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By Jamie L. Freedman

A Yankee Stadium subway sign adorns the windowsill of GW Law Professor Mary M. Cheh’s office—a telltale sign of her northern New Jersey roots. But there’s no question about where her allegiance lies. After three decades in the nation’s capital, she’s a Washingtonian through and through.


GW Law professor and D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh addresses the public in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Claire Duggan

The popular constitutional law professor took her passion for the District to a new level in November, when she emerged victorious in her bid to represent Washington’s Ward 3 on the D.C. Council. After four months on the job, she is working around the clock and enjoying every minute of it.

The energetic Cheh, who confesses to being a workaholic, skillfully fielded cell phone calls from ward constituents as we spoke—one to discuss relocating residents of a nursing home that’s closing its doors, another to confer about reducing the size of speed bumps, a third to check on the opening of a new library. “I deal with everything from soup to nuts,” she says. “The ward council member is the key contact person for a lot of people, and that works well for me. I like being accessible, and I like knowing what’s going on in the ward and trying to fix things. It’s very rewarding.”

A member of GW Law School’s faculty since 1979, Cheh spent the spring semester juggling her professorial responsibilities and her council duties. As her legislative career took flight, she continued to teach constitutional law, chair GW Law’s tenure and promotion committee, and co-chair the Law School’s public interest committee. “If I make it through this baptism by fire, I can do anything,” says Cheh, who begins a yearlong sabbatical this fall.

Cheh’s whirlwind year began with a hotly contested race for D.C.’s Ward 3 (located in upper Northwest) seat—her first-ever bid for elected office. She prevailed in a field of nine Democratic candidates in the September primary, campaigning on pledges to work for stronger schools, better services, and smart development in Washington. Known as a common-sense investigator with a firm belief in the power of oversight and accountability, Cheh took every precinct in both the primary and general elections.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg swears Mary Cheh into office at the 2007 District Inauguration.

Jessica McConnell


She rolled up her sleeves and got right to work, assuming the chairmanship of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs, which oversees a wide array of agencies, including banking, securities, energy, the Public Service Commission, and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Early highlights of Cheh’s term include focusing on bank reform, with special emphasis on addressing predatory lending practices; introducing the “Trans-Free D.C. Act of 2007,” limiting the use of trans fats in food establishments throughout the District; introducing legislation to reform D.C.’s animal welfare laws and regulations; co-introducing the District of Columbia Clean Cars Act of 2007, a bill that aggressively tackles automobile pollution; and co-introducing a bill requiring young women to get the HPV vaccine.

A chief focus of Cheh’s first months in office was education reform—specifically, the mayor’s proposal to change the governance of the school system. “D.C. schools were in dire shape, so most of our initial council meetings were consumed with the takeover of the schools,” she says. “The system was broken and couldn’t fix itself. We had to do something different. The mayor has a lot of energy and commitment, and I’m hoping that this is going to make a difference.”

Also high on Cheh’s to-do list are developing a comprehensive energy policy for D.C. aimed at reducing energy use, launching an “invigorated assault” on nuisance properties in the District, and attracting more financial industry companies to the city.

“With a new mayor and several new council members, we have the chance to move Washington in the right direction,” she says. “The city has a lot of needs and problems, and I’m thrilled to be a part of the new energy in town to tackle the problems that have been festering for so long, especially with regard to education, efficient and effective delivery of services to the people of the District, and environmental reform.”


Mary Cheh with a crowd of supporters on the campaign trail

Claire Duggan

Cheh brings a wealth of experience to her four-year term on the council. An expert on constitutional law and criminal procedure, she has served as a consultant to the President’s Commission on Organized Crime and the National Institute of Justice, worked as a prosecutor, and served on various commissions and boards, including the board of the American Civil Liberties Union. As special counsel to the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee, Cheh spearheaded a rigorous 2003 investigation into the D.C. police department’s handling of political protests, resulting in legislative reforms that set parameters for police conduct and protecting citizens’ rights. “That was a pivotal moment for me,” she explains. “It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of major law reform work at the council level.”

She says that it hasn’t been too large a leap transitioning from academic life to the legislative arena. “My entire career has focused on law reform,” she explains. “I’ve worked on reforming criminal codes for foreign countries, strengthened civil rights laws here and abroad, and been involved in environmental reform. As a D.C. Council member, I’m now involved in the same kind of problem solving as an insider, with the added dimension of direct community involvement. As a legislator, I have a front-row seat to the action, instead of being one seat removed. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to use all my skills and experience as a law professor and civic activist to serve the District of Columbia.”

Cheh says that it has always been her desire “to link academic life with law reform.” “I’ve never been content to just teach and write articles,” she says. “I like to provide solutions and make a difference, and this seemed like a fantastic opportunity.”

She is quick to state, however, that she is first and foremost a teacher and a professor. “I love academic life and have loved every minute of my time at GW Law,” she says. “My students are bright, energetic, and talented, and it’s a treat to engage with them on a regular basis. They infect me with priceless optimism, and I feel blessed by my job.”

Cheh adds that her job on the council brings an extra dimension to the classroom. “We talk about statutory interpretation all the time in class, and now that I’m living it, my students benefit,” she explains.

Langston Emerson, JD ’04, and D.C. student Tavon Lee join Cheh and President Bush at D.C.’s Cardozo High School during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Service Project in January.

Claire Duggan


Beginning this summer, Cheh plans to hire two GW student interns each semester to assist her in the council office. “I want to give my students a chance to see the legislative process up front,” she explains. “It’s a great way to get their careers off on the right foot.” The D.C. Council is a great training ground for students, she adds, since it’s one of the strongest and most powerful state-level legislatures in the United States. “We rival any other state legislature in our ability to get things done,” she says.

The time was ripe to launch her political career, she says, since she and husband Neil A. Lewis, a reporter for The New York Times Washington bureau covering legal and government affairs, are now empty nesters. Their firstborn daughter, Jane, is entering Yale Law School in the fall, while younger daughter Nora is a rising junior at Oberlin College.

Cheh, who prides herself on the fact that she ran a positive, issue-oriented campaign, hopes to be part of the effort to acquire voting rights in Congress for the people of the District. She loves how she is now deeply entrenched in the front line of the action in the community that she loves.

Sharing an anecdote to illustrate her commitment to D.C., she says that in the 1990s, she was offered the deanship of Rutgers School of Law—a dream job that she turned down. “Intellectually, I should have taken the job, but emotionally, I realized that I just couldn’t leave D.C.,” she says. “I had become a Washingtonian, and this is where I wanted to stay.”

“At the end of the day, if I can be part of some major initiatives that help to bring about change for the better, then I’ll count my term as a success,” Cheh says. “I’m passionate about making our city work. Every morning, I hop out of bed and can’t wait to meet the challenges of the day!”