Hyperbole or not, that July 9 phone call set off a day of soul-searching for the Ward 3 Democrat. Less than two years after she buoyantly backed Gray’s mayoral bid and the campaign of Kwame R. Brown, who resigned as council chairman and pleaded guilty to bank fraud, she called on the mayor to step down.
It was a stunning reversal for Cheh, who with the help of Gray and Brown, both Democrats, had reached the peak of her political sway on the D.C. Council, becoming second in command and presiding over a powerful committee.
Since joining the council in 2007, Cheh has carved out a reputation as one of the council’s most progressive members, with considerable influence over major pieces of legislation, including the overhaul of the District’s taxi service and tough new consumer-protection rules.
But Cheh has been forced to recalibrate her council role, a byproduct of her ties to Brown and Gray as well as whispers from some colleagues that her political star has dimmed. With the council returning from summer recess next month, this fall could be a crucial period as Cheh manages friendships and her image.
“She definitely had a tough year,” council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said. “She was very fond of Mayor Gray and the former chairman, and I think she believed in the best of both of them. . . . She has been disappointed professionally . . . and I think she has been personally wounded.”
In an interview, Cheh acknowledged that she has struggled over the investigations into the Gray and Brown campaigns but said that she remains upbeat about her future.
“In a lot of religions, it’s a sin to despair and you shouldn’t despair,” Cheh said. “You have an obligation to go forward and be positive, but I must say I have had moments of despair with these scandals . . . but I am not going to let it deflect from my work.”
Cheh initially stood by Gray, a political ally who took on lobbyists and business interests unnerved by some of her legislation. But as she weighed the allegations surrounding the shadow campaign and her personal relationship, Cheh joined Catania and council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) in seeking Gray’s resignation.
In a decision that may have ended their friendship, she conveyed the news to Gray via voice mail.
“It wasn’t going to be a case where the person doesn’t get back to you and you delay and delay and delay to attend to niceties,” Cheh recalls. “No, no. It was right now: Make a decision. And once I had gotten to that point, I was pretty keen to discharge it.”
Gray said he was so hurt and offended by Cheh’s message that he’s not sure whether their relationship can survive.