On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Martin Austermuhle
WMATA has responded to a steep budget shortfall by proposing drastic service cuts, which would end weekend rail service and close 19 stations. If approved, the service changes could have lasting impacts on the region’s economy. We talk with Paul Smedberg, Chair of the WMATA Board of Directors, about the proposal.
And we sit down with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to talk about how the District is handling the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. We also talk about the future of policing with the pending departure of D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, and the bills the D.C. Council is prioritizing before the end of 2020.
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
MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, it's The Politics Hour, starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Martin Austermuhle, sitting in for Kojo. Tom is our resident analyst and a contributing writer for The Washington City Paper. Good to be here with you, Tom.
TOM SHERWOODHello, everybody.
AUSTERMUHLELater on, we'll be talking with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser about everything from crime to COVID. But first, the big story of the week was Metro's proposed budget and the dramatic service cuts that would result. Here to chat about that issue is Paul Smedberg, who chairs Metro's Board of Directors. Welcome to the show, Chairman.
PAUL SMEDBERGGood afternoon. Thank you for having me.
AUSTERMUHLEWell, Chairman Smedberg, let's just jump right into the news. This week, Metro announced huge service cuts if the system doesn't get the funding it needs to basically make up for the budget shortfall it's facing. Now, under this proposal, trains would run every half hour. They would stop running at nine p.m. That's on weekdays. Weekend train service would completely end, and 19 stations would be closed, outright. So, why are cuts on this scale needed? Why are they being proposed?
SMEDBERGWell, this is a budget that's forcing us to consider cuts that we once thought were unthinkable. Not running rail service is something that hasn't been proposed, I think, in over four decades. Ridership is down on both rail and bus, a little higher on bus. We are running out of CARES Act funding. We have enough now to get us through February. But given everything and given the impact on transit here in Washington and around the country, without another, you know, relief package from the federal government, we are going to be forced to make these pretty dramatic cuts to service. We're trying to keep it as bare bones, so we can get essential workers to and from work and people who are transit dependent around the city and around the region. But, you know, we're going to have difficult decisions before us without some sort of federal relief.
AUSTERMUHLESo, one thing you mentioned that a lot of this has to do with federal funding not coming through -- or a second package of federal funding coming through. How much communication is there actually between Metro and federal officials? Are you going directly to the Hill to say, "We need this money," or are you just expecting the jurisdictions that pay for Metro largely to do that sort of work? Like, what does that dynamic look like?
SMEDBERGNo. We are definitely in contact with our federal delegation. And I should your listeners know that our federal delegation has been extremely supportive of our cause and extremely supportive of Metro and transit, in general. They understand that Metro is the backbone of any kind of recovery that's going to take place here. And it's essential that, you know, we have a strong Metro going into the future for this region's economy. Our General Manager Paul Wiedefeld has been working with his colleagues through various groups bringing messages and talking to people on Capitol Hill and in the administration. So, we are doing everything that we can to make sure that that message is out there.
AUSTERMUHLESo, this morning there was a Metro board meeting. And I think from what I understand, Tom, you said you were listening in on it. What did you hear and what did you glean from what some Metro board members are saying about this proposed budget?
SHERWOODWell, good morning, Chairman Smedberg, thanks for joining us. It was gloom and doom this morning for the part that I read, even though the General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said he was hopeful that things will get better. It really does depend upon federal money falling from the sky, money that is not yet available. I was in Arlington this weekend, talking to some people who were riding a bus. And Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson has written a letter about cuts and bus service, as have other jurisdictions. It seems, right now, bus routes are, like, 75 percent full. But under this draconian measure, they would cut down to 45 percent next summer. It seems that that's a real huge hit on working-class folks -- black and white, Asian, Hispanic, whatever -- who need to get to their jobs. How are they going to get to work if we're having less than 50 percent bus service?
SMEDBERGYeah. You know, that's one of the difficult choices we'll have to make. And I don't know how long you heard or how much of the board meeting you heard today, but there are some members that are obviously very concerned about that. And we all are, quite frankly. So, I want to highlight that, you know, service will ultimately be aligned, and what's proposed by the general manager will be aligned with ridership, where bus ridership continues to rebound. We have preserved as much service as possible to make up for some of the cuts to weekend service, as proposed. You know, we'll be expanding four lines to augment the lack of rail service there. So, we're doing everything we can. We are moving ahead on December 10th. We're going to be looking at the bus transformation project that's been ongoing that will address, longer term, some of these issues.
SMEDBERGBut, in the short term, you know, we definitely have some work to do in that area, as best we can. And, you know, unfortunately, Tom, as you know on the Virginia side anyway, the jurisdictions and even now Montgomery County, there are some robust bus routes and bus systems. But I think as they face challenging budgets for fiscal year '22, it's going to be difficult for them to pick up much of the slack.
SHERWOODPart of the problem is that people who need to ride the bus don't have the wherewithal, necessarily, to lobby for it. But let me ask you a question I saw on Twitter this morning, when someone saw that you were coming in. Your proposal on the rail side suggests that, in the summer, if you don't get the money, as many as 19 stations would close. And this person on Twitter wrote: How does closing stations save money, if all the Metro personnel are still on site and still on the job?
SMEDBERGYeah. Well, that might be a question better posed to the general manager. I know there is a figure there. I don't have it here in front of me. This was similar to what we did earlier this year, during the first go around, where we had to reduce some service. So, they're proposing to close the stations again. Many of those stations have a station that's very close by, or has extremely low ridership or has had extremely low ridership levels this year. So, you know, that's how we're looking at it. But it does save a lot of money.
SHERWOODExcuse me for interrupting. I know we don't have a lot of time. Are furloughs in sight after the first of the year for Metro, or will they not be considered till the new budget starts in the summer?
SMEDBERGNo. So, right now, with the adjustments we made to fiscal year '21, we're looking at the possibility of 1,400 people letting go. You know, there is a possibility that some of them will take, you know, early retirement. But we're looking about 1,400 there. And then in this proposed budget, there's going to be an additional 2,400 that would have to be let go. So, we are just absolutely gutted at the prospect of losing a third of our workforce. And consider -- I think what that means for the local economies, as essential workers, which Metro employees are go from well-paying jobs to unemployment, possibly. And not to mention the fact that many of these folks are highly skilled and, you know, trying to hire back people or get people to come back in, it's not like "Okay, you're hired on Friday afternoon," and you show up Monday and you start working. There would be a whole ramp-up.
SMEDBERGSo, you know, a third of the system -- or a third of the employees being potentially let go or furloughed is really -- could be devastating.
AUSTERMUHLESo, let me jump in here just to remind listeners that you're listening to Paul Smedberg. He's the Chairman of Metro's Board of Directors. We're talking about the current budget proposal. One thing that's interesting, obviously, is that it's not just -- this budget it doesn't just impact a single year. It could impact years down the road because, you know, just of how budgeting works and how hard it would be to restart the system if you got the money you needed and that sort of stuff. So, we have been getting a lot of questions. And reminder, you can always call at 800-243-8850, or tweet us @kojoshow. But we actually have some questions about the future, what this could mean for the future. And talking with one of those questions, we've got Elliot from Washington D.C. Elliot, go ahead, please.
ELLIOTHi. Thanks for taking my call. Mr. Smedberg, I know that there's some support on the part of the Metro board for electric buses. And I'm wondering what's going to happen -- given the budget crunch, what's going to happen to Metro's procurement plan? In 2018, it signed a contract for nearly 700 buses to be delivered between now and 2025, and 70 percent of those buses are diesel and the rest natural gas. Los Angeles has planned to convert its bus system to electric buses by 2028. San Francisco is going to transfer --
AUSTERMUHLEHey, Elliot, let me stop you right there. Just let's let Mr. Smedberg answer, just because we're short on time. But that's a good question. So, what does this mean for plans that Metro had on paper, for the future?
SMEDBERGYeah, I think, you know, they're still going to be there. I think we see the region -- the local bus systems are moving in that direction and also making plans in that direction. You know, a lot of these programs are getting federal grants and federal funding, and I hope -- we plan to get some of that, as well. I think the biggest challenge is going to be for us is infrastructure and working with the electric company or electric companies to make sure that we can get the infrastructure that's needed to do that. And I know that we recently had an update from the folks about this. And, you know, it's something that is definitely on our agenda for the future, for sure.
AUSTERMUHLEIs this -- Tom, go ahead.
SHERWOODI've been on Zoom a lot. I listened yesterday to the federal city council do its update on the economy for the city and the region. Mr. Smedberg, you said that Metro, even with cuts that you have to make now, you will be prepared to welcome riders back. And you recognize that the role that transit plays in economic recovery. It seems to me, though, you say that Metro and transit is key to the region's success. But how can you be key to the success if you're operating at 40 percent of capacity after summer?
SMEDBERGWell, you know, a part of that success is giving people the confidence to come back on the system. Right now, there's plenty of opportunity to social distance. We have a nationally recognized protocol for cleaning. We've been working with employers and groups like the federal city council, the Board of Trade, the Northern Virginia Chamber and others, and working with employers and the federal government to bring people back. You know, we're very mindful of the investment that the two states and the District and others have put into Metro. So, we are going to be there, you know, ready to welcome people back. We've kept the A train cars. So, again, people have plenty of room to social distance. And, if that's the case, you know, we get a lot revenue from rail ridership. So, if there is the possibility -- and we're hopeful that there would be some federal assistance coming down the road, and with increased ridership -- that we'll be able to increase service.
AUSTERMUHLESo, Chairman Smedberg, unfortunately, we've got about 45 seconds left, but last question for me: Was this a worst case scenario to kind of people into realizing what the issues are and maybe getting Congress to act? Were there other alternatives that were maybe less drastic considered at all? And you've got about 20 seconds on this one.
SMEDBERGYeah. Well, this was not necessarily the worst case. There could have been worse cases. It wasn't initially intended to scare people, but it obviously did scare people. But, you know, I think it was a very pragmatic sort of conservative budget dealing with the issues at hand.
AUSTERMUHLEAll right. That was Paul Smedberg. He's the Chairman of the Metro Board of Directors. You're listening to The Politics Hour. I'm Martin Austermuhle, sitting in for Kojo. And we will be back shortly with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Join us.
AUSTERMUHLEWelcome back. You're listening to The Politics Hour. I'm Martin Austermuhle, clearly not Kojo Nnamdi, just sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And I'm here, of course, with Tom Sherwood. He is our resident analyst. And we have D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on the line. Welcome to the show again, Mayor.
MURIEL BOWSERThank you, Martin. Thank you for having me. Hi, Tom.
AUSTERMUHLEWell, let's start with Virginia, but then, jumping into the District. So, this week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam -- you know, Virginia, again, facing an increase of COVID cases like the rest of the region and the rest of the country -- he said he wasn't going to set any new guidelines to control the spread of the virus around Virginia, necessarily, whereas D.C. and Maryland have imposed a couple of new restrictions. So, Mayor, how is that playing off in terms of what you do here in the District? Because, again, we are a metropolitan region. What happens in Virginia can impact D.C. and what happens in D.C. can impact Virginia. So, what do you think about what the governor has been doing over in Virginia?
BOWSERWell, I think what we see, Martin, is that what happens anywhere in the United States of America affects Washington D.C. We're a global city. We're home to the Congress, who travels around America and comes here. And your question is really more about, in my view, national leadership around what we're going to do and the last months, we hope, of COVID spreading in our country. So, we continue to focus on what we see in the District and how we can contain activity in the District to get us in the other side of this virus.
AUSTERMUHLESo, one thing you have done here in the District, you did it ahead of Thanksgiving, you implemented new restrictions. You limited indoor gatherings to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 25. You've ended alcohol sales at restaurants after 10 p.m., amongst some other changes. Do you think District residents are following the new guidelines? Do you get a sense that you're having to send out enforcement agencies to kind of remind, let's say, restaurants to do this, or maybe gyms, that they can't run classes? What does the enforcement side of things look like right now?
BOWSERWell, I think D.C. residents and businesses have been incredible throughout this response. I think we're all a little weary and that we need reminders, and that we need to be reminded to keep our guard up, especially in familiar settings around familiar people. And so, we continue to remind D.C. residents to wear their masks, social distance and try to limit their activities.
AUSTERMUHLESo, there was one other restriction that was -- you were saying you wanted restaurants to limit indoor capacity to 25 percent. But that's not going to go into effect, actually, until later this month. So, there was a three-week gap between the announcement and enforcement. What was the rational, there, for waiting, when cases were on the rise? And people have this -- it seems that there's this idea that indoor dining -- while important for the business of a restaurant or a bar, necessarily -- it's not the safest thing during a pandemic.
BOWSERWell, I think that we wanted to make sure that we put the information out and allowed the business to deal with how to best schedule their staff and their patrons and prepare for that limit, while also winterizing outside.
AUSTERMUHLEWell, Tom, you've been uncharacteristically quiet, which is not something I would have expected. So, you've got to throw in some questions, here. I know you've got some.
SHERWOODI wanted to give the mayor a chance to at least get a word in edgewise before I started asking my questions. Thank you, Mayor, for joining us.
BOWSERI know, Martin is very much about business.
SHERWOODThat's good. You know, Kojo is too polite. But, anyway, we'll move on here. Mayor, you've done a lot to try to help businesses both with the money from your own budget, but also with some of the federal funds. The city was shorted on funds in the first round of COVID-19 funding. There's a new proposal now about a $900 billion measure in the Congress. Joe Biden, the incoming president, has said that's just a down payment of what he wants to do. But is there any fiscal help in that new federal budget of about $900 billion that you see for the District, if it passes?
BOWSERWell, we know that this compromise bill, if you will, does include a state and local level funding, which has been a significant sticking point, as we understand it, with the Republicans. But what's important to note, just like the conversation you had with the Metro chairman, is that local budgets have been devastated by the lack of activity. So, people not traveling, not using our restaurants or our hotels is a huge impact on a local budget. So, it is just impossible to say to any agency, including Metro, "You have to do the same thing that you've been doing without any customers." Or "D.C. government, you have to do the same things that you've been doing with less revenues." So, that's why it's so important for the federal government to do what it needs to do to keep local governments able to keep firefighters and police officers and teachers and sanitation workers employed, because I don't know of any jurisdiction that going to go to their budget cycle without having to make some very serious tradeoffs.
AUSTERMUHLESo, one thing people --
SHERWOODThat's a perfect lead in to a political question. I was talking to one of your senior staffers this morning, and I said that you and Councilmember Chairman Phil Mendelson -- who have had your rough moments in the past -- seem to be, in the last couple of months, working very closely together. And we just had an election in which Ed Lazere -- probably the most lefty leftist candidate on the Council -- was defeated. I think you are happy that happened. But also, news came this week that David Grosso -- a longtime member of the Council, super-liberal member of the Council, very critical of a lot of things in the D.C. government -- is quitting. But he's now going to become a lobbyist for Aaron Fox, a major law firm here in town and around the country. What do you think about David Grosso leaving the Council and now becoming a lobbyist? Is he going to lobby you?
BOWSERI really -- I have no idea what he's going to be working on. And I certainly wish David well. I've actually worked well with him on a lot of different issues, especially as it relates to schools. I think what's interesting is more of a question for you. When other members of the Council have left -- Vincent Orange, namely -- he was met with a very different reaction. So, that's all I have to say about that.
AUSTERMUHLEWell, those were different circumstances.
SHERWOODThe different reaction was he took -- he was taking the D.C. Chamber of Commerce job while he was still a councilmember, and that was the conflict that the Council didn't like. David Grosso will be taking a job.
BOWSERI'm sorry. I understand that all the outgoing members' terms end on January 2nd.
SHERWOODYes. But I think, Mr. Orange wanted to hold both jobs simultaneously.
AUSTERMUHLEYeah. From my perspective -- because I was reporting on the Council at the time -- that was the concern. And when Councilmember Grosso announced he was going to become a lobbyist, all the local publications reported it and mentioned that there is a cooling-off period. He won't be able to lobby on education issues.
BOWSERWell, you asked me what I thought, and I think that there's been a disparate treatment.
SHERWOODWell, okay. What about Ed Lazere not winning? I know Chairman Mendelson was publically warning that he thought the Council would lurch left if Ed Lazere left. He didn't win. I know you've talked with Christina Henderson, the new councilmember coming in, and Janeese George. You're probably more confident about working with the Council, going forward, after January 2nd?
BOWSERWell, I think rather than focus on -- I think a lot of people will spend some time focusing on why Ed lost, but I'd rather talk about why Ms. Henderson won. I think she built a broad coalition around the city. She talked about all of the things that are important to her, but also the need to work with the fellow members of the Council, with the chairman of the Council in a collaborative way, to get things done. I got the sense that she understands kind of the gravity of the District's financial situation and will bring that understanding to future budget discussions and initiatives that she's committed to.
AUSTERMUHLESo, one thing that came up this week in the Council -- and we have just a little more than a minute before we go to break -- was a number of bills that the Council passed that you said would negatively impact businesses. One would prohibit businesses from refusing to accept cash. There's also a number of other measures, in terms of businesses having to rehire certain people back if they fire them during the course of the pandemic. What are your concerns, there, with those sorts of measures? Do you think the Council is not being friendly enough to businesses facing these tough circumstances?
BOWSERWell, what I asked the Council to consider is how all of their measures -- which could be, you know, entirely warranted and worthwhile measures. But taken together, what is the impact on how businesses are going to come back? And I just want to make sure that they are getting all the necessary feedback to make those types of decisions.
AUSTERMUHLEExcellent. All right. Well, we are just about out of time in terms of we have to go break. We'll be back. This is The Politics Hour. I'm Martin Austermuhle, sitting in for Kojo. You're listening to Mayor Muriel Bowser and Tom Sherwood. When we get back, we're going to talk about crime. We're to talk about vaccines, all sorts of stuff. So, stay tuned.
AUSTERMUHLEYou are listening to The Politics Hour. I'm Martin Austermuhle. I maybe kidnapped Kojo, who knows, but I took over the show today. But Tom Sherwood is here. Mayor Muriel Bowser is joining us. And I want to keep on the topic of COVID, very quickly, and then we'll shift to other issues like crime, the police chief and that sort of stuff.
AUSTERMUHLEMayor Bowser, let's talk about the vaccine rollout. It's the big talk. People are waiting for this to come, but D.C. is estimated to receive -- from what your administration has told us -- fewer than 7,000 vaccines in its first shipment, which city officials have said would cover less than 10 percent of the healthcare workers that are working here in the city. Why is D.C. getting so few vaccines, and what are your concerns with that number that the city is set to get?
BOWSERWell, I think that, so far, the Operation Warp Speed is approaching every jurisdiction by resident population. And we think that that especially doesn't work for us because of how people live in our region, how people live and work in our region. So, even in other metropolitan areas, I think we are an outlier with the number of healthcare workers that don't actually live in the District. And so that makes it very difficult for us to get up to 30 or 50 percent of our healthcare workers, given our population.
AUSTERMUHLESo, to your understanding, is D.C. different than other places in that respect, in the sense that we have a lot of people coming in from other jurisdictions, or do you think -- are other cities facing the same sort of things? Have mayors...
BOWSERI think we may be facing a little bit more of an issue, Martin. Certainly, there are other metro areas where there's cities and there's people that cross the borders to go to work. But we have a significant number of those people.
SHERWOODWell, I think -- I was waiting for the mayor to say a part of the reason we were shorted on the money last summer or last spring and the reason we're shorted on vaccines and shorted on anything is because people do not treat the District of Columbia, with its 705,000 residents, as a state, when it should be. We're treated as a state in all other matters. We ought to be treated as a state now.
SHERWOODBut, Mayor, I would like to -- unless you want to comment on that, I want to move on to the crime issue, if Martin will let me.
SHERWOODWe had the terrible shooting death of a very innocent one-year-old child, Carmelo Duncan. You've expressed your outrage this week in talking with the citizens and the reporters. And we're going through the same thing. There are protests now and vigils, and people are upset. We've just been a year with people wanting to cut back the police force, some wanting to defund the police. And you're right in the middle of the people who want to cut back the police and the people who are concerned.
SHERWOODI was listening to the Anacostia Coordinating Council this morning. Police Chief Newsom was on this morning. And everyone who called in was talking about the need for more police action in their crime-ridden communities, rather than defunding police. Where are we A., on both this horrible shooting of this one-year-old child and your efforts to get a new police chief now that Chief Newsom is going to Prince Williams County?
BOWSERWell, you asked a lot of questions there, and I'm grateful that you focused on baby Carmelo, a 15-month-old who someone or some people shot into a car that his father was driving, killing him in cold blood. We need the public's help. I know people will know who was involved in this shooting, and the shooters need to be brought to justice. And not only does MPD need to arrest them, but the entire system needs to be committed to their conviction and appropriate sentencing in holding these people accountable.
BOWSERWhat we have in our city right now is an indiscriminate use of guns. And I have to agree with Coby on this one. You may have seen the op-ed that Coby wrote. We talk a lot about illegal guns, but illegal guns are being used by people willing to take another person's life. And so, we have to do everything that we can to get to the guns and get to the people, preferably before they commit a horrific crime like this, and make sure that everyone is being held accountable for their actions.
AUSTERMUHLESo, one thing I was curious about, when you talk about crime, obviously, shooting at a car that -- you know, shooting at a child of any age, of course, indefensible, there's never a good explanation for that. But one thing I think a lot of people are asking as they see the District's homicide rate climb again for another year is: What's going on here?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, obviously, that's a very difficult question to approach, but you've got city agencies. The police department does intelligence work, the Department of Behavioral Health, you know, works with victims of crime, probably also people involved in crime. Is there any sense of why there is a spike in these sorts of incidents? It can't just be that there's more guns on the street. That obviously doesn't help. But what is causing this to happen?
BOWSERWe have a lot of people who are -- what we know is that a lot of people who are using guns have used them before. And they haven't been held accountable, and they're on the streets to use them again. And so, we have to continue to stay very focused on this. Now, you asked a question, why do we see increases in crime? That's a question that we have to ask for our entire country right now.
BOWSERAnd you are also right in that we put every resource behind violence prevention. Over the last several years, there's been a huge focus -- especially from the council -- on violence prevention efforts, which we have funded. And we have been very focused on making sure we have the number of police we need to be out all across the city. And what this year's actions will mean is that we will have 300 fewer police to do the work of the police, without having any work diverted from the police.
BOWSERSo, we will continue to work on how to balance our need to respond to communities, to respond to 911 calls, to be sensitive and responsive to the council around their concerns about overtime use, but still show up when called.
SHERWOODMayor, Chief Newsom, on that Anacostia coordinating council Zoom meeting this morning, also mentioned that given the budget cuts of this year for 2021 and into next year, he will have next year this time 300 fewer officers. But we have a 20 percent increase in homicides right now. How do you balance the politics of -- you have all these demonstrations that take a great deal of policing, of the left groups that want to defund police and take over downtown and all of that, and police are needed for that. And then they're in communities where people say, hey, we need the police over here. How do you balance that as you look to hire a new chief? You have said you'll have an interim chief soon. What does soon mean?
BOWSERTom, I'm sure you can appreciate that the appointment of a police chief is one of the most important appointments that I will make, and I will not rush it. And when I have the right person, I'll appoint that person. Chief Newsom, of course, has given me enough notice, so that we can have a thorough vet of an interim appointment.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Excuse me real quick, Martin. Will he stay through the -- he wanted to stay through the inaugural, January 20th. Is that going to happen?
BOWSERHe wants to stay to give me the time that I need to have an interim appointment, and that's what he'll do.
AUSTERMUHLESo, just a reminder...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) The 20th?
SHERWOODWill he be gone before January 20th?
BOWSERIf we make an interim appointment, we'll have the appropriate transition period.
SHERWOODOkay. I'm not going to ask again. Thank you.
AUSTERMUHLEAll right. If you're just tuning in, you are listening to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. And, of course, Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. I'm Martin Austermuhle, sitting in for Kojo. You can, again, call us: 800-433-8850. We do have some calls pending, and I will get to them.
AUSTERMUHLEOne just last question for you, Mayor, and this comes up a lot when we talk about crime. You mentioned that there's going to be fewer police officers on the ground. Folks on the other side say, listen, we're not fighting crime well enough with the cops that we have. Look, why should we believe that just getting more police officers will do the job? I mean -- and what's the number of police officers you need to adequately fight the crime in D.C. Is there a number?
BOWSERWe've been on a path to get to 4,000 officers for the last five years, and that has been our staffing strategy. And what people have to recognize is that there is no way that the mayor cannot respond to crime or protests. And so, it either means that we're going to have more officers, or we're going to have -- the number of officers we have right now, they'll have to work more. And that's a real budgeting and staffing concern that I don't think many people appreciate.
AUSTERMUHLEAll right. I want to quickly get to people on the phone, and we're going to switch topics just a little bit. This goes to something that the council did last month, and it ties into the hot topic of vaccines. So, I'm going to let Sammie from the District of Columbia take it away. Sammie, you are on the air.
SAMMIEHi, Mayor Bowser. I have a question about a bill that's currently under your review. Bill 23-171 would give minors the choice to receive government-recommended vaccinations, even if their parent objects on discretionary grounds. This bill has important implications for increasing uptick of HPV vaccine, which is administered in adolescents and protects against certain cancers caused by HPV. In 2019, about a quarter of D.C. adolescents were not up to date on the HPV vaccine and parental consent is a barrier to access for some youth. Could you please provide an update on this bill?
BOWSERI'm actually, reviewing the bill now, and I wasn't involved with it, you know, while the council was considering it. So, I do want to give it a fresh look. To your point about the HPV vaccine, you may remember -- or maybe you don't. It sounds like you don't, but I wasn't a supporter of the HPV requirement at the time it was introduced. That was probably back in 2007 or 2008. I have since completely changed my mind with regard to the need to have our young people vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. And we want to make sure we have a regulatory system that helps get as many young people as possible access to that important vaccine.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd really quick, just to mention, that bill that passed the council -- which would allow minors as young as 11 to basically consent to vaccines regardless of what their parents say -- has started to cause a little controversy. And people are now weighing in to say, don't do this. It's a bad idea. You know, kids who are 11 years old shouldn't be able to make those decisions. And folks on the other side are saying, listen, this is a public health debate. So, it's an interesting discussion, especially with the COVID vaccine on the horizon.
BOWSERWell, I think it's unfortunate timing. And I think it's very hard, where we are talking about a deadly virus, rolling out a new vaccine and making sure the public has all of the information that they need about its safety and effectiveness. We have an uphill battle in that regard, especially in the African American community. And I don't have to tell you how devastating COVID has been for African Americans, still making up 75 percent of our fatalities in the District. So, we don't need to muddle the conversation about a safe and effective COVID vaccine with this legislation.
AUSTERMUHLEFair enough. And now we've got another caller who has a question, which I'm sure you've gotten a lot of times. They're confused about some of the protocols and some of the requirements that are of residents of people in the District during the pandemic. So, Rufus has a question for you. He's from the District. Rufus, you are on the air.
RUFUSHello, Mayor Bowser.
RUFUSI have a question about what are the restrictions for mask-wearing outside, in public? It seems to me that the general perception is that people in the District of Columbia have to wear a mask all the time outside, but I've heard other people say that that's not the case, that you only have to wear a mask outside if you're going to be around other people for a long period of time. I thought I would just go directly to you and ask...
RUFUS...what is exactly the mask requirement for outdoors in the District of Columbia?
BOWSEROkay. So, this is the shorthand that I give everybody. If you're leaving your house, put on a mask. The actual guidance, you're right, Rufus, says if you cannot social distance from another person, then you should wear a mask. But if you're walking down the street or you're going into a grocery store, if you're walking the dog, you don't know when or how you're going to encounter another person, so wear your mask.
AUSTERMUHLEAll right, Tom. You've got questions for the mayor, I expect?
SHERWOODYes, you know, got a few more questions. Mayor, are you -- we've had two days now in a row of the virus numbers going over 300 cases reported. Fortunately, our death rate has not gone up significantly. Where are you in possibly imposing new or reimposing restrictions on people in the city and businesses in the city?
BOWSERWell, Tom, we use a dial, and we have dialed up activity in the early -- in mid-days of the response, and we've been dialing activity down in recent days. And we will continue to use a dial, looking very closely at our metrics for activity, healthcare capacity, and the like. The next area that we'll be looking at is youth sports, particularly high school-age youth sports. And I will have an advisory out about that.
SHERWOODIf you don't mind, I'd like to go back briefly to policing. This summer, when lots of protests in town, when the Trumpsters came to town and other protesters came to town, you expressed concern at one point that there might be a race war in this country because of the tensions between the people protesting on the streets. One, are you still concerned about the possibility of a race war, or do you think the election of Joe Biden has calmed things down?
BOWSERIt would appear calmer, and I don't know what or if there will be another trigger point. I certainly hope not. We saw, for example, a young white kid go and kill somebody as if he were the protector of the city from looting. And I think that was just a terrible example of people sitting at home listening to high racialized rhetoric, you know, who have guns and who will use them. So, I think that we always have to be vigilant, and leaders especially have to be mindful of racialized rhetoric.
AUSTERMUHLEWell, speaking of that, next weekend, not the weekend coming up, not tomorrow, but next weekend, there's supposed to be a return of these kind of very strong Trump supporters, the Proud Boys, the folks who came after the election. You know, there were some incidents during that protest, including some people who were arrested from out of town with a significant number of guns, which, again, it's illegal to carry in the District at protests, openly or concealed.
AUSTERMUHLEAre you concerned that these sorts of events, if they keep happening, could actually spark something more deadly and could put people at risk? Is there anything that you can do to -- you know, obviously there's the First Amendment, so you have to let people express themselves, but what can you do to make sure that this remains peaceful?
BOWSERWell, I think what we saw is, during the demonstrations, that the police management of the crowds and keeping crowds separated, the pro-MAGA Proud Boy people from the anti-Proud Boy MAGA people were pretty much separated. We did see some pretty concerning behavior after the demonstrations, when people spilled out into the city. And that's the Proud Boys and the anti-Proud Boys who were involved with that. And there was a serious assault using a knife. So, we need everybody, no matter what they're demonstrating for or against, to follow the law.
SHERWOODMayor, on that issue, the Inauguration is coming up on the 20th, and I realize you're waiting for the Presidential Inauguration Committee to give you details about what it wants to do. I have some relatives in North Carolina who've said they want to come up to celebrate Joe Biden's win and Inauguration. I told them not to come, because they really couldn't stay with me, and it would be better if they watched it on TV. What are you telling people? Normally, the city would make a lot of money during the inaugural week. What are you telling people who want to come to the city for the Inauguration?
BOWSERWell, I don't know what activities are going to be happening for the Inauguration, Tom. And so, I think, as hard as it is for people to be patient, they need to be patient. We are continuing to point to our travel advisory, however. And I don't know that it will be any different on January the 20th. So, if there are to be outdoor activities, I would expect people from that region to be supporting them.
AUSTERMUHLEAll right. I want to go back to the phones. We have -- we've gotten some more questions about the issue of crime. It's a hot topic on lots of people's minds. One questioner -- one caller, John, I'm just going to paraphrase, but he wants to know -- he just wants to get the mayor's perspective on some of the activities, the violence occurring on Kennedy Street, which is in Ward 4, the ward that the mayor used to represent on the city council. And we have Aritria. She is calling from Washington, D.C., and she has a question about crime and gun violence. Go ahead.
ARITRIAYes. My question for the mayor, I understand the concern of 300 less officers on the street. My concern, really, is about the workforce that we do have, the quality of work that is being done. I have had unfortunate interactions with the police involving gun violence, where I myself was a victim of gun violence, along with my family. And the follow-through that took place was, to say the least, disrespectful and in violation of my own rights.
ARITRIAI've never seen such gaps in the quality of work from the existing force. So, my question to you is, what do you -- how do you intend to address police training that is adequate to represent the citizens of Washington, D.C.?
BOWSERWell, thank you for that question, because what we want to make sure is that our officers are doing their jobs, that they have the tools and the training to do their job, and that they're being held accountable. We've given them some tools, including police body camera. We have an independent police complaints board that a citizen can take a complaint to, as well as going to the district commander and telling the district commander about that experience, so that we can make sure our officers know and are being held accountable for doing the job that we expect.
AUSTERMUHLESo, we do have another question which, again, I'm going to quickly paraphrase. Mindy wanted to know -- there was a moratorium on evictions, that it was supposed to expire at the end of the month. Will that be extended? Has it been extended? What's the current thinking about keeping people in their homes during the course of the public health emergency?
BOWSERWell, this is a huge question, and I want to thank the caller for asking it. The council will extend the public health emergency, which is important, because as long as the federal government is in an emergency, we need to be in one. It helps us take advantage of federal funds. It also gives me the ability to restrict commercial operations to support containing COVID. So, that public health emergency is important.
BOWSERAnd tied to it is the moratorium on evictions. But what I want to really express to everyone is that we all have to be planning for that moratorium to be over at some point. I don't know when the date is. And I want renters, especially, to pay attention to the programs that we have available, which a lot of people aren't calling for. There's money sitting there to help them. And we think it's because of the moratorium, and people will call when the moratorium is over. But don't wait. Call us now. You can go to coronavirus.dc.gov/rent and find information on money that is available to help renters come current with their rent.
AUSTERMUHLEAll right. We've got just over two minutes left. Tom, I'm going to give you the pleasure of a last question or two -- quick ones, hopefully -- to the mayor.
SHERWOODYeah, it'll be a quick one, actually. Mayor, let's go back to the vaccines. Will you take the vaccine when it's made available, as an example for citizens? As you know, many African-Americans are skeptical of vaccines, for good historical reasons. Others are just skeptical of taking something that was so rushed so quickly to the market. Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton have all said they would take the vaccine to guide the people to take it. Will you take it as soon as it's available?
BOWSERI will take it. And I will say, Tom, that my way of thinking, even about that, has evolved, because, like most people, I had questions. I was concerned. I was especially concerned about the political nature of it. But I've paid close attention to the scientists. We had a member of our team participate in one of the trials, and I've gotten a lot of feedback from him. Dr. Nesbitt has been intricately involved with the Warp Speed project. So, I have very high confidence in taking it. And I will take it as soon as I can.
AUSTERMUHLEAll right. Well, unfortunately, we are just about out of time. Mayor Muriel Bowser, we always appreciate you being on the show. Thanks for taking the time, again.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd, I think, Tom, and I probably wanted to take the opportunity to say goodbye to one of our own, Fenit Nirappil. He is the Washington Post Wilson Building reporter. He announced this week -- or the mayor actually broke the news for him, saying that he is going to be covering something else. He's still going to be local, still going to be with the Post, but no longer covering D.C. We will miss him. He was a great reporter. Tom.
SHERWOODAnd he's going to be covering health issues for National Health (word?).
AUSTERMUHLEWe broke all the news for him. We let him break nothing of his own promotion news, here. Well, thank you again for joining us. I'm Martin Austermuhle. I've been sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Today's Politics Hour was produced by Cydney Grannan.
AUSTERMUHLEComing up Monday on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, we'll discuss holiday markets, both in person and virtual with local vendors, as well as the organizer for a new holiday market at the Kennedy Center. That's on Monday. Until then, thanks for listening. I'm Martin Austermuhle, in for Kojo.
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