Episode 18: #ADAPTandRESIST

Off-Kilter Podcast
40 min readJun 30, 2017

Disability rights activism in the era of Trumpcare, good news out of Philadelphia, and SCOTUS update. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

With #TrumpCare deeply unpopular in all 50 states, the Senate has delayed voting on the bill for now — but the fight is far from over, as Rebecca and Jeremy explain in this week’s edition of In Case You Missed It. Meanwhile, disabled activists have made headlines getting arrested and even dragged out of their wheelchairs by police. To help tell the amazing history of ADAPT, Rebecca speaks with David Perry, a disability rights journalist, and Anita Cameron, a longtime ADAPTer. Next, with unaffordable water bills now a major driver of poverty and even foreclosure in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez shares the story of how Philly became the first city to set low-income families’ water bills based on ability to pay. And finally, with the Supreme Court’s most recent term now at a close, ThinkProgress’s Ian Millhiser breaks down the most important cases — and what we’ve learned about Neil Gorsuch so far.

This week’s guests:

  • David Perry, disability-rights journalist
  • Anita Cameron, ADAPT
  • Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez
  • Ian Millhiser, ThinkProgress

For more on this week’s topics:

  • A deep dive into ADAPT’s activism, brought to you by David Perry
  • A closer look at ADAPT’s protests in Senator McConnell’s office
  • The details of the water payment plan that’s poised to make water access more equitable in Philadelphia
  • SCOTUS’s opinion on the Muslim ban, explained

This program aired on June 30th, 2017.


REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. This week the Senate postponed their vote on Trumpcare because they didn’t have the votes to pass it. Where do things go from here? I’ll be joined shortly by the Slevinator, stay tuned. Also this week, who are the disabled activists making headlines as they get pulled from their wheelchairs? I talk with David Perry, disability rights journalist about the history of ADAPT and Anita Cameron, a long time ADAPTer who has been involved with the recent actions. Next, the Supreme Court has wrapped its term, what we’ve learned about Neil Gorsuch so far. And some rare good news out of Philadelphia where a new policy to set residents water bills based on their ability to pay goes into effect next week. But first the Slevinator, here you are.


VALLAS: Here you are and thank you for that.


SLEVIN: For saying hello?

VALLAS: Well and thank you for just being here Jeremy because we are, we’re celebrating. We’re celebrating. This is a big deal that the senate has, its efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to decimate Medicaid or worse have collapse for the moment.

SLEVIN: Yes. Cautious celebration.

VALLAS: But we haven’t won yet.

SLEVIN: Correct.

VALLAS: And why is that?

SLEVIN: That is because a delay is not the same as a victory if you remember what happened in the House, they pulled the bill in March after getting a very similar terrible CBO score and then they went back behind closed doors, largely out of sight from the media. They made minor tweaks to the bill then brought it back to the floor with no CBO score and passed it.

VALLAS: And people knew it was likely to happen but there was almost no media coverage leading up to the next House vote, the one where they ultimately were able to pass their own Trumpcare bill because they were doing it under cover of night as the Senate has been doing up until recently. Is that what we’re expecting to happen heading into July as the Senate tries to get its ducks in a row?

SLEVIN: I think what’s different now is people saw what happened in the house and we’ve learned our lesson. And I think as long as the activism doesn’t let up, I mean people are getting thousands and thousands of calls. Democrats who already are on the record opposing the bill have said they’ve gotten something like 6,000 calls in a day. And Republicans of course aren’t saying the amount of calls they’re getting because they don’t want to blow their cover. So you can only imagine how many calls these offices are being inundated with. And I think if that doesn’t let up we can actually win.

VALLAS: So what can people be doing over the course of the recess that’s happening for July 4th and then leading up into later in July when we expect the Senate to pick this back up?

SLEVIN: So I think there are two big things you can do. One of course is keep calling your senator. Go to Trumpcaretoolkit.org, you can find your number, you can find how to tweet at them. I’m particularly talking about Shelley Moore Capito from West Virginia, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, Dean Heller from Nevada who said he’s against this but could change his mind if the bill is changed. Dan Sullivan from Alaska, Jeff Flake from Arizona, Susan Collins from Maine, Bill Cassidy, Louisiana. I’m going through a lot of senators here. Bob Corker Tennessee, Rob Portman Ohio, Cory Gardner Colorado. Those are the big main targets in this fight.

VALLAS: Because they’re potential moderates who might actually swing if they feel enough pressure. I’m going to echo what you said, I feel like there’s a tendency to celebrate and to get excited and to said we’re winning. But we’re only actually going to win here if we follow through and keep this pressure up, keep the calls up, keep the actions up, the town halls. So just putting out the word to listen to Jeremy, listen to the Slevinator as he walks through his list of targets.

SLEVIN: I’ll also note another reason that I don’t think the same thing is going to happen as what happened in the House is, A., the media is now paying attention. I was tracking how many papers were covering it last week before the bill was public and it was 0, it was getting 0 coverage. As soon as that bill became public and the CBO score came out, it’s everywhere. I was just, I looked on Alaska’s local station this morning, they had a whole story on how the opioid crisis would be worsened in the state of Alaska because of this bill. So as long as folks are still paying attention and there’s another key difference between this and the House. This is now I think the least popular piece of legislation ever.

VALLAS: In the history of the world.

SLEVIN: It is at 12% according to one poll and it’s at 16% according to another poll.

VALLAS: Meaning 12 or 16% approval, everyone else says screw this I hate this. I don’t want any piece of this and that’s what we’re hearing folks say but we need to keep it up throughout recess so I’ll say it again. Thank you for that Slevs, Trumpcaretoolkit.org. You can find everything you need to get involved. You can also go to resistancenearme.org. Figure out if there are actions in your area, in your community. And if there aren’t yet, reach out to us and we’re happy to connect you with folks to see if we can get you involved with things that might be able to happen over the course of recess. Don’t go away next up also talking about health care, I’m talking with David Perry about the history of ADAPT. Who is ADAPT and what civil disobedience on the part of disabled protesters has meant in this health care fight. Stay tuned.


VALLAS: You’re listening to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. As Republicans in congress continue to seek to repeal the Affordable Care Act and end Medicaid as we know it, disabled protesters have made headlines by staging sit-ins outside and inside Republican leaders offices. Many have been arrested and even dragged out of their wheelchairs by police. But civil disobedience by people with disabilities is hardly a new phenomenon. To help tell the amazing history of ADAPT, formerly Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, I spoke this week with David Perry, a disability rights journalist who has covered ADAPT and disability activism around the health care fight, as well as Anita Cameron, who has been on the front lines of the ongoing health care fight.

David thanks so much for joining the show.

DAVID PERRY: Thank you for having me on.

VALLAS: So just to get right down to it, a lot of folks have seen whether tweets or images or news stories even lots on kind of, mainstream cable news in the last several weeks of people literally being dragged from wheelchairs, putting their bodies on the line to say no this is not what I need and what I’m asking of you as my leaders in this country when it comes to health care. A lot of that has really opened eyes. But this is not anywhere close to the first time that we’ve seen this kind of civil disobedience by disabled protesters. I would love if you would help us know a little bit of the story of ADAPT. Who is ADAPT.

PERRY: Yeah, and I know you’re going to have some ADAPTers on later to talk and that’s, they’ll be able to tell you their own experience. But let me talk a little as a journalist and as a historian. And I want to even go back before ADAPT. So ADAPT to some extent, you could say it started in 1983 with formally taking that name and protesting inaccessible buses in Denver. So it has a very specific origin in Colorado and it actually starts 10 years before that when 19 disabled people moved out of nursing home institutions into apartments, again in Colorado, a big part of the history of the independent living movement. But what I think people really don’t know beyond those specifics, is that there is a decades long, almost centuries long, maybe not quite, but going back to the 50s and 60s, there is a history of disability related civil rights movement. Driven by self advocates with support from family members, politicians, professional staff, church figures, that goes right along and intertwines and intersects with other civil rights movements in our country, whether about fighting segregation or fighting for LGBTQ rights or any number these other really important struggles.

And the disability rights narrative I think has been a little bit lost, so that when people see disabled bodies being pulled out of wheelchairs, they react with horror, but they often react with horror saying, “Oh these poor people,” not realizing these ADAPTers are some of the most veteran, skilled civil disobedience in the country. They are putting themselves in that position, forcing politicians to make a choice. To arrest them and get the bad publicity, to allow them to sit-in and get that kind of publicity, or to change their votes. These are very deliberate, powerful and important, classically American acts of civil disobedience with a long history.

VALLAS: And you mentioned that it originated around transportation and trying to ensure accessibility of transportation, that’s a big part of the origin story here of ADAPT actually going back to school buses.

PERRY: That’s right, that’s right. So if you are a person in a wheelchair, I mean we could talk about school buses for sure too, but I want to think about just public city buses. And trains and now we’re talking a lot about taxis and Uber, you may or may not be able to drive. But if you can’t drive you’re reliant on public transportation to get you around or you’re literally trapped in your location. And in the 80s, really the late 70s and then very formally organizing in 1983, the members of this Atlantis community in Denver decided that they were going to focus on buses. They’re going to focus on public buses, they’re going to get wheelchair ramps on public buses. And they sparked this group, ADAPT which is a decentralized national movement now. They are all over the country, every chapter runs itself. There are coordinators but there is no national leader of ADAPT, there is no kind of single voice. There is no grand financial structure with multimillion dollar endowments or anything, right. These are the classic American decentralized grassroots civil disobedience talking to each other and organizing together and showing up in DC.

So in Denver they wanted to have accessible buses and they decided the way to do that ultimately was to perform acts of civil disobedience. To literally roll their wheelchairs in front of and behind buses and saying we’re not moving until we get a guarantee that you will build ramps on your buses. This is very powerful right, it’s powerful politically, it’s powerful symbolically, it’s powerful in terms of media narrative. I think when you talk to the ADAPTers they are very well aware of their origins and their successes, not just in terms of getting people to pay attention but literally putting ramps on buses. One of my favorite ADAPT stories, it’s told by Michael Bailey who is a lawyer and the father of a woman with Down Syndrome, he’s based in Oregon but he was in Kansas a few years ago. And he was watching people being arrested and being brought into school buses and the cop was saying, “Why are you guys making all this fuss?” And Michael said, “Well you see those ramps on those school buses that you’re arresting us and taking us on? We put those ramps there.” And there was this wonderful picture of Don Russell that was on Rachel Maddow, she’s a woman in a wheelchair, she’s got her fist raised in the air. She was being raised up, being arrested from Senator McConnell’s office just the other day. And she was being raised up on a ramp into an accessible as ADAPT said to me, an accessible paddywagon. That is part of their legacy, that is really part of their legacy. That government services, even when used to arrest you, must be accessible to people with disabilities.

VALLAS: I mean tremendous irony there, right. That the vans, the police vehicles that are taking away the protesters who have been arrested are accessible because of those very protesters.

PERRY: That’s right, that’s right. But ADAPT has a good sense of humor about that. We’ve talked about that a lot. And in part, because they are going, they are performing civil disobedience which again, we talk about civil disobedience a lot but I think we don’t necessarily see it in it’s historical context right. You have a situation that you feel is unjust, either a law is unjust or something will be unjust and you deliberately go in and you break the law. And you break the law anticipating the consequences of breaking the law and then you generate publicity and you generate moral outrage and you try to generate policy changes. These ADAPTers in DC, when you talk to them again I know you’re going to, you’re going to talk to Anita Cameron, who I believe has more arrests than any other ADAPTer in history, so I’m excited to hear what she has to say. They are deliberately going into a situation where they force politicians to make a choice. Will you do the right thing or will you generate the bad publicity by hauling wheelchairs off into buses and police vehicles.

VALLAS: Now you’ve described, a lot of ADAPT’s work over the decades has been in support of or really calling out for affirmative policy improvements. Increased accessibility of transportation. Increased accessibility really of a whole number of different policies and components of public life to ensure community living as a meaningful option as opposed to a concept enshrined in legal language. But what we’ve seen in the past few months has been really just a tremendous outpouring by ADAPT and others around specifically the healthcare bill. And you’ve spent a lot of time with ADAPTers, including actually spending time with them involved in some of those protests.

PERRY: When you’re a journalist and you’re at a protest, you know you have to stand five feet off and hold a card up. I’m very much, I’m the father of a boy with Down Syndrome, I’m very much engaged in these issues myself. He’s not on Medicaid yet but I fully expect that he will be. So I do very much have a stake in this situation. I went to Kenosha, Wisconsin on a cold day in February where they were protesting outside small offices, Paul Ryan offices, ADAPT Illinois and ADAPT Wisconsin. Because I knew, and I did that in part because I care but also as a journalist I kind of anticipated last week was coming, and I anticipated last week was coming because ADAPT anticipated last week was coming. They paid attention, these are very politically active groups, they paid attention to what candidate Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress were saying they were going to do and they were ready for this. They were ready for last week and they were ready for this administration to the extent that any of us could be.

So once frankly, ADAPT won and government and private transit systems became accessible putting off to the side of another day the discussion of Uber and Lyft. But public transit systems are basically accessible thanks to groups like ADAPT, really thanks to ADAPT. They started focusing, as you say, on independent living. And Medicaid has become, as I expect most of your listeners know, the vehicle by which we support the great majority of the supports and services that enable independent living. That enable people to live in communities rather than in institutions or nursing homes that provide such things as attendant care is a big one. If you are a person in a wheelchair you may need help getting out of bed in the morning, getting clean, getting dressed, perhaps getting fed and on your way as an independent person in the community. Medicaid supports that, they are great programs, they are cost effective programs compared to nursing homes. But they are funded through Medicaid, many of them and they are the biggest optional expense which Medicaid. Again, I suspect your listenership has a pretty good sense of these policy issues but Medicaid by law has to support nursing homes. That’s not optional, although we’re going to lose support for nursing homes if this healthcare bill passes. But Medicaid in terms of homes and community based services is not required. It’s an optional expense and it’s the biggest option expense. And under these huge cuts, it’s going to go. So ADAPT has been focusing on independent living as you say for a long time now, really since the 90s, since post the ADA passed and these things changed. But this by far the, it’s been about pushing incremental change, getting things incrementally better, now we’re focusing on an existential threat.

VALLAS: And so just to sort of unpack that a little bit and also I want to pull in some very, very powerful words that you wrote in one of your pieces covering what ADAPT has been doing around the health care fight. You write, “For these veteran protesters, federal disability policy is literally a matter of freedom versus incarceration, life versus death.” And that is not, despite what some of the health care bill’s proponents might say, it’s not histrionic. It’s not just trying to throw scary words out there to make people think horrible things about this legislation, it is very real for the folks who need Medicaid services and particularly attendant care services as you describe so that they can truly live independently.

PERRY: I want to emphasize that those aren’t my words, those are the words of the people I’ve been talking to. If you listen to them chanting and if you read their writing; I think one of the great things that’s happened last week is that ADAPTers are getting on the radio and getting in the newspaper and getting on TV and I hope that continues because they’re the people who teach me about what the stakes are. But if you can’t, if someone isn’t there to get you out of bed, you can’t get out of bed, and if you can’t get out of bed you can’t live. So then you get put into an institution. Or you become homeless and for many of these people without attendant care their choices are institutionalization, and I want to be very clear, that forced institutionalization is a form of incarceration. It is not the same as other forms of incarceration. It is not, we don’t want to make kind of loose analogies but if your only choices are to live in a nursing home or to not live at all or to live on the streets, that is not voluntary decision making. And so these ADAPTers, that’s why they’re willing to be arrested, right, that is why they’re willing to have their bodies abused. Bruce Darling, one of the national coordinators who comes out of New York, his blood was literally on the floor outside McConnell’s office. Just yesterday, the day before yesterday, Monday, a woman had her knee dislocated by a police officer in Indianapolis, an ADAPT protester. And there is going to be more but the other choice is to be shunted aside into these nursing homes, to be isolated from the community.

VALLAS: So one of the things that you’ve been doing, in the last couple of minutes that I have with you, you have, you spend a lot of time tweeting out information, and I would encourage everyone to follow you, your handle is @lollardfish, you’re one of my favorite follows on twitter, particularly on disability issues. But one of the things that you’ve been using twitter of late to educate people about is that the images that come out of these dramatic protests that the media really have actually started to cover over the past week to two weeks in a way that I and many others are greatly appreciative of. These images end up becoming the memes or the symbols of the fight. Of the fight to protect Medicaid, to stop the Affordable Care Act from being repealed. And one of the images that has really made the rounds and become one of those signature images representing this debate is a woman in a wheelchair, the shot is actually taken from behind. And you can see her hands in handcuffs behind the wheelchair. A truly powerful image but something that you have really gone to great lengths to educate people on twitter about is that this isn’t just an image. This is a person and it’s a person who is worth knowing. I would love if you would talk a little bit about that and why you think that’s important.

PERRY: I think it’s, one of the things I really, even as I was delighted to see ADAPT get its due, I was, I’m a historian as well as a journalist so I wanted to have a historical context. I wanted people to understand this event didn’t just happen. That there’s since 1983, or even earlier, 1978, 1974, this specific group has been doing these actions. I want them to know about disability rights related civil disobedience, the longest sit in of a federal building in US history was a disability rights group in the 70s in Berkeley. We may see longer sit ins to come, who knows. So it’s for people to know that there’s a history here of activism, to give agency to disable people which often in our media is taken away. And the other side of that agency is to know that this is a woman, that woman, her name is Stephanie Woodward, she works for the Center for Disability Rights in New York, I think up in Rochester. She really likes her pink wheelchair, her glasses match it. We were joking about, she and I, about this beautiful black and white version in which the handcuffs were pink but the chair was black and how that was totally wrong even though it was iconic and powerful because she chose that wheelchair on purpose. She’s funny, she did finally get to write a piece the other day for Vox which I was really happy to see. These are people who are making choices and can talk about their lived experience but also should be seen as sort of full agents, right. There was pushback saying, oh yeah I don’t believe these people are really disabled or who wheeled them there was the kind of right wing counter to this kind of, the ADAPT images.

And we need to know that that counter is coming and say no I’m sorry, that’s Stephanie, that’s Anita, that’s Greg, that’s Bruce, that’s Lorrell, that’s these actual individuals who are not just objects protesting but people who are advocating for change, who know a lot more than I do anyway, and certainly than most people and whose voices need to be on the television. I was really struck, you know, it’s always a danger, I think especially among progressive that we spend too much of our time criticizing ourselves, criticizing each other. So I love Rachel Maddow and I was thrilled that she did a big segment on the history of ADAPT, thrilled, great. But at the end of it I said you know I really wish she had had an ADAPTer on air across the table from her to talk to. And I wish that when CNN is debating the healthcare bill and they have you know, 35 people around the table on one of their preposterous huge panels, at least one of them might be a wheelchair user. And preferably a wheelchair user of color or a non-white guy. And so on and so forth, that bringing these individuals, it is kind of a, it’s not even kind of a problem, it is a problem that I have 17,000 twitter followers and Stephanie has, I don’t know, 3,000. That should be reversed. But I’m the one generating media so I, you know, people now see me as a node, a place to find this kind of news and I’m trying to use that to refocus direction where it really belongs.

VALLAS: Well and I am grateful for what you do everyday for the level of education you provide for folks who maybe are new to these issues or haven’t had the level of awareness that maybe they would like to or need to have. And for your willingness to criticize media, it’s part of why I’m hugely excited to have Anita Cameron on for the next portion of this discussion. David Perry is a disability rights journalist, you can follow him on twitter @lollardfish.

PERRY: It’s a long story.


VALLAS: And one that I’ll have to have you back to tell. David, thanks so much for what you do and for coming on the show.

PERRY: Thanks for having me on.


VALLAS: Next I’m incredibly privileged and honored to speak with Anita Cameron, she’s a long time ADAPT member and disability rights activist who has been deeply involved in many of the actions around stopping the Republican health care bill. So you have been at this a long time. Not just these past few weeks and months when there’s been a lot of national attention on ADAPTers out there, putting their bodies on the line and getting arrested. This is something you’ve been doing for decades. Would you tell me about some of the actions that you’ve been involved with that are most memorable?

ANITA CAMERON: I started ADAPT in 1986 and so for my first couple years, I was doing local actions in Chicago. And then I finally got to go on my first national action and that was in Washington D.C., and the name of that action was called DC DDOT, for Department of Transportation. We took over the Department of Transportation, we were trying to get a meeting with, get some kind of conversation going with then Secretary Sam Skinner and at that time we were working on lifts on buses. And so this was pre-ADA but we were definitely working on lifts on buses and following the American Public Transit Association around and then tried to meet up with Secretary Skinner. And it was cold, extremely cold, negative four degrees. And even inside DOT, towards the evening it was very very cold. They cut off all access to restrooms, all of that. And we managed I think that night, we [INAUDIBLE] and some other folks came and got those of us who were outside the building, got us hot soup and stuff like that. And so those of us who were on the outside, we were trying to get food into those of us on the inside. It was just something about that action that even though I had done stuff on the local level, that was the action that made me fall in love with ADAPT and see this as you know, my home and my vehicle if you will to working to change the world and make it a better place. Because I was an idealistic kid back that. [LAUGHTER] So that was definitely the one that got me in love with ADAPT. The one that changed me into the loud-mouth that people know.

We were in Reno and I’m sure you know that this week I believe it was yesterday or day before yesterday, we had ADAPT folks in Reno arrested, you know when they were doing their sit-ins. And so this particular action, I’m thinking about was Reno, we were put in jail, in their county jail, Washoe county jail, and we were there for three days. We were placed with the general population. It was intense, people weren’t getting their needs met so we would up having a protest if you will, some of us went on hunger strike, I went down along with a few others to the infirmary and there was a woman, Gwen Jackson from Chicago. Gwen’s passed away but she was in the cell next to me and she was begging for water because she couldn’t get to water, and the jailers were ignoring her and you know, I’m trying to get their attention and you know, they ignored me. I banged on the door, yelled and everything.

VALLAS: One of the things that has gotten perhaps some of the most attention and made the most headlines the past several weeks around ADAPT action protesting the Republican repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the horrible proposed cuts to Medicaid is people literally being pulled out of their wheelchairs, even being dropped on the floor by police officers, having their bodies bloodied, blood on the floor. What is it like putting your body on the line, not just getting arrested, but putting yourself out there at great risk of physical injury in these types of actions?

CAMERON: Back in the day it was really scary. It was really, really scary, there was a lot of, for me a lot of nerves involved, oh my goodness, I’m going to get beat up by the police because it did get beat up by the police a lot. I know for me, sometimes I don’t even think about the injuries and stuff, it’s kind of the anger of what’s going on, I’m feeling. The excitement that I want to put my body on the line, that I’m willing to put my body on the line. The dedication, the you know, always that fear, anticipation, it’s just determination. This is the way that we do it, it’s not the only way that activism needs to be done or should be done or anything like that and I feel a lot of times that it’s, although it’s a hard thing, it’s a hard thing to go out and put your body on the line.

But it’s a privilege on a couple of levels. A privilege that we bust our butts raising money or you know, deal with our jobs or whatever, how to get ourselves there but then the privilege to be on the forefront you know, and doing what needs to be done and doing not only for ourselves but you know, for all the folks who can’t. We put our bodies on the line out there in so many ways. You know, whether it’s you know not only by getting dragged out of our wheelchairs or injured but showing up, being there. You know doing what we do, going on marches and stuff to get our people there safely. Peacefully entering into a building, being firm about it, taking over, being there and just you know, in so many ways that put our bodies on the line. But people I think just you know, they shed the light on the injuries, you know and all of that and as I was saying earlier

I just don’t understand why people haven’t figured out that ADAPT has been doing this for decades. And the same things happening on some of our actions that happen at McConnell’s, you know, the pulling out of wheelchairs, I mean I’ve seen people get serious, serious injuries. I think maybe this nation is waking up, it just was asleep before and our actions weren’t known to too many outside of the disability movement and the people who may have been effected or the cities affected. But I don’t know, that’s the only way that I could think that ADAPT didn’t go mainstream maybe. Is that the word I want to use? Or at least until this kind of you know, dies down. But I’m proud to be an ADAPTer, proud of my ADAPT siblings, ADAPT family. So it’s always an honor and a privilege to put my body out there on the line with my ADAPT siblings and remember and honor those who maybe cannot be out there in the trenches with us but who do activism in so many different ways.

And to me, you know you talk about putting your body on the line, to me I think about the people especially on Twitter and Facebook who have to endure comments on their stuff. Because sometimes it’s pretty triggering to you know, to be set upon by trolls and everything, who insult you and do death threats and all this stuff, so in a way to me, sometimes some of these online activists, they really, I’ve been involved in Twitter, and people blaming me and calling me horrible names and all that stuff and it feels almost the same as you know, in a different way, that whole spiritual wringing out and all, as you endure some of the things. So I just lift up those who aren’t able to be out there on the lines with us but who still do activism in their own way because they deserve that respect and that honor just like those of us who put it out there.

Those folks who can’t put it on the line, they’re often doing things in the background, they’re bringing food to the folks in Denver who are still in Senator Gardner’s office as we speak. This is like going into, this is the third day there and two nights they spent. So you know, they have those who bring food to those folks. Those who donate online. Those who pick up the phone and call, who write in emails, who help us make signs and things like that. I’m just all about we all are heroes and sheroes in our way and you know, I don’t think that those of us who are visible should get all the attention. There are so many in the background who lift us up.

VALLAS: Anita Cameron is a longtime ADAPT activist and ADAPT member and one of the people who has been most visible in some of the recent actions pushing back on the health care bill that would take away healthcare from tens of millions of Americans including millions of people with disabilities. Anita thank you so much for joining Off-Kilter and thank you for what you do.

CAMERON: Thank you, thank you for having me.


VALLAS: You’re listening to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. When Maria Quiñones-Sanchez ran for Philadelphia’s city council in 2007, affordable housing and foreclosure prevention was a central pillar of her campaign. As she built out her policy platform, she soon realized that unaffordable water bills were a silent epidemic affecting huge swaths of her constituents. In 2015, the city enacted a first in the nation policy to ensure that low-income households have water bills set based on their ability to pay. With the policy going into effect in July, I spoke with the councilwoman by phone.

So Councilwoman, tell me a little bit about what Philadelphia has been facing when it comes to unaffordable water bills.

COUNCILWOMAN MARIA QUIÑONES-SANCHEZ: Well I first got elected, I started collecting data sets because I represent one of the more challenging areas in the city with high, deep poverty. And one of the data sets I found was that 20% of the water debt was concentrated in my district, even though I represent 10% of the city. And as we started drilling down, we found extreme cases of people having huge water debts that they have accumulated over time and many people living without water because they had no access to even a payment plan. The current program was called IWRAP, it required 25, sometimes 50% deposit. So we started drilling down further and further and said no, we need to do something that is much more progressive because we have such deep poverty. And we engaged, we introduced the bill, we engaged with the administration, we hired a national expert to come in and give us some best practices, and today we have a modeled water affordability program that many cities are now reaching out to us and saying how did you do it and we need to do something similar. And I think it’s an important data set because the city of Philadelphia still has one of the highest homeownership rates and water was creating an obstacle for people to be able to stay in their homes.

VALLAS: Well, so help us make that connection. It’s been said in much of the media coverage around Philadelphia’s new policy, which you’ve championed, that water, unaffordable water bills have become one of the hidden drivers of foreclosure. Not just in Philadelphia but actually around the country. What’s the link between unaffordable water bills and someone losing their home?

QUIÑONES-SANCHEZ: Well I think, again, people don’t see a pathway out, right, and we didn’t have any programs that gave people a pathway to compliance. And so if the impediment was a large deposit, large, you know, and then getting someone in the payment plans that clearly they’re not going to afford if they couldn’t afford their bills initially. They’re not going to be able to afford a payment plan that at sometimes was hundreds of dollars a month. So there was no pathway. And so for us it was clear that we needed, once we did the national review and with our advocates and community legal services folks, said if we really want to make, if believe that water is a right, as some of us do, and you want to keep people in their homes, we’ve got to give them a pathway there. And so the tiered program, assistance program TAP, really narrows people’s ability to pay and then ensures at 150% of the federal poverty level is not paying more than 2 to 3% of their income on water. And the most important part of it is is that there’s a water conservation component. So that we help people monitor their water usage to make sure that there is no leaky roof, that folks in fact are protecting their household through conservation efforts.

VALLAS: So families having their water shut off, which is something that has happened in large numbers in Philadelphia. I believe I saw a statistic actually from your office that some 1 in 5 Philadelphians have actually had their water shut off at least once since April 2012. But this ends up being not just a short term problem, but as you’re describing it, also a long term problem. What other consequences do you see from lack of access to affordable water?

QUIÑONES-SANCHEZ: Well I mean we knew that there were thousands of people who were living in a house without running water. That statistic was out there. We knew that you know, because of the economy particularly in 2009 people lost their job and people were making real life decisions about food or water, right? And again, our plan required such steep deposits and you know, these hardship kind of designations that it was just not accessible. So if you want to keep your high homeownership rate that we have, despite our deep poverty, water could not be or should not be one of those impediments. And that’s why it was important in formulation of regulations that you know, we were really creating a program that people can afford. And so we’re going from a program where at any given point 6 to 8,000 people were registered to almost 60,000 people that we identify are potentially eligible for an affordable rate. And that’s huge.

VALLAS: The United Nations General Assembly declared in 2010 that safe and clean water isn’t just a basic human necessity, they actually went so far as to declare that it should be a human right. Is that part of what you were thinking in designing this policy for Philadelphia?

QUIÑONES-SANCHEZ: Absolutely. I think that again, when you look at the data sets, right. So one of what is considered one of my middle income neighborhoods, one of the neighborhoods where I have the higher income rates, what we found in that particular area 44% of the people had a delinquent water bill. So even in my most higher income neighborhoods, water was becoming an obstacle or is an obstacle. And so for me, when you start looking at those data sets in every neighborhood but across the city, you know, you know that, and I do agree that this should be a human right that it was our plan and our program, our payment plan that was becoming an impediment. And so we wanted to make sure that everybody knew that they can get into a plan that is affordable, that is going to be cognizant of medical situations, someone losing a job, you know, a death in the family, all of those things. That people were going to be able to always have access to water.

VALLAS: To play devil’s advocate, I’m sure you’ve been asked this question by either skeptics of this policy or folks who are worried about the city’s revenues. But at a time when cities when not just Philadelphia but across the country are struggling to make sure that they have sufficient revenues to cover all of the various services that they need to provide. And I won’t get into a conversation about how they could be bringing in more revenues with a progressive taxation system on people who can afford to pay more than they are. [LAUGHTER] Oops, I just did! But putting that aside, for folks who ask you aren’t we going to be starving the city of much needed revenues by giving people sort of the ability to be free riders on their bills. How do you respond to that type of question?

QUIÑONES-SANCHEZ: Well again, this is about values right. And I agree with you that if you look at who the constituency is, we’re the poorest major city in the country. But we still manage to have this high homeownership rate of working poor people who have bought their house, real estate is still somewhat affordable. So if you want to protect those values then you say how do we get people a pathway to compliance, which is actually going to bring up your collection rate. We have like a 91% collection rate which was very low for water/sewer. And we have growing delinquencies like on a monthly basis. And so this is actually going to allow more predictability because we know what we’re going to get. And because we are aware of the issues that the ratepayers are subsidizing this, you know, the conservation component of it was very important for us to be able to, once you’re enrolled in this program, monitor your water utilization and make sure that you don’t have leaks and other things. That could lead to high bills. So that was one of the things that we saw consistently as folks became delinquent you know, a two dollar flasher or a running toilet could lead to tons of dollars a month. And all of those components we believe are going to lead to higher collection rate, which means more money for the city.

And anytime someone loses a home for water, you’re going to burden other systems within the city government, right. Then you know, we’re talking about shelter, we’re talking about other things so we believe this is the smartest approach based on the national research so that Philadelphia and the folks who live in deep poverty will remain within their homes. This is the best strategy to prevent homelessness, one of the best strategies to prevent homelessness.s

VALLAS: Really exciting to see what you guys are doing there in Philadelphia, I miss it, tell the city hi for me. [LAUGHTER] And congratulations to you Councilwoman and to Community Legal Services and to the whole range of advocates who have made this the law of the land over there in Philly. Hopefully other cities will take note. Councilwoman Quiñones-Sanchez represents one of the hardest hit areas of the one of the poorest cities in this country, Philadelphia and has been a champion of the water policy that is now going into effect in July. Councilwoman thank you so much for joining the show.

QUIÑONES-SANCHEZ: Thank you, thank you for the opportunity to share it.


VALLAS: You’re listening to Off-Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. The Supreme Court just wrapped its term in what many have termed a duller than dull year. But it laid the groundwork for several potential landmark decisions to watch when the court resumes its work in October. And it’s also given us a glimpse into what kind of justice Neil Gorsuch is and will be. I’m joined, as always to do SCOTUS commentary by Ian Millhiser. He’s many things but he’s also the justice editor at Think Progress. Hi Ian.

IAN MILLHISER: Great to see you again.

VALLAS: Always great to see you. So enlighten us, this has been a dull term, duller than dull were your words that I’m quoting. But there’s some important stuff that actually just happened as the court was wrapping its term.

MILLHISER: Right, so it was dull because when the court had only 8 justices, they didn’t want to take any interesting cases because they didn’t know that they’d actually be able to decide them. And now that the 9th seat is at least occupied by Donald Trump’s appointee, they can decide the cases again. And so things are going to start getting interesting really quick and not in a good way.

VALLAS: So the case that got perhaps the most attention in the space of the past week or so is the travel ban. But there’s also been a lot of really confusing media coverage of what the court did. What did the court do and what’s the significance of what action it took?

MILLHISER: The short answer to that is I am also confused by the court’s order.


VALLAS: It wasn’t just me! Good to know.

MILLHISER: So what the court said was that they reinstated some of the Muslim ban. They said that the Muslim ban, at least until they get around to hearing the case on the merits and issuing their final decision will be in effect, but it won’t apply to people who have a sufficient tie to the United States.

VALLAS: Now of course there had been a lower court that actually put in place an injunction, stopping the administration from enforcing this ban.

MILLHISER: Right. In its entirety.

VALLAS: And this Supreme Court decision is sort of an interim step saying actually that injunction isn’t going to stand.

MILLHISER: Exactly. So what the court said was, well at least it says that for now they stated. So for now that injunction is not in effect. What they said was they said that like if you are hired by an American company, if you have an American relative, if you are a student at an American school, they gave a number of examples of things that are sufficient context. Then the Muslim ban doesn’t apply to you. But if, but it’s kind of vague around the margins, like you know, if you have a third cousin is that enough? If you have an uncle is that enough? If you are a refugee who is sponsored by a church in the United States, is that enough that the ban doesn’t apply to you? So there are a lot of difficult questions that need to be litigated and I honestly do not know like, whether this means like for all, some advocates have told me that you know, pretty much anyone that’s coming into the United States is going to have some connection with the U.S. anyway and it’s going to be fine and just means tourists don’t get in. And some people have told me that this is a really big deal and it’s a big victory for Donald Trump. And I think until a lot more litigation happens, it’s hard to know what the truth is.

VALLAS: So lots of question marks around what it means to have a quote bonafide relationship to the United States.

MILLHISER: Look at you quoting the Supreme Court and all.

VALLAS: Look at me quoting the Supreme Court like a recovering lawyer.

MILLHISER: So damn hot.

VALLAS: Don’t you love when I do that? So but we also have to talk about another case that’s gotten a lot less attention than the travel ban and that is Masterpiece Cake Shop. And I promise there are other reasons I wanted to talk about this case besides the fact that it allows me to say ‘Masterpiece Cake Shop’ which is so fun to say and not just as a child who grew up watching lots of Masterpiece Theater.

MILLHISER: Yeah so do we have to speak in bad British accents for the rest —

VALLAS: I think we do. Just for this portion. So Ian, what did Masterpiece Cake Shop find.

MILLHISER: Oh, Masterpiece cake shop, well they haven’t decided Masterpiece Cake Shop yet.

VALLAS: You don’t actually have to speak in a British accent.


MILLHISER: Yeah I don’t think I can sustain this much longer. They haven’t decided yet, they agreed to take this case, which was surprising and frankly rather disturbing. So as delightfully named as the Masterpiece Cake Shop is, the case is about the owner of Masterpiece cake shop being anti-gay. This is someone who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same sex wedding. And he did so in a state where there is an anti-discrimination law saying you can’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. And he now claims that he should be immune to this law both because he thinks that God also doesn’t like gay people, and so if you have a religious objection then the law shouldn’t apply to you. And also because he claims that baking a cake is an expressive activity and because he is expressing his views or something by baking this cake, it would be a violation of the free speech clause if he is forced to bake a cake for someone that he doesn’t want to bake a care for.

VALLAS: And that being the free speech clause of the First Amendment, one of the, perhaps the second most misunderstood and misused amendments, second only to the Second Amendment, of course by people with ideological things they want to do. So, something again they want to watch and something that will potentially be a reversal of something that the Supreme Court had ruled on in a past term.

MILLHISER: Yeah I mean the Supreme Court in case called Christian Legal Society, fairly recently, rejected the free speech argument and also to some extent the religion argument. Christian Legal Society dealt with a student organization which wanted to be allowed to refuse to admit gay students, or at least I think gay students who they described as ‘practicing homosexuals.’ Yeah, kinda gross. So they wanted to refuse to admit gay students, the school had anti-discrimination policy saying you can’t do that, and the Supreme Court 5 to 4 said that no no, you actually do have to follow the anti-discrimination rules, you don’t get out of it because of your religious viewpoint. So hopefully Christian Legal Society is still good law. And hopefully a line of cases going back to the Piggie Park decision in the 1960s saying that no, religion is not a license to discriminate are also good law. But it is disturbing that they decided to take this case in the first place.

VALLAS: And a sign really in and of itself before we even know where they’re headed with it. Another case that’s really of great significance not just to progressive policy and progressive values but also to the labor movement in particular is a case that a lot of folks maybe have forgotten about with so much else going on and so much else in the news and that’s Janice v. AFSCME.

MILLHISER: So this is part of Sam Alito’s never ending anti-union crusade that now looks like it’s finally going to come to fruition. So there was a case you might remember from about a year ago called Friedrichs. Friedrichs decided to try to defund a lot of public sector unions. I can get into a second how they were going to do that. But before the case was decided and it looked like oral arguments was going to go very, very badly for the unions. Before it was decided Justice Scalia died. And that was, so there was no longer a fifth vote for the conservative position and the case was bounced. Janice presents the exact same issue. So the issue here is this. If you belong to a union, the unions require, or rather if you work in a unionized shop, the union’s required to bargain on behalf of you, regardless of whether or not you join the union or not. So what that means is you get all the benefits of being in the union, regardless of whether you’re actually paying dues. And negotiating is expensive, the union has to hire lawyer, they’ve got to hire financial experts, it costs something to run a union. So you have a free rider problem, you have a problem where people can get something without paying their fair share of it. Unions often negotiate for contracts saying that the non-members have to pay what’s sometimes called a fair share fee, which says that everyone has to pay their fair share of the cost of the negotiating.

VALLAS: Which means paying the dues but not necessarily being a member of the union if you don’t want to be.

MILLHISER: Well it doesn’t mean paying the dues. The difference between dues and the fair share fee is that dues can go for things like political activity. So a union, if you’re not a member of the union, the union can’t use the money you pay it to like, endorse a candidate or something like that.

VALLAS: Which if you don’t agree with what the union is doing apart from what is happening in the collective bargaining unit and in your shop could make a real difference to you.

MILLHISER: Right. But if you, but what you do have to do is you do have to pay for the service that it’s providing you. For the same reason I have to pay my plumber when he comes and fixes my toilet.

VALLAS: So your union is helping you get higher wages, it’s helping you avoid discrimination in the workplace. All the kinds of stuff that union presence does.

MILLHISER: Right and you know, just to put some numbers on this, so this regime where you’re allowed to have these free riders who don’t pay their fair share, that’s what right to work laws do. So when you hear that phrase, that’s what they’re talking about doing. In states that have these laws, wages are about 3% lower. So there is a measurable reduction in pay if this decision goes the way that we expect it to go which is all five of the Republican justices going against the union.

VALLAS: So in the last minute I have with you, I’m on tenterhooks, I know everyone else is too, what do we know so far about Neil Gorsuch?

MILLHISER: He’s a prick. [LAUGHTER] So Gorsuch wrote an opinion trying to shrink the marriage equality decision in Obergefell, he in Trinity Lutheran wrote a concurring opinion that’s basically a road map for ensuring that anti-gay businesses like the one in Masterpiece Cake’s gets to win. And on top of that, I mean one of his most interesting cases was a case dealing with this really complicated jurisdictional issue that would bore your listeners to tears. But where he went on and on about how, yeah it doesn’t matter if there is all this precedent out there and it doesn’t matter that even Justice Alito was lecturing him at oral argument, being like look this is really complicated and yes there are these precedents, like stop pretending that you know everything, guy. He’s a guy who thinks he knows everything and is eager to overturn precedents left and right when he sees something that he would rather be some other way.

VALLAS: So if I may to sum up, it sounds to me like Gorsuch is hardly the moderate that Trump claimed he would be and in fact sounds like he’s one of the most, if not the most conservative justice now on the court.

MILLHISER: He might be the most conservative justice on the court. I mean his record right now suggests that he’s much like Clarence Thomas who historically has been the most conservative member. Although without the moderating experience that Thomas had of actually experiencing racism and poverty at some point in his life.

VALLAS: So something to watch for sure at the Supreme Court level but also something to be thinking about as Trump nominates people to fill judicial vacancies at every level of the courts which has a tremendous amount to do with jurisprudence and policy making in this country.

MILLHISER: And if I could just say something briefly —

VALLAS: You always want to say something briefly.

MILLHISER: I always do.

VALLAS: But rarely is it brief so make it brief.


MILLHISER: Here you are taking up my time filibustering. No I mean Trump has named a number of people to the lower courts right now. And the two things that stand out, I mean one of these are extraordinarily ideological people. The other is that they’re crazy smart. You know, I mean I think there is a temptation because Trump is so Trump to assume that everyone around him is you know, not going to be a formidable opponent. And this is not the case here. We are going to be dealing with these people for a long time and they are going to be trouble.

VALLAS: Ian Millhiser is the justice editor at Think Progress. Oh and I forgot your book! He’s also an author.

MILLHISER: I am, would you like to say the name of the book?

VALLAS: He’s the author of ‘Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Afflicting the Afflicted and Comforting the Comfortable’ except I think it’s the opposite.

MILLHISER: It is. ‘Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.”


VALLAS: I was so close.

MILLHISER: It hurts me that you didn’t have that ready to go right away.

VALLAS: Ian, always a pleasure to have you on the show.

MILLHISER: It’s so good to be here.

VALLAS: We’ll have you back in October when the court comes back.

And that does it for this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced each week by Eliza Schultz. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @OffKilterShow. And you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the We Act Radio network, or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.



Off-Kilter Podcast

Off-Kilter is the podcast about poverty and inequality—and everything they intersect with. **Show archive 2017-May ‘21** Current episodes: tcf.org/off-kilter.