Fenty's First Year Gets High Marks, But Divide Persists

By David Nakamura and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 13, 2008

District residents have renewed optimism about the direction of the city after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's first year in office, and most say they expect his takeover of the public schools to improve the system, according to a new Washington Post poll. But those polled were less impressed by Fenty's efforts to reduce crime and create housing for the poor.

Even as the local real estate market has slowed and the D.C. government has been rocked by a massive embezzlement scandal, 56 percent of residents surveyed said they believe the city is on the right course, a 14-point jump from a Post poll in July 2006, the final year for former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). Yet confidence in the city continues to break sharply along racial and socioeconomic lines.

Overall, Fenty (D), who swept into office by winning every voting precinct last year, remains popular, with more than seven in 10 residents saying they approve of his performance. The mayor made the takeover of the troubled schools his administration's top priority, and, though residents continue to decry the state of the almost 50,000-student system, 68 percent said they believe that Fenty's being in charge will improve it.

But the poll also revealed that the mayor faces persistently deep gulfs of perception between blacks and whites, and rich and poor residents when it comes to the city's quality of life. While 74 percent of whites in the poll say D.C. is headed in the right direction, 45 percent of African Americans agree. And two-thirds of those living in more affluent Northwest Washington see the city on the right course, compared with less than half of those who live in Northeast and Southeast.

Black women were the most dissatisfied group, with 38 percent saying they are pleased with the city's direction.

There was not a large enough sample of Asians, Latinos or other ethnic groups to report results within those groups.

During the 2006 campaign, Fenty pledged not to leave disenfranchised residents behind, a complaint often lodged against his predecessor. In an interview Friday, the mayor said his goal is to "stay focused on getting the job done . . . everywhere in the city and for everyone."

But when asked whether he is focused specifically on addressing the gaps in perception based on race and socioeconomic status, Fenty said that would be a mistake. "The minute you treat people differently . . . that's when you run into a very unbalanced way to run a government," he said.

Fenty made his comments shortly after conducting an hour-long news conference to detail what he said was an inadequate response by the government to the plight of four girls allegedly killed by their mother in the Washington Highlands neighborhood of Southeast. The shocking case, discovered Wednesday, served as a reminder that the mayor, who grimly pledged to make sure city agencies would more aggressively work to ensure the well-being of troubled families, has significant challenges ahead.

This week, Fenty and his handpicked schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, will face criticism from parents in a series of public hearings over proposed school closings set for this fall.

The poll of 1,000 randomly selected adults was conducted from Jan. 3 to 8, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. Education ranked as the biggest concern among 40 percent of residents, followed by public safety at 26 percent -- a flip of the order in July 2006, when the city was experiencing a spike in crime.

It's not uncommon for mayors to be most popular in their first years; Williams received a 77 percent approval rating in 2000, but that had dropped to 54 percent by 2006.

Fenty took over a city whose downtown core had undergone a remarkable economic revitalization during Williams's eight-year tenure, but whose poorer neighborhoods were largely left behind and whose schools and social services remained broken.

Upon taking office, Fenty vowed to attack those problems. He downgraded the school board and took direct control of the education system and installed new chiefs in charge of the schools and the police, fire and health departments. Fenty's management style has been more visible and hands-on than the aloof Williams; Fenty held multiple news conferences and attended several community meetings nearly every week. Some council members and residents, however, have been frustrated by Fenty, saying he has charged ahead on some issues, such as schools, with little input from others.

"He's highly energized," said Kirsten Fitrell, 44, a white research project manager for National Geographic who lives in Ward 6 and responded to the poll. "He pretty much encountered a mountain of problems, and he's really taken charge."

At the same time, 41 percent of those surveyed said the mayor had done enough to reduce crime in a city where the homicide rate increased last year after a 21-year low in 2006. And 27 percent said they were satisfied with his work on creating housing for low-income residents, a major issue in a city that has undergone an explosion in property values.

"He needs to take people on this side of the city under consideration about how they feel instead of coming in and saying, 'I want to do this and that,' " said Martha Bishop, 64, an African American from Ward 8 who says she fears that her friends will not be able to keep up with rising housing costs.

Fenty agreed that the government has to do better and pointed to his recent effort with the D.C. Council to invest more than $30 million in unanticipated tax revenue to build affordable housing.

As for reducing crime, Fenty said he believes Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, whom he appointed last year to replace Charles Ramsey, has done a good job in reshuffling her management and phasing in new policing strategies that included "all hands on deck" weekends. Sixty-nine percent of residents have a favorable view of the police chief.

Still, some have expressed concern as the number of homicides jumped to 181 last year. (That number does not include the four girls found last week.) Fenty called crime reduction "a mayor issue, something I have to take care of. It's the schools, better programs in rec centers. It's the jobs, the transition from the prison community back to the regular community. That's how you drive down crime."

The effort to improve the schools has dominated the mayor's agenda. A narrow majority of those surveyed give the mayor positive reviews on his effort at reform, and about four in 10 said his taking control of the system already has improved things. Despite the modest early reviews, there is widespread optimism about the new arrangement. Eight in 10 whites and six in 10 blacks have a positive outlook on the change, as do 55 percent of those with children in public schools. Fifty-nine percent approve of Rhee's performance, despite her controversial school closings proposal.

Andrew Gentin, 39, a white father from Ward 3's Cleveland Park, plans to send his two young children to public school and said he appreciates that Fenty and Rhee "are willing to take on the bureaucracy and do the right thing."

Fenty's tenure has been marked by a series of populist decisions. He ordered a switch from the controversial zone system in the city's taxicabs to more traditional meters. And after the city's handgun ban was ruled unconstitutional by an appellate court, Fenty appealed to the Supreme Court despite concerns from legal experts that a defeat could undo gun control laws nationwide. As the city gears up for the case in March, 76 percent of residents support the handgun ban, according to the poll.

As Fenty has moved quickly, D.C. Council members have complained that he routinely ignores them, and six in 10 residents characterized the relationship as less than good. Those residents largely side with the mayor: 46 percent blamed the council for the relations not being better; 32 percent blamed Fenty.

"Someone asked me, 'People say you're moving too fast, people say you're making decisions too quickly,' but when I'm out in the community, people are saying, 'What's taking so long?' " Fenty said.

His administration has also faced several setbacks that have threatened to disrupt Fenty's focus.

Greater Southeast Community Hospital, the District's only hospital east of the Anacostia River, lost its accreditation as the city invested $79 million to save it. And the city's Office of Tax and Revenue has been rocked by a massive embezzlement scandal in which two employees and several accomplices were charged with stealing more than $20 million in public funds.

As that scandal has unfolded, residents have expressed frustration about longtime Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, whose approval rating stood at 38 percent (40 percent disapproved, and 22 percent had no opinion). Perhaps more alarming, 70 percent said they see the tax scandal as a sign of broader problems with the way city finances are handled.

Fenty, who has set up regular CapStat review sessions with agency directors, got modest marks for eliminating waste and improving efficiency. Fifty-one percent said he had done well, compared with the 68 percent who gave Williams high marks in his first year.

Nate Hultman, 33, a white father of two from Glover Park, said he has been unimpressed with Fenty's impact. His family had lived out of the country for a year and returned six months ago to what he said he sees as a rise in petty crime. More recently, he was disturbed by the city's failure to remove snow in some neighborhoods last month.

"Anecdotally, we have more crime, we don't have basic city services and we have this financial scandal," said Hultman, a professor of public policy and climate change.

But more residents polled feel like Penny Webb, 58, an African American from Ward 7, who said Fenty is doing a "wonderful" job.

"He makes himself visible because he's out there doing something," she said. "He's a hands-on kind of person, and that seems to be working."

Staff writers Robert E. Pierre and Nikita Stewart and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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