You’d think a longtime Vince Gray aide like Eric Goulet would be more sensitive than most candidates to the perils of coordinating with outside groups in a D.C. election. The last few weeks seem to suggest otherwise.
Loose Lips hears the Ward 3 hopeful has been telling people involved in the race that he’s seen credible polling data covering the early stages of the primary. That’s all well and good, except Goulet hasn’t listed any spending on polling services on his campaign finance reports, so it stands to reason that any surveys of the race must be coming from a political action committee or other independent expenditure group. That’s where Goulet could be in trouble.
If a committee is running public polls of the race, that’s one thing—any candidate can see the results and adjust their strategy accordingly. But if it’s a private survey and a group shares the results with one candidate specifically, D.C. politicos say that could amount to a campaign contribution and would need to be reported as such. Failing to do so could well be a violation of D.C. law, as poll results could give a candidate exclusive insight into the race that they’d otherwise need to buy themselves.
It’s a “wacky theory” advanced by his rivals in the crowded Council race that he’s gotten any help on polling from an outside group, Goulet tells LL, alleging he’s heard rumors about poll results but not seen anything concrete. Yet there’s decent evidence that he’s told at least two people—fellow candidate and Palisades activist Tricia Duncan and former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Troy Kravitz—otherwise.
In both cases, Goulet claimed that he saw polling from early in the campaign (not long after the field started growing in the wake of Councilmember Mary Cheh’s sudden retirement) showing roughly 80 percent of all voters still undecided. Longtime schools advocate Matt Frumin led the pack with a whopping 8 percent, while Duncan and Bowser administration vet Phil Thomas each garnered 3 percent and Goulet himself had just 1 percent of the vote. Goulet confirmed these general numbers to LL, but says they’re merely rumors he heard while canvassing at the Palisades Farmers Market, not firm results. He couldn’t remember who, exactly, he spoke with about the poll.
It appears he was much more definitive when he was chatting with Duncan and Kravitz. He told Duncan he’d “seen polling” with those same top-line results, according to texts Duncan sent to her campaign chair, Mark Blumenthal, which were shared with LL. Duncan didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Blumenthal confirmed the content of their discussions.
And Kravitz recalls that Goulet made a point of telling him someone called to deliver those poll results personally, urging Goulet to gun for the Washington Post’s endorsement or risk falling behind in the race. He managed that feat on May 6.
When LL asked about Kravitz’s comments, Goulet was adamant: He says he told the former ANC that he heard of these poll results through the grapevine at the farmers market and was simply “spreading a rumor that someone spread to me.” LL relayed that message to Kravitz, who had an interesting retort: He’d recorded his conversation with Goulet on May 14, so he had some solid proof about what Goulet really said.
“It was somebody actually calling me to lecture me that I was only at 1 percent,” Goulet told Kravitz, according to the recording he sent to LL. “They were saying that, ‘You gotta go get that Post endorsement.’ And I did.” Goulet repeated the same sentiment at several different points in the call, stressing it was a “legit poll I saw,” not an online survey.
So either Goulet was exaggerating a bit for Kravitz’s benefit back then, or he’s being a little less than clear about how he got those poll results now. Kravitz—who says he hasn’t picked a candidate in the race but has donated to Duncan, Frumin, and ANC 3D Chair Ben Bergmann—sees it as a question of “integrity and character,” noting that he chose to record the conversation because he’d already heard about Goulet’s comments to Duncan and was concerned he might walk them back.
“It matters a lot what candidates do behind the scenes because that’s a big part of the job,” Kravitz says. “You need to be able to trust them … and all this makes me think he doesn’t pass the fitness for office test.”
Then there’s the matter of who actually conducted this mystery poll. Goulet doesn’t mention specifics on his call with Kravitz, but most people close to this kerfuffle have a guess: Democrats for Education Reform, which has endorsed Goulet. The pro-charter school group has spent big money in local elections in the recent past, so they’d seemingly have the financial heft to get a high-quality poll in the field. Representatives for the group’s D.C. chapter did not respond to LL’s request for comment.
But do a little digging and it seems clear that the breadcrumbs lead back to DFER. The group’s been sending out mailers touting Goulet’s “experience working in all branches of D.C. government,” and as it happens, Blumenthal says he heard reports about a live poll asking respondents whether they’d value that background in a candidate.
“These were questions that were clearly about Eric Goulet,” Blumenthal says.
Goulet’s old boss landed in some hot water himself for coordinating a little bit too closely with a PAC polling the 2010 mayoral race, and Goulet says he knows better than to work with the outside groups endorsing him. He insists he hasn’t seen any polling from DFER or anyone else.
“We’re doing things by the book,” Goulet says. “And the only poll I put any faith in is talking to voters.”
To Goulet, this whole flap is yet more evidence that his political opponents are “making up stuff” and “trying to create an imaginary story” to damage his campaign, similar to the charges he leveled at his eight rivals when they accused him of painting housing voucher holders as criminals in a recent debate. LL can certainly appreciate the politics at play here, too, but this situation isn’t quite the same as a pack of candidates issuing a press release.
Still, it’s undoubtedly a bit of posturing to act as if Goulet getting access to this poll has conferred some great advantage to him (if indeed he had access to it). It was probably no great shock to hear that most voters were undecided in the early stages of the race, and that Goulet could certainly use a boost from the Post.
The bigger issue is whether Goulet’s alleged coordination with an outside group is still ongoing (especially because some Ward 3 residents have reported hearing from pollsters in recent weeks). Independent expenditure committees like DFER’s aren’t required to report their finances again until June 10, so it’s impossible to know what they’re spending (and they could always ask their vendors to accept payment after the primary, shielding them from reporting any expenditures at all for months yet).
But most of all, in trying to sort all this out, LL has come away feeling a bit gross.