Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh bids farewell to Council seat after 16 years

Media Credit: Danielle Towers | Assistant Photo Editor

Cheh said she decided to step down to spend more time with her family, especially her granddaughter, and making sure her family was safe during the pandemic realigned some of her priorities.

After representing Ward 3 on the D.C. Council for 16 years with a proven record pushing for policy on the environment, nutrition and transportation while teaching at GW Law, Council member Mary Cheh’s lawmaking career is coming to an end.

Cheh will end her tenure representing Ward 3 – the upper northwest quadrant of the city that encompasses some of the District’s wealthiest neighborhoods – in January after she withdrew from the upcoming ballot in February to spend more time with family. She has taught constitutional law and criminal procedure at GW for more than 40 years and is one of the only current Council members to have held an outside job while serving on the Council.

“Once I got there, and I realized the potential for making things better in various spheres, whether it be health or consumer protection or what have you, I said, ‘Wow, I can really accomplish things here and make things better,’” Cheh said.

Here’s a look back at her Council career:

New to local government, Cheh secured Ward 3 seat in 2006
Cheh said she decided to run for the Ward 3 seat in the 2006 election when former Council member Kathy Patterson – whose daughter was on the youth soccer team Cheh coached – ran for chair of the D.C. Council, leaving the Ward 3 spot open for a fresh face. Despite calling herself “completely ignorant” to the power of local politics prior to the election, Cheh said her legal conversations with Patterson made her realize she could accomplish her legal and environmental goals on the Council.

“It planted a seed in my mind, and I started to say, ‘Well, maybe that could be exciting or good,’” Cheh said.

Cheh won the 2006 Democratic nomination with a little less than half of the vote against eight opponents. She said she had no campaign organization or experience going into the general election, where she beat Republican candidate Theresa Conroy for the seat with more than 70 percent of the vote and promised to continue teaching at GW despite her new career.

Cheh said because candidates for the Council aren’t advertised on TV and radio, she could prioritize her campaign spending on retail, like flyers and yard signs. She said she also threw house parties where she networked with city officials throughout the campaign.

“To this day, I can think of little aspects of it that may have contributed to it, but in terms of an actual strategy, I would hardly call what I did strategic or well planned or anything like that,” Cheh said. “But in any case, I won.”

Cheh said while Congress interfered with Council legislation regarding hot-button issues like marijuana legalization or taxpayer-funded needle exchange programs in the past, she was impressed by the Council’s speed passing bills and budgets during her tenure. She said the city government has home rule – a dependent government’s right to rule itself and Congress doesn’t usually interfere with legislation, despite acting as D.C.’s legislature under Article One of the U.S. Constitution.

“We have a $17 billion dollar budget and yet this streamlined legislative process,” Cheh said. “It’s amazing, so I have taken full advantage of that to pass major pieces of legislation, sometimes landmark pieces of legislation.”

Clean energy, nutrition legislation headline Cheh’s accomplishments 
Cheh said one of the first omnibus bills – which packages together many measures into one piece of legislation – that she introduced and passed was the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008, which authorized the city to contract private companies who administered sustainable energy programs in the city. She said she was always looking for opportunities to save energy as a Council member, and passing her legislation has made D.C. a “leader” in the nation for green energy.

She said despite facing pressure to support climate measures like a carbon tax from outside groups, she identified regulating buildings’ energy as one of her environmental priorities from the start of her tenure because D.C. uses most of its energy on powering buildings and lacks polluting industries, like fossil fuel production and logging. D.C. uses about 85 percent of its energy in the commercial and residential sector and about 15 percent in transportation and industry, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The key is buildings, so I put in that legislation,” Cheh said. “Then finally, the different groups – the climate action groups and this and that – they all come around and think, ‘Wow, what a genius you are’, and I said ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t have been if you had your way about it.’”

Cheh wrote and passed an amendment to the act in 2018, mandating the city to convert to entirely renewable energy by 2032.

She spearheaded numerous other bills during her tenure, like the 2008 Healthy Schools Act – which created standards for school meal quality like mandatory vegetarian options, provided universal free breakfast for public school students and increased student physical activity requirements at D.C. schools. She likened her efforts to introduce a one percent soda tax per ounce of sugary beverage in 2010 – which failed by one vote – to “going to war.”

“We have to counter that and not wait for people to get into a position where they have heart problems or hypertension,” Cheh said. “But if they are, we have to think of food as better than drugs in many cases, as medicine.”

The Council voted Cheh as chair of the Committee of Transportation, Environment and Public Works in 2011, and she also chaired the committee that investigated former Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who resigned in 2020 in light of a series of ethics violations.

Cheh to focus on teaching at GW and family
Cheh said in February that she would not run for a fifth term on the Council despite already filing to appear on the ballot, a reversal that surprised some locals. But she said the decision to step down was the fruition of juggling her jobs on the Council and at GW, where she taught morning and night classes to leave room for Council events during the day.

“Having two full-time jobs for 16 years has been pretty grueling,” Cheh said. “And there are some Council members who just serve on the Council, and they just want to be Council members. They don’t really do very much, but I’ve been very active and it’s been a challenge.”

Cheh said she decided to step down to spend more time with her family, especially her granddaughter, and making sure her family was safe during the pandemic realigned some of her priorities.

“My kids were telling me, ‘Don’t do it, you’ve done enough, don’t do it for another four more years,’ and they did influence me and my friends,” Cheh said. “So what was not seen behind the scenes is this debate in my mind, and my leaning against running.”

Cheh said she will continue teaching law at GW for the foreseeable future, but she hopes to take up visiting professorships at another law school in the future to “revive her juices.” She said she hopes to create a food law and policy course at GW after passing legislation expanding animal welfare protections on the Council because of the “amorphous” nature of animal law.

She said she will miss the position in D.C. government after serving for 16 years, but with an accomplished track record, Cheh is ready to sign off on her lawmaking career.

“Both things can be true,” Cheh said. “I can miss it, but I won’t be leaving with regrets.”

Ward 2 D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto – who represents neighborhoods including Foggy Bottom, West End and Georgetown – said it has been a pleasure serving on the Council with Cheh since she was elected in 2020, and Cheh is a “champion” of environmental and sustainability issues. She said she will miss working with Cheh because of her thoughtful and logical legislative style.

“Throughout her time on the Council, she has been the driving force on accelerating our climate goals and ensuring that all residents have access to renewable energy, clean drinking water and environmentally sustainable jobs,” Pinto said in an email.

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