Monday, November 06, 2006

Ed Cowan review of the last stand in Ward 3

The following is a review by local commentor, Ed Cowan on the Warde 3 debate from Friday, November 3rd:

In an hour of brisk verbal slugging, the candidates for the Ward 3 seat on the DC Council, Mary Cheh, Democrat, and Theresa Conroy, Republican, debated each other at the Washington International Church on River Road Friday evening.

Some Ward 3 Democrats—at least 44 who circulated a letter, and probably more—have endorsed Conroy, imparting a sense of contest in a ward that typically elects Democrats.

The dissident Democrats fear that Cheh supports more development—especially on upper Wisconsin Avenue—than they would like. Inevitably, development was the hot-button issue Friday night, and each candidate had friends in the audience
who applauded her or jeered her opponent.

The candidates hurled barbs at each other. Cheh was the more aggressive, seeking to associate Conroy with President Bush and asking questions designed to highlight her own expertise in law and embarrass Conroy. Tossing off figures on
criminal recidivism, Chey challenged Conroy to offer a remedy. Without elaboration, Conroy replied, “job training” and “adult education.”

When the debate turned to education, Conroy, who teaches an advanced-placement course in comparative politics at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, jibed at Cheh, “I don’t need to read reports or studies.”

In closing, Cheh unlimbered her big gun, that Conroy was “an anti-abortion Republican.” [Sound of groans and a voter who called out, “What’s that got to do with it?”] Later, Conroy confirmed that she is “pro-life.”

Cheh, the fluent, voluble constitutional law professor at George Washington University, rattled off lists of positions and policies and may have been the more skillful debater. Occasionally, however, she came across as defensive, especially on development. To rebut accusations that her advocacy of “smart growth” means she is aligned with developers, she draped herself in environmental buzzwords, e.g. “green buildings,” “walkable,” “livable” and “mass transit.” She charged that “Conroy and her surrogates” had misrepresented her views.

Cheh acknowledged that she favored “a modest bump-up” of buildings and density in Friendship Heights. She argued that constructing residential units adjacent to the Jenifer Street Metro entrance—a property now occupied by a car dealership—made sense. And she sought to tar Conroy with an anti-Bush brush, causing Conroy to reply, “I’m not a spoiler of the environment, by any means, because I’m a Republican.”

Conroy declared that present zoning affords “adequate headroom” for growth. This referred to the debate under way on a proposed Comprehensive Plan, which Cheh supports and Conroy and her backers dislike. Conroy called for a new study of development, one not influenced by developers.

On climate change, Conroy said she favored “actions that don’t raise costs.” The debate descended at least once into the petty, with the question: What have you done to save energy?

A few minutes into the debate, confusion erupted about the format, and the moderator, Barbara Yeomans of the League of Women Voters, lost control. On the complicated back-and-forth format, Yeomans took instruction from Cheh’s campaign manager, Claire Bloch, evidently the designer of the format. Before long, similar confusion occurred twice more.

Other sponsors of the debate included several ANCs and several neighborhood associations. Carolyn Sherman, an ANC commissioner, chaired the proceedings.

Other topics:

Fiscal Management and Taxes

Conroy opened by saying she favored reducing DC income tax rates “over time,” but she offered no details. She wanted the District to “pay down debt” and she would “look at” business taxes and regulation to see if they were excessive.

She said the law that lets property taxes rise by as much as 10 percent a year “was not a good one,” but she did not say how she would change it. She endorsed the property-tax class action suit brought by Peter Craig of Cleveland Park, a complaint that a trial court has found had merit. She said the District should drop its appeal from a trial court verdict for the plaintiffs, return $15 million of overpayments and change the method of assessment challenged by Craig. Cheh did not discuss the Craig suit.

Cheh disputed an assertion by Conroy that she, Cheh, had said at a forum that she would raise taxes. “I have never called for raising taxes,” Cheh declared. “I’m not interested in raising taxes.” She said advocating tax reduction was “irresponsible” because of the “structural deficit” in DC’s finances and what she called the “degrading” of infrastructure—roads, schools, libraries, community centers—as a consequence of balancing the budget and raising the city’s bond rating. Cheh argued that the District needed more residents and businesses to expand its tax revenues to offset the “structural deficit” and to pay for more spending.

On property taxes, Cheh said she favored “targeted” relief on property taxes for people on “fixed incomes” and for renters and possibly struggling small businesses. That left the impression that she would be content to see property taxes on homes rise annually under the 10 percent cap.

In the most startling statement of the evening, Conroy said “we should look at lifting property tax exemptions for nonprofit educational institutions.” Presumably that would include Georgetown Visitation and G.W.U. Conroy did not elaborate on this unorthodox view and Cheh did not question it.


Cheh favored taking administration of the public schools—property management, payroll, etc.—away from the Superintendent and assigning it to the mayor’s office, leaving the Superintendent to focus solely on instruction and curriculum. She wanted to “train and reward good teachers, get rid of bad teachers.” She favored “fulltime” pre-kindergarden instruction in public schools. She said Congress had forced vouchers “down the throat” of DC. -

Conroy used education as the fulcrum for accusing Cheh of having a conflict of interest because of her affiliation with G.W.U. Cheh has said that she would go on teaching her constitutional law course, which she has repeatedly said requires only three hours a week. In the past, council members have taught on the side, she said, citing former members Dave Clarke, Charlene Drew Jarvis and Kevin Chavous.

With heat, Cheh asserted “there is no conflict of interest.” She would not benefit personally from any real estate acquisitions G.W.U. might make, she said. She was a tenured professor, meaning that she had job security and could vote independently.

“My opponent does not have a law degree,” she added.

She challenged Conroy to state her plans to accelerate modernization of schools and to say how she would pay for it.

“I certainly wouldn’t pay for it by excessive development in Ward 3,” Conroy shot back.

Public Safety

Conroy said DC needs more police and surveillance cameras and rehabilitation for minor drug offenses. Cheh said DC needed not more officers but “better deployment” that would get cops “out of cars.” She would “come down hard on assault, robbery” and “vacuum up guns.” She did not explain how she would do that and did not discuss the view that gun buy-backs bring in only a small fraction of weapons in the community, chiefly old, unworkable pieces.

Cheh called for “a complete overhaul” of the Emergency Medical Service, which is part of the Fire Department, and the replacement of fire chief Adrian Thompson. She said chief Charles Ramsey of the Metropolitan Police Department had done “a mixed job” and she would not “shed a tear” if he were replaced by the next mayor. Conroy said Ramsey had “done an adequate job.” (Ramsey let it be known this week that he was prepared to move on.)

Cheh made a point of saying that “many” in her family had done police work and that her sister’s husband “was killed in the line of duty.” As if to show further that even though an academic she does not live in an ivy-covered tower, Cheh told a story about how her brother, a roofer, took pride in his work.

She said she wanted to serve on the Council’s Judiciary Committee. She has already worked for that committee as a consultant to its former chairman, Kathy Patterson, who supports Cheh and who came to the meeting.

In closing, Conroy adverted to her earlier statements in support of advisory neighborhood commissions, pledged to be “an independent voice” who “would not be bothered by special interests” and who had no “conflict of interest.” She said she had raised legitimate questions about Cheh.

In her close, Cheh accused Conroy of having changed her position on development opportunistically and of favoring vouchers. Cheh said “I’ve run a positive campaign.”

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