Jun 9, 2022 - News

Town Talker: Meet Eric Goulet, hard-charging budget boss running in D.C.'s Ward 3

Illustration of the Wilson building in Washington with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

With more than 18 years helming influential roles inside District government, Eric Goulet has some marquee achievements, including balancing budgets during the Great Recession and brokering a deal for a new $300 million hospital in Ward 8.

What I'm hearing: The public servant — seen as a top candidate to replace Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh — has become known as a hard-charging negotiator willing to push the limits of budget wonks.

  • But that style has also polarized some colleagues, say six Wilson Building staffers and officials, all but one of whom spoke anonymously to not jeopardize a relationship with a potential future lawmaker.

What they’re saying: Before taking leave to run for office, Goulet had since 2017 been director of the council's health committee, where staff and lawmakers said he had a tendency to share annual budget documents late or incomplete, frustrating them.

  • “His committee reports are incomplete and late, almost every year I’ve been on the council,” says at-large council member Elissa Silverman.
  • Another lawmaker bristled at Goulet’s hardball style, adding that “my staff used to call him council member Goulet.”

Yet Goulet defends his long record, and local titans backing him include technocrat-in-chief Anthony Williams, whose penchant for fiscal restraint as mayor could align well with the sensibilities of Ward 3 voters. There’s also David Grosso, who as a former at-large council member saw Goulet's work firsthand.

Council member Vincent Gray, who chairs the health committee and over the past several years helped enact hard-won healthcare initiatives for Wards 7 and 8, says Goulet's tenacity has resulted in big victories.

  • “Any criticisms of Eric are made by petty people who choose to put arbitrary process over delivering actual health care results for Black and brown residents in our city,” the former mayor, who has endorsed Goulet, emailed Axios.
  • When Gray was mayor, he picked Goulet to be city budget director from 2011 to 2015.

The big picture: Ward 3 covers affluent enclaves such as the Palisades and growing urban corridors on Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues. Goulet is seen as a moderate among the pack of nine Democrats, supporting the mayor’s leadership of schools and hiring more police officers. 

Between the lines: Goulet’s recent work offers a glimpse into how he would be perceived by some colleagues as a lawmaker if elected.

  • One thing that peeved some council staffers: Four of the five annual committee reports from Goulet since 2017 were emailed to lawmakers and staff with short notice, ranging from 13 hours to a mere two hours before a vote. Council rules call for documents to be circulated 24 hours in advance — and even though many committees miss that deadline often, Goulet’s down-to-the-wire timing is a “more egregious” example among the committees, says one staffer.
  • The reports Axios obtained dating back to 2017 show that entire key spreadsheet columns or sections of the documents were often incomplete. That’s highly unusual, according to staff Axios spoke with, because the reports are key to showing how the committee moves budget dollars around.
  • The health committee is a crucial panel with oversight of the city's $1.5 billion Medicaid contracts and healthcare infrastructure, made all the more important during the pandemic.

Zoom in: One top council aide — who like several others admired Goulet's policy goals — says he would “often circulate reports that had some budgetary gimmicks” that needed fixing.

  • An example that stood out to three staffers: Last year, Goulet proposed turning recurring funding for about 101 vacant full-time employee positions at the Department of Behavioral Health into one-time funds — effectively wiping out the jobs for the future — according to one of his committee reports.

The other side: Goulet defends his record by citing work on landmark legislation, such as Gray's Birth-to-Three Act expanding early childhood education. He rejects that his tactics were gimmicks, calling them “budget negotiations 101” meant to free up funding for important initiatives. He chalks up the criticism to insiders squabbling over process.

  • The budget boss says his reports should be viewed as drafts — and that changes are typical during a hectic budget season when things are “a last-minute process.”
  • “I will never look back on my life and wish I'd written a few more pages to a draft committee report, because it's results that matter,” Goulet says.

Jack Evans, who hired Goulet early in his career to head the finance committee, praises him for not being “wishy-washy about stuff,” unlike “a lot of people down at the council.”

  • “He doesn’t suffer fools,” Evans says.

💬 Town Talker is a weekly column about local politics and power. Send me tips: [email protected].


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