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News Brief: Green New Deal, Va. Political Scandals, Wildfire's Toxic Effects


Today, dozens of Democrats in the House of Representatives state their priorities in fighting climate change.


Yeah. They're offering legislation that has been labeled a Green New Deal. And the lawmakers involved include one just arrived, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us, to our country and to the world.

GREENE: Now, Ocasio-Cortez is a freshman, among the least-senior members of the House. But the self-described democratic socialist has received enormous attention since upsetting a senior New York lawmaker in a primary last year.

With dozens of co-sponsors, she presents a resolution today. It would promote wind and solar energy and call for the U.S. to have net-zero carbon emissions in 10 years. She talked about this in an NPR interview.


OCASIO-CORTEZ: The thing about a Green New Deal is that it's not an outright ban on any source of energy. And that's my opinion, as one member of Congress. And one of the big goals that we have is that we're trying to just sketch out a blueprint and work with other members to get there.

INSKEEP: NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro is here and has been reading an advance copy of that blueprint - that resolution. Hi there, Domenico.


INSKEEP: So what's it say?

MONTANARO: You know, this is a nonbinding resolution. And as we noted, some of what it does - you know, being carbon neutral by 2030 is one of those things that a lot of experts say is not only ambitious, but almost impossible to pull off. Experts shoot for more like 2050, and that's considered ambitious. It would also eliminate most, if not all, air travel, in fact, because of how it wants to restructure things like high-speed rail - so very ambitious - not a lot of specifics as far as how to get to those things, but certainly laying down a marker for where liberals want to go in addressing climate change.

INSKEEP: Largely eliminate air travel, which is considered to be really bad for our planet - for carbon levels in the atmosphere, trying to get people in a different - in different direction. But you're saying it's - essentially, it's a set of notions or ideas. It would actually require big legislation later to enact these ideas.

MONTANARO: Yeah, or small legislation, having to enact various numbers of these ideas to flesh this out. And it's going to be a really difficult thing to actually enact as far as getting it on the floor because getting it to a vote is not something that a lot of moderate Democrats are going to be wanting to, you know, have to walk the plank on, frankly.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, let's talk about that. What would the reluctance be of Democratic leaders to buy into this Green New Deal notion?

MONTANARO: Well, it's a plan that would cost trillions upon trillions of dollars, to be quite honest. And it's not something that would ever pass the Republican-controlled Senate. Now, you know, all of that is practical and looking at the actual politics of the day.

Of course, liberals are going to say that this is, you know, a bold step forward that they can argue for and win people over on. And that very well may be the case. But Democrats in 2009 took a step with cap and trade, which was far less dramatic than this plan would be. It passed the House, didn't pass the Senate. And a lot of Democrats feel like they suffered some consequences along with the passage of Obamacare in the 2010 midterm elections.

And let's remember the reason Democrats won in the 2018 midterms - while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is able to get so much attention for herself and for her - the things that she wants to do, this election was really won on the backs of moderates.

INSKEEP: Oh, moderates who were able to win in suburban areas that had been Republican before.


INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro.


INSKEEP: All right. When President Trump delivered his State of the Union speech the other night, almost all members of Congress and almost all members of the Cabinet attended. One Cabinet member was the designated survivor - designated to stay away just in case of calamity.

GREENE: Well, in the state of Virginia, if they were to take that precaution, it might need to designate one top official to hide out from scandal. The top three officials in that state are all facing serious questions now.

Governor Ralph Northam faces pressure to resign over an old racist photo. The lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, is publicly accused by a woman who says he sexually assaulted her in 2004. And now the state's third-ranking official, Attorney General Mark Herring, has admitted that he donned blackface at a college party in the '80s.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon, a resident of Virginia, has been following all this and is in our studio. Sarah, good morning.


INSKEEP: So Lieutenant Governor Fairfax has been fending off these allegations for a number of days, but now the woman who accused him has stepped forward with a written statement. What have you learned?

MCCAMMON: Right. And her name is Vanessa Tyson. We had not been naming her until yesterday, when she came forward to tell her story. She's a politics professor at Scripps College in California and currently a fellow at Stanford. And in a detailed statement, she says, quote, "what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault," she says, by Justin Fairfax. This was in 2004, she says, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

INSKEEP: They were both working at the convention, right? They were staying in a hotel.

MCCAMMON: They were both there. And they met there.

And where the story gets more complicated is it initially surfaced on a conservative blog based on a private social media post that Tyson had made where she appeared to allude to this. And she also had told her story to The Washington Post over a year ago. They checked it out, said they couldn't corroborate either version of events and decided not to publish.

But now, she says this has all come out, and she wants to set the record straight. She says she's coming forward with tremendous anguish, though, to tell her story.

INSKEEP: Fairfax originally said, when vaguer versions of this story were out there, this is a political smear. What is he saying now that more specific allegations are public?

MCCAMMON: He's repeatedly denied this. And in a new statement yesterday, he says Tyson's allegations are surprising and hurtful, but he has to dispute her version of events. And he also said he wanted to emphasize how important it is to listen to women when they come forward.

We should also note he's retained a law firm - the same one that represented Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation hearings when he was accused of sexual assault. And now the National Organization for Women is calling for Fairfax to resign.

INSKEEP: So the big picture here - we have a governor who's been accused involving this old racist photo. We have the lieutenant governor with the allegations we just discussed. The attorney general, who is No. 3 in the line of succession, has said he wore blackface at one time. Don't have any indications that any of these officials would resign. But what if? What if all three of them did have to resign?

MCCAMMON: Well, we should say, Steve, they're all three Democrats. So this creates challenges for the Democratic Party on a number of levels, one of which is that the No. 4 in line is the House speaker, who is a Republican. His name is Kirk Cox.

And you may remember that weird election about a year ago, where there was an undecided House race in Virginia that had to be decided by casting lots.

INSKEEP: Oh, because they were so close.

MCCAMMON: Because it was so close.

INSKEEP: There was a drawing to decide the winner of that one legislative seat.

MCCAMMON: That went to a Republican. Republicans stayed in control of the Virginia House of Delegates.

INSKEEP: By that one seat.

MCCAMMON: By that one seat. And now Kirk Cox, their speaker, is No. 4 in line for the governorship. So it is a mess in Virginia right now.

INSKEEP: Wow. And we'll continue listening for your reporting on that mess. Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon.


INSKEEP: It's been three months since the most destructive and deadliest fire in California history burned almost the entire town of Paradise.

GREENE: Yeah. The Camp Fire also wiped out 15 percent of housing stock in a county overnight. Now, while some residents have left, others with less means have had no choice but to camp out on their properties. But here's the thing. The federal government says they won't pay for a cleanup if people are living there. You can imagine this is not very popular. The mayor of Paradise, Jody Jones, says there's no choice but to somehow take in federal aid.


JODY JONES: If we don't do it, our town will look like a war zone for the next 20 years because we are broke.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kirk Siegler has been traveling in Paradise. He joins us now. Hi, Kirk.


INSKEEP: What's the town look like?

SIEGLER: Well, you know, when you heard the mayor there - Mayor Jones saying it's a war zone, that's not an exaggeration. I've been up there for about a month reporting a longer-term project. And every time I drive around the town, it's still just shocking to look at.

It's rubble. You know, it's billed as a town, but it was really a city of 25,000 people. The Safeway's gone. Whole neighborhoods are gone. Fast-food restaurants are still leveled. And they're still in that state three months on. There just really hasn't been a whole lot of recovery yet.

And that burned area where people can't live on their burned-out properties was declared a public health disaster for a reason. You can't drink the water, still, in Paradise. The are - benzene's seeping into the water supply. There's other toxins in the ash when the wind blows up. It's - Sarah said mess. It's still a mess in Paradise.

INSKEEP: Do you, nevertheless, run into residents from time to time as you move about town?

SIEGLER: You do. And there was some sort of ruckus - public meetings this week over the proposals to ban camping again for residents, who had been told that they could move back, and now they can't. And this is a big source of tension, as you can imagine, because the town is basically a skeleton. And there was already a housing shortage before the fire, so if people are able to hang on and try to hold out and wait for the recovery, you know, it's not sure where they'll even live.

I met Martha Bryant, who was born and raised in Paradise. And, you know, she called this week, you know, yet another setback. And she worries that more people will just give up and leave.

MARTHA BRYANT: It's their property. They're adults. They know the risks. We don't need other people - the county and everybody else - telling us how we should live our lives.

SIEGLER: And, Steve, you know, this was - this is a rural part of the country where there was a lot of mistrust of the government already before the fire. And when a disaster like this happens, you know, at least for now, places like this are basically wholly dependent on federal and state aid to even just recover.

INSKEEP: What reassurances and plans are officials offering?

SIEGLER: Well, just the toxic debris removal itself - the cleanup, they're saying, will hopefully just take a few months for some residents, but it could be a year or more. A lot of people I talked to expect it to be at least a year. You know, federal disaster officials say they have not seen a, you know, toxic debris removal like this in this country since 9/11.

So there's a whole lot of work to be done even before the town can start asking the bigger questions. Should it rebuild? And how should it rebuild in a high-risk zone like that?

INSKEEP: Kirk, thanks very much for your reporting, and we look forward, also, to that long-term project when you're done.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler, who has been traveling in Paradise, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "BALABARISTAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.