Cheh distances herself from scandal

GW Law School professor Mary Cheh will return to the D.C. Council when it reconvenes Monday without support from the man who was once her biggest government ally.

Cheh, a Ward 3 council member who has worked closely with Mayor Vincent Gray for years, backtracked on her ardent support of the alumnus this spring after he was accused of misusing campaign funds. She said she does not expect to renew ties with Gray.

The professor, known for penning bills thick enough to bundle with rubber bands, was one of three council members to call for the mayor to step down in July – when prosecutors confirmed the mayor’s 2010 team ran a “shadow campaign” with nearly $654,000 to get Gray elected. He has faced a downpour of corruption allegations since he took office.

“When I did ask for his resignation, first of all, I felt betrayed by what had happened,” said Cheh, who campaigned for Gray in her ward, which includes American University. “I went out on a limb myself, and meanwhile, he’s running a campaign, which is likely the biggest fraud in election history in the District.”

About 80 percent of her ward voted for Gray’s opponent, incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty. Cheh will face re-election in 2014, said she has gotten flak from her ward for supporting Gray early on, but said she went with her gut, weighing his integrity and leadership as a chair.

“To me, it was very, very clear that he would be a better mayor. Oops,” she said.

She will also return to a council that was tainted by the scandal of former chairman Kwame Brown, who pleaded guilty to bank fraud in June. Brown’s subsequent resignation vaulted her temporarily to the city government’s second-highest position. Cheh was the first council member to back Kwame Brown’s 2010 campaign for the council’s top spot.

But she said the shadow of last year’s graft will not affect her work on the Council.

She said she stands by her call for Gray to resign, but she would continue to work with him out of an obligation to her constituents.

Still, Cheh said she had valued her years-long friendship with Gray.

Cheh said Gray had dubbed her his “go-to person” during his chairmanship on the Council and added that they would speak to each other often – sometimes through text messages. The duo collaborated to co-introduce bills on public education reform and the Healthy Schools Act, which became a national model for public and charter schools.

Through his spokeswoman, Doxie McCoy, Gray did not return a request for comment.

Cheh, a two-term legislator and professor, was first elected by a landslide 70 percent in 2006, and in the last six years she has become one of the most active council members. She has introduced or co-sponsored 16 of the body’s last 34 bills.

Ward 2 council member Jack Evans, the longest-serving member, said Gray’s campaign scandal is dwarfed by other issues that have plagued D.C. since he was elected, like a mayor’s arrest on drug charges, the suicide of a chairman and city bankruptcy.

“Those were trying times. These are not trying times,” Evans said of his last 21 years in office. “These are just bad-image times.”

Evans, whose constituency includes Foggy Bottom, said Cheh, like all council members, has learned to navigate the political process to make an impact.

“Your role becomes larger in the sense that you spend the first couple of months figuring out where the bathroom is,” Evans said. “As people are there longer, everyone becomes more effective.”

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