Mary Cheh
There's a nine-person contest to succeed Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Tricia Duncan just picked up perhaps the biggest prize possible in the crowded Ward 3 race: The backing of outgoing Councilmember Mary Cheh.

The 16-year incumbent announced Monday that she planned to vote for Duncan, former president of the Palisades Community Association with a long history of advocacy around local schools. Ever the stickler for details, Cheh stopped short of an endorsement, however, describing this as a way to answer all the people who have been asking her who she plans to vote for in the Democratic primary contest.

“Tricia is smart, energetic, knows the issues, and actually listens to residents’ concerns,” Cheh writes in a statement. “She’s been involved in her local community and active in school matters. Other candidates may have more experience with the Council, as such, or profess a certain expertise, (Tricia certainly has more local government experience than I did when first elected), but only Tricia has the personal qualities that will make her an excellent councilmember.”

The move represents some of Cheh’s first public comments on the race since her surprise decision to forgo a re-election bid, and it could help Duncan stand out from the pack in the crowded, nine-candidate field as voters start making up their minds ahead of the June 21 primary.

Cheh’s endorsement was the most consequential domino yet to fall in the closely watched contest after the Washington Post editorial board picked D.C. government veteran Eric Goulet for its backing a few weeks ago. And it amounts to a bit of a disappointment for Matt Frumin, who was chairing Cheh’s re-election campaign before she decided not to run again.

Frumin remains a strong contender in the ward, given his deep ties among local activists, his support among wide swaths of D.C.’s progressive community, and his prolific fundraising. Duncan has raised plenty of money on her own, but the city’s public financing program has generally helped most of the other candidates in the field catch up to her early success.

Cheh’s backing could be a key factor in helping Duncan stand out, ensuring at the very least that she’ll be in the top group of contenders in the remaining few weeks before the primary. After all, it was the endorsement of then-Councilmember Kathy Patterson that helped Cheh win in a similarly crowded field back in 2006.

“I’m honored to have the support of Councilmember Cheh, a committed public servant who has fought hard on behalf of children and families,” Duncan said in a statement. “If elected, I will strive to continue Cheh’s legacy of sensible, pragmatic leadership.”

Of course, Cheh also benefited from the Post’s endorsement back then, and most D.C. politicos agree that the editorial board still has sway in the ward even as its influence has declined elsewhere. That means Goulet looks likely to be part of the top group moving forward, too, even after the eight other candidates in the race denounced his comments at a recent D.C. Chamber of Commerce forum.

Phil Thomas, chair of the Ward 3 Democrats and an alum of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, has picked up his fundraising efforts of late, too, and his history in the ward (and ties to Bowser) should keep him among the main contenders as well.

Monte Monash, former chair of the DC Public Library board of trustees, boasts many of those same connections, and she’ll have the money to keep up too (though recent revelations about her past as a Republican probably aren’t helping her among Democratic primary voters). ANCs Ben Bergmann and Beau Finley have both succeeded to varying degrees at scooping up portions of the urbanist and progressive left, based on their fundraising and some key endorsements, but it’s unclear they’ll be able to pull enough away from Frumin to make a difference.

Former advisory neighborhood commissioner Deirdre Brown is a bit of an unknown, as she’s largely been self-funding her campaign, and could well be pumping more money into it—since she’s not using public financing, she doesn’t need to report her exact fundraising for a few more weeks. And of course there’s high school student Henry Cohen, who remains mainly a novelty but has impressed with his passion and grasp of policy issues in public forums.

All of this is to say that even Cheh’s endorsement is unlikely to help Duncan pull away in what many still expect to be a very close race.

Cheh won in a nine-candidate field with 44 percent of the vote in 2006, and the next closest candidate was Paul Strauss with 14 percent (Goulet managed about 3 percent, that year). It’d be quite the surprise if any candidate managed that sort of margin this time around.