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D.C. Mayor Fenty's approval ratings plummet, poll finds

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's approval rating is up from 2008 in one area: reducing crime.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's approval rating is up from 2008 in one area: reducing crime. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)

That sentiment reflects the major swing in public perceptions of Fenty, a native Washingtonian who swept every precinct in the 2006 Democratic primary -- an unparalleled feat that required him to win over people of all ethnicities, income levels and wards in a city long divided by race, class and geography.

Since Fenty took office, the city has continued its revival, with its population set to cross 600,000 for the first time in two decades, according to Census data. And his administration has often succeeded where others used to fail, such as when he won wide praise for clearing the roads after last month's record snowfall even as other area jurisdictions struggled.

At the same time, Fenty has suffered from a series of disputes with the council, most notably an ongoing probe into recreation construction contracts that were awarded to firms with personal and political ties to Fenty.

Janet Walker, an African American lawyer and mother of three, credited Fenty with moving aggressively to renovate and expand recreation facilities but said he should have tried to get council approval to build new centers. "Now it's going to get mired in politics," she said. "If it had been done the right way, things could have happened faster."

More than half of those polled say they approve of the way the council is doing its job, little changed from two years ago. As its chairman, Gray is viewed favorably by 43 percent and unfavorably by 13 percent; 44 percent expressed no opinion.

Potential challenger

Despite his lack of citywide name recognition, Gray emerges in the poll as the most high-profile potential challenger for Fenty, although neither engenders a lot of "strong" support. In the possible primary matchup, 47 percent of black registered Democrats say they would vote for Gray; 17 percent for Fenty. White Democrats, by contrast, break solidly for Fenty over Gray, 60 percent to 13 percent. Nevertheless, Fenty has lost ground among whites overall, dropping from 78 percent to 57 percent approval in the past two years.

The paradox between growing dissatisfaction with Fenty vs. increasing satisfaction with the city is evident in the respondents' views on his much-publicized efforts to reform the school system. Near-record numbers of respondents rate the city's beleaguered schools as "excellent" or "good," but few appear to credit Fenty or his handpicked chancellor, Michelle Rhee. [New poll numbers on Rhee and city schools will be published Monday.]

Neal Presant, a white Cleveland Park doctor, said the city seems safe, downtown is more vibrant and he's happy he doesn't have to worry about the snow getting plowed or his trash being picked up. But while he appreciates what the mayor has done, he said he is troubled by Fenty's attitude and is prepared to vote for anyone else who "seems reasonable."

"He has to deal with the city council, and if you come across as extremely arrogant, no one is going to work with you," said Presant, 62.

In March, Fenty took his family on an unannounced trip to Dubai, accepting $25,000 from the United Arab Emirates for the week-long jaunt. He did not disclose his travel until he had returned and did not divulge the UAE's sponsorship until news media inquiries. The scrutiny led to Fenty's disclosure that government entities in China provided $11,300 for his trip in 2008 to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, which he originally called a "personal trip."

Charles Burt, 58, a white resident in Ward 8, gives high marks to his nearby public library and has few complaints about city services but doesn't give Fenty any credit for them. "I think they function in spite of him," he said. "I think they were running very well before he was elected."

Burt, who moved to the District a year ago, added that the mayor's disrespect of the council was something he just couldn't get past and that he would vote for anyone but Fenty in the fall.

But in Brookland, Swapna Shah, a 63-year-old Indian American woman who has lived in the city for 30 years, sees a young, inexperienced mayor who is just finding his way.

"I am for Adrian Fenty. I think he has a lot to learn. There are some mistakes I think he has made. I don't always agree with him," said Shah, a clinical social worker. "However, overall, I think he has the city's best interests at heart."

The poll was conducted last Sunday through Thursday among a random sample of 1,135 adults in the District. Interviews were conducted by conventional or cellular phone, and in English or Spanish. Results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and staff writers Tim Craig and Ann Marimow contributed to this report.

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