Tricia Duncan says she had every intention of staying in the Ward 3 race until the newest campaign finance reports dropped Friday night.
She tells Loose Lips that it wasn’t her own numbers that gave her pause (though they weren’t exactly top-notch). It was the roughly $1 million in spending reported over the past two months by Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter school group backing fellow Ward 3 hopeful Eric Goulet, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
Duncan had every reason to consider herself a strong candidate in the nine-person race to replace outgoing Councilmember Mary Cheh. She had Cheh’s backing, after all, and she was consistently one of the top candidates in the chase for campaign cash. But she felt that all the outside money flowing in to help Goulet would make it impossible for anyone but the race’s top fundraiser, longtime activist Matt Frumin, to beat him.
“I just knew that I couldn’t live with myself if we had managed a decent showing, but Matt still lost by two or three points to Eric,” Duncan says. “I felt like I needed to stand up and say: Ward 3 is not for sale.”
Duncan’s move looks to be the biggest domino yet to fall in a rising “stop Goulet” effort. Attorney General (and Ward 3 resident) Karl Racine tried to give Frumin a bump with a late-game endorsement Monday, and Duncan’s surprise move really shook up the race later that night. As a result, Cheh then threw her support behind Frumin (her former campaign treasurer), saying in a statement he’ll “reflect Ward 3 values and serve honorably on the Council.”
Duncan, the former head of the Palisades Citizens Association, hopes there’s more consolidation behind Frumin yet to come. When LL asked if any other candidates might follow her lead, she replied, “I’m working on it.”
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Ben Bergmann could soon join the list. He fueled speculation about his intentions Monday night with a curiously timed retweet harkening back to the 2020 presidential primary, when Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar suddenly dropped their bids to boost Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders. He didn’t respond to questions about his plans, but the move would make sense—he and fellow ANC Beau Finley have both been trying to run in the primary’s progressive lane, but generally have been crowded out by Frumin.
It’s all a bit reminiscent of other bits of last-minute primary drama, such as the effort by some candidates to block LaRuby May and elevate Trayon White in the 2015 Ward 8 race to fill the remainder of Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry‘s term. That didn’t quite work, of course, and Bowser-backed May still won. (White would have the last laugh a year later, when he defeated May and won a full term.)
But has all this happened soon enough to make a difference? Plenty of voters have already cast their ballots, thanks to the city’s expansion of early voting, so anyone who’s already picked Duncan is stuck with their choice, and Frumin can’t pick up that support. Adding to the confusion, Duncan’s name will stay on the ballot.
Plenty of politicos have marveled to LL that the field has stayed this large for this long, probably a result of the race’s compressed timeline in the wake of Cheh’s sudden retirement. And Duncan says she didn’t even consider this possibility as recently as “two or three weeks ago,” when she still figured she had a decent shot of winning, in a sign of the broader collective action problem for the crowded field.
She hopes that the size of DFER’s intervention into the race (when taken in tandem with another $300,000 in spending from a group backing D.C.’s charter schools) serves as a wake-up call.
Duncan has actually overlapped with Goulet in staking out some more moderate positions over the course of the campaign—she’s generally been to his left, but not moreso than Frumin, Bergmann, or Finley. But as a longtime public schools activist, she sees the money from the charter sector as a clear sign that Goulet would be a bad fit for the ward.
“Billionaires just don’t put $1 million into a local city race without expecting something in return,” Duncan says, alluding to DFER’s financial backing from Education Reform Now, a group funded by the Walton family of Walmart fame and other wealthy pro-charter donors.
Goulet, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has raised plenty of his own money too—he outraised the entire field last month, per his last campaign finance report, with a $62,100 haul (including about $6,900 from D.C. residents and most of the rest in public funds). But the DFER money takes things to another level, with other Ward 3 candidates marveling at the sheer volume of mail and paid canvassers that these outside groups have brought to the contest. The charter group has also admitted to polling the race, fueling speculation that some of those poll results have made it to Goulet based on his conversations with others.
Frumin has plenty of money in his own right, finishing just behind Goulet in fundraising and spending $97,800 last month (Goulet’s campaign spent $77,300). And Monte Monash, a Bowser ally and former chair of the DC Public Library Board of Trustees, turned in a strong month of fundraising too, with about $55,500 raised. She is running on a similar platform as Goulet and could draw away votes, as could Phil Thomas, chair of the Ward 3 Democrats and a Bowser administration veteran.
Yet Goulet’s combination of a ton of money and the Washington Post endorsement plainly makes him a formidable opponent, as evidenced by these last-ditch efforts to stand in his way. Will it all be enough to get Frumin over the hump instead?