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A round of recriminations and finger-pointing tends to follow any close election, and as the dust settles in Ward 3, it seems At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman has been on the receiving end of most of the scapegoating.
Silverman’s decision to poll the crowded, nine-way race has drawn some flak in the week since the primary, with some candidates who fell short to winner Matt Frumin eager to cast the survey as a decisive factor in the race. Without it, they argue, Tricia Duncan, Ben Bergmann, and Henry Cohen might not have dropped out of the primary and consolidated the party’s left flank behind Frumin.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Eric Goulet has been the most outspoken on the topic, tweeting that it amounts to “unethical and possibly illegal conduct, falsely disguised as progressive politics.” As Frumin’s chief rival and the second place finisher, it probably makes sense that he’d be the most peeved. But others have taken notice too: Jason Fink, a Ward 3 ANC and top backer of Phil Thomas, told Loose Lips that he was frustrated with Silverman’s “meddling” in the race and “scaring candidates to drop out to support Frumin.” Fink, who also happens to be on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s staff, argues Silverman should refund any donations she received via the city’s public financing program that she used to conduct the poll.
Not everyone who noticed Silverman’s intervention in the contest is mad about it, of course. If anything, they admire the efficacy of such a move, seeing it as the sort of decisive action progressives have seldom taken to clear a large field and deny a moderate candidate victory. Silverman is one of the longest tenured lawmakers on the Council’s left, so why shouldn’t she try to put a thumb on the scale and give her side a bit more voting power?
“Normally campaigns have an organic way of winnowing people out, but this one was so quick,” says Ward 3 State Board of Education Rep. Ruth Wattenberg, one of Frumin’s chief supporters. “Because it so collapsed in terms of the timeline, it was very useful that Elissa was able to come in with those numbers so people could choose to make the consolidation they wanted.”
The problem with the theory of Silverman as Ward 3 kingmaker is that it’s difficult to attribute all of Frumin’s late success to her actions. It is undeniable that Frumin’s lead steadily grew as votes from election day trickled in, lending credence to the idea that the spate of drop-outs helped his cause. But it’s tough to say that the poll she circulated was a decisive factor in culling the field.
Silverman was careful not to discuss the poll’s specifics, except to spread the word around that it seemed like Goulet could win in a crowded field (and she still won’t fill in LL on its exact results). Other candidates such as Duncan say that was helpful information, but not exactly a revelation—she says she’d suspected for weeks that the race would come down to a heads-up contest between Frumin and Goulet and spoke with other candidates about a consolidation long before Silverman did any polling.
“I just find this whole narrative about the poll to be insulting,” Duncan says. “It’s as if I didn’t have the agency on my own to read a race and the pecking order. The ‘Elissa controlling the politics of Ward 3’ thing is a little overblown.”
Silverman herself finds the focus on her a bit bewildering. She notes that she’s polled every race she’s participated in since 2013, and that she was fully transparent about paying for the survey—her June 10 campaign finance report shows two polling-related expenditures totaling just over $6,200. She argues that finding out “what voters think about the city” is a perfectly reasonable way to spend her campaign funds, especially considering she polled her own at-large race, too.
And Silverman admits that the poll had strategic purposes as well. She had conversations with Duncan and Bergmann about a potential endorsement, but wanted to “support a candidate who could win.” She expects it’s naive to assume that other politicians don’t use polls for the same purpose.
“Are you telling me that the mayor doesn’t do polling in these races?” Silverman says. “Everyone’s looking at my $6,200, but that’s compared to $1 million from [Democrats for Education Reform]. Meanwhile, Kenyan [McDuffie] raises more than $700,000 in Fair Elections money just to get disqualified from the ballot, and everyone’s focused on me?”
The outgoing Ward 5 councilmember managed to score about $845,000 in public funding for his failed attorney general bid, in fact, and there are already whispers about a poll in the field testing his candidacy against Silverman in the at-large race this fall. LL will also note that it’s a bit rich for candidates like Goulet to be raising concerns about Silverman’s use of poll data when he was accused of getting a peek at a private survey of the race himself. Goulet didn’t respond to LL’s request for comment.
Silverman argues it’s just as likely that the massive amount of outside spending from the pro-charter, anti-union group DFER is what really sparked other candidates to drop out and encouraged the late move towards Frumin. Duncan tends to agree, saying that the June 10 finance reports showing the size of DFER’s spending on Goulet’s behalf really spurred her decision—Duncan had the support of outgoing Councilmember Mary Cheh, but notes that Cheh never so much as sent out a fundraising email on her behalf. That wasn’t exactly a promising sign for a candidate already trailing Frumin in the cash race.
Frumin says he also felt voters flocking to his side in the final week as DFER’s influence became clear, with many people expressing frustration with the tide of mailers on Goulet’s behalf. He expects the group’s efforts either saw “diminishing returns or became a turn-off.”
“There was this sense that it was going to be between Matt and DFER, not even Eric,” Frumin says. “People thought about that and made their decisions, they didn’t need anything that Elissa did.”
The whole kerfuffle over Silverman’s poll has Frumin feeling a bit slighted, really. Regardless of all the twists and turns leading up to the final vote, Frumin feels he entered the race as the frontrunner and leaves it having won the nomination pretty definitively—as of Thursday, Frumin led Goulet by a comfortable 2,300 votes, a margin of 42 percent to 29 percent.
There may be bickering by politicos about polling or outside money or a progressive-moderate split, but the presumptive councilmember argues he won because he’s spent roughly two decades working in the community, more than any other factor.
“Eric is a super talented guy and a very impressive person, but he just has not been active and embedded in the community in anything like the way that I was,” Frumin says. “His challenge was, in four months, to overcome the depth of my connection to the community. And he did pretty well … If the race had been a year long, who knows?”