Mary Cheh ends reelection bid as DC Council hopefuls jockey for position

The Ward 3 Councilmember, who has served since 2007, will no longer seek another term

Mary Cheh ends reelection bid as DC Council hopefuls jockey for position

(Courtesy Barbara L. Salisbury/Mary Cheh's office.)

It came first as a shock, then as a moment of opportunity: Mary Cheh, the veteran D.C. Councilmember representing Ward 3, was ending her bid for a fifth term. 

The announcement, posted on Cheh’s Facebook account and emailed to supporters on Feb. 11, opened the door for several new names, and some old ones, to make their impact on a race that Cheh was expected to win with ease. 

“Many people have reevaluated their lives during the pandemic, and that has been the case for me as well,” Cheh, 71, wrote in the statement announcing her decision. “I have come to realize that I want to recover my personal life and dedicate more time to my granddaughter, who has been the light in my life since she was born on my re-election day three years ago.”

Cheh’s communications director, Kelly Whittier, referred The Eagle to Cheh’s statement and did not offer further comment. 

In 16 years on the Council, Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, has played a key role in shaping some of the district’s most significant legislation. 

She championed the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which created standards for physical education and nutritious food in school lunches and was replicated by school districts across the country. 

She also introduced and facilitated passage of the Clean Energy DC Act in 2018, which requires the district to run entirely on renewable electricity by 2032 and reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent in the same period.

Cheh, who is a criminal procedure professor at George Washington University, has a lengthy history as an oversight hawk. She chaired a committee that in 2019 investigated then-Councilmember Jack Evans for ethics violations, leading to his eventual resignation before the Council could remove him. She also led an effort to increase oversight of the mayor’s office by limiting their appointment power, controlling their salary and conducting criminal credit checks.

Cheh has had her share of controversies, too. She was widely panned on social media last month after appearing to draw a link between a shooting at the Connecticut Avenue Days Inn and the city housing homeless people in Ward 3 buildings. The hotel where the shooting took place had temporarily served as a homeless shelter, a fact that some people suggested — without evidence — was connected to the shooting.

Mayor Muriel Bowser explicitly rejected that argument: “I don’t want to conflate this incident with that because that’s not the case,” she said at a press conference the day of the shooting.

Now, as Cheh steps back from public life, the fight to replace her is quickly taking shape. The seat hasn’t seen such a competitive election since 2006, when Cheh replaced then-Councilmember Kathleen Patterson, who ran unsuccessfully for Council Chair. At least six people have already declared their intention to run, and more may jump in over the coming weeks.

Monika Nemeth, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner who first announced she’d run for the seat back in August 2021, said her entire campaign strategy changed after Cheh dropped out. 

“All of a sudden all my focus, all my messaging, really has to change because it’s no longer all about running against Mary,” Nemeth told The Eagle. “It’s become a very different style of campaign.”

Nemeth, who graduated from American University in 1988 and is the first transgender public office holder in D.C., said she initially got into the race because of political differences she had with Cheh. Now, the challenge will be to define herself ideologically from the other candidates in the race. 

“A lot of times, candidates get into races against popular incumbents just to put their name forward in the event that something else might open up,” said Steven Taylor, a professor in AU’s School of Public Affairs who studies urban politics. “Now they’ll probably put forth a more earnest effort, and you’ll see people trying to champion issues that made Councilwoman Cheh famous.”

Former ANC Commissioner Deirdre Brown, who is also running for the Ward 3 seat, said Cheh’s withdrawal from the race has not fundamentally changed the campaign. 

“My approach, regardless of who is running, is to be the same,” Brown said. “I think the most important thing for my campaign is making sure that I am reaching as many people as I can, so they can get to know who I am and what I stand for.”

The potential early frontrunner is Matthew Frumin, Cheh’s treasurer, who jumped into the race just hours after Cheh withdrew. His name recognition from working with Cheh for years is likely to give him an early advantage.

“For years, I have thought that if Mary did not run, I probably would,” Frumin told The Eagle. “When Mary was running, I was an enthusiastic supporter of her. My decision to run actually turned on whether or not Mary was in the race.”

Others who have recently declared their candidacy include Ben Bergmann, who serves as ANC chair in Palisades and Spring Valley; Tricia Duncan, the president of the Palisades Community Association; and Eric Goulet, an aide to former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, according to Axios.

As the campaign season progresses toward the June primary, Taylor says it is up to voters to engage with the candidates at community forums and other events in order to tease out their ideological differences. 

Because D.C. Council candidates are region-specific, they often don’t get the same attention as citywide candidates, he said, adding that for that reason, “voters must make an effort to find the information that's necessary to make a decision.”

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