Unspun: D.C. Council Member Mary M. Cheh

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Name: Mary M. Cheh

Age: 59

Home: Washington

Occupation: D.C. Council member, George Washington University Law School professor

If you had all the money in the world, what would you buy?

I'd buy the best health care for everybody around the world . . . the best education and then the best protection for animals and wildlife.

Which issue do you care about the most?

Probably the environment . . . I think everything will depend on us saving this planet. I think everyone's beginning to understand that we have to change the way we live if we're going to sustain the lifestyle that we have. In the District we have the highest rate of childhood asthma and high cancer rates that are directly tied to our environment. To me it's foundational, to make sure that the environment is healthy, clean and people have the ability to afford to live in a healthful way.

BlackBerry or iPhone?

Both. I use the BlackBerry for council business. The iPhone is for personal time. Sometimes my council business migrates to the personal phone but never the other way.

The best advice you ever got?

Don't say yes right away, and to wait, think about things more.

Your guilty food indulgence?

Chocolate cupcakes. Milky Ways. Marvelous Market. It's pricey but they have the best cinnamon apple pound cake, which I confess I could eat entirely myself in one sitting.

Where do you go to dine out?

A lot of times I just go simply with the choice of the person I'm with. I like Italian food.

Tell us about your biggest goof.

I wasn't always sufficiently aware of what the [D.C.] Council did before I got involved with it. On the night of my election victory . . . I met some other people, and I wasn't entirely aware that they were Council members. Then someone pointed it out for me, and I went back and said, "Oh, we're going to be colleagues."

How do you relax?

By exercising. . . . I've been a runner for many years. I've recently had a knee operation, so I ride my bike a lot now. And I work out at the gym. As I get older, I've had to do different things. At the gym, I've taken up boxing. I used to do touch football in the congressional league, but I had to hang up my spikes on that one.

The best part of living in your neighborhood?

I live in an area called Forest Hills. It's very close to [Rock Creek Park]. Probably the best thing is that the neighborhood feels like an extension of the park. For example, I know a lot of people are worried about pests and animals. But I like the deer, I like the raccoons. I even have tree frogs and possums. It has sort of a country feel to it.

If you weren't in politics, what would you most like to be doing?

I'm a law professor at GW law school, so I have two great jobs.

What's on top of your reading pile?

A book by Joseph Ellis, "American Creation." He also wrote "Founding Brothers." I like reading nonfiction. I like history, and I'm especially fond of the founding period in the United States. I love anything by Shakespeare. I'm currently reading "Henry V" again.

Favorite sports team?

I've been a Yankee fan since I remember learning how to walk. [My younger brother and I] had a little transister radio, and we'd go out on our bikes, and if there was a game on we'd be listening to the game.

If we put on your MP3 player headphones, what song would we hear?

I have 800 songs on my iPod. I even have one of those mini iPods so I can listen to it while I'm biking. I have a lot of country rock. I like people of an earlier age. Jonathan Edwards. Linda Ronstadt. Fleetwood Mac.

What makes you most nervous?

Doctors . . . I've been pretty healthy all my life but more recently, last year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it threw me into the whole medical scenario. It was like I was sleeping at night and people from another tribe captured me and I was completely under their control with surgery, radiation, drugs, appointments with doctors. It's been kind of unnerving. I'm fine now. I have to take drugs for years, and there are issues with that, but I think it's pretty good. But it's a degree of tension that's always in the back of your mind: Will this come back?

What's the best part of being a politician?

The hugs and the free food.

Your favorite Halloween costume?

I don't really have a favorite one for myself, but I have favorite ones that I made [for] my children. A couple of them won awards at their school. The biggest, most successful one: I made my older daughter into a breakfast table. I loved doing it for them, and they were thrilled.

What do you know now about politics that you wish someone had told you when you started?

Intellectually, I knew it might be hard to get things done, but I probably could have been better informed about having patience. Because it's really hard to get things done, harder than I thought.

--Interview by Theola Labbé-DeBose

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