City Desk

Weekend In Review: Tommy Wells On Race And The Bag Tax

Today's "storm" is expected to be nothing more than a dusting for us snow vets. And yet that extra inch or two of snow will only make digging out my car that much more difficult. Yes, I have one of the few cars that are still completely buried in snow. I'm waiting for shovels to come back in stock somewhere, anywhere. When I went to Target, a clerk or manager type told me that the store hadn't stocked shovels since December and that they don't have any. Is it me or is the Columbia Heights Target one of the sadder Targets?

OK. On to a topic that isn't going to melt away any time soon.

It's hard to please the Washington Post's best columnist Colbert King. He has routinely hammered DYRS and the local politicians who meekly respond to his queries or who fail to muster his level of outrage. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who helms the council's Committee on Human Services, must be a frequent target of King's calls. After all, DYRS falls under Wells' watch. So it was all the more surprising that Wells actually impressed King with his response to the columnist's questions concerning the apparent racial divide over the bag tax.

A recent poll showed that 75 percent of white residents support the bag tax. Only one third of black residents support it. King asked Wells to respond.

Wells keyed on all the plastic found in the Anacostia River. He wrote King:

"The issue of a racial divide is often more complex than it appears on the surface of a poll . . . Often the experience of living in our city is described or explained according to which side of the Anacostia you reside, serving as a physical symbol of a racial divide in D.C. Representing a ward that includes the river, I wanted to do something substantial to help improve it...

I conducted formal presentations at four senior wellness centers about trash in the Anacostia and then fully described my bill, placing a 5 cent fee on disposable bags. The presentations were held at centers in Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8. I engaged the council members for the wards, including Marion Barry, who is a strong supporter of the bill. The vast majority of the participants were black. A group of seniors from one of the centers even came down and testified in support of the bill."

Finally, environmental degradation is often accepted as the norm in lower income neighborhoods, but I never assumed that black citizens living along the Anacostia found the state of our river acceptable. In fact, many of the older black residents I talked with remember swimming in the river and fishing with their parents, and they still boat on it."

I'm actually only quoting a portion of Wells' response. You should read King's whole column linked above (it also includes a wonderful look back on Barry's dreadful response to a historic snowstorm in the mid '80s). King's own response to Wells was short and sweet:

"Wells said a cleaner Anacostia River will show the wisdom of the bill. I agree."

Maybe the two can focus some energy on the unemployment crisis in the District. In another town, maybe 12 percent unemployment would require a press conference, a summit, a series of hearings, and emergency legislation. There were tons of benefits around town to support Haiti. Those were awesome. I'd love to see more benefits directed at supporting the nonprofits and social services that support our unemployed and homeless residents.

WaPo has a strong story on the crisis and comes up with some not-so-surprising stats on which jobs are being lost:

"From November 2008 through November 2009, about 27,000 jobs were created in the Washington area, among them positions for lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, federal workers, educators, health professionals and government workers, according to an analysis by Fuller. Of the 42,000 jobs lost, about 16,000 were in construction, 9,000 in retail and about 11,000 in financial and information fields that have been in decline since before the recession.

The losses contributed to the news last month that unemployment shot up to 12 percent in the District — nearly double the rate in Virginia, more than 4 percentage points higher than in Maryland and above the national average of 10 percent at the time. It renewed criticism by city leaders who have long complained that government jobs too often go to residents of neighboring jurisdictions. Advocates say there could be a long-term impact for the District and the entire region, creating a permanent gap in the kinds of jobs that have historically provided less educated workers a chance to move up the social ladder."

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  • The Advoc8te

    Only 1/3 of African Americans support the bag tax? I find that hard to believe. I live in Ward 8 and I think I have only heard 2 people say they don't like the bag "tax" (I have an issue with the word "tax", taxes are unavoidable and you can avoid the bag fee by bringing your own bag) once I explained the "tax" part of it - like it's optional and you get a credit if you use a reusable bag they were happy with it.

    We love the bag bill - we support the Anacostia river clean-up and overall I say that we have made the transition quite nicely. I see so many black people (young and old) bring their reusable bags to the Giant in Ward 8. Personally I find it kind of insulting that there is some perception that black people or poor people either don't understand or don't care to save the Anacostia River.

    Its all in how you look at it. I don't see it as a "fee" but more like a discount everytime I use my reusable bags (10 of which I got for free) and I L-O-V-E that!

  • Dave

    Try the Ace Hardware in Tenley. They had plenty of shovels when I went this weekend.

  • Jason Cherkis

    Dave, thanks for the tip!

  • Rick Mangus

    First off more than half of the residence of DC HATE this BAG TAX, (Mason Dixon).

    If the city's so-called leaders like Tommy Wells care about the Anacostia River then why are they dumping tons and tons of poluted snow in the old DC General parking lot RIGHT NEXT TO THE ANACOSTIA RIVER which will melt and go directly into the river. One word, HYPOCRITES!

  • PearlsBeforeSwine

    While the bag tax pisses me off a little bit each time I pay it, I remember that I am paying to clean up the environment. The people who use reusable bags are doing nothing. Perhaps each time people check out they should be asked "Would you like to contribute 5 cents to clean up the Anacostia river?"


    Tommy Wells is a liberal idiot. This one of the things I hate about some in the Democratic Party, there liberal/socialist bullshit.

  • The Advoc8te

    @PearlsBeforeSwine "The people who use reusable bags are doing nothing."

    I beg to differ. By using our reusable bags we are preventing that plastic bag from making it in the river in the rist place thus making it less neccesary to pay to remove that bag from the river. The funds generated as a result of the bag fee may help clean up the river but by reducing (and hopefully eliminating) plastic bags from entering the river in the first place will keep it clean. A win win for everyone. Perhaps we can all agree we are doing our part - which is much more than what any of us were doing before.

  • Skipper

    The funds generated by the bag tax will never make it to the Anacostia. They will be taken by the Mayor and Council to close the budget gap in the current FY2010 budget and the projected gap in the FY2011 budget. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. The bag tax was always about being seen as "doing something", rather than actually doing anything.

  • Downtown rez

    I support the bag surcharge and agree with Advoc8te that mislabeling it as a "tax" is not the brightest or most productive thing.
    But the Anacostia needs much more than just visible trash cleaned from it. Bags and bottles and tires and refrigerators (whatever) are unsightly reminders of how polluted that river is, and do some damage on their own, but are vanishingly unimportant when compared with the Anacostia's most serious issues- heavy metals and chemicals chelated into the sediment.
    I mean, bags aren't what gave more than half the catfish in that river cancer (see: ). And those toxins just get concentrated up the food chain.
    The Anacostia is the aquatic version of a brownfield and needs to be dredged. Until that happens it will never be healthy.

  • The Advoc8te

    @Skipper and in the unlikely event that happens (funds not being used for the cleanup) then we still WIN by using our reusable bags. :) A plastic bag has a shelf life of 7 minutes a reusable bag can be used for years. More people using reusable bags = less plastic bags in the Anacostia or floating around the neighorhood a la "American Beauty".

    Sounds good to me...and no I don't work for Wells lol.

  • Downtown rez

    By the above I just mean that we need to do more. Frankly, the Anacostia's superfund status isn't cutting it.

  • Wendy Glenn

    Maybe the two can focus some energy on the unemployment crisis in the District. In another town, maybe 12 percent unemployment would require a press conference, a summit, a series of hearings, and emergency legislation. There were tons of benefits around town to support Haiti. Those were awesome. I'd love to see more benefits directed at supporting the nonprofits and social services that support our unemployed and homeless residents.
    Mr. Wells is my Councilman and I have written him on numerous times about the plight of the unemployed District resident. I have had no response thus far. I will show my appreciation of being ignored at the polls. This city seems very misguided in what they feel is imperative and what residents are concerned about. Unemployment is an American problem, not a race, gender, or class problem. People are unemployed for all of these groups the difference is that different states and jurisdictions have chosen to address it and make it a focal point for their elected officials. This city has not. I hear a lot of pontificating and pandering for the press and anything for a photo-op but I hear nothing substantive.
    I have been writing each of our Councilmember’s at least monthly, sometimes two times per month to get action on this crisis in our city, before it become an epidemic; currently, it is at epidemic proportions.
    My emails and phone calls and pleas for action has gone unaddressed by Councilmember Wells; the other Councilmembers have not been much better, a lot of lip service and empty promises that have resulted in nothing substantive.
    I asked for a town hall meeting for citizens to address our public leaders on this issues and none of the Council has responded.
    I have met with representatives of Chairman Gray’s staff, Kwame Brown and Michael Brown and I and my friends, neighbors, and fellow residents are just as unemployed now as we have been since this recession started. I have been unemployed since October 2009 and it is looking pretty bleak.
    So, if Mr. Wells or any other elected official in the District of Columbia thinks that the Anacostia River and a bag tax is the most pressing issue on Washingtonian’s minds then they all need to forego a re-election campaign and just resign because they are so out of touch with the residents that there is no hope of regaining any political momentum.

  • Rick Mangus

    Well, 'Downtown rez' and 'The Adovc8te' you all talk this crap about the bag TAX, which even CP calls it that, a TAX but you two tree hugers have said nothing about the city dumping that polluted snow next to the Anacostia River, WELL!

    'Wendy Glenn' these people are lying politicians and this is an election year, so throw them out this November.

  • Rick Mangus

    ADDED NOTE: Take a look at the, Photo: Plow Art section, this is the type of polluted snow that are so called environmental city government is putting right next to the Anacosta River.

    Someone should call Tommy Wells and tell him we should have a snow TAX and charge five cents for every inch of snow on everybody's property!

  • The Advoc8te

    @Rick Mangus. I am all about solutions. Since you don't like where the snow has been relocated what is your solution? Where should all of this snow been transpored? Inquiring minds want to know. I didn't have anything to say about it because if I don't have a solution I would rather keep my mouth shut than just complain for the sake of hearing myself type. :)

  • Downtown rez

    "Unemployment is an American problem, not a race, gender, or class problem. People are unemployed for all of these groups the difference is that different states and jurisdictions have chosen to address it and make it a focal point for their elected officials."
    I'm shaking my head sadly at the ignorance, denial, or cynical dishonesty of the above statement. Wendy- DC's unemployment rate is relatively high because many of its people lack basic job and life skills. And if you don't think race or class plays into iy, please share your theory of why unemployment rates in Ward 8 are 300% those in Ward 3.
    Rick- The solution to pollution is dilution. It's accepted science. Look it up.

  • Skipper

    @Wendy: Exactly what do you suggest our elected folks do, other than hold a town hall where everyone will complain about how much it sucks to be unemployed? You spend a rather large amount of time posting on the City Paper blog, the Wash Post blogs, the Examiner blogs, etc. Maybe you can better focus that energy on getting a job or starting your own business? Anyone that's hoping the gov't will help them get a job needs a reality check. It's not gov't that will help you get employed; it's businesses wanting to hire you.

  • Rick Mangus

    'The Advoc8te' the solution is that with two rivers boadering our city we should refrain from any salt products or others chemicals, I'm sure there are alternatives out there, but for now transport and treat it at Blue Plains not just dumping it in a vacant parking lot.


  • Downtown rez

    A single block would require many roll off dumpsters, And there is hundreds and thousands of blocks. You might as well ask the Anacostia be emptied a teaspoon at a time.
    At the very least, your taxes would go up.
    Besides all that, while sodium, potassium, calcium, chlorine, and sugar are used to melt ice, they are not the problem with our rivers.