Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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Just 24 hours ago, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh looked like a sure bet to win her fifth term in office, continuing her run as the Council’s second-longest-tenured member. Then came a Thursday night bombshell. 

City Paper contributor and WAMU political analyst Tom Sherwood was first to break the news that Cheh wouldn’t run for re-election, and she confirmed her decision Friday. It leaves a wide-open race to represent D.C.’s wealthy Northwest neighborhoods for the first time since 2006, when Kathy Patterson’s decision to run for chair opened the door for Cheh’s ascension.

Her retirement came as a bit of a shock to many D.C. politicos, especially considering that Cheh showed every indication that she was ready for a 2022 run. She was raising money at a decent clip via the new public financing system, reporting more than $84,300 in her campaign account at the end of January. And her campaign picked up nominating petitions to get Cheh on the ballot on Jan. 31, per the D.C. Board of Elections. 

She’d recently landed in some hot water after her comments in the wake of a Van Ness shooting earned her a weekend’s worth of Twitter scorn, but there was little indication that would lead to a decision of this magnitude. Sherwood, however, added in his appearance on The Politics Hour that Cheh had expressed some “ambivalence” about running again since filing for re-election this summer. 

“Many people have reevaluated their lives during the pandemic and that has been the case for me as well,” Cheh wrote in an email to supporters. “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…It is time for someone else to pick up the mantle, and I am excited for the possibilities and future of Ward 3.”

In the long term, Cheh’s departure opens up the chairmanship of her influential transportation and environment committee, and robs the Council of a determined investigator who was rarely afraid to start a public fight over an issue she cared about. Over the years, she used her platform to challenge everyone from gas station magnate Joe Mamo to the well-connected contractor Fort Myer Construction to fellow Councilmember Jack Evans amid his various scandals. Cheh also happened to be the only other lawmaker to hold an outside job, as a constitutional law professor, following the Evans fallout. 

But in the short term, the big question is: who will join the Ward 3 race and how big will the field grow? 

Monika Nemeth, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the ward, was already running against Cheh for the Democratic nomination (and she could make history as the first trans person on the Council). Another Ward 3 ANC, Deirdre Brown, filed as a candidate on Feb. 3, and will hold her first campaign event tonight, per an email invite forwarded to City Paper. Retrocession advocate and businessman David Krucoff is seeking the Republican nomination.

But the field is sure to grow substantially ahead of the June primary—consider that Cheh had to win out over eight other candidates the last time the seat came open, including notable names like now-Shadow Senator Paul Strauss, longtime Vince Gray staffer Eric Goulet, and D.C. politics fixture Bill Rice

One Ward 3 ANC, Jason Fink, is already floating his preferred candidate: Phil Thomas, chair of the Ward 3 Democrats and head of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of the Clean City. Fink, who doubles as Bowser’s scheduler, says Thomas “would be a frontrunner if he decided to run and already has a strong base of support  across all Ward 3 neighborhoods,” noting he also served as Bowser’s field director in her 2018 re-election. Thomas declined to discuss the possibility. 

But there’s plenty of time left between now and June 21. And this new race should ensure that the already juicy 2022 political season will get even more interesting.