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In honor of this sacred time in our city—otherwise known as tax-free-shopping week—LL tackles one of the biggest conundrums in local politics: Is At-Large D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz really a Republican?
The trickle-down-shopping proponent and big-government basher often strays from the Republican National Committee morning memos:
•The council’s lone member of the GOP often speaks passionately about the poor.
•She’s a pol célèbre among the city’s gay community and has been an active fundraiser for AIDS-related causes.
•Schwartz steadfastly advocates for the city’s public-school system and does not support private-school vouchers.
But color Schwartz red.
LL now has proof beyond her voter registration and exclusive Kalorama address. Over the past few months, the D.C. Council fashionista has defended President George W. Bush and his administration against charges that they are imperiling Washington, D.C. The specific offense is failing to ban railroad transport of hazardous chemicals—potential terrorist targets—that roll through the District, sometimes mere blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
In October, 9/11 Commission member and Ward 3 resident Richard Ben-Veniste testified before the D.C. Council about the “persistent risk” for our city in the continued transport of hazardous substances on freight trains. According to a scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, a 90-ton car of chlorine could release deadly gases that could travel as far as 14 miles, killing up to 100,000 people in less than 30 minutes.
Schwartz hasn’t bought into the hysteria. Instead, she has opted for the Republican approach to important matters of health and public safety: leave it up to big business—in this case, CSX Corp., a transportation company based in Jacksonville, Fla.
So on Nov. 9, the self-professed home-rule advocate led the fight against emergency legislation prohibiting hazmats on D.C. railways. Schwartz corralled four others—at-large colleague Harold Brazil, Ward 1’s Jim Graham, Ward 5’s Vincent B. Orange Sr., and Ward 8’s Sandy Allen—to vote down the bill, which needed the support of nine members to pass.
Perhaps those legislators were too busy cutting deals in exchange for their votes on the $500 million-plus baseball stadium to worry about Al Qaeda.
Rarely does the D.C. Council weigh in on such important matters as homeland security and terrorism, except for the occasional symbolic measure, such as the council resolution against the war in Iraq. And legislation involving commerce usually revolves around 40-ouncers of Steel Reserve, not 90-ton tanks of chlorine.
Each year, CSX moves approximately 8,500 chemical cars through Washington, D.C., including some that contain chlorine, ammonia, or other substances that are toxic when inhaled.
Last year, Schwartz co-sponsored the Terrorism Prevention and Safety in Hazardous Materials Transportation Act of 2003, which asserted D.C.’s right to regulate the transport of hazardous cargo within its borders. And in January, the Republican legislator convened a hearing in which representatives from federal agencies and CSX spoke against the bill.
The feds and the railroad reps told Schwartz: Trust us. We care about you. The train reps informed the chair of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment that the company reroutes hazardous material around D.C. in consultation with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, on the basis of intelligence and certain high-risk events occurring in the nation’s capital.
Like, for example, the NFL-season kickoff on the Mall featuring Britney Spears.
The Bushies and CSX emphasize several points. They argue that if D.C. bans hazmats, it sets a precedent for every little town in Alabama and Wyoming to do the same thing. They claim that such an action would halt traffic on the nation’s railroads and bring interstate commerce to a standstill. Schwartz says her office has gotten calls from other jurisdictions, requesting copies of the legislation.
Let’s pause on that: With a single vote, the D.C. Council has a chance to bring the railroads and big business to its knees?
Hey, Graham, this is your opportunity to get that $45 million for the city’s libraries! And Orange—can’t CSX rustle up some laptops for McKinley Tech?
“We continue to believe that a patchwork of local legislation passed by various towns, cities, counties, and states is not a legal nor effective means of effecting a national security interest,” testified CSX Vice President of Public Safety and Environment H.R. “Skip” Elliott at a council roundtable on Nov. 22.
At the Nov. 9 legislative session, Schwartz seemed to echo those concerns. She had changed her mind on proceeding legislatively, she said, and had decided to put her faith in the Bush administration and CSX. The local legislation, she argued, would likely face pre-emption or end up in court anyway. “I realized the best way to get this job done was to get it done administratively,” said Schwartz at the session. “[The emergency bill] would totally disrupt interstate commerce. It is not in our best interest.”
And our best interest, according to Schwartz, is the same as CSX’s best interest. “If we pass this emergency legislation and we go to the court route…there will be enormous amounts of money spent by the railroad—the railroad that is now rerouting our material at enormous expense,” said Schwartz.
“So if they’re busy fighting us in court maybe they won’t have money left over to be rerouting these hazardous materials, these highly toxic hazardous materials…away from our citizenry,” she added.
So that’s the Bush approach to homeland security: Deregulate it!
Schwartz insisted that she had worked effectively behind closed doors with Bush-administration officials to ensure the health and safety of District residents. “Why would we take a chance legislatively when the entire intent of our legislation has been accomplished?” Schwartz told LL this week.
After all, they’ve been so helpful on other D.C issues. Like, for example, congressional representation.
Schwartz saw a more toxic element in the hazmat debate. “I know there is an agenda here—and the agenda is to make the administration look bad in this area,” said the GOPer at the legislative session. “And it is a national agenda.”
LL also sees a more local agenda.
Who pushed the emergency hazmat legislation?
Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
Schwartz and Patterson have been sparring with each other for almost a year now. Back in March, Patterson questioned Schwartz’s handling of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s lead-in-the-water crisis.
“Catfight!” declared At-Large councilmember David A. Catania, when the two flashed their claws at a closed-door breakfast meeting on the matter.
Two months later, Patterson took a swipe at a core policy of Schwartz’s compassionate conservatism: tax-free-shopping week. In the aftermath of a battle over how to trim the city’s budget, Patterson attempted to shift $600,000 budgeted for the semi-annual sales-tax holiday to the city’s beleaguered library system.
Apparently the Patterson family prefers a D.C. Public Library card to a Hecht’s gift card.
Schwartz saw the Patterson move as payback for her decision to vote against her colleague on certain budget cuts to the city’s human-services sector. “I know this is a get-even approach,” said Schwartz at the time.
Then came the hazmat debate. At first, the feuding councilmembers appeared united, when they co-sponsored the hazmat legislation last year. (Additional co-sponsor Catania recused himself from the legislation after finding out his law firm represents CSX.)
Schwartz has gotten pretty resourceful in justifying her flip-flop. At the Nov. 9 legislative session, she pointed to a newspaper article saying that the railroad had voluntarily rerouted hazardous cargo since the Madrid train bombing in March. “Now the problem is: Will [rerouting] always take place?” asked Schwartz. “Well, I can assure you, as someone who is working on this—if it isn’t taking place, I will jump in and do whatever I need to do to get this accomplished.”
The debate highlighted the differences between the two legislators. Schwartz emphasized her unimpeachable commitment and service to the District. Patterson emphasized the law.
“Has Homeland Security issued regulations?” asked Patterson in the legislative debate.
“No, no, they haven’t,” said Patterson, cutting off her colleague before she could answer.
The back-and-forth had a noxious quality. “You said you will know if this railroad begins transporting toxics,” said Patterson a moment later. “Councilmember Schwartz, how would you know they will begin transporting toxics again?”
“I will assure you, I am keeping very much abreast of this issue and I will know,” answered Schwartz.
“But how?” repeated Patterson.
The toxic discussion continued at a roundtable sponsored by Schwartz two weeks later, a session that the councilmember convened so that the public could hear the testimony she’d heard in private from federal and railroad officials in several closed-door sessions.
The first panel of witnesses consisted largely of environmental activists, whom Schwartz wanted to muzzle. She allowed them only two minutes to banter with Patterson, though the council standard is usually five to 10. “I think it’s absurd that a panel with this level of expertise is limited to two minutes, but I will try to talk fast,” snipped Patterson.
Here’s a reason Schwartz may have limited the time: The first panel severely criticized the Republican’s faith-based approach to rerouting hazardous cargo. “Frankly, what we’ve been hearing from you, Councilmember Schwartz, and the railroads…is ‘Trust us,’” testified Jim Dougherty of the Sierra Club. “I say, in the context of a risk like this, that’s not good enough.”
“We need a trusted government. We have not had that in this process,” echoed Fred Millar, a hazmat consultant with Friends of the Earth. “What we have had is a series of closed-door meetings.”
The words seemed to have some impact. By the end of the Nov. 22 session, the Republican’s questioning took on a more aggressive tone. “Can’t we just talk turkey about what is actually being done? We feel like sitting ducks here. We do,” Schwartz told CSX and Department of Homeland Security representatives.
“Federal officials have not directed CSX to route hazardous chemicals away from the District of Columbia, or other urban areas, on a long-term basis,” explained CSX’s Elliott.
Yet neither a Department of Homeland Security official nor CSX would explain publicly the rerouting policy. “It is the department’s position not to disclose operational information,” responded Thomas Lockwood, director of the government agency’s Office of National Capital Region Coordination.
Even Schwartz seemed perplexed about the don’t-ask, don’t-tell approach to hazmats. “Why wouldn’t we want to say to the world that the nation’s capital is not vulnerable by railroad because very hazardous, poisonous, inhalation-toxic gases are not coming through the city?” asked Schwartz. “Why wouldn’t we want to let that be known?” —Elissa Silverman
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