income homes." So, he's questioning the procedure. He says, "We need to have better jobs. And those better jobs will help people get better housing." So, he has objected to this. It's much more complicated than that, but I think that's a summary.
NNAMDII think we're going to have to have Marc Elrich in at some point to explore this issue some more.
SHERWOODI'm sure he would be very happy to come in and talk about this.
NNAMDIWalter Smith, D.C. Appleseed and pro bono attorneys will argue in federal court next Tuesday for full voting congressional representation in the House and Senate for the District of Columbia. D.C. Appleseed filed this complaint in November 2018, and the arguments will be heard almost a year later. Tell us about this lawsuit.
SMITHWell, this is a lawsuit that's been pending, as you say, for about a year. It's been fully briefed by our lawyers, a number of friend of the court briefs have been filed. The House of Representatives has come into the lawsuit on the side of District of Columbia residents. The Department of Justice is opposing it on behalf of the Senate and the President.
SHERWOODWho are you suing? For people who are not lawyers, Lord help us all. What is the -- you filed the lawsuit where?
SMITHWe filed the lawsuit in U.S. Federal District Court.
SHERWOODAlleging that the District citizens are unfairly denied voting rights in the House and the Senate.
SMITHRight. Unconstitutionally denied. And what you do is, in a lawsuit like this, you sue the United States itself. You also sue all of the officials who are responsible for not acting to give us the vote. So, we have sued the president. We have sued officials in the House and the Senate. We've also sued the Secretary of Commerce. And the reason for that is that the Census Bureau is within his department. And it's the Census Bureau that apportions House seats throughout the country. And we say it's unconstitutional that he didn't give a seat to the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIIn 2000, a similar case made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. The court ruled in a two-to-one decision that the Constitution granted voting rights in Congress only to states, so that D.C. was ineligible, according to the judges. What makes this time different?
SMITHWell, you're right. That lawsuit said that, under the Constitution, voting rights was guaranteed only to residents of states. So, the court invited us to go to Congress to fix it. So, we went to Congress, and both houses agreed that the Congress has authority to grant us the vote, even though we're not residents of the state. But they ended up not granting it to us because they said unless D.C. agreed to the repeal of all of our gun safety laws as part of the deal, that they wouldn’t pass the bill. So, that bill was withdrawn. That leads us to where we are now. This lets us say in this current lawsuit that since the right to vote is fundamental under the Constitution, and Congress has agreed it can grant us that right, even though we're not residents of states, its failure to do so violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, particularly since no good reason has been shown for continuing to deny us that right.
SHERWOODSo, you're going into court for what on the 26th? What is that, next Tuesday or Wednesday?
SMITHNext Tuesday morning.
SHERWOODAre these oral arguments?
SHERWOODYou filed all the paperwork, and now is it a three-judge panel?
SMITHThree-judge panel. There is one judge from the federal court of appeals, Judge Wilkins. And two district court judges, Judge Moss, sorry, and Judge McFadden.
SHERWOODDon't get the judge's name wrong.
SMITHNo, no, no.
SHERWOODSo, you'll have an hour. It will be, like, 30 minutes a side. You know, a lot of people don't get inside the court room.
SHERWOODThese are very formal, structured things. You'll get, what? Thirty minutes, or --
SMITHNo. The Court has given our pro bono lawyer from Wilkins -- from the Harris Firm, 30 minutes. The House of Representative lawyer will get 10 minutes. And then the lawyer for the Department of Justice will get 40, since we got 30 plus 10. But since this is the only argument on the docket, it's possible that more time will be granted. It's an important case. I think the three judges know it's a very important case, and they may want to hear more than just 30 minutes to the side.
SHERWOODWho's paying for this lawsuit?
SMITHWell, we've brought this lawsuit with the support of a number of pro bono lawyers. So, I mean, the filing of the suit and the cost of all of the briefs, I guess have been borne by our pro bono lawyers at Harris, Whiltshire and Grannis.
SHERWOODVery quickly, the Constitution on stage gives the Congress, quote, "full legislative authority over the District."
SHERWOODUnless it can be shown that there is racial discrimination or other -- why not just say the Constitution says Congress can decide it can't be a state? It won't be a state. And we don't care who lives there, you're not going to be a state.
NNAMDIBut there's a distinction between this and statehood, is there not?
SHERWOODIn terms of state, but if you have full legislative authority, they don't have to give you members of the House or the Senate, either. That's what I meant.
SMITHWell, but our argument is that since -- once we show that we're being discriminated against with regard to a fundamental right under the Constitution -- that is, the right to vote -- then the government has to come forward with some rationale for that. In fact, under equal protection analysis, they have to show some compelling governmental reason why they haven't given us the vote. And there really isn't one. And if you read the briefs, you find they haven't identified one.
NNAMDIWell, there are people who don't think this is the way to go. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we have a caller on the line who shares that view. And we have one of the plaintiffs in this case on the line. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to The Politics Hour, with resident analyst Tom Sherwood. Walter Smith, the Executive Director of D.C. Appleseed, joins us in studio. We're discussing a lawsuit that has been filed, that will be heard next week, over the issue of D.C. voting rights. And, as I said, we have of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit on the line. So, first, let's hear from Laurie Davis. Laurie Davis, thank you so much for joining us.
LAURIE DAVISYou're welcome.
NNAMDIWhy did you decide to be a plaintiff in this case? Why is getting congressional voting representation important to you?
LAURIEI grew up in a state, Michigan, where I was able to vote for many years. And I moved to D.C. in 1976, and have found it one of the most frustrating aspects of living in the District of Columbia that I have no congressional representation. If I want to complain about an issue or ask a senator to vote the way I might feel about something like gun legislation background checks, I don't have a senator I can go to. I was the General Council for the D.C. Department of Mental Health in the early 2000s, and saw firsthand how difficult it is for the District to enact legislation. We were trying to modify laws related to civil commitment. And the Council passed them, and we had consensus amongst various stakeholders. But then we had to wait and see if Congress would allow this to be enacted or not.
LAURIEAnd there was nobody I could go to to say, "You really need to do this. This is an important law." And I think as long as we're in the precarious position of having home rule, we should, at the very least, have representation in Congress who we can talk to, complain to, support, urge them to vote certain ways on issues. And when I heard that people who live outside of the United States have congressional representation and can vote for senators and Congress representatives, but I can't, even though I live physically in the United States, that really made me want to join this suit.
NNAMDIWell, clearly, both you and D.C. Appleseed support going this route through courts, instead of going through the Congress. I think Douglas in Tacoma Park, Maryland has a slightly different view. Douglas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGLASGood afternoon. I don't think this is going to get anywhere. I think they can stall and stall and stall. For decades, I have not understood why the people of the District haven't been in the streets by the hundreds of thousands, in the halls of Congress, demanding congressional voting representation in the House and Senate. The Founding Fathers were wrong about a lot of things, and this is an obvious one, just like slavery and the vote for --
NNAMDII'm glad you raise that issue, Douglas, because Anise Jenkins, the Executive Director of Stand Up! for Democracy, a pro-statehood organization, raised the same issue in an article in which she was quoted in the Philadelphia Tribune. She said, "This should be a public debate, not in a court room." That there should be people in the streets and in the suites of Congress fighting this. How would you respond to that, Walter Smith?
SMITHI think there's more than one way to go about this. I think it's good to be fighting on all fronts at one time. I think people should be trying to support the statehood bill that is pending. I think people marching in the streets is worthwhile. But I also think people going into the court room is worthwhile. I think we have a possibility of a one, two, three punch, here. Let's bring visibility to the lack of democracy. Let's fight for it with every tool we have. And I believe -- and this is lawyer speaking now -- we have a really good chance of, at long last, getting the vote in Congress through this lawsuit, and we should take advantage of that.
SHERWOODA lot of people across the nation don't even understand what the District is, that we have a district of people here unconnected to the federal government.
SHERWOODBut does the fact that the Congress changed the Constitution -- 1963 was when we got the right to have a vote for president. We got three electoral votes in the 1964 election. We voted in presidential elections ever since. Does that have any bearing on the fact that we don't have the right to vote for members of the House and Senate?
SMITHWell, it's related, in that if you're going to have full democracy you should be able to vote for both president and members of Congress. But the good news about where we are in this lawsuit is that we've got a real good argument that we don't have to go through a constitutional amendment, which is what was done to give us the vote for president. After we lost the first lawsuit that Kojo mentioned, we went to Congress and said, "You can do this just by passing a law." And both houses agreed with us. And that is what we're basing a lot of the current lawsuit on.
SHERWOODDo you want the Congress -- you want the courts to essentially order the Congress to do this?
SHERWOODWhat do you want?
SMITHWe are asking the court to issue what lawyers call a declaratory judgement. That will be an opinion from the court that says it is unconstitutional that people who live in the District of Columbia do not have voting representation. And it is expected -- and there's case law showing what I'm about to say. It is expected that once the declaratory judgement is issued, Congress will respond accordingly.
NNAMDID.C. Appleseed's press release about this case on Tuesday also mentioned that a number of quote-unquote "impressive friend of the court briefs" have been filed on your side. Who are these coming from, besides the fact the U.S. House is going to be your side? Who are these coming from, and what will these briefs add?
SMITHThe friend of the court brief usually comes from experts or other interested people who can bring additional information to the court's attention. Two of the most important friend of the court briefs that have been filed is one from a group of distinguished constitutional law professors who are supporting our view that it's unconstitutional that Congress has not yet given us the vote. And picking up on a point that your caller made, we also have a friend of the court brief from a group of distinguished historians who are explaining to the court how it is we got to where we are right now, and explaining to the court that the framers of our Constitution did not intend that we not have the vote. It's just that it's been a long time coming. I just can't help but mention something you said last night, Kojo, from Mark Plotkin.
SMITH"For way too long, we have been spectators of democracy. It is time that we were participants in the democracy."
NNAMDIThat was a direct quote of an opinion piece that Mark Plotkin wrote in The Washington Post in July of 2012.
SHERWOODYou're referring to the 21st, I think, Gala for the D.C. Vote organization.
SHERWOODI think it honored Jerry Connelly from Northern Virginia.
SHERWOODJamie Raskin from Maryland, who support statehood for the District of Columbia. Even though, economically, their states would take a hit in terms of taxing people who work in the District and live in those two states.
NNAMDIAnd that's changed significantly, because in the past, there were people who represented suburban districts in Congress who were opposed to statehood for that very reason. That barrier no longer exists.
SHERWOODRight. And most members of the legislatures in those -- Congress in those two states support statehood for the District. Some people cynically think, "Well, they do, because they think it's never going to happen."
SMITHRight. Right. But it's possible.
NNAMDISarah emails: "D.C. should call the mayor an executive governor, not mayor. No mayor has the state responsibilities that our mayor does." And then here is Sharon in Upper Marlboro. Sharon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHARONHi, Kojo. There is a paper in the Library of Congress called "Democracy Denied: the Historical Relationship Between Congress and the District of Columbia,” which I'm in the process of rewriting right now. But the bottom line is your guest there is correct. People don't really understand how this happened. The Congress never meant, never meant for the people in the District not to have voting rights. But in the crossover, after George Washington, these are the two things in the Constitution, the final situation with the District of Columbia and the Census, that were not resolved. And that's why we get to dick around with it all the time. It is ridiculous. And, over the years, even though it claims it had the right to have the District the way it is, Congress, numerous times codified rights it claimed it already had.
SHARONSo, that's the most ridiculous thing. And until the people in this District and in the country understand how this happened, nothing is going to change.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Sharon.
SHERWOODI think that's the point. And I'll ask Walter. Walter, the absence of knowledge about our District, our city is just overwhelming.
SHERWOODPeople just don't even know what it is, where it is, who lives here, why.
SHERWOODAnd it's not on their front-burner. Some people have called the civil rights issue of the decade or the decades. But I -- what I don't get with D.C. Vote, in 21 years, there's still not a sustained, well-funded effort to educate the country about who lives here. Everyone thinks we're just part of the federal government. I'll tell you again. I once was interviewing someone on the Mall for my TV show when I was doing it. And I said, "What do you think about statehood for the District?" And this guy from the south, he said, "Well, but you work for us, don't you?" And he thought that we, including the media people, worked for the federal government.
SHERWOODI can understand that now these days, with what's going on. But how do you get the public behind this?
SMITHWell, I think --
SHERWOODOr are you just going to get the courts to do it?
SMITHWell, let me say why I think going to the courts is such a good idea. I think you are right, that the country doesn't know about our lack of democracy. But the court is going to understand it very, very well, based on the briefs that have been submitted by us, by the law professors, by the historians. And I think they are going to understand, and I believe they will agree with us, that since Congress has the authority, at long last, to give us the vote, there's no good reason for them not to do so. And their failure to do so is unconstitutional.
SHERWOODWhere can people go to get the information? Is there a website at DC Appleseed, or what?
SMITHDCappleseed.org. And can I make a plug for what's going to happen next Tuesday morning, Kojo?
SMITHThere is going to be a breakfast and pep rally between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. at 441 4th Street. Congresswoman Norton is going to speak. Chairman Mendelson is going to speak. Carl Racine is going to speak.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Attorney General.
SMITHA couple of the plaintiffs are going to speak. And Busboys and Poets are going to provide breakfast, and we're all going to walk down the hill together to go to the courthouse. (all talking at once)
NNAMDII was going to ask you a question about that, so I'm glad you answered it. Are you expecting the same kind of turnout that we saw during the hearing for bill HR51, where...
SMITHWell, I hope so.
NNAMDI...hundreds of people showed up?
SMITHI hope so, because I believe that the people who came to the statehood hearing have the same stake in what's going to happen in the courtroom, as they did as at the hearing. And the result can bring them the same democracy they're seeking.
SHERWOODDon't be late.
NNAMDIDo you know what the court's timeline will be to make a decision?
SMITHWe don't. The last time we were before the court on this, it took 10 or 11 months. It could take that long again, especially if the three judges are in disagreement.
SHERWOODIs it very possible that if the court ruled in your favor, that the District could have congressional elections and Senate elections as early as next year? Or is that too fast?
SMITHThat may be fast, but it's not inconceivable. It depends on how fast the court rules.
NNAMDIWhat happens if you win this decision? What happens if you lose?
SMITHWell, if we win the decision, my guess is that there will be a move to try to appeal that to the Supreme Court. And it goes directly to the Supreme Court. If we lose, I think that our side will be appealing directly to the Supreme Court. So, there's a likelihood of it going to the Supreme Court either way, although, depending on how the elections go next year, there may be differing views within the federal government as to whether or not to appeal.
NNAMDIHere's Warren in Washington, D.C. Warren, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WARRENYes, thank you, Kojo and thank you, Tom. And appreciation for your great broadcasting over the years from both of you.
WARRENMy question is actually to Kojo. We are hearing today about a very complex issue, an important issue. If it were simple, it would've been decided a long time ago, but it's not simple. So, my question is: why are we hearing today only from advocates for the voting rights?
NNAMDIIn terms of the individual who is our guest, the news of this story is that a lawsuit has been filed by DC Appleseed. That's why he, Walter Smith, representing DC Appleseed, is a guest on this program.
SHERWOODYeah. And he's telling us about how he's going into court for the court hearing on Tuesday. And we've discussed all the opposition to it, I believe, people who have filed complaints, friends of court brief, one way or the other. Is that correct, Walter?
SMITHWell, there were no friend of court brief filed against us. Nobody filed any argument against us, other than the Department of Justice. And I should also add that what we are trying to achieve here is overwhelmingly supported by residents of the District of Columbia.
NNAMDIBut maybe not Warren. Warren, what is your position on this issue?
WARRENI happen to believe, as former resident of a state, that it's not obvious that the District should be treated as a state. It's not treated as a state under the U.S. code. By definition, it's treated for very specific purposes when Congress says it shall be treated. So, you know, to me, it's not obvious that it should be granted voting rights. And that's why I think it's important that even though the latest Appleseed action is of newsworthy note that I think there should be somebody on the other side.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Warren, may I -- this is Tom -- excuse me. Thank you. Where do you live?
WARRENOn Capitol Hill.
SHERWOODAnd so, you're okay with not voting for a member of Congress or in the Senate? You would like it, or you just don't think it's required?
WARRENWell, when I moved here, part of my decision was that I knew that I was giving up certain votes. And the idea is that it's a choice that I made, and people who are born here -- because if they felt that they wanted to vote for Congress, that they could move somewhere else. So, to me, it's something that people are aware of, and if it is, you know, something that disturbs people, there are actions they can take.
NNAMDIAnd I think one of those actions is the action that DC Appleseed is taking about it. So, we're going to continue to have this conversation, but we do have to take a short break and introduce our next guest. So, Walter Smith, thank you so much for joining us.
SMITHThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWalter Smith is the executive director of DC Appleseed. Up next, Suhas Subramanyam, who is a member-elect to the Virginia House of Delegates. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to The Politics Hour. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst and contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Joining us in studio now is Suhas Subramanyam, who is a member-elect of the Virginia House of Delegates 87th district, representing Loudoun and Prince William Counties. He is a Democrat. Thank you so much for joining us.
SUHAS SUBRAMANYAMThank you for having me on.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Congratulations on your election.
SUBRAMANYAMThank you so much. I appreciate it. My wife's a big fan of the show, so I'm glad to be on.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you're the first Indian American elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. You are also an historic primary where, I think, every Democratic candidate was a first-generation American. What do you think your win in the first-of-its-kind primary say about Virginia, both where it used to be and where it's heading?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, you know, it's interesting. When I first started running, people actually saw my name, and they said I should probably change it if I want to run for office. It's a funny name, it's a long name, but I kind of take pride in the fact that I won, even with a name like mine. And, you know, I never thought of myself as the Indian American candidate. I thought of myself as someone who had a background. I've worked in the Obama White House and on Capitol Hill.
SUBRAMANYAMAnd so I had a background in this, and, you know, I loved doing it and I was passionate about the community, who happened to be Indian American. And so when I started running, I started realizing that, you know, people were seeing that history could be made. And, you know, I've embraced it. I love it. I love the fact that there are a lot of people of all backgrounds who, they have kids now who are getting more and more interested in politics because of the run. And so I'm proud of it, but I'm also -- you know, I want to make sure we get things done.
SHERWOODIs this your first run for elective office?
SUBRAMANYAMIt is my first run, yes.
SHERWOODEven in college as student president, or anything like that? Any kind of electoral victory in the past or defeat?
SUBRAMANYAMOh, actually, I ran for treasure of my high school, and I got second. I lost. I used paper towels and put them on the back of people's backs that said vote for Suhas. So, we had a little more money this time to run a campaign, but... (laugh)
SHERWOODJust very briefly, in 20 seconds, you're a lawyer, you tell me, corporate-style lawyer, or you help corporations. What do you -- you're a corporate lawyer, is that right?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, I'm an attorney. I help startups get off the ground and...
SHERWOODAnd you mentioned your high school. Where did you grow up?
SUBRAMANYAMThat was in Houston, Texas.
NNAMDIBut he also functioned as an attorney in a Capitol Hill office at one point, and also in the Obama Administration.
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, I've worked in every branch of government at almost every level. And so, I've been around the block.
NNAMDIAnd Tom Sherwood always likes to say, what should people know about you? One of the things I found out is that you're a volunteer firefighter EMT with the Ashburn Volunteer Fire Department. How did that come about? What caused you to be interested in doing that?
SUBRAMANYAMI got a flyer in the mail. I had a friend who was doing it, and I decided it might be a great way to help the community.
SHERWOODNo family background in firefighting or EMT?
SUBRAMANYAM(laugh) No, no family background in it.
SHERWOODAnd are you on call? How does that work?
SUBRAMANYAMYou go in once a week at 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. And, you know, whenever you get a call, you go out. And so, whatever comes up comes up.
NNAMDIWe did a show about volunteer firefighters on this broadcast just a couple of weeks ago. You can find it in our archives. We talked with people from Maryland and the District of Columbia, but at least now we've got Virginia in the house.
SUBRAMANYAMUh-huh, that's right.
SHERWOODSo, you won the seat in Prince William and Loudoun Counties that John Bell had held for several terms. I can't remember how many. This is your first elective office, and you've been down to Richmond a few times for organizational purposes and all that. What did Bell tell you what to expect? Because the aspirational aspects of running for office and then getting things done are two different games.
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, you know, Bell is -- I've had a lot of great mentors, and Bell is definitely one of them. And, you know, I think he's a statesman, and he wants to make sure you get things done for the community and put the community first. And so, you know, that was why I was running, and that's what I was after. And so, you know, he said focus on getting things done for the community and everything will work out.
SHERWOODOkay. So, the governor of the state, Ralph Northam, has just this week said he wants to do free community college. Yes or no?
SUBRAMANYAMYes, I support them getting that, absolutely.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk -- go ahead.
SUBRAMANYAMOh, no. I was about to say, our community colleges play a really vital role. We have Northern Virginia Community College in my district, and that's a great way for people to get training and experience and get the education they need, especially given the cost of college right now.
SHERWOODAre you a progressive person? There's a lot, you know, across the country, in local jurisdictions here in Maryland and Virginia. Progressive -- you want to raise the minimum wage? What about the right-to-work law in Virginia?
SUBRAMANYAMYou know, I always thought I...
SHERWOODWe're trying to put you on the spot very quickly, here.
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, yeah, absolutely. You know, it's hard to label me, but I always thought I was a moderate. But every time I, you know, start talking about my stance on the issues, it seems I'm progressive, it looks like, in this environment. So, you know, I think raising the minimum wage is really -- having a livable wage for people is incredibly important.
NNAMDIWell, let's test you on some issues. (laugh) As we said, you're a lawyer, a former Capitol Hill and Obama Administration policy analyst. I know the General Assembly is considering a state constitutional independent -- a state constitution amendment for an independent redistricting committee. Where do you stand on this approach to redistricting?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah. So, I want redistricting to be fair and nonpartisan now, you know. But defining those terms is kind of difficult these days. You know, the constitutional amendment is not perfect. It has a lot of flaws. You know, one of them is that delegates would serve on this commission that would create the new districts. Another one is that if they can't come to a conclusion, it would be kicked over to a pretty partisan court system right now.
SUBRAMANYAMAnd so I think it has some flaws. If it's the best option and the fairest option on the table, I would definitely support it. But...
SHERWOODWell, just to be - it passed the General Assembly this past year, and it has to pass the assembly again coming up in January, or in the new session.
SUBRAMANYAMThat's right. That's right.
SHERWOODAnd then it goes to the voters. If you make any changes, does that reset the clock, and we'd have to go through two more cycles?
SUBRAMANYAMI believe so. I believe so. And so you can pass a normal bill to get something done for, you know, 2021, and then try to do a constitutional amendment for the next time redistricting happens. That could be an option.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, Virginia has virtually no campaign finance laws. This worked in the Democrats' favor for this election. Democratic candidates generally outspent their Republican opponents receiving big dollar donations. And according to the Virginia Public Access project, you spend over $300,000 on your campaign, while your Republican opponent, Bill Drennan, spent just over 15,000. What do you think of Virginia's campaign finance laws?
SUBRAMANYAMOh, it absolutely needs to be reformed. There's no cap on...
NNAMDIDespite the fact that it benefitted you?
SUBRAMANYAMYou know, I think that, you know, we need to have the reform. We also, you know, in order to make the reform, you have to win your election, right. You're not going to make any reform if you're on the sidelines. And so I do think, though, that we need, you know, comprehensive campaign finance reform. We need to have a cap on how much individuals can contribute. We need to have some sort of regulation on how much corporations -- I support public financing of elections. I think that we need to get the money completely out of politics, or as much as possible. But, you know, until then I'm all for any sort of baby steps that gets us to a system where the money is less influential in our political races.
SHERWOODWe raced ahead. I meant to ask you at the very start, you had not run for office before. What prompted you? Were you drafted? Did Mr. Bell and other people come to you and say, you should run? Were you sitting at home with your family and you said, I can do this job? Is there some moment where you decided you would be the public servant?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, it's a good question. I mean, you know, the short answer is, what an opportunity. I felt like, you know, Democrats had a chance to be the majority for the first time in a long time, and to be a part of that.
SHERWOODAnd Bell was running for the senate, right?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, you know, originally, actually, I was running for the senate seat. And then Bell decided to run for it, and I decided I wanted to keep his seat blue. But, you know, I decided to run because I think we had an incredible opportunity, and we do now, in front of us, to make some great changes in the state of Virginia.
SUBRAMANYAMAnd, you know, I went and lobbied -- the first time I went to Richmond, actually, was to lobby for equality. There's a group called Equality Virginia, and it's a lobby for LGBTQ equality. And, you know, when we got down there, it was 51-49, but there was zero progress on the issue, unfortunately. You can still discriminate against people, housing and employment, and I think that's wrong. And the fact that we were one seat short of making that big leap that we need to make in Virginia, that was definitely a moment that really opened my eyes.
SHERWOODWe've got to mention guns. There was...
NNAMDIBut before we mention guns, since we're talking about equality, Virginia could become the final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. Would you support the ERA once it's brought to a floor vote?
SUBRAMANYAMAbsolutely. Absolutely. And I'm surprised that didn't happen last session, but I'm glad we're going to have the opportunity -- I'm thankful to have the opportunity to be able to vote for it this time.
SHERWOODLots of gun issues are going to be presented to the legislature. I won't go through the whole history, because it would take too long. But I think just this week, in Louisa County -- which is a county between Richmond and Charlottesville, for those who don't know -- there's a group that's trying to set up a gun rights sanctuary, so that even if there are restrictions on guns, that legislature passes or anything else happens, they want to be sure that anyone who comes into Louisa County will have unfettered rights to the 2nd Amendment.
SHERWOODWhere are you on guns? This is, as you know, a -- all the polls show people want something done on guns, but the question is: what would be done? What do you support?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, I think the important thing people need to realize is we're not trying to go into their homes and take their guns. We're just trying to get common sense reforms done.
SHERWOODThat was Beto O'Rourke's position.
SUBRAMANYAM(laugh) Yeah, I mean, that's not what's being proposed, though. What's being proposed is we want to make sure that there's common sense gun reforms, that's responsible gun ownership. And so...
SUBRAMANYAMMm-hmm. And then...
SHERWOODLimit on the number you can purchase? Governor Wilder had got passed a one-gun-a-month bill. Would you want to see that return?
SUBRAMANYAMAnything that works, because, you know, Rock Ridge High School...
SHERWOODDo you own a gun?
SUBRAMANYAMI do not own a gun, no. But I think we have to have tremendous respect for these weapons. And, you know, Rock Ridge High School is in my district, and we've had a couple gun scares already, a couple violent scares. And people don't want to feel like they're taking a risk by sending their kid to school or going into a public place. And so, anything that works. We've seen other states enact some laws. And if someone tells me that a proposal is what works, if someone tells me that mental health is the answer -- I don't think it is, but if someone showed me proof of that...
SHERWOODIt could be assistance.
SUBRAMANYAMPerhaps, perhaps. But I just want to see what works. And, you know, universal background checks, red flag laws, those seem to be working. And so I want to do what works.
NNAMDIBoyd from Alexandria emailed: I would like to know what we can do about climate change in the state legislature.
SUBRAMANYAMAbsolutely. We need to make sure that we are encouraging the development of renewable energy. Virginia can be the renewable energy capital of America, of the world...
SHERWOODWell, Virginia's going to have one of the largest offshore wind farms, I think, in the world, I mean, certainly in the country. There's a lot going on.
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, and the governor put forth some ambitious goals. And I think we can be even more ambitious. And so now, as a Democratic majority, we can start to make some meaningful reforms and tackle this issue.
SHERWOODIs there a danger that the Democrats could overreach? You've got the Republican on the run for the last several elections. On the national scale, there are several progressive candidates running for president on the Democratic side. Even President Obama has waved a caution flag.
SUBRAMANYAMThere's no such thing as overreaching if what you're doing is for the people of the state. I don't believe if people of the state want to have serious climate change reforms, want to seriously address the issue of gun violence, and you've delivered that to them, that's not overreaching. That's doing what the people who voted for you told you to do.
NNAMDIVirginia Democrats chose delegate Eileen Filler-Corn to be the next speaker of the House. She appointed the chairs of the Appropriations Committee, the Finance Committee, the Commerce and Labor Committee and the Education Committee last week -- all four of them veteran legislators. What committees are you hoping to be assigned to?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah. So, education's an incredibly important issue to me. And people moved to Loudoun county because of the great schools, Prince William County because of the great schools, and I want to make sure that they stay great, and that they have the resources they need, that our teachers get paid what they're worth.
SUBRAMANYAMThe Science and Technology Committee is, right now, a committee that you get sent to if you don't want -- if you were mean to the speaker before or if, you know, you weren't going to get any bills. And so, you know, being in that committee and reforming it would actually be a great thing to do, because science and technology is so important to Northern Virginia. It's part of our identity. And so having a science and tech committee that's a punishment right now is a shame. So, I think as part of Democrats being in power, I'd love to see that change.
NNAMDIExplain your role in the White House, as it related to technology.
SHERWOODBut, just briefly, when will you know what your committee assignments are, so the lobbyists can start lining up? (laugh) When will that be done, not until January?
SUBRAMANYAMBeginning of January, yeah. I believe so.
NNAMDIAnd your function in the Obama White House, is it related to technology?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, I was a technology advisor to President Obama. We had what was called a Technology Policy Taskforce. And so, we were in charge of, you know, trying to address some of the biggest challenges in the technology world, which is basically the biggest challenges in the world.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Did he endorse you? He endorsed a variety of people in the state. I don't remember seeing your name on there.
SUBRAMANYAMHe didn't need to endorse me. I had it in the bag, so we were good. (laugh) We had other people we needed to help.
NNAMDIYou have a background in healthcare policy. You served on Capitol Hill as a healthcare and veterans policy aid. I'll also mention that you are a volunteer firefighter and EMT. More recently, you were on the Loudoun Health Council, appointed by the County Board of Supervisors. What are your goals around the issue of healthcare?
SHERWOODAnd how old are you, to have done all those things?
SUBRAMANYAM(laugh) I'm thirty-three. Yeah, healthcare, you know, we're talking a lot about coverage, and I'm so glad we got Medicaid expanded in this state. It'd be great to get rid of those work requirements, but more importantly, I know a lot of families who, you know, their incomes are high, but healthcare is such a burden.
SUBRAMANYAMThe cost of healthcare is so high right now. I've seen people pay $1,300 for children's Tylenol at the hospital. The cost of healthcare -- something is going on. Especially something that I'm going to be focusing on this session, is the cost of prescription drugs.
NNAMDI$1,300 for children's Tylenol at the hospital?
SHERWOODYes, because it's not called Tylenol. It's called whatever else.
SHERWOODCan I ask you -- healthcare was, across the board, a big issue for Democrats in the state. Let me ask you, though, because you now -- do you live in Prince William, or Loudoun?
SUBRAMANYAMI live in Loudoun in Ashburn.
SHERWOODAnd so you have to drive to Richmond. I assume there's no...
NNAMDIHere comes the transportation question. (laugh)
SHERWOODTransportation. You know, we've had many people running for office in Virginia. They all say traffic is a nightmare.
SHERWOODYou've driven 95. You know it's a nightmare. Around Fredericksburg, people want to expand 95, more lanes, induce demand, maybe more cars. Where are you on transportation issues? Is there anything particular on your agenda?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah. I mean, I spent a small fortune trying to get to D.C. this morning. We have a very expensive toll road that's been there for a long time. And I just want to control the cost of tolls in the state. We have Route 50 in my district, that's -- you know, we just expanded a lane, but expanding the lane just meant more cars on the road.
SHERWOODYeah, induced demand.
SUBRAMANYAMYeah. And so I think we need to be smarter about -- we need to approach the issue of traffic comprehensively. It's not just about how wide the lanes are. It's about how you're developing, whether you're putting infrastructure in first. You know, whether we have smart traffic management. There's a lot of things we can do...
SUBRAMANYAMHmm-hmm, exactly. Exactly.
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute-and-a-half left. The Republican candidate who opposed you, Bill Drennan, was anti-abortion. Where do you fall on abortion, in particular, and reproductive healthcare, in general?
SUBRAMANYAMYeah, absolutely. I think we have to protect the woman's right to choose. And I think that, you know, Virginia -- you know, there's been a lot of bills over the past couple of sessions that, you know, don't reflect what Virginians want, which is to protect that right.
NNAMDISuhas Subramanyam is a member elect of the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 87th district with Loudoun and Prince Williams Counties. He's a Democrat. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
SUBRAMANYAMThank you for having me.
SHERWOODWhen's the swear-in date?
SUBRAMANYAMIt's on January 11th. Everyone's invited. It's at 5:00 p.m. at the capitol building. So, come down to Richmond and join us.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, we only have about a minute left. Talk about the poll about D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.
SHERWOODNew polls -- Washington Post polls show that the mayor is maintaining her popularity in the city. It's that the city's running well, that they like what she's mainly doing. There are issues here and there, but overall, if you're a politician like the mayor, you're glad to see this poll.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is not doing that well. She just pleaded guilty to four counts of conspiracy and tax evasion. And it's entirely possible that she could be facing jail time.
SHERWOODShe faces up to five years in prison. She pled guilty to four counts of fraud with her book "Healthy Holly." She had been charged with 11 counts, but she pled guilty. Who knows what she'll get, but this is a terrible ending for someone who people thought would do well for Baltimore as the mayor, but let personal greed or need get in the way of her public service. And there was another Post poll that most of the people in Washington believe the Redskins should play at RFK, but that it shouldn't be paid for by city tax dollars.
NNAMDIAnd that it should be paid for by the owner of the team.
NNAMDIThat's it for today. Today's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. There's also a Kristen Grannan in the control room today. That would be Cydney's mom. Welcome. Hopefully she didn't notice how much fun we were having, and thinks that Cydney has a real job. (laugh) Coming up on Monday, join Tom and me for a conversation with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. He no longer lives under a national spotlight, so what are his priorities these days? And we may have a musical surprise or two for you, as well. That all starts at noon, on Monday. Last week you promised to do absolutely nothing, Tom Sherwood. Did you fulfill that thought?
SHERWOOD(overlapping) I managed to do three, almost four days of nothing. It was wonderful. I recommend it.
NNAMDISo, this weekend, you should be fairly active. We'll see you again on Monday. Until then, you have a wonderful weekend. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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