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Campaign forums can often be snoozefests even in D.C.’s most crowded, competitive primaries. But on the rare occasion that one of these events got a bit spicy, the video replay has been locked away from Loose Lips’ eager eyes.
The D.C. Chamber of Commerce convened a debate nearly two weeks ago for seven of the nine contenders for the newly open Ward 3 Council seat. The event was held in the middle of the day on a Friday and was pretty sparsely attended, according to participants. But at least there was a live stream for those who couldn’t be there.
Most candidates naturally assumed the Chamber would follow the lead of most other organizations holding political events these days and release a video recording. Their eagerness only grew as it became clear that such a video might be especially damaging to the Washington Post’s newly minted endorsee in the Democratic primary: Eric Goulet, a longtime Vince Gray staffer who’s held roles all over District government.
Goulet apparently managed to offend attendees by turning a moderator’s question about how to make the ward more diverse into an answer about Black housing voucher holders in new homes along Connecticut Avenue NW. It’s difficult to know exactly what he said without the recording (no one LL has spoken to had an exact quote) but it seems clear that he was broadly echoing the comments about formerly homeless people living in Northwest apartments that got outgoing Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh in so much trouble a few months back.
At the very least, Goulet and the other candidates agree that he mentioned that the overwhelming majority of voucher holders are Black (an observation that federal statistics confirm) and that neighbors of voucher holders in Cleveland Park, specifically, have complained about drug dealing, sexual assaults, and other crimes on the rise in buildings where voucher holders live. LL hears that the other candidates in attendance used their answers to attack Goulet’s position in a rare bit of conflict.
Sensing a chance to simultaneously stand up to Goulet’s comments and score a few points against a candidate who’s building momentum with the Post’s backing, eight contenders for the seat (the whole field, minus Goulet) wrote a letter to the Chamber Wednesday, urging them to release the video. Council contender and ANC Ben Bergmann helped coordinate this rare bit of solidarity among the ideologically diverse field, calling it “inexplicable” that the recording would stay private.
Some, though certainly not all, of the candidates were willing to go even further in a press release attached to the letter, arguing that the Chamber’s decision was aimed explicitly at protecting a relatively pro-business (and pro-Bowser) candidate like Goulet. ANC Beau Finley went so far as to call it tantamount to “an unreported campaign contribution” in his statement because it concealed evidence of Goulet’s exact comments.
“Just because you have a voucher, it does not mean that you are Black, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re a criminal,” Deirdre Brown, a former ANC in the Forest Hills area and one of three Black candidates in the Ward 3 field, tells LL. “When we use those types of racial comments, it can be very dangerous…He just keeps incrementally turning up the dial a little bit at all these events.”
Goulet, for his part, says he’s fine with the video being released, but he won’t pressure the Chamber to do so. He thinks the participants could only make that demand if “we had told the D.C. Chamber, in advance, that our forum participation was contingent upon them making the video publicly available,” according to an email to the other candidates forwarded to LL. Generally, Goulet expects his rivals will be “quite bored if they actually watch the video,” and he sees this effort to force its release as an attempt to gin up controversy and “bring me down a peg” in the wake of the Post’s endorsement (an assertion with at least some grain of truth to it, though he is far from the best-funded candidate in the race).
Goulet argues he was trying to make a more nuanced point that got lost in the confusion. Since part of the moderator’s question was about addressing the racial wealth gap within Ward 3, Goulet was observing that voucher holders along Connecticut Avenue NW (most of whom are Black) account for much of the disparity in the wealthy ward. A bigger wealth gap exists “citywide,” between different areas of D.C., and it’s an issue he says he hopes to address on the Council.
However, the other candidates stress that Goulet also veered into a more fraught discussion of his perceived problems with the housing voucher program, and that’s where the trouble really started. Henry Cohen, the high school senior in the race, agrees with Brown that it’s been part of a pattern for Goulet as he discusses the program and sees it “in the same vein” as Cheh’s comments in February.
And when LL asked Goulet about the housing voucher issue, the candidate started to return to the sort of language that so troubled his fellow Council contenders. Goulet says he’s heard complaints from tenant associations that new residents (particularly those who used to be homeless, and are now getting help paying the rent via a permanent supportive housing voucher or the city’s rapid rehousing program) need more support from city agencies. He says he’s also heard of drug dealers targeting former addicts who have moved into these buildings, as well as complaints about people experiencing mental health issues and incidents of domestic violence.
Generally, Goulet feels the city has concentrated too many voucher holders into the same few buildings. Conditions then begin to resemble shelters, he says, which have large concentrations of people who need services, and he thinks that isn’t helpful.
“This has been a clear problem presented here, and simply discussing elements of that problem publicly is not in any way trying to demagogue other residents who need our help,” Goulet says.
But Goulet’s rivals feel that sort of language amounts to painting with too broad of a brush about voucher holders. Phil Thomas, chair of the Ward 3 Democrats and one of the other Black candidates in the race, says in a recent interview that he hoped to discuss Goulet’s comments with him directly, “as a man,” before addressing them publicly. But Thomas was clearly perturbed by them.
“They’re not all criminals, and they’re not drug users, or domestic violence abusers,” Brown says. “They just are struggling to make ends meet.”
It’s impossible to tell exactly what’s happening here, of course, without seeing the video. Alas, a spokesperson for the Chamber tells LL that they “will not be releasing a recording” because the forum was one of a series of “live events where candidates could engage in lively discussions regarding issues facing the D.C. business community.”
But that was before the candidates wrote their letter. And Cohen has a May 11 email from the Chamber’s top lobbyist, Brett Allen, promising that “we will be posting the forum.” Maybe that piece of evidence suggesting a midstream course correction will convince the Chamber to change its mind. Or perhaps this show of unity from the other candidates will do the trick. The Chamber’s spokesperson didn’t respond to additional questions about the candidates’ letter. For now, LL isn’t holding his breath.
“Odd that the Chamber would decline to release the video of a forum it organized to inform voters,” Matt Frumin, a longtime advocate in the ward, writes in his statement. “It is hard to see how such a decision could not be driven by a political agenda. But the Chamber can clear that up by releasing the video and letting the chips fall where they may.”