Ward 3 rivals clash, politely

Photo by The Georgetown Dish
Mary Cheh and Dave Hedgepeth debate one last time before November 2 election
Mary Cheh and Dave Hedgepeth debate one last time before November 2 election

The two candidates vying for the Ward 3 seat on the D.C. Council brought their rivalry to a climax Wednesday evening at the Chevy Chase Community Center before an audience of about one hundred voters.
Dave Hedgepeth, the Republican challenger, and Mary Cheh, a Democrat who seeks election to a second term, poked at each other a little, but politely, and traded compliments a couple of times. It was the third of three debates. Neither scored a knockout blow, although  may have suffered some damage when questions from the floor revealed that he and his wife owe taxes and that he lists no record of civic activities on his Web site.
Mary Cheh with husband Neil Lewis and Shelley Tomkin (Photo by: The Georgetown Dish) Mary Cheh with husband Neil Lewis and Shelley Tomkin

Cheh, a relaxed, sometimes jokey incumbent, confident that the heavily Democratic ward will return her, occasionally displayed the temper that has troubled some of her constituents. Reminded that the Washington Post endorsed Hedgepeth, partly on the ground that Cheh had not fully supported Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Cheh, speaking with feeling, said the endorsement came down to “one person,” whom she identified as Jo-Ann Armao, who writes Post editorials about District matters.
“We have clashed,” Cheh said without being specific, “and she was forced to write a retraction.”
As for the Post's charge that Cheh had not fully supported Rhee, Cheh complained of “a little dishonesty” in the editorial. She said the Post endorsed David Catania's bid for a new term as an At Large council member and Catania's voting record on education “is identical to mine.” She said she had supported “every single” education-reform measure to come to a vote.
Hedgepeth Acknowledges Back-Taxes Owed
For the most part, Cheh presented herself as unworried by her Republican challenger. She thanked him for running and giving the voters a choice. She did not attack him at any point. When he acknowledged that he and his wife have an agreement to pay back taxes—he did not say how much he owed — Cheh said only “People should pay taxes on time.”
Hedgepeth was ready for the question about unpaid taxes. He said that his delinquency was not due to a lavish lifestyle. He
Dave Hedgepeth with supporters Joe Grano (left) and Nancy Theis (Photo by: The Georgetown Dish) Dave Hedgepeth with supporters Joe Grano (left) and Nancy Theis
said that he and his wife drive a 1991 Volvo they bought used and a second car that his wife's mother gave them. They send their six-year-old twin daughters to their neighborhood public elementary school, Ben W. Murch.
Asked if he as a Republican could work with the heavily Democratic council, Hedgepeth expressed confidence—and Cheh supported him. She said, on the 13-member council “we learn how to get along. I don't think the label is important.”
Minutes later, Hedgepeth said that as an elected Republican he would be able to win support for DC voting rights from Republicans in Congress. Cheh interjected, lightly, that maybe labels did matter.
In a similar light vein, when Hedgepeth mentioned that he was 42 years old, Cheh, coming on as a comedienne, threw the audience a sidelong look and simpered, “I'm not saying my age.” She is 60, as she acknowledged after the meeting.
Both Want Speed Cameras
Both candidates said they support installation of speed-cameras in the District, and specifically on Connecticut Avenue, where Cheh said she routinely sees Maryland cars speeding. Both also endorsed continued mayoral control of the public schools and so-called smart growth along major arteries. Both said they would try to mediate differences between universities and their neighbors.
On closing the budget gap, both spoke of doing it by reducing spending. Cheh disapproved of across-the-board budget cutting. Hedgepeth said it had to be considered. Both disavowed raising taxes.
Cheh opened and closed with a summary of her civic activities before being elected to council in 2006.
It contrasted with Hedgepeth's expression of regret that he had not been similarly active. “My main civic activity has been rasing my kids,” Hedgepeth said. “Going forward, it is something I would like to do.”
Soda Tax Differences
The candidates also clashed on Cheh's bill, not enacted, to impose a tax of one cent an ounce on soda, to discourage its consumption,which she said has contributed to an “obesity epidemic.” Hedgepeth said it was the wrong approach. He called it “overly simplistic” and said “obesity has more to do with lifestyle.”
Cheh, her voice rising with passion, said a tax was only one of several elements in her campaign to combat obesity. Warming to the subject, she lectured that “the literature is very, very clear” about the obesity problem. She noted that instead of passing her bill, which was opposed intensely by the soda industry, council agreed to apply the general sales tax to sugared drinks, not just soda.
Hedgepeth, a lawyer who works for a firm that manages litigation for the Justice Department, said that if elected he would have no job other than being a council member. That was an oblique reference to Cheh's continued employment at the George Washington University law school as a professor of constitutional law. She said nothing on this point.
The one-hour debate was sponsored by three citizens associations—Chevy Chase, Palisades and Foxhall—whose representatives read questions from the floor. The moderator was Sarah Pokempner of Chevy Chase.

Edward Cowan, a retired New York Times correspondent, writes on D.C. issues from time to time as a public service. He may be reached at edcowan@gmail.com.