As the capital region starts reopening, we hear from the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Jeff McKay, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Plus, DCist senior editor Rachel Kurzius gives a preview of D.C.'s June 2 primary.
A historic ratification rocked Virginia’s General Assembly this week. Virginia Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) talks about ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. Up in Northern Virginia, four new attorneys started their new positions as lead prosecutors in their counties. We talk with one of them: The new commonwealth’s attorney for Arlington County and Falls Church, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti.
Virginia Ratified The Equal Rights Amendment
- Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on Wednesday, becoming the 38th state to do so. Amendments become law when at least three-quarters of U.S. states (38 out of 50) ratify them.
- While Congress approved the ERA in 1972, the ratification deadline was set for 1979, and later extended to 1982. Virginia’s ratification comes decades after this deadline.
- So now what? The U.S. Department of Justice issued an opinion that the ERA is no longer legally pending before the states, since the deadline has expired. Plus, Alabama, Louisiana and South Dakota filed a lawsuit in December 2019 to block the U.S. archivist from adding the ERA to the Constitution.
- Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said he will throw his support behind the ERA. “I am going to do everything in my power to make sure that the will of Virginians is carried out and the ERA is added to our Constitution, as it should be,” he said.
- Why was ratifying the ERA a priority for many Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly? “Because we waited long enough,” said McClellan. “This has been about 100 years in the making, and there was just no reason to wait any longer.”
- On the Politics Hour, Tom Sherwood asked McClellan if she was planning to run for governor in 2021. “I am going to make an announcement one way or another after the session” McClellan said.
Liberal Commonwealth’s Attorneys Take Charge In Northern Virginia
- Four liberal candidates earned the title of commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties last fall.
- Three of them received money from Democratic donor George Soros. The progressive who now holds the top attorney position in Arlington County and Falls Church: Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the former legal director for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project who also used to work as a public defender.
- In the June 2019 primary, she beat Democratic incumbent Theo Stamos. Stamos tried to portray Dehghani-Tafti as inexperienced for the job. Dehghani-Tafti has never prosecuted a case, since her career has focused on public defense and exonerations.
- “People from my background, both personally and professionally, don’t tend to run for office,” said Dehghani-Tafti on the Politics Hour. “When I see a problem … and feel that I have a skillset to fix it, I tend to jump in and fix it. That’s why I went to law school. A good friend of mine was convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit while we were in college, and that sort of steered me towards law school.”
Trying To Change The Criminal Justice System
- Dehghani-Tafti — and other progressive commonwealth’s attorneys like Steve Descano in Fairfax County — are trying to change what they see as big problems through a local prosecutorial position.
- Dehghani-Tafti opposes the death penalty, hopes to eliminate cash bail, and won’t charge simple marijuana possession cases.
- When Stamos was in office, she deferred to lawmakers in Richmond when it came to reforms. Dehghani-Tafti said in a February 2019 interview with The Appeal that commonwealth’s attorneys are involved in legislature, but not in a way she’d like to see. “[Prosecutors are] saying, ‘All I do is enforce the law, I don’t make it, and if you want reform go to your legislature.’ Yet when it comes time to reform, when legislators propose bills … the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorney is down in Richmond every single day of session, and opposes reform after reform after reform, and these bills get killed.
- “Prosecutors have exercised a tremendous amount of discretion,” said Dehghani-Tafti on the Politics Hour. “We’re not robots that have to sort of, in a rote fashion, apply the law. And we’re not tyrants either. We have free reign to just decide what does and doesn’t get prosecuted.”
- Dehghani-Tafti wanted to create a Conviction Integrity Unit that would review innocence claims from people who are imprisoned. Her office is too small to create a full dedicated office to this. So, in addition to assigning a conviction integrity role to one of her deputy attorneys, she’s hoping to collaborate with Prince William, Loudoun and Fairfax counties, as well as the city of Alexandria, to create a regional Conviction Integrity Unit.
The District braces — or lets out a sigh of relief — for Councilmember Jack Evans’ last day. D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) joins the show.
Jack Evans’ Last Day
- Jack Evans’ resignation from the D.C. Council is effective at the end of the day on Friday, January 17, 2020. The special election to fill his seat will cost the District $200,000.
- Evans could run for the Ward 2 seat in the special election on June 16 or the regular primary on June 2, but he has not said publicly that he will do so.
- With Evans departure, the D.C. Council becomes more liberal, reported The Washington Post’s Fenit Nirappil. And the Council is getting younger, too: Evans, Cheh and Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) are the only members who were elected before 2012 and have served consecutively. (Ward 7 Councilmember and former Mayor Vincent Gray (D) was a councilmember from 2005 to 2011, and then again starting in 2017.)
- “Councilmember Evans has been a stalwart in defending the economic integrity of the District of Columbia,” said Cheh. “But by the same token, his behavior, in terms of the ethical realm, has really, I think, cast a pall on all of the Council, because people think of us sort of as a collective. And so what it means for the Council is that we can move on from the negative feelings that have been generated about his ethical behavior.”
- Sherwood says that Evans is privately thinking about running for his Ward 2 seat, both in the special election and the election for next term. What would be his situation on the D.C. Council? “I can tell you, in a word, it would be awkward,” Cheh said. “I think we would have to think long and hard about what his role would be on the Council.”
Cheh Weighs In On Bills Banning Outside Jobs For Councilmembers
- Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau and Kenyan McDuffie both introduced bills that would bar councilmembers from holding outside jobs. Nadeau’s includes a carveout for teachers, while McDuffie’s bars outside jobs but increases councilmembers’ salaries.
- Now that Evans has resigned, Cheh is the only councilmember who holds outside employment. She is a tenured law professor at George Washington University.
- On the Politics Hour earlier this month, McDuffie said, “I think the Council needs to draw a very clear and bold line about where it stands on outside employment.” He also emphasized that his bill was not aimed at Cheh.
- On this week’s Politics Hour, Cheh said, “There’s not a legislature in the country that bars its members from teaching undergraduates and graduates.”
- Cheh said that disclosure of interests is the bigger issue, not simply holding an outside job. “I have no clients, I don’t receive fees,” Cheh said. She also says she recuses herself from any case that comes before the Council involving George Washington University.
D.C.’s Soda Tax Could Change
- Last year, Cheh proposed an increase on the sales tax for sodas and sugary drinks by inserting the provision into the budget. The sales tax on these sweet drinks is now 8%, two percentage points higher than the District’s standard sales tax.
- Days after the new sales tax went into effect, D.C. councilmembers introduced a new bill that would replace the 2% tax hike with a 1.5 cent-per-ounce excise tax on distributors.
- According to an editorial in The Washington Post, the excise tax would increase the price of a two-liter bottle of soda by about $1.
- “This isn’t a tax to get money,” said Cheh. “This is a tax that’s really aimed at trying to reduce the amount of sugary drinks.”
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
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper; @tomsherwood
- Parisa Dehghani-Tafti Commonwealth's Attorney (D), Arlington County and the City of Falls Church; @parisa4justice
- Mary Cheh Member, D.C. Council (D-Ward 3); @marycheh
- Jennifer McClellan Member, Virginia Senate (D-District 9); @JennMcClellanVA
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 Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon, everyone.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh. She represents Ward 3. Sitting in studio with us is Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. So welcome and thank you for joining us.
PARISA DEHGHANI-TAFTIThank you for having me.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, I'd like to begin with a topic that is probably close to the heart of our guest and that's what's going on in Maryland where members of the General Assembly are trying to come up with the formula that can be used in the future so that people, who have been jailed and subsequently exonerated for crimes can be adequately compensated. The Maryland Public Works Board, the one with the comptroller and the governor and the treasurer decided on one formula for four men the median annual state income for the last four years of a person's incarceration multiplied by the number of years they were in prison, but the legislators seemed to feel that there should be an ongoing formula for this.
SHERWOODYes. There were months of discussions about how do you compensate people, who have been wrongful convicted. It's been many times -- you know, one day in jail if you're wrongfully convicted is one day too many, but, yes, they came up finally with this formula for the five men who had served something like 120 years total. But Montgomery County Delegate Kathleen Dumais has said, "We need a formula that doesn't require negotiation." So she is working in the state legislature to come up with a formula similar to what was reached for these five men, but so that people will know what it is and so there will be a standard.
NNAMDIParisa Dehghani-Tafti, I said this would be close to your heart, because I know that you -- after I guess working as a public defender in the District of Columbia worked as the Legal Director for the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
DEHGHANI-TAFTIThat is correct. And in fact, one of the four men that was compensated was my client Lamar Johnson.
SHERWOODAfter months and years of agony.
DEHGHANI-TAFTIYears, years, I mean, we represented him for over nine years. I think close to even 12 and it was really, because of Marilyn Mosby's Conviction Integrity Unit that he ended up being released, because it was a difficult case with very few legal avenues. So one of the things that the Maryland legislature has done is created more legal avenues for people to be able to claim innocence, and I think that it's laudable that they are trying to create a formula that approaches fairness.
SHERWOODThere's another bill that's being considered in the Maryland legislature that would have -- takes years off your sentence if you cooperate and testify against others. Is that something that you have worked on or is that just something totally different?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIThat is not something that I have worked on, and I'm not sure what the details of it are. So I would feel not super comfortable commenting on that.
NNAMDIWell, as I said, you worked as a public defender here in the District of Columbia and with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. Your opponent and The Washington Post both said that, "Well, she's never actually prosecuted a case." Why did you choose to run to be a prosecutor?
DEHGHANI-TAFTII mean, it is a little surprising that I chose to run as a prosecutor. People from my background both personally and professionally don't tend to run for office as a general matter.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned Marilyn Mosby, who was with the Innocence Project. Isn't she the Baltimore State's Attorney?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIShe wasn't with the Innocence Project. She created a Conviction Integrity Unit within her office.
NNAMDIOkay. Got you.
DEHGHANI-TAFTISo she actually has prosecutors that worked cooperatively, and continue to on other cases with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. And they actually have a federal grant together, which was the first federal grant in the country that's chaired by a non-profit innocence project and a State's Attorney's Office to look into wrongful convictions.
NNAMDII guess back to my original question. Why did you choose to run as a prosecutor?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIRight. So I -- my M.O. to sort of speak is that when I see a problem and identify a problem and feel that I have a skill set to fix it, I tend to jump in and fix it. That's why I went to law school. A good friend of mine was convicted of a crime that he didn't commit while we were in college and that sort of steered me towards law school. And looking over the sort of 18 to 20 years that I was working on innocence cases and sort of repeatedly seeing the problems within the system and how systemic and sort of deeply rooted they were -- once I sort of started seeing the advocacy groups and the academics and other people running, who have the sort of unusual backgrounds and doing courageous things I realized that this is something that I should be looking into myself. And the work of innocence work is actually not that different from prosecuting a case, because -- and it's quite a bit harder actually.
DEHGHANI-TAFTISo, you know, what I would do is I would take apart a case, almost like a forensic analysis of it and then start the investigation from scratch and speak to witnesses, speak to victims, you know, comb over forensic evidence. And then you actually have to build a case of innocence. You can't just prove that somebody had a bad trial. You can't just prove that somebody, you know, that there's reasonable doubt like you would in a trial. You have to actually effectively prove actual innocence. And it's a pretty high standard of proof.
SHERWOODYou defeated Theo Stamos, who had been the prosecutor in Arlington for how many years?
NNAMDIA hundred actually.
SHERWOODWell, she probably felt that way, but you promised a more -- you didn't you use the word enlightened, but a more sensitive prosecutor's office. I went back and read -- or didn't read. I listened to your speech that you gave in December when you took office. Other than paying tribute to your campaign workers and tearfully to your mother and others, you said that, not every social problem should be a crime, not every crime requires punishment. I'm paraphrasing it because I didn't write the whole thing down. Not every crime requires punishment. Not every punishment requires incarceration. Not every incarceration must leave out rehabilitation.
SHERWOODYou have a different philosophy from many of the prosecutors who, let's aggressively enforce the laws as they are written. You've already said you'll be more careful about marijuana cases and I presume others. Where does your philosophy come from?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIWell, I was extremely -- I was a philosophy major in college. And I did a lot of philosophy of law work in law school. And one of the things that informs me and probably is my North Star is John Rawls. And when I -- you know, he talked about, you know, what creates a just system, what creates a fair system. And his theory was that we should, you know, try to make decisions about what kind of system we would want and what kind of system is more fair behind a veil of ignorance. So when you apply that to the criminal legal system you would say, okay, if I'm going to be a -- if I'm going to be a party in this system and I don't know which party I'm going to be. I don't know if I'm going to be a victim, a judge, a prosecutor, the accused, a juror. What kind of a system would you create in order to maximize fairness?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIAnd that's the approach that I'm taking is what kind of a system can we create as if we were behind a veil of ignorance and did not know what role we were going to play.
SHERWOODNow you said you would not prosecute simple possession cases with marijuana. Have you held to that as -- being in office?
DEHGHANI-TAFTII have held to that to the extent that I can, and, you know, to ...
SHERWOODYou have a lot of prosecutorial discretion, but you don't have free rein.
DEHGHANI-TAFTIRight. And this is exactly where I was going is that, you know, prosecutors have exercised a tremendous amount of discretion. I mean, we're not robots that have to sort of, you know, in a rote fashion apply the law and we're not tyrants either. We have free rein to just decide what does and doesn't get prosecuted. And I think the American Bar Association has actually struck a really good balance. And in their model ethical rules they say, "Prosecutors don't have to nor should they prosecute every single case for which there is evidence." And they recommend taking into consideration, you know, collateral consequences, deterrence effect ...
SHERWOODThe long term effect of a conviction.
DEHGHANI-TAFTIExactly. That's exactly what a collateral consequence is. And also, you know, the resources and whether or not there's a public safety issue. And that's the lens through, which I'm looking at these things.
SHERWOODHow big is your office? How many -- because people said you hadn't prosecuted cases. Well, you run an office. You're not going to be going into court probably that often, but how many lawyers do you have working with you?
DEHGHANI-TAFTISo we have a staff of 16.
SHERWOODSixteen lawyers or?
DEHGHANI-TAFTISixteen lawyers and then we have a whole ...
SHERWOODOkay. And support staff.
DEHGHANI-TAFTI... slew of support staff as well. And the lawyers, I mean -- I'm just going to take a second. I know this is not a part of the agenda, but just shout out how amazing all of the staff and the lawyers have been, both the people who stayed in the office and took a leap of faith to try a new way of doing things and the people who gave up lucrative careers to come into the office.
SHERWOODAnd people worried that you were going to come in and be the liberal dragon and change everything, but even in your inaugural speech you complicated Ms. Stamos for opening the door into a field where women still are minorities in terms of few people holding the type of job you have. So you're being more collegial maybe with these lawyers, who maybe some were fearful of what you were going to do.
DEHGHANI-TAFTIWell, I had the luxury of months to build the bridges, and I spent a lot of time during the summer speaking to the lawyers within the office and speaking to the staff and speaking to the police and speaking to the Department of Human Services. And so I really was lucky to have months of time to build trust and build relationships.
NNAMDIA number of the prosecutors you hired used to work in the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office in Fairfax County that is now held by Steve Descano. And he like you ousted a long time Democrat on a progressive platform. Why do you think those attorneys decided to jump from that office to yours?
DEHGHANI-TAFTII actually had relationships with those attorneys.
NNAMDIAnd did you get any calls from Steve Descano about this?
DEHGHANI-TAFTISteve and I have talked, and Steve is an extremely good sport. And I'm excited to have him as a colleague.
SHERWOODOne of the changes you have said you want to make may require legislation is to eliminate cash bail. Is that something that's said in law that judges require or is that something that you can recommend, no cash bail? How does that work? Do you need the law changed or can you just make a policy?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIActually a little bit of both. There's parts of the law that probably should be changed in terms of the presumptions of what does not -- like who does not get released. But we've already started the work of not using cash bail. And, you know, when my assistants go into court and argue bond motions we layout the history of a case and an individual. But we don't just kick it to the judge to decide what to do then. We actually make recommendations about what kind of conditions if any we would recommend to ensure that the person comes back to court.
NNAMDIWell, for our listeners who may not have heard this before, why do you oppose cash bail?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIOh, that's an excellent question. Thank you for stepping back. Basically I don't think that there should be a price tag on freedom. I don't think anybody should be locked up in jail simply, because they can't afford to be get out pending their trial. What that does -- the system that we have what it does is that it criminalizes poverty.
NNAMDIOur guest is Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. She's the Commonwealth's Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. She is a Democrat. You've also promised not to seek the death penalty. Why and how much discretion do you have with that?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIWell, I have complete discretion in not chagrining -- well, I can charge a capital offense, but I can choose not to seek the death penalty. I can charge something as murder one rather than a capital offense. And the reason why I ran and the reason why I promise not to charge with the death penalty is because I don't think that the death penalty has any place in a civil society. And having worked on innocence cases, having seen the over 164 individuals out of the 2400 and change, who were on death row and proven innocent, I know that there are people who are sitting on death row right now who are innocent. I know that there are people who have been executed who are innocent.
SHERWOODI'm sorry, given that very serious concern about not executing an innocent person. What do you say then to the victims of crime, the family members, the associates, the people who are a part of a horrific crime maybe where they weren't killed, but family members were? People who are on death row, I remember when a political person in the District went down to Lorton when it was still a prison and he came back kind of shaken. He said, "Now, I know why we have prisons. There are some really terrible people in the world and they commit heinous horrible crimes." So what do you say to the person who says that my family has been killed, this person deserves to die in a legal manner. Is that -- what's your response that emotional reaction to your position?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIRight. Well, I mean, it depends on who I'm talking to and I certainly would not be dismissive of that emotional response. And so not being in that situation across from somebody it's hard to say sort of what set of facts I would draw on.
SHERWOODIf my spouse were killed in some horrific crime I might want to see the person, who did it die.
DEHGHANI-TAFTII mean, that is hours and weeks and months long conversation. And I think that you have to work towards sort of building a basis of trust.
SHERWOODJustice is not retribution necessarily.
DEHGHANI-TAFTII mean, it can be. I mean, you know, we have to consider, you know, retribution. We have to consider rehabilitation and we have to consider, you know, making sure that -- you know, that somebody doesn't actually have the opportunity to go out and commit that heinous crime.
SHERWOODBecause there's no chance for victims to be rehabilitated.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back we'll continue this conversation with Paris Dehghani-Tafti. We'll also be joined by Jennifer McClellan, a Member of the Virginia Senate representing District 9. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. She is the Commonwealth's Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. She's a Democrat. You wanted to finish up something you were saying.
DEHGHANI-TAFTII would love to go back to the death penalty. And I think it's particularly good timing to do that. Bryan Stevenson's movie "Just Mercy" came out last weekend or a week and a half ago. And one of the things that he asks in the book and I think in the movie as well, you know, the question with the death penalty isn't does the person deserve to die, but do we deserve to kill? And I think that's the sort of North Star question that we need to always go back to is do we deserve to kill?
NNAMDIAnother one of your priorities I guess will raise a lot of eyebrows in the prosecutorial world, because a lot of prosecutors are not judged -- but they're assessed on the basis of how many cases they win. And if you want to win cases you don't want to help the defense too much.
SHERWOODAny more than you have to.
NNAMDIExactly. But you are going to be making it easier -- at least that's one of your priorities making it easier for defense attorneys to access case files, why?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIWell, I view my responsibility as a prosecutor as protecting victims, protecting victims and witnesses and protecting the community and including protecting the accused.
SHERWOODThe rights of the accused.
DEHGHANI-TAFTIThe rights of the accused, exactly. And, you know, in order to do that I think that they should have a good sense of what the case is. I don't believe that we should ambush people in trial. And I also know that, you know, there are constitutional rights that they have to know what potentially exculpatory and impeaching evidence there is. And I would prefer to be in a position where I'm not making the decision of what might be exculpatory, but letting the defense, who has all of the facts from their client be making that decision and doing the investigation.
SHERWOODLet's be clear, because the listeners wouldn't know this. Previously if you're a defense attorney you had to go in and hand copy not photograph, not take pictures, not get Xerox copies. You had to hand copy all the information the prosecutors might allow you to see.
SHERWOODAnd so what's different with you. Will you allow them to copy the materials? What's being done differently now than handwriting laboriously all these files?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIWell, just -- you could type it before too. I don't want to be inaccurate. So what we've -- we're not at the end of where we want to be yet. You know, we're not where the goal is. But what we have been doing is providing by email documents and, you know, redacting sensitive information like social security numbers and addresses and things like that. But we have been either permitting a defense to come in and scan or providing materials electronically.
NNAMDIRichard in Silver Spring has another question about the process and the system. Richard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHARDYeah. the first one is bail and bonds. It seems like bails and bonds kind of documents given to defendants when they are released are templates and they're not really tailored in reality to the individual. They're just forms with a fill in the blanks kind of things and with conditions that may not even apply to that defendant. That's somewhat onerous. Secondly, what happened to the 550,000 people, who now can get their driver's licenses back that were previously not allowed to because they had a court time due?
NNAMDIOkay. You're breaking up on us, Richard. Please.
DEHGHANI-TAFTISo, you're absolutely right that a lot of the conditions that put on are sort of one size fits all. And our office -- what I've been trying to do is to alleviate that situation. To look at a case, you know, if somebody doesn't seem to have a drug problem, then don't ask as a condition for there to be drug testing. And so we've been trying to tailor a little bit more. And this is one of those places where we're not quite where we want to be yet, but we've already started asking for specific conditions.
SHERWOODAnd driver's licenses, is that a state issue?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIIt is a state issue and I honestly and I apologize I don't know the answer to where we are with the driver's license issue yet.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Marilyn Mosby's Conviction Integrity Unit. You've mentioned that you're interested in creating such a unit. What would this office do?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIWell, because we're a small office we don't have the capacity to really create a unit with multiple staff, but I have already assigned the job of conviction integrity to one of my deputies and I will be sort of the last stop for that. But I would really love to be able to create a regional conviction integrity unit where, you know, Steve and Bryan Porter in Alexandria and Amy Ashworth in Prince William and Buta Biberaj in Loudoun, where we collaborate together, and actually sort of maybe apply for a grants and have one or two attorneys and one or two investigators who look at all the cases.
SHERWOODThe Virginia Association Commonwealth Attorneys has a committee of something like that. This is kind of on their point. Arlington is looking to change the police uniform. Have you been involved at all with that? There are three different uniforms. Some people think police officers look too much like military people. They want to change the uniforms. Is that on your agenda?
DEHGHANI-TAFTISo I can honestly say I have not thought about or been involved with the police uniforms. What I am excited about is that the police seemed to be committed in Arlington to getting body worn cameras.
SHERWOODPolice Chief Farr, is that right?
SHERWOODIs he for it?
DEHGHANI-TAFTIHe is working on it. And I am really heartened by the idea that the police and the county board and everybody seems to be moving towards transparency in an excited way.
NNAMDIParisa Dehghani-Tafti is the Commonwealth Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. She's a Democrat. David Gaines tweeted, "Thank you, Parisa, for mentioning that you are a philosophy major in college as was I on the show today. Humanities haters and bean counters need to see successful philosophy majors doing their thing." Thank you so much for joining us.
DEHGHANI-TAFTIThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Jennifer McClellan. She's a Member of the Virginia Senate representing District 9, which includes parts of Richmond, Henrico County, Hanover County and Charles City County. She is a Democrat. Senator McClellan, thank you for joining us.
JENNIFER MCCLELLANWell, good afternoon, Kojo. Thank you. And you, Tom, thank you for having me.
NNAMDITom, I'd like for us to talk about what's going on. Governor Ralph Northam has declared a state of emergency temporarily banning weapons from the Capital grounds in advance of that gun rights rally planned for Monday citing threats of armed confrontation and assault on our Capital. We all remember what happened in Charlottesville.
SHERWOODYes. That's why the governor declared this four day emergency and it was upheld by a court just I think this morning that he was within his rights to do so. Of course, that's irritated the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is hosting this rally on Monday, but there's great concern particularly since Charlottesville, since the shooting in Virginia Beach, since the arrest by the FBI. There's a great deal of concern about the temper of what will occur when thousands of people who are worried about their Second Amendment Rights come to the Capital to express those concerns.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISenator McClellan, I'm assuming you share those concerns.
MCCLELLANI do, and we all recognize and respect everyone's First Amendment right and their Second Amendment rights, but we also need to make sure that we keep our citizens and our staff safe. So we're trying to balance that this weekend.
SHERWOODWill you be there on Monday?
SHERWOODI'm thinking about driving down.
MCCLELLANI will absolutely be here. It is a full work day for us. We will be taking up bills and so I'll be here.
NNAMDIOn Wednesday, Virginia's house of delegates and senate voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Let's take a listen to those final moments in both chambers, starting with the house of delegates.
DEL. EILEEN FILLER-CORNAyes, 59; nays, 41; abstentions, zero. For the women of Virginia and the women of America, the resolution has finally passed. (cheering)
MALEClerk, close the roll.
WOMANAyes, 28; no’s, 12.
MALEAyes, 28; no’s, 12. Senate Joint Resolution One is agreed to. (cheering, applause)
NNAMDISenator McClellan, I'm assuming yours is one of the voices we heard (laugh) there.
SHERWOODShe's much too dignified to shout out in the chamber.
MCCLELLANWell, that was the gallery. We're under strict rules -- we're not allowed to shout on the floor, but I was screaming on the inside.
NNAMDIIt was one of the first major votes that the general assembly took. Why did you make it such a priority?
MCCLELLANBecause we've waited long enough. You know, this has been over about a hundred years in the making, and there was just no reason to wait any longer.
SHERWOODForty-seven years in -- I mean, Maryland passed the ERA in 1972, so Virginia is well behind.
SHERWOODBut what more than just the emotional effect of the states now--38 states ratifying the ERA? There's some dispute about whether or not it expired. It initially was going to expire in 1979. Then it was extended to 1982, and some people are contending ERA missed the boat and it cannot become a constitutional amendment.
NNAMDIThree states--Alabama, Louisiana, and South Dakota, filed a lawsuit to block the U.S. archivist from adding the ERA to the Constitution.
MCCLELLANWell, the archivist actually doesn't have a role in the constitutional amendment process.
NNAMDIHow about the Justice Department? They issued an opinion last week --
MCCLELLANWell, they don't -- (laugh)
NNAMDI-- saying it can't be ratified.
SHERWOODWhat are the next steps? I think that's what we're asking.
MCCLELLANYeah, so once the amendment is ratified, it should automatically take effect on the date provided in the resolution from Congress, when they first passed it, and I'm sure there will be attempts to stop that, you know, with this lawsuit, as you mentioned. There's also legislation in Congress to remove the deadline, just to take that argument off the table altogether. So you know, I firmly believe this is going to happen, but you know, we've fought this long, we're going to keep fighting.
NNAMDISenator Amanda Chase, a Republican from Chesterfield, spoke against the resolution, saying the ERA does nothing for true equality of women, but uses women as a political pawn to push the liberal agenda. She said the resolution would be used to overturn all restrictions on abortions. How would you respond to that?
MCCLELLANWell, like on so many other things, Senator Chase is just wrong. The ERA, first, finally puts women in the Constitution, and even Justice Scalia, who was not a liberal, said that the Constitution currently does not prohibit discrimination against women. There were Republicans, who first supported the ERA in 1972. There are Republicans who support it now. So I think it is important that we finally take this step to say liberty and justice for all includes women, and that's exactly what we're about to do.
SHERWOODIs it significant that this year, 2020, is the one-hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, of the right to vote?
NNAMDISenator--go ahead. Go ahead.
MCCLELLANWell, I just was going to say it's also the 400th anniversary of when the first English women actually arrived here in response to a recruiting flyer saying that they were recruiting women to the colony, but even those women, when they came here, had no rights. So it's really appropriate we're doing it now.
NNAMDIWhat do you expect to happen next with the ERA?
MCCLELLANWell, we've got a couple more votes here before it's officially official, and then it should take effect. And again, I know there'll be some lawsuits to try to stop that, but it is going to take effect, I think.
NNAMDIJennifer McClellan is a--
SHERWOODWait, wait, hang on, quick political question. You were up here last fall for a fundraiser in Alexandria with the mayor of Alexandria, Adam Ebbin. I wasn't allowed to come. They said I could stand outside the door. Where are you when people ask you are you running -- I know you're running with a PAC around the state, helping people. Are you running for governor? When will you make that decision, that announcement?
MCCLELLANI am going to make an announcement one way or another after the session. Right now I am focused on taking advantage of this majority that we have, but I am going to serve the people of the commonwealth, and the way I can best do that, and that's all I'm ready to say right now.
NNAMDIHere's a quick pushback that you're getting. Here's Joe in Manassas. Joe, we don't have a lot of time left, but go ahead.
JOEOh, hi, yeah, two quick points. First, on the ERA, you know, I think this is just another show by the Democrats. They -- any good lawyer knows that there was a Supreme Court case several years ago where three states tried to rescind their approval of ERA. The Supreme Court held it was moot, it didn't matter, because the time to approve the ERA is over.
NNAMDIOkay. Your second point?
JOEThe second point is can you imagine if a governor declared a state of emergency for a gay and lesbian rally or an African-American's rights rally, or a Black Lives Matter rally? This proves nothing more than the Democrat --
NNAMDIWe are not in the imagining business here, but Senator McClellan, how do you respond to his first point?
MCCLELLANI would say on rescission the Constitution does not provide any power to the states to rescind ratification. As a matter of fact, there have been at least two amendments that took effect despite states trying to rescind their ratification. So I think that he's just incorrect on that.
NNAMDIJennifer McClellan is a Virginia state senator representing District 9. Thank you so much for joining us.
MCCLELLANThank you, have a great weekend.
NNAMDIYou, too. When we come back we will be talking with Mary Cheh, a member of the D.C. council representing Ward 3. If you have questions or comments for Mary Cheh, start calling now -- 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @KojoShow or email to kojo@WAMU.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us in-studio is Mary Cheh. She's a member of the D.C. council representing Ward 3. She is a Democrat. Councilmember Cheh, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MARY CHEHThank you for having me.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, the homeless encampment that was on K Street NW -- NE -- near to Union Station has been cleared out. A lot of people are very uncomfortable with that because some of those homeless persons say we actually work for a living, we just can't afford housing, and we really have no place else to go, but then people who live in that neighborhood were saying that it's an obstruction and it is sometimes dangerous.
SHERWOODAnd also sanitary issues.
SHERWOODWell, the mayor's administration and the city has a policy that it's not -- it does not want to tolerate encampments. I, mean, driving here today, I saw several encampments on the way to the studio. But the mayor's office contends that there are shelters for anyone who is homeless, and because homeless people -- some -- and the Supreme Court ruled you can't just take people off the street.
SHERWOODSome people don't like the shelters. They feel unsafe there, things are stolen there, they want to live outside, and so it's a continuing thing. They clear shelters in one space, and then people come back. This has happened several times.
NNAMDIIt is part of the crisis of affordable housing that we have in this region.
NNAMDIAnd Councilmember Cheh, it has been suggested that one of the solutions to the affordable housing crisis in Washington, D.C. is to try to create more affordable housing in your ward, Ward 3, by increasing density there, because there's so many single-family homes in Ward 3 that it is the opinion of some people that there should be increased density in Ward 3.
CHEHWell, I agree that we should have more affordable housing all across the District, including in Ward 3, and I think Ward 3 in general will be receptive to that. What we shouldn't do is frame it in a way that it pits single-family houses against greater density, because we have not fully utilized our corridors and areas that are -- what they refer to as transit-oriented development.
CHEHSo I think there's plenty of opportunity in Ward 3, and I believe the mayor said something like 1,500 or 2,000 units. And, you know, if we talk to residents, I'm quite willing to speak to them about our obligations on the one hand, but also the benefits that come if we could have our teachers and we could have our firefighters and police officers, workforce housing, affordable housing in Ward 3, we would all be benefitted.
NNAMDICouncilmember Jack Evans has resigned from the council. I think his last day is today. Is that correct?
NNAMDIHis last day is (unintelligible). What do you think his departure means for the council, its image, and its work?
CHEHWell, there -- really, it's a tale of two cities in that sense, because Councilmember Evans has been a stalwart in defending the economic integrity of the District of Columbia. He's been important in various major development and helping to bring the District out of its economic crisis of --
CHEHYes, that would be an economic crisis, for sure. But by the same token, his behavior, you know, in terms of the ethical realm has really, I think, cast a pall on all of the council, because people think of us sort of as a collective. And so what it means for the council is that we can move on from the negative feelings that have been generated about his ethical behavior. But by the same token, I do think we will lose a certain voice on the council that may not be fully represented with the other members.
SHERWOODWould you call him and ask him his advice on -- your office is right next door to his. But would you call him after today and ask him about something that occurred on the council?
CHEHYou know, I've been -- I'm in my fourth term. I'm there 13 years. So --
SHERWOODSo you already know everything.
CHEHNo, I don't know everything, but I don't know that it's like --
CHEH-- I would have to call him up and say, so --
CHEH-- what about this and what about that.
SHERWOODHere's a more serious question -- Jack Evans has --
CHEHSee, I took that as a serious question.
SHERWOODWell, it was --
CHEHMaybe that was my fault.
SHERWOODI thought you would say, yes, you would talk to him, because he has that knowledge that you know of.
SHERWOODBut he is, I'm told, privately thinking about running both for his next term and also in the special election to replace him for the last six months of this year. If the voters were to approve him to come back, the Ward 2 voters said, okay, we want Jack Evans. Despite these issues, we want him back. What would be his situation on the council? Would he get his seniority back, would he be a freshman? How would that work?
CHEHWell, I could tell you in a word, it will be awkward, but, you know, there's nothing in our rules that says that being expelled -- and of course, he did resign, you know, in the shadow of expulsion. He would have been expelled. But there's nothing there that says you can't continue in office if you're reelected or you can't rejoin.
SHERWOODIn Virginia, they call it being refreshed by the voters.
CHEHYeah, but I would think we would have to think long and hard about what his role would be on the council. I would seriously doubt that we should put him in charge of the same committees that he had in the past finance --
SHERWOODWhat about on just being a member of any committee, without being a chair of any committee?
CHEHWell, you know, I haven't actually thought that through, but you know --
NNAMDIWe'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
SHERWOODWell, it could be within months.
NNAMDINow that he's leaving, you're the only councilmember who holds a job outside the council. You're a law professor at George Washington University. Council members Brianne Nadeau and Kenyan McDuffie both introduced bills that would bar council members from holding outside job. Nadeau's includes a carve-out for teachers while McDuffie's bars all outside job. But it increases council members' salaries.
CHEHBy $45,000, mm-hmm.
NNAMDIWhat do you think of these bills?
CHEHWell, you know, I spoke to Councilmember Nadeau. Kenyan McDuffie didn't speak to me at all about this, but you know, there's not a legislature in the country that bars its members from teaching undergraduates or graduates. Justices, judges of all kinds, they teach; Congresswoman Norton has taught at Georgetown Law School for years.
CHEHThe idea about teaching is not only not an issue -- shouldn't be an issue for service on the council, but it's an actual positive, I think. I've always disclosed it to my voters, and they've reelected me four times.
NNAMDIBut why just teachers?
NNAMDIWhy not other people, as Tom Sherwood has said before on this show? Why not other people who do very noble outside jobs?
SHERWOODA barber. But part of the problem for me --
SHERWOOD-- on this is that educators, the five universities that are in this district, the teachers' union, they are the most politically active in the city, and it seems -- McDuffie sat where you're sitting there, and he said, well, he thinks no one should have an outside job or everyone should be allowed to have outside jobs, and there ought to be more disclosure, but he's for no jobs.
CHEHWell, okay, let's back up a little bit and see, you know, the issue about Jack Evans and how that may have distorted the debate. Talking about outside employment is a diversion from the real issues, and you're starting to mention them, which are disclosure of interests that could create conflicts. Teaching does not do that. I have no clients, I don't receive fees.
SHERWOODSo when George Washington University has something before the council, do you recuse yourself?
CHEHI do, and I have.
SHERWOODJust for the law school or for the whole school?
CHEHNo, for the entire university.
SHERWOODBecause the -- because of the hospital situation and --
CHEHNo, in --
SHERWOOD-- all that stuff.
CHEHIn every case -- and there haven't been that many of them -- even though I am advised by council to the council that I don't have -- I'm not implicated in any pecuniary or monetary interest in that sense, I'm a full professor with tenure. And I hate to admit this, but I'm coming up on 40 -- 40 -- years of teaching at GW.
NNAMDIWould you stay on the council if it meant giving up your job at GW?
CHEHAgain, cross that bridge when I come to it, but I --
SHERWOODWell, if the law passed, would --
CHEHBut I doubt it.
SHERWOOD-- with the law passed, it would be a while before it actually went into effect. It's not emergency legislation, so you could decide -- yeah.
CHEHNo, but I found it interesting that the mayor was quoted as saying, at around the same time, that we should stop outside employment immediately. Now, what -- I'm referring to --
SHERWOODWell, you and the mayor don't -- or the mayor --
CHEHNo, no, no, wait, now -- let's correct that, because --
SHERWOODWe only have a few minutes.
CHEHNo, I know that The Washington Post continually refers to me as "a frequent mayoral critic." Well, when the mayor has policies or takes actions that I think are wrong or I disagree with, I say so, but I'm not -- I wouldn't characterize -- I wouldn't -- we shouldn't be characterized as at odds with one another. We work together well on many issues, but again, I have to exercise my own judgment about what goes on.
CHEHAnd so it's not fair to say we're at odds. However -- however -- I was struck by her statement, because it can only be aimed at me, as I'm the only one to whom it applies.
NNAMDIHere is Kendra in Cheverly, Maryland. Kendra, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENDRAThank you so much, Kojo. The councilmember says that, you know, really she's dedicated to affordable housing and density in Ward 3, and as a member of a team that has tried to get more density built, particularly around the (unintelligible) metro, my question is how is it that she (unintelligible) manage the ANC, who block these efforts repeatedly and make it almost impossible to build that density?
CHEHWell, you know, the ANC commissioners are themselves elected, and they do play a role here. They don't determine these things, but they pass resolutions with recommendations. And it is true that ANCs in the past have often presented obstacles, but that doesn't mean that we can't do this. I don't control the ANCs, and they are, as I said, elected officials in their own right. But I'm more optimistic than the caller about what we can accomplish in Ward 3.
SHERWOODBut we have a lot of serious issues, but I called around asking for questions for you, and the best one I got, someone said you're the chair of the transportation and environment committee, and they said, ask Mary Cheh if she really believes that trees talk to each other.
CHEHWell, you know, there's scientific evidence. It's not talking like I'm sending an email from one tree to the next, of course. But trees do communicate chemically through their own roots and through fungi, and that's why sometimes when trees are suffering in terms of nutrients or water, one tree can send help to another. And so I know you're asking me this because you probably --
NNAMDIBut he didn't provide any context.
CHEHYou're probably thinking that it's ridiculous, but --
SHERWOODNo, I didn't say it was ridiculous. I just asked the question --
CHEHI -- Okay.
SHERWOOD-- because someone said I should ask it.
CHEHBut it's actually true.
NNAMDICan you contextualize this for us, please?
CHEHYes. You know, if you go outside, now, you can see --
NNAMDINo, I mean where does this all come from?
CHEHI don't know. It's this caller who wants to ask this question.
NNAMDIHave you talked about trees communicating before?
CHEHWell, I did speak to a large group of Boy Scouts last spring.
CHEHAnd I did talk about that.
CHEHI talk about a lot of unusual things when I'm out on the hustings, and that may be where this came from.
SHERWOODThis was a big fan of yours who asked that question.
SHERWOODThey just thought it was interesting that you could talk about how trees communicate with each other.
NNAMDIIn October, a new tax on sodas and sugary drinks went into effect. These drinks now have an 8 percent sales tax as opposed to D.C.'s standard 6 percent sales tax. You interpret -- you inserted that provision into the city's 2020 budget instead of passing it like a bill, and Tyrone in D.C. doesn't like it at all. Tyrone, you're on the air. Go ahead.
TYRONEHow you doing? Thank you. The District already has so much money, a budget surplus of 872 million, plus more coming in from the World series.
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left, Tyrone. What's your question?
TYRONEOh -- the question I'm asking now, why are we taking more money from the local businesses and working families when the District already has plenty of money?
NNAMDIThis tax is going to hurt small businesses.
CHEHThis is --
SHERWOODAnd families (unintelligible) .
CHEHNo, no, no, wait, wait. This isn't a tax to get money, this is a tax that's really aimed at trying to reduce the amount of sugary drinks, which is why, if we actually pass the excise tax, which would be put right on the item, which I wanted to do some years ago, but I lost by one vote and now it's being renewed, that will replace the sales tax. The sales tax isn't so good for this purpose, because it comes at the end of your shopping, you don't know what it relates to, necessarily.
CHEHBut here's the point. We face an epidemic of overweight and obesity, and all of the physical, medical ills that are associated with that, and it's very, very serious. In fact, if we don't bring that under control, it's the case -- and others have said this -- that we will have the first generation that will have a shorter life than the one that exists now.
CHEHAnd the CDC -- I want to say this, because this is important -- said if you were to take one policy choice to deal with this matter -- not that this is a silver bullet, but it's significant -- if you were to take one policy choice, you can chart the rise in overweight and obesity, and it follows exactly the line of the rise in the consumption of sugary drinks.
SHERWOODTwo-liter drinks, even.
CHEHRight. We want people to choose something else. It's not that -- this is not meant to be a money-maker.
SHERWOODAnd the money that is collected will go to what?
CHEHOh, yes, well, thank you for asking. It goes to a variety --
SHERWOODThe media's here to help.
CHEHYes, thank you. It goes for a variety of nutritional benefits. You know, we have -- we still have people in the District who are insecure in terms of their food, we still have people in the District who have a lack of access to good, fresh food, and it will also help support a program, which I really love -- forgive me, I really want to talk about this very briefly.
NNAMDIYou only have 20 seconds.
CHEHIt's called Produce Rx. We're working with Giant Food over in Ward 8 with that food store. If you have a medical problem and the doctor thinks that you have to improve your eating, they will give you a coupon. You can get $20 worth of fresh food at that Giant every week.
NNAMDIMary Cheh is a member of the D.C. council representing Ward 3. Thank you so much for joining us. Today's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up on Monday, Second Amendment activists plan to protest legislative efforts to restrict guns in the commonwealth, and some are worried the gathering could turn violent. Plus many people make an effort to volunteer on Martin Luther King's birthday or the holiday.
NNAMDIWe look at some of the more unusual volunteer jobs people hold year-round. That all starts at noon on Monday. Until then, have a wonderful weekend. What's your plan, Tom?
SHERWOODNational Gallery of Art, Claude Monet tour, Sunday.
NNAMDIThank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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