Potomac Confidential fills the midday lull with discussion of the latest news and a rigorous slicing and dicing of the issues that define who we are and where we live.
He'll talk about this week's column on the situation at the D.C. housing project at Sursum Corda No Wonder Some D.C. Folks Feel Abandoned and today's column on WASA and leaded water, as well as Gov. Bob Ehrlich's distaste for multiculturalism, the rash of gang attacks in suburban Virginia, and the situation in Iraq.
In his weekly show, Washington Post Metro columnist Marc Fisher veers wildly from serious probing to silly prattle, and is open to topics local, national, personal and more.
(The Washington Post)
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Marc Fisher: Welcome, all. Cicadas driving you nuts yet? I am in receipt of a tape from Pat O'Leary and Tom Ponton with just the listening you need to drown out the buggy drone--songs such as The Theme from Atom Ant, Al Hirt's Green Hornet theme, Don Dixon's Praying Mantis, and of course Bob Dylan's cicada-inspired Day of the Locusts. What are you doing to combat (or embrace) the cicadas?
So much to talk about today: Would you widen I-66 inside the Beltway? Do yesterday's cryptic remarks from Major League Baseball's chieftains indicate that Peter Angelos has finally nixed the idea of bringing the Expos to Washington? Does Wm Donald Schaefer really say what you think (about multiculturalism and everything else)?
This week's columns focused on the housing and police situation at the Sursum Corda project in Northwest D.C. and on the latest WASA saga--not lead in the water this time, but something far worse.
The Yays and Nays of the Day:
Yay to the editors of the Annandale High School A-Blast, for speaking out about how Fairfax police confiscated their camera when student reporters were taking pictures of a police confrontation with teens near their school.
And Nay to Gov. Bobby Haircut, who seems to know no bounds in his effort to drag down his office and appeal to our basest instincts. First it was slots, now it's frustration over foreign accents and people who can't speak English.
Your turn starts now....
D.C. Turning gray:
Marc -- In researching/reporting stories like today's mess with WASA, how do you stop yourself from just decking the people who work there who just say 'oops, my bad' after displaying such incompetence? OK, so don't deck them (I'm not an advocate of violence), but do you ever say to those spokes people that they are worthless employees and useless to the city. How does one not go insane? Maybe we should have a new segment on the local nightly TV news putting up a picture and giving some info on the worst city employees and the stupid decisions they have made (the opposite of H.S. Athlete of the Week). Maybe a little shame would help improve attitudes and performance.
Marc Fisher: Public shaming is the key to a lot of what journalists do, but in a society in which shame is an ever less common emotional commodity, this does not work as well as it once did. Time was when the mere revelation that a school principal had a phony degree would shame the bosses into taking care of the situation. No more. Now it generally takes something more like a legal issue to produce instant action--that's how those kids from Annandale High got the police to apologize for confiscating their camera. That clearly broke the law, so it had to be addressed.
Great column this morning. It doesn't surprise me that the District water people don't want to take any responsibility for the water problems and I can't imagine that they didn't anticipate this. It also shouldn't surprise anyone that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing as far as sending contractors. Have you had any responses to your column? It seems like one that the city would immediately take notice of.
Marc Fisher: Thanks--I hear that the work continues apace in the Palisades. And I heard from a couple of ex-WASA workers who said that they used to carry maps, but that the maps were cut out in a budget-paring exercise some years ago, even before the agency came up with the homeland security excuse.
Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.:
Last week you expressed displeasure at Harold Brazil. This made me wonder if there is a single African American politician in the District you actually think is doing a good job?
Marc Fisher: Now there's an ugly accusation. And a silly one, too. I'm not sure what race has to do with effective public service, but here are a few of the D.C. elected officials whose work, dedication and honesty I admire, even if I have disagreed with them on any number of issues: Tony Williams, David Catania, Adrian Fenty, Kathy Patterson, William Lockridge, Tommy Wells. Some are black, some are white.
Marc: Gov. Ehrlich used the Preakness as an opportunity to again push his slots initiative, spinning it this time as a way to save jobs associated with Maryland's horse industry. If his goal is to save jobs in that industry, then I would suppose that he has proposed any measures other than slots to help that industry. But I don't recall any -- do you know of any other measures?
Marc Fisher: Good point--of course the horse thing is just a way of pitching slots. And obviously it has failed, because most of the public really doesn't care if the state's horse industry dies.
Could you or your readers possibly explain to me why the vast majority of folks who drive Rt. 7 between Winchester and Leesburg feel it is perfectly acceptable to cruise at 75 mph and faster, even though the road is a 55 mph road? 7 is a DANGEROUS road because of the overwhelming number of speeders, especially at Snicker's Gap, because some folks find it is perfectly fine to go over 8-0 going DOWN a semi-windy road.
Please, I beg the Virginia state police, the Loudoun and Clarke Co. sheriff's offices to post folks on 7 DURING rush hour regularly and often to help discourage this. It's one thing to stay within the "gentleman's 10", but 20+ mph over the limit? Unacceptable. Oh, one word of advice: cops, find better hiding spots. Everyone on 7 knows the favorite places, especially the ones around Purcellville and Round Hill.
Someone who does NOT see Rt. 7 as a NASCAR track
Marc Fisher: I hate to offer an unpopular solution (well, I actually don't mind doing so at all), but how about speeding cameras? Seems to work in the District.
Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.:
I was surprised to learn about the slots emporium proposed to be located in NE D.C., and the tiny slice of revenue the city would receive from it. Do you know if we have to vote this proposal up or down? I'd like to vote yes, but only if D.C. gets a bigger slice of the pie.
As a retiree, I have some time to devote to this effort. Any idea whom I could contact to offer my services? Thanks.
Marc Fisher: This proposal, by a District developer named Pedro Alfonso, does not seem likely to make it onto the ballot this fall. In any event, even if it were to get on the ballot and even if it were to win voter approval, Congress would stomp on that baby faster than you can say No Taxation Without Representation.
North Potomac, Md.:
I was downtown over the weekend and noticed that the flags were being flown at half-staff. Do you know why they were being flown that way?
Marc Fisher: Got me. Anyone?
Farragut West, Washington, D.C.:
I was glad to read in today's Post Selig Uneasy About D.C. Baseball's Effect (Post, May 20) that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is still yanking the chain of potential D.C. area owners and fans. He says he's still very worried about the impact of locating another team so close to the Orioles. I'm glad because I'm certain any ballpark will cost far more than D.C. officials estimate -- when's the last time you saw a massive publicly funded project come in anywhere near budget? When it ends up costing 500 or 600 million dollars instead of 350, who do you think will end up paying the difference? Certainly not the millionaire players or billionaire owners. It will be the D.C. taxpayers, probably in the form of an increase in the sales tax. Somehow, I think this city has more pressing needs for 500 million dollars.
Marc Fisher: Yes, the city can use $500 million in far better ways, but there's zero chance that the city would turn to a sales tax or any other general form of taxation to pay for a stadium. The cost of paying off bonds for a stadium would be borne by stadium users in the form of user taxes on tickets and concessions, and by property owners in the immediate vicinity of the ballpark, who would be assessed a special tax (and who would benefit from souped up property values once a ballpark is built.)
So Marc, I noticed there was not one transgender person among the politicians among those you admire. Coincidence?
Marc Fisher: I extend my deepest apologies to the many alternatively gendered, clothed and tongued peoples who may have been offended, and I will immediately enroll in offensive thought training.
Re: Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.:
So, as a black city resident, should I support Harold Brazil simply because he's black, which I think happens far too often in this city? He's an ineffective politician who doesn't actually "do" anything other than the bidding of others (and those others I'm referring to are not his constituents).
Marc Fisher: Brazil is not one of the more deeply involved politicos in this city. Sadly, council member Jim Graham backed off from challenging Brazil for his citywide, at-large seat in good part because of the same kind of racial politics that Lincoln Park is peddling.
Marc: I have known Bobby Ehrlich for a long time. He is a good guy but his actions too often are still those of a frat boy jock.
Why does Maryland seem to pick governors who are either colorless drones or headline-hogging clowns? Mark Warner, I am proud to say, is light years ahead of Ehrlich in stature.
Marc Fisher: Well, you're not giving us a whole lot of choices there, are you? If they're not colorless drones or headline-hogging clowns, what would they be?
Well, ok, Mark Warner. Now there's an interesting case. I think a lot of folks who were pro or con Warner would have agreed that he was in over his head--until his impressive performance this session, when he won a tax increase from a Republican legislature that the experts had said would walk all over the guv. So, does this empower Warner to accomplish still more next year or has he used up all his capital?
I know that Gov. Erlich has a responsibility to watch what he says, but I had to nod in agreement with the problem of making myself understood to fast food and other retail personnel. This is supposed to be the "service economy," isn't it? So why does it seem to be so hard to order a ice cream cone at a McDonalds and not get a coke instead?
Marc Fisher: Yes, Ehrlich was absolutely right about expressing the frustration that many folks feel about the inability to communicate with workers at Mickey D's and so many other low-paying jobs. But isn't the politician's job to say, hey, there's a problem here and this is how we should address it, rather than just mouthing off against foreigners and moving on?
Judiciary Square, Washington, D.C.:
Re flags -- Last week was National Police Week, and Saturday was Law Enforcement Memorial Day.
Marc Fisher: Thanks!
Your column today about the Palisades home with a sewer problem confirmed what I have said for years: I would not live in the best neighborhood in D.C. (and Palisades is one of the best), because you still have to contend with the incompetent idiots downtown that run the various city agencies. Years of featherbedding, cronyism, and nepotism have produced a bloated bureaucratic culture where no city employee wants to earn their inflated salary, and on the rare occasion when you encounter a competent, helpful city employee you are amazed and it becomes news.
I will pass on the vibrant city life that beckons, and stay out here in the 'burbs where public employees are held accountable.
Marc Fisher: Well, I'm glad you are happy with the services you receive, but I have to say that I hear just as vociferous complaining about Montgomery and other suburban authorities as I do about the city's. Speaking of water authorities, you're in the heart of the pinhole leaks problem that seems to be centered in suburbia, not in the city. Lead is a problem that does not seem to be limited to the District. Obviously the city has big problems with its government, but they're not unique.
Re: Widening 66. Look, since nobody is proposing building a wider Teddy Roosevelt Bridge, and we won't be moving the Vietnam Memorial to widen Constitution Avenue, can we please stop with the idea that widening 66 will solve all of our traffic problems? Thanks!
Marc Fisher: True, but the bottlenecks that result from the narrowing of 66 from 3 to 2 lanes have nothing to do with Constitution Avenue. Then again, 66 was built expressly with the promise that the inside-the-Beltway portion would remain at two lanes in each direction. What justifies reneging on that promise?
Funding for the baseball stadium question:
Years ago, the Council raised the food sales tax to an outrageous 10 per cent in order to fund the convention center.
The convention center's now built.
The food sales tax is still 10 per cent.
Why not use those proceeds to build the stadium?
Or is WASA now getting that slice of the pie ...
Marc Fisher: Ha! Good question.
Re: Baseball in D.C.:
Does anyone really have any doubt whatsoever that sometime this summer we will read the headline, "Baseball Decides to Extend Study of Where to Move Expos" -- you know in your heart of hearts D.C. is not getting a team.
Marc Fisher: I had reluctantly reached that same conclusion, but this latest flurry of activity stems from word from various team owners and baseball executives that Washington is once again the leading contender. The real question is whether the mayor can persuade the lords of baseball that the money really exists here to build the ballpark and that naysayers such as Jack Evans can be brought into line.
Herndon. Everytime I have been on Rt. 7 between Winchester and Leesburg during rush hour it has been stop and go to almost Berryviille. Holds true in both the mornings and the afternoons. I am lucky if a hit the speed limit. Weekends are another story. Marc, speed cameras don't slow traffic down, they just generate revenue. Plus there are cheap sprays to obscure your plate from the camera.
Marc Fisher: But you wouldn't use such a spray, right? I mean, it would be fun, but it would be wrong, no? (How much is that stuff?)
How likely is it that Andy Rosenberg can defeat Jim Moran in the June 8 Democratic congressional primary in the 8th District?
Marc Fisher: Not very. But it would a hoot if he could.
I am asking for a reality check. Am I the only person who thinks that Anthony Williams' threat to veto the recently passed school bill is silly? If he thinks, as a lot of us do, that education is probably our most nagging problem in the city, why can't he just work with the stakeholders that we have now, rather than continuing a fight to the bitter end effort to take over the school system?
Marc Fisher: Because working with the people who now run the school system is hard and frustrating, and because it might require the mayor to actually stay in the city for more than three days at a time, and because it's more satisfying to latch onto an easy, dramatic solution such as taking over the system, and because no one really knows what to do.
To Arlington, Va.:
Sheesh, related to Marie Antoinette much?
Maybe the fact that they make nothing to serve your sorry privileged butt ice cream is the reason? Not too many folks can afford a nice D.C. standard upscale degree on Mickey D's/Wal-Mart's wages, can they?
Marc Fisher: Cake, anyone?
One thing that has to be made clear is that the things you described in your column are failures at the management level. The rottenness at WASA is at the head. The crews need training and maps(!). If they show up repeatedly at work sites with neither it's their bosses that are to blame.
Marc Fisher: Quite true. The ex-WASA workers I'm hearing from say that management changed considerably for the worse in the past eight years or so, and that a series of budget cuts made it hard for crews on the streets to get clear instructions or to complete repairs before being moved on to the next job.
Marc, Speaking as an engineer and former EPA employee, I am going to dissent slightly on who gets the blame for D.C.'s water problem. EPA banned chloramine disinfectant but should have thought about what the effect would be system-wide. When lead started leaching from the pipes, EPA charged to the rescue like the crook who sets fire to a building so he can save the people inside and a hero. Don't buy it.
Marc Fisher: Thanks for that--it is clear that the EPA mandate to get the chloramine out of the water mix is what started us down the road to the lead leaching out of the pipes. The blame can be spread around, though, to EPA for not providing a good alternative, to the Corps of Engineers for picking a recipe that led to this leaching, and to WASA for knowing about the lead problem and being relatively quiet about it.
I feel duty bound to defend you against unwarranted charges of racism, even though you are an ivy-leaguer and occasional multi-culturalist. These chats give people the (false) bravado of shooting from behind bullet-proof glass. Love home.
Marc Fisher: Gee, thanks. But I wish I knew what a multi-culturalist was before I adopted the tag. Is it someone who speaks more than one language? Someone who likes to learn about other cultures? Someone who thinks it's ok not to know English or to be able to function in this society?
Why are you so willing to advocate for development in the neighborhood when you have little investment in it? You care little about the public school and its families who would be impacted by the change you see as desirable. You champion the principle of the school where your children attend with little understanding of the challenges -- budget, space and diversity that are part of our work every day. I suppose you will advocate for the development of GDS since that is prodevelopment, serves you and your constituency and people outside of the community with little concern for those of us who live here, but will make it easier for those who use the neighborhood but have little investment in it.
Marc Fisher: Sounds like there's some kind of back story here that needs explaining--to readers and to me. If I read this correctly, it's accusing me of not living in the Tenleytown/American University Park area where I have columnized in favor of much denser development. But I do live there and own a house there, so isn't that an investment? And I do favor much denser, higher development along Wisconsin Avenue, which is, by the way, contrary to the position held by the leadership of Georgetown Day School (where my kids go to school).
Here's a wacky idea. How about having the Stadium Bonds be paid for 'entirely' out of ticket and concessions taxes? Make it legally binding in the language. Charging any tax that trickles down to the average citizen is garbage.
Look, I hate B-ball. I like alterative rock and alt-country. Can I demand you pay to subsidize my 9:30 club tickets, the way baseball fans expect me to subsidize their entertainment choices?
Marc Fisher: That would be an elegant solution, but it would probably require $35 hot dogs. Now, I'm not saying an all-beef dog isn't worth $35, but it's probably an idea that's a few years away.
As for your love of alt-country (ugh), don't hold your breath for a subsidy unless you can persuade the city council that a new alt-country arena would draw 15,000 fans each night and could be used, like the MCI Center, to spark a whole new neighborhood of taxpaying businesses. Then you'd be in the same position of baseball.
Marc, I have to admit that I believe you are a soup stirrer (so to speak) that takes unnecessarily extreme opinions in your column that are unjustifiable. However, yesterday's column on the Sursum Corda mess was not an example of this. Thanks for showing in real terms that the D.C. government, despite protests to the contrary, actually does a disservice to its citizens and should probably be wrecked and started again from the ground up. As an institution it no longer serves the people but may actually hurt them.
Marc Fisher: Well, thanks, I think.
But in this case, don't blame the D.C. government so much as the federal HUD people. The District's approach to Sursum Corda is much more reasonable--they realize that those projects are in the middle of a rapidly gentrifying part of the city and that development pressure will likely make those housing projects unsustainable. But the city's idea is to create a mixed-income neighborhood in which developers can make their coin on market-rate units, but would have to build a substantial number of units for the poor as well. Whereas HUD proposes just to bail out and let developers do their thing.
Stop with this idea that one can't live in D..C on McDonald's wages. There are 168 hours in a week. $6 per hour at 100 hours comes to $600 per week. Work a full month and the McDonald's worker can make $2600, more than enough to afford an efficiency apartment in Southeast D.C. So please, McDonald's workers, stop with the whining and start learning English.
Marc Fisher: I apologize in advance, but I'm going to pull the sleazy and questionable Grandma Argument on you: Hey, if generations of our grandparents were able to work in sweatshops and study English in their spare time, then so can today's fast food workers. (Though there is a flaw in this argument: My grandmother from Russia never could speak a whole lot of English, even 80 years later.)
These non-English speakers at McDonalds have it easy. They have a social welfare net, powerful lobbyists, and a sympathetic media. When my family came to the colonies, we had none of that, and we did fine. By all means, give all of my tax money to them. Love home.
Marc Fisher: Pretty holey net, they have, doncha think?
In case it didn't hit you, my submission about transgender politicians was a joke, perhaps not as big a joke as the idea of that Dudley Do-gooder unseating my congressman Jim Moran.
Marc Fisher: Gulp--you mean you thought I took you seriously? I have to go soak my typing fingers in brine now, excuse me.
Service in general is horrible these days. I've found that at least people from other countries (with the thick accents) tended to try to be courteous. I've run into so many Americans (native speakers of English) who have rotten attitudes and treat customers horribly.
I'll take someone with an accent and a good attitude over a fluent English speaker with a lazy and bad attitude any day.
By the way, I worked in service jobs from the age of 14 and all through high school and college. The first thing that was drilled into me was how to treat customers, nobody does that anymore (and I'm not old, 28).
Marc Fisher: I think it's a pretty solid law of nature that service is always worse now than it was when you were a kid, no matter when you were a kid. Is there a place or a time when service actually improved? (I can think of one: In communist eastern Europe in the past decade.)
Have you visited the newly-restored synagogue at 6th and I street yet? They did a fabulous job inside and they're already becoming a destination for programming across the Jewish spectrum. Sure, the parking situation is still a problem, but my hope is that this will trigger the development boom that has happened a few blocks away around MCI to continue into the neighborhood around the synagogue.
Marc Fisher: I haven't seen that place since it was mid-restoration, but I hope to. It'll be very interesting to see how much use it gets--the bet that Abe Pollin and the other purchasers made is that as all those new highrise apartment towers in that neighborhood fill up, there'll be lots of young people who seek community in the form of churches and synagogues. I don't know if that will happen, but it would certainly be nice to reverse the exodus of historic churches and their congregations from the city to the suburbs.
Bailey's Crossroads, Va.:
What are your thoughts about the proposed bus rapid transit (at minimum) along Columbia Pike? Evidently Moran inserted substantial funds for it into the highway bill.
Marc Fisher: I've spent some time looking at Bus Rapid Transit, which is also being pushed hard by opponents of rail to Dulles. I wish I could see BRT in operation, but it's not in place in any city anywhere near here. In theory, it has its attractions--cheaper being the main one--but I'm still skeptical just because rail travel is so much more comfortable than bus travel, and comfort is one appeal transit has to have to lure folks out of cars.
If the non-English speakers have it so easy then Washington, D.C. should by all means go there and work. Then he can have the advantage of working in a greasy atmosphere on his feet for 8 hours a day and come home at night smelling like a hamburger. If, there was a social net then these people would not be working at Mickey D's.
Marc Fisher: Um, I think he was being ironic.
Why is it that when Americans go to other countries and expect people to speak English they are (correctly) branded the "Ugly American" but when people come here and expect us to speak Spanish we're racist if we don't want to? I don't have anything against anybody but it's getting to the point that you have to be bilingual to order fast food or get service at a retail store.
Marc Fisher: Well, if folks were really that offended by it, they'd not buy stuff from stores that hire non English-speaking workers, and then those shops would have to pay more and hire English speakers. That actually happened at a place near where I live--a new branch of Bagel City opened up and the people taking orders couldn't speak a lick of English. Business drooped and suddenly new workers came in who spoke English and, at least according to one of the workers I spoke to, made more money.
Baseball in D.C.:
I'm a bit more optimistic than you, but it all depends on what (and when) you read. The ESPN and USA Today sites have now focused on D.C. as the apparent leading candidate, but a few weeks ago they were talking up Las Vegas and/or Monterrey. And even that doesn't mean much, because no one, not even John Kerry, can straddle an issue like Bud Selig, who in the end will make the decision. I think.
Marc Fisher: Right--there's lots of fog and noise all around this issue. The LA Times had the Expos pretty definitely coming to Washington the other day, while many of the reports from yesterday's meetings sounded more pessimistic. I'm with you--it looks better now than it has in years. But this decision will come down to Selig and Angelos, and we're not in that room.
Keep the heat on the District and HUD regarding Sursum Corda residents. Unless you have walked the block, you will never understand the wonderful folks that inhabit these dwellings. Many of these residents want a better life for themselves, but do not have the education, confidence or ability to express their wants and desires so that their voices are heard. They want a good school in their neighborhood. They want to live in nice homes. Many of the residents that I met want the same things that we want, but they are in a situation where no one cares and it is easier to cast them aside as the downtrodden. Keep it up Marc. Since the school system has told them that their concerns don't matter regarding their principal, when will the residents know the plight of their homes?
Marc Fisher: Thanks--it's easy when looking at a drug-ridden, high-crime complex like Sursum Corda to dismiss the place as getting what it deserves. But while there are clearly people there who tear out fixtures and disable elevators in their own homes, there are also many more people who have lived there for many years and who take care of the place with all the love and energy that any suburban homeowner devotes to his lawn and garden. And they are scared, because they see themselves being put out, with nowhere to go.
Marc, you may not have been in the District when the plan to mix "market rate" units with housing for the poor took place in Southwest, It was not what anyone would call successful. People who pay 450K for a two-bedroon townhouse do not want projects across the street. Sorry.
Marc Fisher: Well, I think it's more complicated than that. Many people of various income levels and backgrounds who have lived in the new Southwest for years would argue that it's been quite a success. That doesn't help the many others who lived there before urban renewal and lost their homes, never to find another community to call their own. The redevelopment of Southwest was done in a callous and uncaring way; if Sursum Corda is to be razed, the question will be how to redevelop in a way that includes those who now live there. That kind of renewal has been done successfully--ask some of the people who live in Hope VI housing.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Reports are that Angelos has ordered 20 percent cuts in off-the-field spending, and that some scouts have been fired. Is he poor-mouthing, or trying to increase his asset sheet for a possible sale (wouldn't that be nice!)?
Marc Fisher: Reading the tea leaves about Angelos is a losing bet. For years, the experts told us that he was letting the Orioles organization go to seed as part of some plan to show the other owners that he desperately needed the Washington fans. Then, when he spruced up the team, that was also somehow supposed to be a signal to MLB about his dependence on DC fans. I think it's all noise, and the real test of Angelos' sway will come in that locked room with Selig, who, if he has any cojones at all, will make Angelos a nice cash offer and move the Montreal team to Washington.
Marc Fisher: Well, we're over our allotted time, folks, but thanks for coming along. Back in the paper on Sunday, and again next Tuesday and Thursday, and here with you at our usual meeting time that day. Cheers.