City on a Hill: Mary Cheh, you’ve got TheMail

September 10, 2009

Councilmember Mary Cheh (D – Ward 3) is a power player in D.C. politics. She has called for Attorney General Peter Nickles to resign, and she’s traveled to wartorn Kosovo and Bosnia. That’s why it’s hard to imagine her complaining about her treatment at the hands of, an e-mail newsletter.

But that’s exactly what Cheh did, according to the operator of that newsletter, Gary Imhoff.  In a city dominated by instantaneous blogging and 24-hour cable news, Imhoff’s bi-weekly newsletter, TheMail, exerts a surprising amount of influence on local politics.

“It was a good replacement for Xeroxing,” Imhoff jokes, explaining why he began operating TheMail along with his activist-reporter wife, Dorothy Brizill. Their electronic forays into local politics began in 1995, when Imhoff launched D.C. Watch, a website that posted D.C. Council bills before the city government had a website. In 1997, a friend gave them control of his neighborhood e-mail newsletter, and TheMail was born.
On any week, Imhoff might ruminate on gay marriage in the District or an H.G. Wells quote about bikes. Anyone can write articles for TheMail, where they are featured alongside columns by Imhoff and Brizill. Imhoff said he typically only edits for grammar, so that writers with poor language skills can still get their ideas out.
“We can get an issue introduced into the rest of the press” that wouldn’t othewise reach the mainstream, Imhoff said, citing a story about the culling of deers in Rock Creek Park.  Eventually the issue received coverage in the Washington Post.
“I don’t know any D.C. reporter in town who doesn’t read TheMail,” Mark Segraves, a reporter for local radio station WTOP, said, adding, “They may not all admit to it.”

Imhoff, who came to the District in 1968 to get a graduate degree in Black Studies at Howard University, is a library of local political stories, both the serious and the wild. Forgetting for minutes at a time about the sandwich in his hand, he led me through the history of local politics, from the city’s first mayor, Walter Washington, to current mayor Adrian Fenty.  Imhoff has been disappointed with Fenty for his lax attitude towards civil liberties and transparency.

As for Councilmember Cheh, she’s probably still a reader of the newsletter, which Imhoff estimates goes out to 3,000 people every Sunday and Wednesday. Cheh had complained to Imhoff that TheMail never praised her efforts in Council, while never hesitating to criticize her.

“When you do something I think is praiseworthy, I’ll praise it,” Imhoff responded.

Put some mail in Will’s inbox at

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