On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
As Congress holds hearings on the security failures that accompanied the January 6 insurrection, one D.C. councilmember wants a better look at how D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department handled that event. Councilmebmer Robert White (D-At Large) introduced legislation this week that would require the office of the D.C. Attorney General to investigate bias in the way D.C. police respond to protests, including the insurrection and this summer’s racial justice protests. And White will tell us about his plan to improve how the District governs D.C. Public Schools. Plus, we talk about the latest issues with the District’s vaccine rollout.
And Virginia will soon be the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-District 36) joins to talk about that, changes to auto insurance minimum coverage in the commonwealth and his other priorities this session.
Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we’re at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to The Politics Hour starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our Resident Analyst and Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODHello, everybody.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with Scott Surovell. He is a Senator in the Virginia State Senate and Vice Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Joining us now is Robert White, Jr., an At-Large Member of the D.C. Council. Councilmember White, thank you for joining us.
ROBERT WHITEThanks for having me, Kojo. I'm really excited to be with you.
NNAMDIBefore we get specifically to Councilmember White, Tom Sherwood, Mayor Muriel Bowser personally experienced the sadness that so many people in this region are experiencing as a result of COVID-19, because she lost her sister, 64 year-old Mercia Bowser to COVID-19. This must be a particularly difficult time to have to administer the city and be going through this kind of person tragedy, Tom.
SHERWOODYes, the mayor has been overseeing this terrible pandemic in our city where now over 1,000 deaths, 40,000 people have contracted the virus in one form or another. As the mayor these past couple of days was making that announcement of the going over 1,000, she also had to report that her eldest sister had died. It's a reminder that the public officials, the ones we talk to here and across the country, around our city, they are also dealing with the personal aspects of this terrible pandemic not just the political aspect of it.
NNAMDIJust about all of us have known somebody who has died as a result of COVID-19. How about you, Councilmember White?
WHITEWell, first and foremost, most importantly I just continue to give my sympathies to the mayor and ask all residents that they keep her and her family in their thoughts and prayers. I spoke to the mayor a couple of days ago and just can't imagine the loss especially at a time like this. I'm lucky enough that I have not lost family members, but I've lost people in various circles and it's a scary thing. So, I take this opportunity to remind people to take this seriously. And as soon as you can get a vaccination, please get it. Please don't hesitate.
NNAMDIAnd, Tom Sherwood, you're the one who first turned us on to this story that's in this month's edition of Washingtonian Magazine by Luke Mullins we interviewed yesterday, about a secret morgue that was created in the District of Columbia when the morgues at hospitals last year could no longer handle the amount, the number of COVID-19 patients they were getting. This secret morgue included some fairly courageous and heroic work by some competent caring people. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODYes. This is in the March edition of the Washingtonian. It's a story you reported by Luke Mullins. It's not just about a new morgue where the jurisdictions -- we saw the pictures in New York of cooling trucks loaded with dead bodies across the country. Luke found out about this secret disaster morgue that's been here in Southwest, but other than just saying they had to handle lots of bodies, he tells you about the people like Kimberly Lasseter, who is a longtime member of the Medical Examiner's Office. And the clergy, catholic -- I mean Protestant, Christians, Jewish, Muslim leaders who came to the morgue site. Consecrated it and it made a place, secretly though, where all these bodies could go without getting lookie lou people trying to come by and see it.
SHERWOODAnd it's just an extraordinary story about the way this pandemic has touched people who are doing their job with the city government. And I encourage -- I don't want to be a promoter of the Washingtonian here. But I am because this is an extraordinary story. And it starts on page 34 if you pick up the physical copy of it.
NNAMDIWell, he doesn't even have to promote the Washingtonian. The fact is that it promotes some residents of the District of Columbia and people who work here who have done very selfless ...
SHERWOODSo often -- excuse me, Kojo. So often our politics is being tough or critical on the people who serve in public positions. Councilmember White will attest to that. But this story talks about people who give their lives every day in jobs that we do not see and don't read or hear about very much. And who do a remarkable job.
WHITEI really have to commend actually a number of agencies that have stepped up during COVID. Everything from our medical and Medical Examiner's Office to the people at OCTO, people at D.C. Health. This is such a difficult time for government. And no one in the country has all the answers right now. The facts and issues are changing almost daily. And everyone is trying to figure it out taking a lot of heat as we do. And I think this is a good time in line with that article to remember that we're really all in this together. This is such a difficult time for our city that I hope we're coming toward the end of. But it has been a test for so many people in government and really a test for so many residents.
NNAMDIAnd when you were going up in this city, Councilmember White, the name Rayful Edmond was widely known in this city. He was a drug kingpin. Now we have seen that Federal Judge Emmet Sullivan has agreed to a sentence reduction for Rayful Edmond. It was not the end of his troubles, of course, because he's got another 30 year sentence for running the drug trafficking while he was in prison in the mid-1990s. But Tom Sherwood -- and even if he is getting out, might not be coming back here is my understanding.
SHERWOODWell, he will never come back to ordinary life and perhaps he shouldn't. You know, he does face additional charges in the State of Pennsylvania. And even if he were out, he has spent the last couple of decades cooperating with police and prosecutors on investigations of various homicide and drug cases. So even if he were in some way to get out of prison, he probably would have to be in the Witness Protection Program for the rest of his life. But, you know, he was 24 years old back in 1990 when he was convicted.
SHERWOODHe was the drug kingpin in the mid-80s to late 80s in this city when crack cocaine and cocaine swept through this city destroying lives and families and communities. So, if I just very briefly will say. Judge Sullivan had Attorney General Karl Racine do a survey in the city of what people thought about reducing the sentence. And it came back, out of more than 500 people that Racine got in contact with, it was pretty much split 50-50. Some people thought he had served enough time. Others thought his crimes were so bad that he should stay in prison.
NNAMDIDo you come down on one side or the other on this, Councilmember White?
WHITEAs a general philosophy, I do believe that we incarcerate people for such a long time beyond the point of really helping or a public safety and we actually get in the way of rehabilitation. Specific to this issue and really how we handle crime, I encourage people to pick up the book "Slug" by Tony Lewis, Jr., whose father was incarcerated along with Rayful and doesn't have right now at least a chance to get out. But it also paints a picture of what this city was like when he and I were growing up, and the impact of over-incarceration and how we deal with crime. And so, for really a historical perspective almost, I encourage people to look at this book and it will really give some color to Rayful's situation.
NNAMDISpeaking of perspective, the District opened up thousands of vaccine appointments yesterday and today. But the registration has been plagued with problems both online and on the phones. What is your perspective on this?
WHITEMy perspective is that it's not acceptable. And I have been in contact with Lindsey Parker, the Head of OCTO. I have a great relationship with her and a lot of respect for her. What she knowns, what residents knows, what I know is that we have to be able to register people for the vaccine. I have an understanding of what went wrong yesterday. I have an understanding of what OCTO did to fix that. But we still saw the website overwhelmed today. My understanding now is that that was because of a capacity problem, but we have to expect this kind of capacity.
WHITESo, my challenge to the director and to the administration is tomorrow and the next day, how are we doing to deal with capacity because this is something that will be a problem until we really have a sizeable portion of our residents vaccinated. So, this is not something where we can just say, well, the website was over capacity and that's just how it will be. We have to figure out a way to fix it, and I think we all have to agree on that.
SHERWOODThe one thing I don't understand, Councilmember Charles Allen in Ward 6 tweeted this morning that there was something like 30,000 people trying to get in to reserve 4,000 slots. And Councilmember Elissa Silverman, also an At-Large Councilmember like Councilmember White, said that she had looked at the system and it seemed it was fairly simple. What happened? The D.C. government, Microsoft, which is the contractor for this site, simply did not properly check it out in order -- knowing that there was this huge demand, knowing that there would be a rush at the time it opened this morning. They simply didn't check it out and make sure that it was able to handle the traffic and it's certainly a huge management problem.
NNAMDICouncilmember White, you received the first dose of the vaccine earlier this month. When you got your first shot, you tweeted about saying, "As soon as you're able to get the shot, get it." Earlier this month, Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie told Washington City Paper he had chosen not to get the vaccine yet, because the city hadn't done enough to facilitate an equitable vaccine distribution. Why did you feel it was important to get yours as soon as possible, and to encourage others to do the same?
WHITEI still talk to people every day, Kojo, including family members of my -- African Americans predominantly who say, I'm not getting the COVID shot, and this to me is frustrating and scary. And so, I do have a responsibility as a Black leader to set an example and make sure people know I'm getting the COVID shot. They know why I'm getting the COVID shot. And that is not just to protect me. It's to protect my family and other people's families. So, I have an obligation. I actually debated whether I would take the vaccine, because I was getting it for continuity of government reasons not because of my age or health.
WHITEBut I read what the scientists said. And what the scientists said were, forget about your ethical dilemma right now. Figure that out later. Take the shot as soon as you can get it, because that is the thing that scientists need us to do to best protect us. I also turned to the smartest person I know, my wife, and she said, look, sweetheart, I know why you're struggling with this decision, but the concerns you have are not going to be fixed by you not getting the shot. And what's more, if you get COVID, I'm going to be really pissed at you. So, I did listen to the wife and to the scientists. And I think it's important for all of us the second, the second you can get shot, get it.
NNAMDIOkay. Got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back our guest is At-Large D.C. Councilmember Robert White, Jr. The U.S. Capitol Police Chief, according to the DCist report by Jenny Gathright, told Congress that the department's intelligence division prepared reports ahead of January 6th based on information from the FBI and other sources, but they had no idea that the mob that attacked the Capitol would be that large.
NNAMDICouncilmember White and Tom Sherwood, you introduced a bill, Councilmember White, this week that looks into racial bias in the way D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department responds to protests. But before you talk about that specifically, I wanted to know what your view was and yours, Tom Sherwood, about what the Capitol Police Chief said. Starting with you, Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODWell, there was plenty of intelligence about what was going to happen. The way that intelligence was handled is the problem. Again, the bureaucracy of the Capitol Police Board, which is made up of a representative of the House and Senate and the Architect of the Capitol. Again, Councilmember Charles Allen has written Eleanor Holmes Norton saying there ought to be a D.C. Police official on that board. The intelligence was there. Any human being breathing could have read something on the internet about the intensions of people having experience at the Capitol. So, I hope that the House and the Senate do a -- investigations on what happened, but you'll see that the intelligence was there. It just was not either gotten out or understood.
NNAMDIAnd Councilmember White, the Metropolitan Police Department of D.C. was largely credited with helping to bring an end to that insurrection. But you still want to look into the way the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department responds to protests. Tell us about why and about what your bill would do.
WHITEYes. This was born exactly from watching things play out on January 6th. And I immediately started to think, well, what happened? Why was there no real presence or preparation from the Capitol Police for what, as Tom said, people knew what was going to happen. That the threats were public. They were known. And what I realize -- and this came from talking to law enforcement folks -- is that law enforcement does a threat assessment ahead of time when they know some action is coming. And for whatever reasons, federal officials looked at the information and decided, no. Even though they say they're coming hurt member of Congress, we don't believe them.
WHITEBut on the other side of that over the summer in June when the federal officials were preparing for Black Lives Matter protests, you saw thousands of police officers, military equipment armed to the tooth, and so it told me that the way we assess threats has some element of bias. Now that bias has had a very difficult impact on communities of color for a long time. But what the bias has done is it's created a real security vulnerability because the biggest Homeland Security threat now is home-grown extremists.
WHITEBut if our bias and the way we assess threats is telling us these people are not a real danger, then we are in danger. And these folks as we know will come to the District of Columbia. So, I asked Congress to examine this issue of racial bias and threat assessment. But we also have to do it in the District of Columbia as well to make sure we are prepared for security issues that will be unfortunately coming to our city over the next several years.
NNAMDIThis is pass -- go ahead, Tom.
SHERWOODFormer Police -- Oh, I'm Sorry. Former Police Chief Charles Ramsey said I think on CNN several times, as did many people after January 6th. They said the police response on Capitol Hill -- and the difference between the D.C. Police response on the Hill and this past summer with Black Lives Matter demonstrations was significantly different. And Chief Ramsey said that it was clearly -- had racial aspects to it. And many people have said this. I'm sure the councilmember would agree. Had thousands of Black people assaulted the Capitol, they would have been shot dead. That the racial tension about what happened on the Hill, what happened this summer in the city really does need a serious look.
NNAMDIAnd let's go to the phones. Here is Drew in Greenbelt, Maryland. Drew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DREWThank you so much. This has been a frustrating day for me registering for the vaccine in two different jurisdictions. So, it's not just D.C. I received a text, because of my number of waiting list saying they're now accepting appointments for Six Flags in Bowie. I immediately pushed on a link and it said that all no appointments were available. So, I decided to call them. I was told that the hold would be eight and a half minutes.
DREWAn hour later I decided to hang up and call again to find out that no appointments were available after waiting for an hour. So, then I went to D.C. because I knew that D.C. had vaccines that were available. When I call -- I first of all went to the online, nothing was available. Then I called the phone number for D.C. This is not a Microsoft problem. The number was out of service.
NNAMDIYes, well, it's very clear, Drew. It's very clear that both in Prince George's County and in D.C. they're having serious problems with the roll out of this vaccine. It's something we discussed early. We discussed it on the show also yesterday, and we'll be continuing to look at it. But I do have to move on. Councilmember White, you are planning to introduce a resolution that would create a special committee to review the governance of D.C. schools. You made this announcement on Medium, the digital publishing platform and highlighted the achievement gap between Black and white students. Why the focus on the governance of D.C. Public Schools?
WHITEThe governance is really the infrastructure for how we run and manage our schools. And right now, for the past almost decade and a half we have a situation in D.C. where the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Chancellor of Schools and the State Superintendent of Education all report to the mayor. So, the people who develop the policy, implement the policy, collect the data to analyze what's working and what's not working and the people who report the data all work for the mayor.
WHITEAnd this has created a structure where the people who need to tell us what's not working can't do that, because they don't have enough independence. They can't contradict the mayor. They can't say, oh, the mayor is, you know, doing a bad job here. The result of that has been a system -- and this has been my frustration since I've been on the Council, where the schools keep telling us that everything is going well. We're doing better and better each year, but they're not looking at the important data.
WHITESo, something is working very well in our schools. White students are at or above grade level 79 percent for English language arts, 85 percent for math. On the other side of that, though, only 21 percent of Black students are on grade level for math. These are statistics that we can't ignore. And so there has been really a ground swell of concern from the community, from various councilmembers. There are now three bills on education governance from the State Board of Education, and what I'm saying is a decade and a half into this plan something is not working for Black students. Let's examine what it is so we can make the right choice in terms of how we fix the infrastructure and go forward. All I want us to do is examine what's not working.
SHERWOODThis as I understand it, you are proposing that there would be a six month period time, a special committee of the council. In order to be as brief as possible with the question and your answer, who would make up this committee? Would it be selected by the chairman? Who would make up this committee?
WHITEAs the bill is written, I would work with my colleagues to select the members of the committee after the resolution passes.
SHERWOODAnd how many members would there be?
WHITEFive members. Possibly chairman as an (unintelligible) member.
NNAMDIWell, we're going to ask the councilmember to stick around after the next break so we can get some answers to this question.
NNAMDISo, go ahead, Tom Sherwood. No, go ahead. We still have about a minute left.
SHERWOODWell, you're asking for a special committee to look at education when the D.C. Council, 13 members voted in January to eliminate the education committee, which would be an ongoing committee that could in fact look at all the issues in the school system and governance. That's what they're supposed to do. But the D.C. Council decided not to have an education committee and instead just left it in the committee as a whole, which means all 13 members are responsible for education, which means no one is. Why didn't you become like education committee chairman of the Council or at least support having an education committee so that you could do this work without having a special committee being created?
NNAMDIWell, I'm going to have to ask you to hold your response to that question, Councilmember White.
SHERWOODIt was too long.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you'll be staying on with us for a few minutes after the break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We'll be talking shortly with Senator Scott Surovell of the Virginia State Senate. We're still talking currently with Robert White, Jr., an at-large member of the D.C. Council. When we took that break, Robert White, you were getting ready to respond to Tom Sherwood's question about an education committee on the council.
WHITEYes. So, Tom, over the past 14 years when we've had this particular structure, there have been times that education has been its own committee, and in the committee, as a whole. But across both of those realities, more than 70 percent of black students have been behind grade levels. So, that's not the issue.
WHITEWhat I'm trying to do is zero-in on the issue. There's a structural problem. Something is not working. And what I ask people -- somebody recently said to me, data has a heartbeat. So, don't think of 70 percent as a percentage, as a number. Thing about these children who are in our school system, over 70 percent behind grade level. What is that going to do for them and their families? What impact is that going to have on crime, on prison, on social services? This isn't something we can...
SHERWOODThank you very -- thank you very much. That's all very important. Let me just ask you: Do you support, or would you consider -- willing to consider returning the school system from the authority of the mayor that we started with Adrian Fenty and return it to the elected school board? Is that something you will consider?
WHITEEverything has to be considered, in the discussion. What I'm trying so hard not to do is throw out some preconceived notion that's going to be battled from every angle and leave us in the exact same place. This is problem across the city, and the solution has to be developed by engaging people from across the city.
WHITESo, I don't want to say anything, Tom, that is going to give some indication that have some preconceived notion as to where I want to go. I will say that there are two bills in the council right now on education governance. And this is an opportunity even to really air both of those bills out, as well.
NNAMDIWell, I have a preconceived notion, and that is that this proposal will probably not be very warmly received in the office of the mayor or the DCPS Chancellor. Have you talked with either of them about this proposal?
WHITEI've not talked to them about it yet, but I would ask, why would this not be perceived as warm? What is our end goal, right? Like, is anybody going to say, yes, we are educating black students, at-risk students, English language learners, or educating them well enough? Is anybody...
SHERWOODI don't think anybody would say that, councilmember, but the Washington Teacher's Union, which endorsed you for re-election last year -- incidentally congratulations on your re-election.
SHERWOODThe Teacher's Union has, I think, supported some idea that the mayor's control is too strong, and that maybe we ought to return to an elected board. And, as you know, the history of the elected board is pretty bad. Have you talked to the Teacher's Union, Elizabeth Davis or anybody there about your proposal?
WHITEThe Teacher's Union is one of many, many groups that I have talked to about my proposal.
SHERWOODBut not the mayor.
WHITEAnd what I asked them is to engage in this issue.
NNAMDIHow do you think your council colleagues will respond to this proposal? I know what you're hoping, but talk practical politics, here, for a second. How do you think...
WHITEWell, yeah, they hear the same thing I hear, right. So, you don't go anywhere and hear parents say, yeah, this is working well for me. The engagement, the outcome is working well for me. And we are called to these jobs to do the hard work. Hard things are hard, and that is our job, to take these on. What we cannot do is look at this data and turn our backs. And my hope and expectation is that the majority of my colleagues feels the same way, that we have to do something. And the best way to figure it out is to do it together in an open public process.
SHERWOODWere you offered the committee chairmanship of education by the chairman when he was looking around for someone to chair the committee?
WHITEI don't know that he was looking for someone to chair the committee or not. So, no, it wasn't offered to me, but...
SHERWOODIt wasn't offered to you, okay. It was offered to some others.
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left but I'm going to ask Ahmad in Southwest Washington, who is on the air, to keep his question short. Ahmad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AHMADThank you, Kojo. And, Councilmember White, I'm glad you got the COVID shot. Along the line that you were talking about in terms of looking at the governance, is there any way, with this year's DCPS budget, there can be more transparency? Because it's been like a shell game. The format has changed. Residents have been rushed to review and not able to make apples-to-apples comparisons.
NNAMDIOkay. Go ahead Council...
WHITEI appreciate that question. It's not that the public who can't make these comparisons. It's the council, as well. So, one of the next things I'm trying to do is pull together a group of people who can develop a recommendation on how the education budget should be presented in a way that makes it fully transparent. So, that is on my agenda for this year, and I expect to get that done, as well.
NNAMDICouncilmember White, thank you so much for joining us.
WHITEKojo, Tom, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIRobert White, Jr. is an at-large member of the D.C. Council. Joining us now is Scott Surovell, Senator in the Virginia State Senate, representing the 36th District, which includes parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford Counties. He's also the vice-chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Senator Surovell, thank you so much for joining us.
SCOTT SUROVELLGood afternoon, gentlemen. It's good to be with you again.
NNAMDIThe Virginia General Assembly recently voted to abolish the death penalty, and Governor Ralph Northam is expected to sign the bill into law. You sponsored this bill in the Senate, which had come up before in the General Assembly, but hadn't passed. Why did it pass this time?
SUROVELLWell, you know, we have a unified Democratic control of both the House, the Senate and the governor's mansion now for the first time in 28 years. I think that, coupled with changing public opinion, has really sort of made the difference along with Governor Northam's endorsement of the concept. You know, the most recent Gallup polling shows that now 45 percent of Americans are morally opposed to capital punishment. You know, 20 years ago it was only like probably 10 or 15 percent.
SUROVELLSo, public opinion has moved significantly, and I think we have a political majority now that's more favorably disposed toward it. And the governor's nudge, really, I think, gave the final little push it needed to get across the finish line this year.
SHERWOODSenator, thanks for joining us. I do want to ask about the vote, because I think one Republican voted for it, Senator Jill Vogel. And I asked her office why she voted it. She had run statewide, I think, for Lieutenant Governor. I didn't get a response back.
SHERWOODBut I think people would be interested knowing -- I read in one of the obscure stories in the state that one of the reasons you're opposed to the death penalty is that when you were a governor's fellow -- I'm not sure exactly when that was or exactly what that means -- you went on a tour of the place where the executions took place. And you even met Jerry Gibbons, I think, who had ran in the (unintelligible) ran the executions. And that you were so scared about it, you didn't even go near the chair. Tell us, just very briefly, that story. When was that?
SUROVELLThanks, Tom. I appreciate the question. And first of all, there was actually about three or four Republicans that voted in favor of it. There was one in the Senate, and that was Senator Vogel, but there were a couple in the House, as well. But in 1993, I served as the governor's fellow under Governor Doug Wilder. In the governor's fellowship, you basically -- it's right after you graduate college. You go and you hang out with a Cabinet-level official.
SUROVELLAnd they took us on a field trip to Greenville State Penitentiary, which had just opened, then. They used to do executions in Richmond. They moved it out there and one of the things they showed us was took us through the death chamber. And, you know, at that time we didn't have lethal injection. All we had was the electric chair. And, you know, some of the young men that were with us wanted to sit in the thing. And I was just completely disgusted by it.
SUROVELLAnd just sitting there looking at it and imagining how many people had died sitting in that thing was just really disturbing to me. And today, I just sort of think it was disturbing even that they decided to go show that off to us, as, you know, future leaders in the Commonwealth. And Gibbons walked us through the process, and he showed us the buttons they have to push, and all that. And the whole thing was just very disturbing to me, as the government was involved in it.
NNAMDIAnother criminal justice reform bill you sponsored would automatically expunge criminal records for certain offenses. Your version was more conservative than the one in the House, that majority leader Charniele Herring proposed. But it seems that the two of you reached a deal yesterday. What does the final bill look like?
SUROVELLWell, I dispute the idea that ours was more conservative than hers, but basically, it's a two-part thing. So, the House was very focused on having an automatic process, so that if you show good behavior for a period of time, there's about nine misdemeanors that will be automatically sealed from the records, so they'll be no longer publicly visible.
SUROVELLThe Senate proposal, which was also adopted, we created a petition process where basically everything from a class 5 felony down -- class 5, 6 felonies are minor felonies, and then all misdemeanors. You can go in front of a judge and petition to have a record sealed after showing a period of good behavior. And there's 1.6 million Virginians who currently have a criminal history, and this, you know, burdens people from getting employment, getting a lease, getting insurance.
SUROVELLAnd we're one of only, I think, eight states or nine states left in the country that doesn't allow this for misdemeanors, and one of only 14 that doesn't allow it for felonies. And, you know, a lot of people come over from Maryland or D.C., and they think that you can just get a conviction from, like, 30 years ago sealed. And they don't realize that in Virginia, we don't allow that. And it's a really big step forward for Virginia. And I'm really excited we're finally able to work out a compromise to get that done.
NNAMDIWell, Joe in Fairfax, Virginia has a question or comment about that. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEGood afternoon. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
JOEOkay. Thank you very much for the bill. I just wanted to congratulate you on that. I'm one of the roughly 6 million. Lucky for me, after 25 years, I've been able to get back on track, but the record has really put me behind the eight ball and a lot of opportunities. So, I wanted to thank you for that. Also, I wanted to find out, when will that take place, once that bill becomes law?
SUROVELLThat's an excellent question. Unfortunately, we had to put a four-year-delayed enactment on it, because we have to do about $15 million of computer infrastructure work in order to be able to get the state police's computers to speak to the state Supreme Court's computers, and also the local police divisions in a way that we can do this without costing a million dollars. The original fiscal impact statement that came out said it was going to cost something like $80 million a year to do this. And by automating a huge part of the process, we got the cost down to about 13 million.
SUROVELLBut the downside of that is it's going to take about four years to get it in place. And we're trying to figure it out. There's some ways to speed up different parts of the process. The automatic piece is the part that takes the real computer stuff, and we're trying to figure out if we can speed up the petition part so that people can get some relief sooner than four years from now.
NNAMDIJoe, thank you very much for your call, and good luck to you. Both the Virginia House and Senate have passed legislation aimed at legalizing marijuana, but they're still trying to reconcile the differences and the bills. What are those differences, and is it possible that the bill won't be finalized before the end of the session?
SUROVELLSo, Kojo, first of all, it's an excellent question. And first of all, the media coverage has been kind of disappointing in this, in that the House voted for a regime to basically, you know, legalize recreational sale marijuana and have some other provisions, as well. The Senate passed a similar bill, but we also put a provision on the end of it basically saying that nothing will be the law unless we vote on it again next year.
SUROVELLAnd so, the Senate sort of voted in general for a concept, but not to make it the law. And there's a real big split -- difference between the caucuses on that. And, actually, I had to leave my caucus meeting about this subject to come out here and do this interview. (laugh) So, it's hard for me to be able to describe exactly where things were. But last night, I was very pessimistic about bridging the gap, but I know there's been some movement in the last 12 hours. I'm not really sure exactly whether we're going to get to home plate.
SUROVELLI think we'll probably see some kind of bill, but I'm not sure it's going to be the kind of -- the full legalization that people -- that's sort of been talked about in the media. I think it's going to -- this is a really -- it's the biggest bill I've ever seen. It's 13,000 lines long. It's extraordinarily complex, and I think it's going to take some more time to vet, but we'll see. It's possible we might squeak something out in the next 24 hours, but it's going to be hard.
SHERWOODThe legislature adjourns -- it's scheduled to adjourn, I think, tomorrow, so it'll be interesting what happens to the marijuana bill. One thing that did pass the General Assembly has been to force in-person schooling as of June 1st. And I was kind of surprised by that. It seems to me that the decisions about doing in-schooling would be based on the science and not a deadline like June 1st. What's the reasoning for that?
SUROVELLWell, Tom, we were getting a lot of people reaching out that were upset that -- especially the school systems in Northern Virginia had not approved any type of in-person schooling. A lot of the other systems in the rest of the state, you know, they had kids going to school one, two, three days a week, something like that. But in Northern Virginia, basically, none of the children were going. And for a lot of families, it was really a burden between the childcare issues. And for some other families, they just can't work if they don't have their children in school. And we were really hearing about it a lot.
SUROVELLThe state's chief vaccine officer, Dr. Danny Avula, was telling us back in January that he didn't think the science supported keeping the kids out. You know, the CDC and the Biden administration came out with guidance about two or three weeks after that kind of reaffirming that idea, especially given that we're going to get all of our teachers vaccinated probably by the end of -- probably the middle of March, actually, in the next couple weeks. I think right now about 70 percent are vaccinated.
SUROVELLAnd so, the thinking was, is that, you know, by June 1, everybody should be vaccinated. All the teachers and the school personnel should be vaccinated. And there's really not as much of a reason to hold our kids back and give the families the support they need. And also, I'm telling you, the test scores coming out of the schools are just really frightening. I mean, in some of my elementary schools in the Route 1 corridor, I was seeing remedial reading scores doubling and tripling over what they normally are in a normal year. Because this online learning just really isn't taking for a lot of kids, especially if they're English -- if they're English as second-language learners.
NNAMDIVirginia's like the Wild West when it comes to campaign finance. The Virginia Senate was considering a bill that would tighten restrictions on what politicians can do with campaign funds. But it got sent back to committee, meaning it won't be passing this session. What do you think needs to be changed about campaign finance in Virginia, and why doesn't there seem to be any urgency about it?
SUROVELLOkay. Now, you're putting me on the spot, Kojo. So, I was on that committee, and I actually prepared a big rewrite of that bill that was on the floor. But the more and more we got into it, the more uncomfortable everybody got. We're one of only three states in America that doesn't have this restriction in our code, that is the prohibition on the personal use of campaign funds.
SUROVELLAnd the original bill that came through was like three lines long, and it basically said the State Board of Elections needs to go and tell us the details. And a lot of people weren't comfortable voting on something without knowing the details. So, I wrote a bill that had more details, but the more we got into the details, the more people thought we needed to talk about it some more. And given that we didn't have a chance to talk about the details in committee in that way, a lot of people just felt like it wasn't ready to be voted on.
SUROVELLAnd coincidentally, Delegate David Bulova from Burke, he passed a resolution to do a big campaign finance reform study. So, over the next 12 months, we're going to look at whether or not we can reform Virginia's campaign finance laws. And we thought that might be a good opportunity to have this looked at at the exact same time, so we get a really high-quality of vetting before we have to vote on a piece of legislation.
SUROVELLAnd so that's kind of how it got to where it got. It's just there's some real ambiguous areas that you have to work through so that we don't subject everybody to, you know, potential criminal exposure or sort of unfounded campaign attacks. And we just need to get those details worked out before everybody, I think, will be comfortable with it.
SHERWOODI think Virginia has, probably in the country, the least restrictive campaign finance laws in terms of what monies can be used, how and when, than any other jurisdiction in the country, I believe. Can I ask you about the polystyrene or Styrofoam legislation? I think consumers in Northern Virginia, across the state, would be interested. The District banned polystyrene or Styrofoam here in the District, and I think Maryland has, too. Virginia's getting onboard, but it says you won't ban it until July of 2025 for most businesses.
SUROVELLYou know, Senator Peterson from Fairfax is the chairman of the committee that went through. And when they finally worked it out, I think he sent an email and called it the great polystyrene compromise of 2021 or something like that. That bill's been bouncing around for two or three years now. Delegate Betsy Carr from Richmond's been carrying it.
SUROVELLAnd I think what it says -- I think what the details were is that for larger chains, I believe it's a polystyrene ban within two years, and then for ...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) July 2023.
SUROVELLRight. And then for the smaller, sort of mom-and-pop-style restaurants, it doesn't kick in until 2025. And that was to give them time to transition. And I think that's what we ended up agreeing on. And, you know, I've been cleaning up this one creek in my district, and I can't tell you how much Styrofoam I've taken out of it. And this thing's way, way, way, way overdue. And I'm glad we're finally able to work out the problems.
SHERWOODSpeaking of your district, tell me just briefly, what do you cover in your district?
SUROVELLMy district starts kind of close to the Wilson Bridge and sort of Kingstowne, near the Mixing Bowl. And then it sort of runs down through Lorton, Meson Neck. And then in Prince William County, I represent Occoquan, a lot of Woodbridge, swing all the way down to Dumfries and up 234. Have all of Prince William Forest Park, Quantico Marine Corps base. And then about 15, 20,000 people in Stafford County, including the Widewater, Peninsula. And if you know -- my district basically ends where the hot lanes end on 95, if you know where that is.
SHERWOODYes, I do.
SUROVELLIt's about 220,000 people. That's about what it is.
NNAMDIHere is Arian in Fairfax, Virginia. Arian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ARIANHi, Kojo. Virginia is currently one of 27 states that do not make police disciplinary records public, which caused a massive conflict of interest and enables police departments to neglect police misconduct claims. Would you support legislation that makes police disciplinary records public and require police departments to publish their administrative investigations?
SUROVELLThat's a -- yeah, we just went through a major rewrite of our policing situation -- system in the special session that just concluded. And, actually, I ended up writing a lot of that bill with Senator Mamie Locke from Hampton. And that was one of the issues that came up. We made probably, I would say, 20 to 30 different reforms of how policing works and how police are disciplined.
SUROVELLAnd I'm really proud, because it got sort of -- it got covered by the impeachment -- all the impeachment coverage, and nobody really focused on what we did. But, you know, with regard to that specific issue, I would need to look into it a little more. And one of the things I'm really proud we did was that we enhanced the ability of civilian review boards to actually get involved in police discipline in Virginia, if our localities want to do that. So, we're going to have real civilian review boards in Virginia. And that, I think, will make a big difference in terms of transparency.
SUROVELLBut doing a one-size-fits-all approach when we have 430 different law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth gets a lot trickier. I mean, we have some police departments that only have like one officer on them. And so, trying to -- and we also have sheriffs, which are constitutionally elected officers, and they have different hiring systems than the municipal police do, and so we have to square it all. And I think that's something we definitely ought to look at, but I'm really excited about what we did last session. I could talk for another 30 minutes about that...
NNAMDIWell, please don't because Brian in Alexandria has a question for you. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANYes, good afternoon. Senator, thank you for your service. Thank you for sitting in the hotseat. My question goes back to the marijuana legislation. I'd really like you to expand. You were very vague about what the differences and problems are in those two bills. If you could expound on that, I would appreciate it.
NNAMDIIn the limited time we have left.
SUROVELLSure. Well, again, the Senate bill had a reenactment clause, which means that basically everything would have to be voted on again next session before it became the law. We also had a statewide advisory referendum so that everybody in the state could vote on whether or not to legalize the adult sale for -- the sale to adults over the age of 21.
SUROVELLIn terms of the details beyond that, there were, I think, some differences between vertical integration. And what that means is whether or not the same companies can both grow, manufacture and sell or whether you had to have different companies involved in every stage of the process, like we do currently for alcohol. I believe there were some differences in what we call the social equity provisions, that is what we do with the profits and the licensing fees and how we reinvest those in communities that have been sort of over-policed over the last few years.
SUROVELLThere were some differences, I think maybe, in the homegrown piece, but I can't remember that exactly. We also -- our criminal penalties were different. In the Senate we took the position that the penalties ought to be the same as alcohol. In the House, they wanted penalties lower than alcohol. That was another, I think, point of difference.
SUROVELLAnd I have a chart that has about 50 things on it, and I don't have it in front of me right now.
SUROVELLBut the big thing was the Senate, I think, wanted to vet -- yeah, we wanted to vet it over the next 12 months, and the House wanted to do it right now. That's the big difference.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, you have about 30 seconds to ask Senator Surovell about the upcoming elections in Virginia.
SHERWOODYes. Who are you supporting for governor? This is a big election year. Have you picked a candidate for governor yet?
SUROVELLListen, Jennifer McClellan went to law school with me. Jennifer Carol Foy is my constituent. Terry McAuliffe is a good friend. I'm known Justin Fairfax a long time. And, yeah, I'm not getting involved. (laugh)
SHERWOODWhat about lieutenant governor or attorney general?
SUROVELLI have two constituents running in that one for LG, and I'm supporting Mark Herring for AG.
NNAMDIAnd I’m afraid that's all the time we have. Scott Surovell, thank you so much for joining us.
SUROVELLGreat. It's always good to be here with you guys.
NNAMDIScott Surovell is a senator in the Virginia State Senate. He's also the vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. The Politics Hour was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up Monday, Virginia's likely to be the next state to legalize marijuana. When might this happen, and what would legalization look like in the Commonwealth?
NNAMDIThen, Kojo for Kids welcomes Rockville author Hena Khan, who writes books about Muslim-American kids but are beloved by kids from all backgrounds. That all starts Monday, at noon. In the meantime, thank you for listening and have a wonderful weekend. What are your plans, Sherwood?
SHERWOODI'm going to have a wonderful weekend.
NNAMDIYeah, but we want specifics. (laugh)
SHERWOODIt'll be outside.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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