Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s popularity has plunged across the District and is now lower than Adrian M. Fenty’s was just before Gray soundly defeated him in last year’s mayoral election, according to a new poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.
On the verge of that victory, 60 percent of District voters held favorable views of Gray and 16 percent expressed negative ones. Now, 47 percent have a favorable impression of Gray, while there’s been a 24-point jump in those who hold a negative opinion of him.
The findings underscore a turbulent start for Gray, one that has been marred by allegations of nepotism, electoral corruption and excessive spending on staff salaries just nine months after he rode to power in the Democratic primary on a wave of public dissatisfaction with Fenty.
The former D.C. Council chairman handily defeated the once-wildly popular incumbent, promising to lead an ethical and transparent government responsive to voters across “One City.”
But Democratic voters — the vast majority of the city’s electorate — have sharply reevaluated Gray. The number of Democrats seeing the mayor as untrustworthy has nearly tripled, and the number saying he doesn’t understand their problems has more than doubled.
“It’s appalling. It’s all appalling,” said Anne D. Williams of Glover Park. “Friends at dinner last night, we spent 15 minutes trying to remember his name. He’s gray all over. He’s very dull, but . . . I don’t trust him. Don’t ask me to back that up. I don’t know why.”
George Brown said he is willing to give Gray the benefit of the doubt, but he said Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s recent controversies over ordering city-leased SUVs and his campaign finance records have weighed on him differently. “He seems to be slipping right now,” said Brown, a retired pharmacist who lives in Ward 5 and has no relation to the council chairman. “I’m concerned that he’s going to fall. . . . I hope he will become a little more concerned about himself and the citizenry.”
Fewer now see the city as headed in the right direction. Since August of last year, there’s been a 10-point drop in optimism about the way things are going in the District.
In an August 2010 Post poll, 47 percent of registered voters approved of the way Fenty handled his job as mayor. In the new survey, 40 percent of registered voters say they approve of Gray’s job performance.
For the first time in Post polls back to 2000, a significant percentage of registered voters say the city government — separate from crime and city services — is the single biggest problem they see as deserving mayoral attention. In an open-ended question, 15 percent said that city government is the top issue; a slender 4 percent had said so before last September’s Democratic primary.
The newfound focus on city government is more evident among white residents than among African Americans, but similar numbers of whites and blacks see corruption as a major problem in city government.
Gray’s personal ratings continue to be highest among blacks and black registered voters. Some 51 percent of African Americans approve of the way the mayor is handling his job, but that drops to just 27 percent among the city’s white residents.
The number of black registered voters who like the mayor is down somewhat, from 68 percent in August to 61 percent in the new poll. Among white voters, negative assessments have more than doubled, with 60 percent now holding unfavorable views.
Although whites hold more negative views of Gray, the poll shows that new concerns about the mayor cross geographic boundaries. Negative ratings of Gray have spiked throughout the city.
Gray, a 68-year-old Ward 7 resident who began his political career in 2004, is under a haze of controversy. The FBI, U.S. attorney’s office, a congressional committee and the D.C. Council have launched probes into allegations by fired city employee and former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that the Gray campaign paid him and promised him a job for lobbing insults at Fenty during last year’s campaign. Gray has denied the allegations.
There are already some rumblings of a recall effort among Gray defectors and die-hard Fenty supporters. A Web site — Recallvincegray.com — recently launched.
Jane Johnson, a retired physiologist, has taken a told-you-so attitude. “We have declined in popularity, integrity and leadership,” said Johnson, who lives in Ward 4. “I expected it. What I call political bullying ousted the mayor [Fenty]. I knew we would have this scenario. Now we find out that it was possibly orchestrated and paid for.”
Gray defeated Fenty 54 percent to 44 percent in last year’s Democratic primary, riding into office on an anti-Fenty sentiment and the campaign slogan “Character. Integrity. Leadership.” In the new poll, 45 percent of Democratic voters say that Gray is honest and trustworthy, compared with 61 percent of registered Democrats who said so in August.
Fenty, widely criticized as arrogant during his term, sees his numbers seesawing in the other direction in the new poll. With his term firmly in the rearview mirror, 56 percent of registered voters say they approve of the way Fenty did his job, a significantly rosier assessment than before he lost to Gray.
Fenty hit a high of 72 percent in Post polling after his first year in office. In polls taken at different points in their administrations, Gray’s immediate four predecessors — Sharon Pratt, Marion Barry, Anthony A. Williams and Fenty — enjoyed highs ranging from 54 percent to 77 percent.
Gray’s initial ratings, by contrast, are middling. While 41 percent approve of his job performance, nearly as many — 40 percent — disapprove. A potential opening for the mayor is that fewer than a quarter of all residents have “strongly”-held views of his tenure so far, and two in 10 express no opinion at all.
District residents continue to give relatively high marks to city services, including the job of police officers and the quality of parks and recreation facilities. Ratings in both categories are at record high points in Post polls.
Besides Gray’s administration controversies, investigations have also been launched into the actions of some members of the council, including Kwame R. Brown. Some 36 percent of District residents have unfavorable views of the new chairman, who was hit with a formal complaint by the Office of Campaign Finance that his 2008 at-large reelection campaign failed to account for tens of thousands of dollars in donations. Slightly fewer, 30 percent, have positive views, and the rest are uncertain. Brown has also faced scrutiny over his requests for a taxpayer-paid luxury SUV with black-on-black interior, a DVD player and other features that led to the leasing of two vehicles.
The city has sued D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) for $1 million, claiming that he diverted $300,000 in District funds to his own nonprofit organization and company. Meanwhile, information was revealed in federal court that council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was offered bribes. He did not accept them, but he also did not report the incidents to authorities.
Milton Clapp, a musician who lives in Northwest, said he has been struck by the string of troubles among local and national politicians. In the District, “it doesn’t sound very promising,” he said. “To me, there’s a failure of leadership in so many places that it’s just astounding. Why can’t we grow leaders anymore?”
In interviews with poll respondents, some said they were less concerned about corruption than about Gray’s inability to deliver on job creation. Although there was a sharp increase in the number of voters who mention city government as a major problem facing the District, it still lags behind education and the economy.
Stephanie Henderson, a certified medical assistant, said she moved to Ward 8 from Alexandria about a year ago, looking for cheaper rent and access to more potential jobs at city hospitals. Henderson, 39, who remains unemployed despite an exhaustive job search, said she thought that Gray would have done more to create jobs by now.
“I haven’t really seen a change at all, but he is our mayor,” Henderson said.
Benjamin Storms, who recently lost his job as a Capitol Hill staffer, is in a similar situation, although he doesn’t blame Gray. “Other than unemployment, D.C.’s been doing pretty well,” he said.
The problem, he said, is congressional meddling in city affairs, a sentiment many residents seem to share. He praised Gray for protesting a federal spending bill that contained riders limiting District authority over funds. Gray and six council members were arrested. “I think Vincent Gray took a strong stand when he got arrested,” Storms said.
In the poll, two-thirds of residents say Congress has too much control over District affairs.
The telephone poll was conducted May 10-31 among a random sample of 1,342 adults living in the District. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.