The day federal prosecutors said Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign benefited from illicit donations, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh paced in her Forest Hills home, angered and shocked.
In a phone conversation minutes after the news that one of Gray’s associates had dispersed illegal contributions as part of a “shadow campaign,” Cheh told a close friend: “The government could fall because of this. All could be lost.”
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.
“It’s not something I can predict at this stage,” he said.
After Gray and Brown won in 2010, Cheh began the 2011 legislative session with a burst of swagger that many observers thought foreshadowed a future mayoral bid by her. Brown named her chairman pro tempore and gave her a newly created committee with jurisdiction over public works, transportation and the environment. Meanwhile, Gray ran interference when legislation she sponsored ran into opposition.
“Vince Gray was so good to Mary Cheh,” said one council member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely. “Every time she was about to drown, Vince saved her, so it was astonishing what she did to him.”
Now, Cheh, who lost her chairman pro tem position after Brown resigned, appears to face an uncertain relationship with some of her colleagues.
Last month, for instance, she found few allies when Uber, the popular car-sharing service, orchestrated a campaign against her plan to set minimum fares as part of a taxi industry overhaul.
A constitutional law professor at George Washington University, Cheh has excelled at crafting major pieces of legislation, including a cap on interest for payday loans, changing procurement law and reforming election law. Her healthy schools initiative has become a nationwide model for other school districts.
“This last session, most of the big bills that pushed through were mine,” said Cheh, exuding a confidence that defines her personality. “The stuff I put forward, often, recommends itself.”
Yet Cheh has had a few stumbles over the past 18 months, including struggling to contain outrage in Ward 3 over her initial support for a now-repealed tax on out-of-state bonds and a high-profile spat with conservatives over her bill requiring that pest-control companies use nonlethal force on small animals, excluding rats and mice.
And though Cheh describes herself as a gentle force on the council, some of her colleagues say she can be aggressive and arrogant. At times, they say, Cheh’s desire to enact proposals leads to bills that are rushed with limited feedback from council colleagues and advocates.
“She is passionate about things, and sometimes she will take the lead and, if something is right in her eyes, it’s right and she doesn’t seem to look for everyone’s okay,” said council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7). “Sometimes you want a bit more collaboration.”
Business leaders have similar concerns, saying they wish she was more receptive to dealmaking and outside input.
“I would like her to be open to other points of view,” said Barbara Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
“She is very direct in how she approaches things, and I would love for her to be more open-minded,” Lang said.
Cheh, who is not up for reelection until 2014, counters that her constituents sent her to the council “to fix stuff or make it better.”
“We shouldn’t be wedded to something in the past if there are better ways than the past,” she said.
Despite her rocky year, activists and council members stress it would be a mistake to underestimate Cheh, either in the John A. Wilson Building or on the campaign trail.
With at least four council members mentioned as possible mayoral candidates, Cheh could emerge as a key mediator or swing vote as political rivalries surface.
“I hear all the time how some members have fallen out of favor or in trouble, and I always think that those rumors are greatly exaggerated,” said Phil Mendelson (D), who replaced Brown as council chairman. Mendelson added that he considers Cheh a valuable partner.
Susie Taylor, president of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association, said she hasn’t seen much evidence that Cheh has been weakened in Ward 3, despite chatter that she may face a challenger in 2014’s primary.
“People are like, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ with politicians, and I think as long as she is delivering for her Ward 3 constituents, I think that is what people will focus on and not who are their friends,” Taylor said.
As for whether Gray will be one those friends, Cheh said she hopes to ask him to separate their personal relationship from their professional one.
“We’ll see,” she said. “He’ll either understand or not.”