On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Then we’ll sit down with Ann Wheeler (D-At Large), chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Elected last fall, Wheeler is the first Democratic chair of the Board since 1999. We’ll talk about how the county is faring during the pandemic, controversy over the Route 28 bypass, plans for students to return to school and more.
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 is our Resident Analyst and Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODHello, everybody.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with Ann Wheeler, the Chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, the first Democrat to hold that post in 20 years, but joining us now is Paul Wiedefeld. He is the General Manager of WMATA. Paul Wiedefeld, thank you for joining us.
PAUL WIEDEFELDThank you, Kojo, for having me.
NNAMDIBefore we get to Metro issues, Tom Sherwood, the big news of the day is that President Trump has tweeted that he and the first lady have tested positive for the coronavirus and that they will be in the White House for the foreseeable future. As Republicans and Democrats alike have indicated that they are hoping for a recovery for the president and the first lady, but this is likely to come up in political discussions about how the pandemic has been handled.
SHERWOODKojo, of course, everyone wants the president and the first lady and any of the White House officials affected, Hope Hicks and others to recover and to be well. But it cannot be dismissed that President Trump as recently as Tuesday night at the debate with Joe Biden mocked, made fun of Joe Biden for wearing a mask. And President Trump said, "I don't wear a mask like him." And now that was another sign of how the president has been trying to downplay and make light of this virus that has killed over 200,000 American citizens.
SHERWOODSo locally Congressman Gerry Connelly, a Democrat of Virginia, expressed his concern for the president. But he said -- he wanted to note that this virus quote "this virus it's not a hoax." Governor Ralph Northam who is right now recovering from the virus and his wife, Pam, Governor Northam said that this is very real and very serious.
SHERWOODSenator Tim Kaine of Virginia has said, "We have got to, in this country, take it seriously." Mayor Muriel Bowser, I asked her for a comment this morning. And her staff said that she noted that the White House conducts its own testing for the virus. But that she is concerned, obviously, about anyone who might get it.
SHERWOODAnd in Maryland -- the good news in Maryland, you know, is that there has been no death in Maryland for the first time from the virus since last April. And so that's good news in Maryland. We haven't heard from the governor yet about President Trump. But you can see the regional officials around here want personal -- have personal concerns for the president and the White House. But they all are much more adamant in saying this virus is something to be taken seriously.
NNAMDIPaul Wiedefeld, I'll start with an email that we got from Andrew Kierig, Chair of the WMATA's Riders' Advisory Council. "The Riders' Advisory Council was told in June that WMATA would begin distribution of the 500,000 masks it received from the federal government soon along with the placement of hand sanitizer stations throughout the system. Four months later and as a nearly daily rider I have seen none of that. As a test, I asked a station manager for one. He said he had been given none to distribute." What's going on Paul Wiedefeld?
WIEDEFELDActually, Kojo, we are rolling that out right now. We actually have a million masks that we will have available. But the issue we had is that as the masks came in they were not individually wrapped. So then we have an issue of someone handling them. So we physically had to in effect wrap each one of those. So you can imagine the time it takes to do that. But that is all rolling out now. And you will see it at various stations and at key bus locations as well.
NNAMDILike other transit agencies across the country, WMATA is eagerly awaiting more federal aid. You said Metro needs $250 million to make up for its budget gap. What will it mean for the transit agency if it does not receive additional federal funding?
WIEDEFELDIt is a very very difficult time for us. Right now the CARES Act money that we've been getting runs out in roughly January. And then we have this large hole that just has to be filled in six months. It's not even a year at that point. So that 200 -- it's roughly $212 million by the time we do some of the things that we can do to try to reduce that number.
WIEDEFELDSo what we have out right now in the public docket for comment is a revised budget. There's a number of things we have to do internally everything from furloughs. The budget will require in effect a full time equivalent of over 1700 positions being laid off. Obviously we will do everything we can to minimize that by means of using vacancies. Maybe a retirement incentive programs, things of that sort. But it is an extremely serious issue. We will continue to provide the current bus service that we started in August. We will have to reduce some of the rail service that we are providing, which we, again, we ramped in August. We are proposing that that be pulled down a bit because we're trying to basically meet the dollars and save as many jobs as we can.
SHERWOODI want to ask a little bit more about the financing. But I also wanted to check the last time you were on General Manager you were telling us that Metro had remarkably not had any serious incidents of the virus or deaths within your very large staff that's in all three jurisdictions at this region. Can you give us a brief update on how the staff itself is doing with the virus in terms of cases?
WIEDEFELDUnfortunately we did have a death of one of our employees due to the virus, and it's a terrible situation. Again, I think we are fortunate when you compare it to what is going on in some other transit properties and, again, in the community at large. But, again, we have several hundred people that are out at different times. Whether they're quarantined that they've been tested positive and or they've been around someone that has.
WIEDEFELDExactly what you started talking about earlier with what's going on with the president. It's a very very serious issue. It's not going away. We're doing everything possible we can to keep our employees safe. We continue to stress for our customers to wear masks everywhere they can or anytime they use our system. We all are in this together. We all have to do our part to keep each other safe.
SHERWOODYou mentioned earlier that you are hoping to get more funding federal or otherwise and you're concerned about it. You don't even want to be begging for money. But it sounds like you are. One of our longtime listeners, Jude Graham of Southwest Washington, tweeted a short time earlier to me. He wanted to know why doesn't Metro and you pushback more on the idea that Metro should be profitable. That the measure of how Metro works should be how well it serves the public not how much it balances its budget and makes a profit even.
WIEDEFELDTransit in this country and literally around the globe except for very few other situations -- transit does not make a profit. It's not designed to make a profit. It's designed to serve a number of functions whether it's meeting essential trips for people that don't have the ability of access for a car. It's designed to serve people with disabilities. It's designed to serve the environment. It's designed to serve the overall economy. And all that is driven to make it -- it's not designed to be a profit making business. It isn't in this country anywhere.
WIEDEFELDOur fair box recovery under normal times is one of the highest in the country. And that is what transit is. And it's the same in Europe and other places. There are a few examples particularly in Asia where it does make money. But that's where in effect they run -- they're more of a land use, more of a property manager of which they then have transit, but by and large, the entire industry it does not make a profit nor is it designed to.
SHERWOODIt still seems like you have to almost beg for money for something is essential to the heartbeat of the region.
WIEDEFELDThat I agree.
SHERWOODAnd we're going to bring this up later in the show, but Prince William County would like -- some people are saying that they want -- Virginia legislators want you to extend the Blue Line 15 miles down into Virginia to Quantico, but you're having trouble just operating right now.
WIEDEFELDYeah, I mean, Tom, I think we have to put it in perspective of where we were prepandemic to where we are now. Prepandemic our ridership was going up. Our own time performance had been improved and we were on a very good path. The finances had stabilized. So the last, you know, seven months now has just -- obviously it's new to everyone. And hopefully we never have to go through this again. But, you know, transit, yes we do ask for assistance.
WIEDEFELDThe federal government -- our delegation has been fantastic to get us the dollars in the CARES Act. And I know they're pushing very hard in the current negotiations that are going on on the Hill now. So we appreciate that. The pressure that we're under now is that the local portion of our subsidy, the portion that comes from local governments, although in 21 they had been able to meet our needs. The concern is what the financial pressures they're under going forward. And I'm sure that you're following that.
WIEDEFELDAnd Jeff Dewitt at the District came out two days ago and sort of projected what their revenues look like in the District, and, again, not a good story. Eventually that rolls down to us as well as other public services whether it's schools or police, fire, you name it. They'll all be under stress as those revenues go down.
NNAMDIIn September the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission released a scathing report about Metro's Rail Operations Control Center citing a toxic workplace culture and a range of troubling safety issues. I'd like to dig into some of the specifics starting with safety problems, inadequate training for controllers, management interfering with investigations and poor communication during emergencies. It also reported that controllers were overworked and fatigued, which is a big issue. Since these are the people responsible for keeping riders safe, how are you addressing these concerns?
WIEDEFELDA number of things, clearly that is unacceptable. So there's a number of things we've done. One of the things that I did very early was to move that the Rail Operations Center to direct report to me. I brought in new people that are answering to me. We allowed them to get any resources within the organization and the outside resources to support that, but culture is a very very difficult issue to deal with whether it's this organization or any organization that has to deal with cultural issues. It takes time. It takes commitments. It takes building trust.
WIEDEFELDAnd that's what we're focusing on. We are recruiting for a new director of the Rail Operations Center and we'll do that and have the person in hopefully very soon. And we'll continue to just drive this. I envision that the Rail Operations Center answering to me for the next year plus until we get this to where it needs to be. And that's a commitment that we've made and we're going to get there.
NNAMDIIn response to the audit, Metro launched and independent review of a Senior Vice President Lisa Woodruff. She was cited in the audit as having, quoting here, "violated or instructed controllers to violate safety procedures." What can you tell us about this investigation and does WMATA plan to investigate any other personnel at the Rail Operations Control Center? We only have about 40 seconds left in this segment.
WIEDEFELDYes. We will investigate any claim. But we will give everyone a chance to be heard. We needs to hear all sides of a story and then make a decision, which is how we deal with any personnel issue. That's what we're doing in this case. In this case we did hire someone independently to do it. So it's no one within the agency doing it. And we'll get to the bottom of this. And we will take whatever personnel actions need to be taken.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Paul Wiedefeld, General Manager of WMATA. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Paul Wiedefeld the General Manager of WMATA. Here is Kate in Deanwood. Kate, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATESo my husband and I are longtime Metro riders and we would really like to support the service during this time, but we're just not going anywhere because of COVID. Is there a way to like make donations to Metro or to buy -- you know, to pay for fares now? If we pay for fares now and then use them later, does that support the system?
WIEDEFELDKate, thank you and thank you for the offer. No it doesn't. I mean, we collect obviously when you use the system, which is a fair way to do it. What I would say to you, Kate, is as soon as the opportunity presents itself that you come back and use us, and that if there's anything you can do today to use us that would be appreciated. But, no, I don't think having a donation would be appropriate.
NNAMDIPaul Wiedefeld, quickly back to the safety issue. You were brought on as general manager in 2015 to address major safety issues. Your bio states Metro has turned the corner on safety and reliability and that it was accomplished through a series of hard choices to put safety first. What do you say to riders now learning about ongoing safety concerns that sound a lot similar to what we reported on five years ago?
WIEDEFELDI think a few things, Kojo. We are committed to safety and it hasn't taken root in all parts of the organization and that's what we've got to focus on. But I have and will continue to make the commitment that if anything is unsafe, we won't be running it. So that is the commitment we've made and continue to manage to that.
SHERWOODMr. General Manager, I took a ride through the city yesterday from Southwest Washington up to far Northwest Washington far up Georgia Avenue. And I saw how deserted the area is, going by Metro stops with very few people around them that are normally crowded. But also I've noticed that, you know, the District of Columbia has moved ahead in putting some bus lanes in buses, I think, on 14th Street. There's some on 7th Street and other places trying to ease car traffic so buses can get through.
SHERWOODHow much more -- what do you think of what the city's been doing so far and how much more should be done both with bus only lanes in the District, maybe in suburban Maryland and Virginia, maybe on some of our freeways even to move people around and make buses more attractive?
WIEDEFELDTom, I think it's key. And I want to commend the District and what they've done to date and what they have planned. And also the other parts of the region, both in different parts of the region. Both Montgomery Prince George's, Fairfax County have done quite a bit. And I think it's our future. We need to make sure that the buses can compete in terms of time. If I could just a minute and I know that you all know my background. I did work at BWI Airport.
WIEDEFELDWhen I started BWI Airport was right after 9/11. And at that time we had SARS. We had the price of fuel at $1.20 a barrel. And we had terrorism. And that time, you know, the thinking was aviation will not be back for years if ever, because of the way the customer was reacting. And in roughly six to nine months I was negotiating a deal with Southwest Airlines to build a 26 gate terminal and made it their hub operation on the East Coast.
WIEDEFELDSo as we're dealing with day to day, you know, the news flashes that hit us, we have to keep the longer term view. And this region is built around this transit system. It's a symbiotic relationship in terms of economic growth, how people want to live, where they want to go, how tourists want to travel. And we're going to get back there. And I think the bus, it has to play a larger part in that. And one of the ways you do that is have bus operate more efficiently. And the examples you just gave do that.
NNAMDIGo head, Tom.
SHERWOODKojo, if you're not going to a caller, I have another question.
SHERWOODI want to ask you about the Purple Line mess. I want to say upfront I know Metro is not building the Purple Line from Carrolton to Bethesda. But the Purple Line is an $800 million losses at this point in terms of overruns. The contractor is about to walk off the job. It's unclear when or how the Purple Line is going to be met. It would be a vital East-West route connecting several Metro stops. What is your understanding of what's happening with the Purple Line? Do you have any hopes that it will be built assuming you think it's necessary that it be built?
WIEDEFELDDefinitely necessary that it be built. I think the commitment is there by the State of Maryland to do that. I don't know the details of their contractual issues. I mean, I must have been following at a 30,000 foot level, but, you know, that needs to be built. I mean, the need for that project has been documented over and over similar to the Silver Line. We need to get through some of the issues there as well. Get that open as soon as we can. And both of these, again, are for the future of this region at again, all levels. And so the sooner we get those done -- but I just don't know the issues of their contractual issues.
NNAMDIKip emails, "Has WMATA been able to take advantage of the reduced ridership and reduced service to accelerate the years long upgrade and renovation plans that would otherwise be very disruptive? If yes, have they been able to move more quickly and do them at a lower cost? Paul Wiedefeld.
WIEDEFELDWe have been able to do quite a bit more on the Capitol program and are planning additional things to do in the very near future, again, given the reduced demand. Yes, there are some efficiencies to it, but there's also some cost. Just like everything else that we do today, you have to adjust your work schedule, adjust how people do work with the concern about the virus.
WIEDEFELDSo there's much, you know, there's much more spacing. There's different things that you have to do. And to be frank, some of the costs are different just given supply chains and things of that sort. So it's sort of a double edged opportunity. On the one had it does provide us an opportunity where we don't impact our customers and we can get more done without impacting customers, but we also have to live within the constraints of the current environment we're all living under both in terms of materials and how work is performed.
NNAMDIAnd we got an email from Laura who said, "I was on the 79 bus yesterday and only half the riders were wearing masks. The drivers didn't do anything or say anything to get riders to wear masks. How are bus operators empowered to enforce the mask rule to keep everyone safe?
WIEDEFELDWe do not have our bus operators enforce it. This is a community issue. This is not a bus operator's issue. We all need to do our part. I understand her frustration. I feel it. I feel it if I go to a grocery store and someone is not wearing a mask or is wearing it incorrectly or any place. And I'm sure you've experienced the same. It's very frustrating, but, you know, we have to get the community to basically do the right thing. And we do not want to become the mask enforcement police. That is not what any of us want to do.
WIEDEFELDIt is a community commitment that we all have to make for the health of each other. And that's what we have to be communicating not only us, but across the entire community whether it's the business community, whether it's stakeholder leaders, churches, whatever. We all need to buy into what this takes to get this thing under control, and that's what we want to be part of.
SHERWOODI don't know how much signs help, but what kind of signage do you have either at Metro stops or on the buses themselves at the door. You can go almost to any store or any place now and it says, "Please wear a mask." "Put on a mask." "For service wear a mask." Are there such -- is there such signage on the buses themselves?
WIEDEFELDYes. There is signage everywhere, Tom, to be frank.
SHERWOODSo much so people don't read them.
WIEDEFELDWell, you know, we all know the issue, right? And, you know, we all just need to do our part. And it's extremely frustrating.
SHERWOODWell, let me interrupt you right there. Let me interrupt you right there. The president has been severely criticized for not encouraging the mask wearing. In fact, mocking it as I said earlier. Would it help if President Trump now in his changed position would encourage people out in public, transit or otherwise to wear a mask or what are your own thoughts about the president getting the virus?
WIEDEFELDYou know, like everyone else, I don't want to see anyone get sick with the virus. And, you know, I wish him and his wife and anyone else who has been exposed to this -- but as you mentioned, we've had over 200,000 deaths in this country. And we all have to take this extremely serious. It is here. It is around us everywhere. And the minute we let down our guard, I think we expose ourselves. So we need everyone to make a commitment.
NNAMDIOnly got about 40 seconds left, but starting this month, riders can now swipe onto Metrorail and Metro bus using a digital smart chip card on their iPhone. How successful has that program been so far?
WIEDEFELDExtremely. Very well received from a few levels. One is it basically is very convenient for the customer. But it also is -- creates a touchless operation. And in this time where we're living, it's extremely important. So people don't have to up to our large ticket vending machines and touch anything. They do it at home.
NNAMDIPaul Wiedefeld is the General Manager of WMATA. Thank you very much for joining us.
WIEDEFELDThank you, Kojo. Thank you, Tom. Be safe.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, Ann Wheeler, Chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us now is Ann Wheeler, the chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Ann Wheeler, thank you so much for joining us.
ANN WHEELERThank you for having me on. I'm honored and excited.
NNAMDIBefore we get specifically to Prince William County issues, Tom Sherwood, The Washington Post has endorsed two people in the 24-candidate at-large race for the D.C. Council. They have endorsed Christina Henderson, who worked for the outgoing councilmember, Mr. Grasso, David Grasso. And they have also endorsed Marcus Goodwin, who has run before. They have notably not endorsed the incumbent, Robert C. White, the Democrat. What are your thoughts?
SHERWOODWell, the first thing is, if you're a voter in the District of Columbia, your ballot which -- I’ve received mine -- there are 23 -- there are 24 names. I think one of the persons dropped out, but there are 23 people campaigning. So, the Post did endorse Christina Henderson -- there is another Henderson on the ballot -- and Marcus Goodwin, a developer in town.
SHERWOODRobert White -- the Post has not been that friendly to Robert White. The editorial suggests they don't feel like he's been a very effective councilmember, and they just don't see any reason, what he's done as a councilmember, to warrant an endorsement. In addition to that, Robert White, on this long list of 24 names, is way down in the thick of the names, which is not good. Vincent Orange, the former councilmember who's running, is number two on the ballot.
SHERWOODAnd Christina Henderson, who was endorsed, just happens to be number one on the ballot. These were all done by lot. There's no decision-making on that. So, Robert White does not have the support of The Post. A lot of people dismiss The Post editorial page, saying it's old fashioned and all that. But invariably, The Post still has a lot of penetration in the District of Columbia. And there are voters who look to The Post for guidance, so it's important who it endorses.
NNAMDIAnd Madame Chairwoman might want to weigh in on this. When a second Republican has tossed his hat into the ring for governor of Virginia, and that would be the former Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, who says that he had not planned on making the announcement until after November 2020. But this special session of the General Assembly, since Democrats now control both Houses, convinced him more than ever that Republicans need to put forward a strong candidate. Tom?
SHERWOODWell, that's the most positive way of looking at Kirk Cox's campaign. But also there is concern within the Republican Party that, given the historic shift in Virginia as much more of a blue state, even not purple, is that Amanda Chase, the State Senator Amanda Chase, who is seen as a very Trump-ish like candidate, is running for governor. And I don't think the Republican Party of Virginia wants to go down that road again. They were there with Corey Stewart, who we may mention in a moment or two.
SHERWOODBut I think Kirk Cox is seen as a calm, conservative, but reasonably levelheaded politician who could put some oomph into a Republican campaign. But, you know, the Republicans have not won in the state since 2013, so they are in trouble in the state when it comes to the elections next year.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Corey Stewart. Ann Wheeler knows Corey Stewart probably even better than we do. (laugh) Care to comment on Kirk Cox's entry into the race?
WHEELERWell, you know, I think, you know, because we switch at our Executive Branch every four years, that no matter what happens next year, there'll be a lot of races -- you know, many people from Prince William County are looking at those spots. And no matter what, I think it'll be interesting, is what I'll say.
NNAMDIBefore we get into politics, Ann Wheeler, I think this is your Politics Hour debut. And I was going to ask you to tell us a little bit about yourself, but I'd rather say, Tom Sherwood, what have you been able to dig up about Ann Wheeler that may surprise her, that you know?
SHERWOODWell, she's lived in the county, I think, since 2001. She has been a -- she's been involved in too many civic organizations to name. I am interested in where she -- I couldn't find immediately, where are you from? Why did you move to Prince William County? Of course, it's one of the fastest growing -- I think it's the second largest county in the state now, behind Loudoun. How did it happen that you and your family wound up in Prince George's (sic) County? I know it wasn't...
NNAMDI(overlapping) In Prince William County.
WHEELERPrince William, yeah.
SHERWOODExcuse me, Prince William. There are too many princes around, Prince William County. But why did you get there and how did you get there?
WHEELERWell, you know, you know, I grew up in New Jersey, went to school Boston, and then spent 13 years out in Chicago, great city. And when -- back in '96 my husband and I were looking for a place to relocate. We relocated back to Virginia, and we ended up in Vienna for five years. And then as our family grew, we wanted more space and a good school system. And we looked around the area, and Prince William County sort of offered a lot of that. And we found a house we loved and settled in in 2001 and have been here ever since. It was on the cusp of really becoming a wonderful county.
SHERWOODWhich community do you live in? You have a lot of communities in Prince William County.
WHEELERI moved to Haymarket.
WHEELERYeah, which is in western Prince William County, north of 66.
NNAMDIVirginia has begun early voting for the November 3rd election. How is it going so far and how is the county getting information about how and where to vote to residents?
WHEELERWell, so we have a really great elections office. And, this year, we're just knocking it out of the park in terms of people voting. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but I know it's so much larger than it was even last year. We have three locations, one in the western end, one in the central of the county and one in the east end where people can vote in person. And they've been doing that since voting opened on whatever the date was a week ago Friday.
WHEELERAnd we've had thousands of people vote, thousands of people request absentee ballots. As a county, we're doing really well with that. And, in a few weeks, we will open five more satellite in-person voting centers.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Tom sent us -- Tom, not Tom Sherwood -- Tom send us a message on Facebook: I received the Prince William County voter toolkit in the mail. It's a great tool. Considering the number of LatinX and Hispanic voters in the county, why was the toolkit also not printed in Spanish?
WHEELERThat's a good question. I don't know, offhand. I suspect if they go to the website, pwcvotes.org, it can be translated into different languages. Many of our county websites can do that with the apps that we have. So, I think that I suspect they're reaching those communities in different ways and perhaps have Spanish materials out of those communities, but I would have to check. You know, we've had over 9,000 people already in person absentee vote, so pretty amazing.
NNAMDIOur guest is Ann Wheeler, chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. She is a Democrat, the first one in 20 years to be elected chair of a Board of Supervisors. What do you think that your win says about the political direction the county is taking, post-Corey Stewart?
WHEELERWell, I think, you know, there was -- it wasn't only myself that was new to the board. And given our first back in special election of April before we were elected, we had the first African American elected to the board, because someone passed away from the outskirt district. And so, really, there's been wholesale change across the board because people retired, sought other offices, did not seek reelection.
WHEELERAnd I think this is just more reflection of the demographics of the county, quite frankly. We are a majority minority county, and that is now reflected on the board with five people in minority status on the board. So, I think it's...
NNAMDIOh, go ahead, please. Please finish.
WHEELERNo, I was just -- I think it's just a reflection of the board catching up with the community.
SHERWOODI like that she said she's from New Jersey, because it reminds me that Congressman Tom Davis, the former Republican moderate from northern Virginia would tell you, in talking about northern Virginia politics, he says it's a lot more like New Jersey than it is the rest of the state of Virginia.
SHERWOODBut I'll ask you, President Trump has been targeting, basically, white women in American suburbs to boost his campaign, saying that any violence in the cities is going to spread to the suburbs and ruin the quality of life. But critics say the president's appealing to the suburbs of the 1960s. It seems that your county is a good example of the racial and economy diversity of what we once saw as the lily-white suburbs. How diverse is Prince William County, and what do you think about -- I know you're a Democrat -- what do you think about President Trump's effort to, some people say, scare and round up votes from white women in the suburbs?
WHEELERYou know, Prince William County -- diversity is really one of our strengths. We are, as I mentioned, a majority minority county. Twenty-five percent of our county is Latin X population. We have another probably 12 to 15 percent African American and maybe 60 percent or 50 -- no, not 60 percent. I'm trying to think of how many -- our white percentage. But, you know, we are really -- we represent so much about microcosm of the United States in so many ways. And that's what's so wonderful about our community.
WHEELERWe are sort of at the leading front. It always feels like even with some of our politics, we're, as we saw us switch from red to blue, we're at the leading edge. We're at sort of ground zero of so many issues that the whole entire U.S. is struggling with. And we see that change, and it sometimes gets a little heated in Prince William County, but it's an exciting place to be.
WHEELERAnd I don't know how -- I guess we'll see with the elections how Donald Trump's message will be with, you know, white women suburban voters. I will say that last year when I ran, I won all seven magisterial districts. And so, I think that really speaks to sort of a change in how people are looking at politics around Prince William County, and that they matter the number of people who are getting involved.
NNAMDIAre you a resident of Prince William County? Do you have questions for Ann Wheeler, chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors? Give us a call: 800-433-8850. You mentioned it gets heated in Prince William County. Well, the Board of Supervisors has had many contentious meetings since Democrats flipped it in November. As a matter of fact, they tried to work things out. Supervisors had to meet with a facilitator to do team building exercises in July. What was going on?
WHEELERI think it's really a reflection of the fact that we have six relatively new people, none of whom had been in elected office before this. Some of them who are newer to the county than others of us. And so, their people came in when they take elected office, and I think they have certain perceptions of how things are going to go and how they should be.
WHEELERAnd, you know, we really want to work cohesively as a group for the betterment of the county. And so, it was suggested that we, you know, not so much -- a facilitator just where we could all sit in a room together and even just get to know each other better. Because that didn't happen because of COVID-19. You know, we were suddenly partially virtual. We stopped a lot of meetings initially when the pandemic hit. And so, we really just needed to get to know each other and try to work better together and understand what people's priorities were and where they were coming from. So, it was a great afternoon or a great day.
NNAMDIWell, you and the four other Democrats on the board are facing a civil suit over a meeting that happened in late May, following the police killing of George Floyd. The three Republican supervisors said they were not invited. The lawsuit was filed by three residents in the nonprofit organization "Judicial Watch" and they claim the meeting violated the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. What's your response to this lawsuit?
WHEELERWell, I can't comment on it because we're in the middle of a lawsuit, so that's about all I can say, unfortunately.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, Tom Sherwood, your turn.
SHERWOODWell, we'll talk about an easy subject then, transit. The county is one of the fastest growing. You've got significant issues with I-95 traffic backups in Prince Williams and Stafford County. There's all kinds of worries about Route 28. Danica Roem, the state legislator, has been focusing on that. Just wanted to -- what is happening with transit?
SHERWOODI know the General Assembly was considering a $2 million study bringing the Metro system, which we mentioned earlier, all the way down to Quantico, the Marine Corp base in Quantico. Are you in support of having the Blue Line extended all the way into your county? And what are you doing to either help that or at least study it?
WHEELERWell, so, you know, actually we have a lot of great transportation solutions happening in Prince William County, and the study of the extension of the Blue Line was one of them. You know, people -- when I was running for office I'd mentioned that we should at least study it to make sure that we understood what it would take, how long it would take and have that in our back pocket and be shovel-ready if the Metro was ever deciding to expand.
WHEELERAnd so, I was a big proponent of getting that $2 million from the state. We worked with the state legislature. Scott Surovell was a key proponent of that, and we did secure that. I mean, it did get frozen with the budget, but I suspect it will be released next year. And just the idea that we need to figure out whether this is a viable thing to be able to do. And, you know, listen, it may not happen in my first term or my second term, but, you know, someone needs to start looking at that to make it happen within 20, 25 years.
SHERWOODDid you just announce for reelection?
SHERWOODDid you just announce for reelection?
WHEELERWell, I got to tell you, I love what I do when I wake up every morning, so, you know, but -- so that aside, you know, we're working on the Blue Line. You know, the VRE with the long bridge project that's going over the Potomac could really expand service on our VRE. And we have a great many VRE stations.
WHEELERRoute 28 bypass is locked down. We've chosen to go with the bypass option, and we're going to get $89 million from the MBTA. And we will start moving along that path of designing the road to see where it will actually go. And after we get 60 percent of the design done, we can submit it to the Army Corp of Engineers. We can hear from the surrounding community about where they think the exact path of the bypass should go. So, that's moving along.
WHEELERAnd in addition to...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, not quite. Allow me to interrupt, because we got a tweet from Rick who says, hopefully she will be asked why the county failed to consider the Well Street extended proposal, an alternative to the Route 28 proposal. Why pave over a wetland when there is a star study and smart growth proposal available? And there's not only that, there's Elaina in Prince William County. Elaina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELAINAHi. Good afternoon. So, my concern is twofold, and has to do with citizens ensuring that their concerns are heard. And it's in relationship to the 28 widening versus the Godwyn extension and, Kojo, the issue facing the preservation of Carver Road and that historic settlement and the small area plan. And when you speak to the tension at board meetings it has also been between resident and the new majority board.
ELAINAAnd the 28 bypass was an opportunity for this new board to hear how a land use decision that had not been properly vetted would impact a community that was primarily immigrant, that was -- affected senior citizens and would take houses. So, there was this whole question of social justice and equity and the environment.
NNAMDIOkay. Okay. Well, allow me to have Ann Wheeler respond. Ann Wheeler?
WHEELERWell, you know, I would say this board and many of the new board members, the Democrats are very focused on equity. You know, the bypass wasn't so much an equity issue, because if we didn't choose a bypass, if we had gone with a widening there were 100 businesses, many of them minority-owned along the widening path. And so, equity doesn't necessarily really play into this discussion.
WHEELERYou know, no matter what happens, whatever we had chosen, there would be disruptions to residents and that is true. And, you know, this study, the issue of the Route 28 bypass, this has been going on for years. It was -- you know, the new board came in and sort of looked at it. And without a lot of knowledge, some of the people hadn't even read the study from 2017 before they voted. I mean, it was kind of like being in your senior year of college and having a job lined up and then deciding to switch majors from engineering to world history, is how I like to say it.
WHEELERAnd it was not a good decision. We reconsidered it, looked at the possibility of losing the MBTA money and went back and went with the bypass that had been teed up for four to five years with a great deal of community input.
SHERWOODWell, I have to ask about scooters. Everyone thinks about scooters just being in the District of Columbia, but in Virginia, the legislature gave folks until Thursday to create rules and regulations on how scooters would be monitored in jurisdictions. What has Prince William done in terms of regulating these micro-transit things like scooters?
WHEELERYou know, to my knowledge, that hasn't been on my radar given all that's been going on. And so that wasn't on my radar, but I will look into that. We haven't done anything with regards to scooters, but I will go back and immediately ask about that.
SHERWOODIf I can believe the media, one of the new laws that took effect on October 1st, yesterday, was scooter rentals. Local governments has until Thursday to adopt regulations for scooter rentals, including whether they should be licensed. And the law made it clear that rental companies are free to operate in localities that did not act by the deadline. Do you have any semi-urban areas where scooters would be -- are convenient? Do you even see them on your roads?
WHEELERYou know, I haven't seen them on the roads, and the only thing I might think of is the jurisdictions of the city of Manassas and Manassas Park, which aren't, of course, part of Prince William County. They may have addressed this issue, because they do have more of a dense downtown area that people populate. So, that might be something to look into, whether the cities have done anything for...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) I know we're almost out of town -- excuse me to interrupt. What is the status of the COVID virus in Prince William County?
WHEELERWell, you know, to date, we've had 12,640 cases. Unfortunately, we've had 210 deaths. But, right now, our positivity rate is at the lowest it's been. This morning, it was at 5.9 percent. And we continue to do -- we've conducted over 7,600 free tests. And in the county itself, with the health district and our local health partners, we've had over 125,000 COVID-19 tests. And so, we're working on our vulnerable communities, really trying to target those and make sure that they get the word out that there is free testing.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Are the schools open?
NNAMDIWell, I'm about to get to that issue.
NNAMDIThe schools are moving to a hybrid model of online and in-person learning, starting November 10th. Families can choose to have their students remain in online classes. And we just heard from Tom on Facebook: What is your point of view on Prince William County schools returning to class on November 10th?
WHEELERWell, you know, I will say that we have an elected school board. So, our Board of County Supervisors actually does not get involved in that decision at all. But what we have been trying to do is make sure that the schools have the resources to operate virtually or operate in person. And, over the last few months, we've allocated a great deal of our CARES money -- 25 million out of our 82 total -- to the school system to help with this effort to make sure that they can reopen the schools. And if they need to operate virtually, they can do that successfully, also.
WHEELERI know it's a contentious issue both from the parents and the teachers, and so I know the school board's having a meeting, I believe, on October 7th. And talking about this, and nothing is set in stone, I think the ability to be able to react and pivot and, you know, being able to change and react is really important in these kinds of situations. Because none of us really knows what the future is going to be like with regards to schools when they reopen. And so, I think the ability to remain flexible is key.
WHEELERAnd we are trying to give them the resources. We recently allocated $2 million for childcare for childcare scholarships that will flow through the schools to some of the more vulnerable neighborhoods that might, you know, be hard-hit by COVID and need childcare assistance.
NNAMDIHere's Shanna in Dumfries, Virginia. Shanna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHANNAHi. Good afternoon. Chair Wheeler, this is Shanna Bert, and it's actually been a real pleasure to serve on the Hilton Performing Arts Center board with you. And so, my question for you is about the arts in the county. Historically, the county has been a real proponent of the arts. And given the pandemic, we've all been hit really hard. I was wondering what you might have to say about what you think the board specifically or the county general can do to support arts and artists in the county right now.
WHEELERWell, you know, we have reached out to a lot of nonprofits with our CARES Act funding. And I think the arts fall under that, and many probably qualified for some of our small business or nonprofit loans through the greater Prince William alliance. And I also think that, you know, being on the born, I mean, we fully support the arts as a way to bring people together. I'm sure you know that the -- I'll put a plug in for the Hilton Performing Arts Center that's doing outdoor performances coming up, and some virtual Hilton at Home performances.
WHEELERAnd so, you know, in terms of funding, we continue to fund our partners in the arts. And we didn't cut any of that out of the budget. As a matter of fact, our community partners, some of which include the arts, we still increased 3 percent in the last budget. So, you know, we are still all in on the arts, and I'm sure that we know that that's the way to bring people together, even safely, over the next few months as we all still struggle with the pandemic.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. On the ballot in November's election will be an amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting committee in Virginia. As it stands now, the government and General Assembly are responsible for redistricting. In 20 seconds or less, what's your view on this?
WHEELERThat's a really good question. I am for...
NNAMDIAnd you've only got 20 seconds. (laugh)
WHEELER...I'm for redistricting. I am for more open and cohesive redistricting. I worry that the ballot doesn't go -- that amendment may not go far enough. And so I'm still actually deciding that issue in my own head. (laugh)
NNAMDIAnn Wheeler, thank you so much for joining us. Today's show was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up Monday, informal gatherings of family and friends are becoming one of the biggest sources of coronavirus spread. Dr. Leana Wen returns to discuss the latest news and answer your questions. Plus, Kojo for Kids welcomes Prince George's County Fire Chief Tiffany Green. We're taking kids’ questions about fighting fires, climbing the ladder, driving the truck and everything else firefighters do. That all starts at noon, Monday. Until then, have a wonderful weekend and stay safe. You too, Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODThank you very much.
NNAMDII'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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