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

By Nikita Stewart and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 31, 2010; A01

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's approval rating has plummeted over the past two years, with support eroding in all parts of the city and across demographic groups, particularly among African Americans, according to a new Washington Post poll.

While Fenty (D) has lost significant support among whites, African Americans have done a complete reversal on the mayor since a Post survey two years ago. Blacks have switched from 68 percent approval after his first year in office to 65 percent disapproval in the poll conducted last week. Overall, 42 percent of residents approve of the job he is doing; 49 percent disapprove. More than four in 10 in the new poll doubt his honesty, empathy and openness.

The numbers stand in stark contrast to how people feel about their city: District residents give higher ratings for their neighborhoods and the quality of key city services than they have at any point in Post polling over the past 20 years.

Residents give broadly positive marks to the police department and the quality of parks and recreation facilities. Most parents continue to see major problems in the city's public schools, but those views have eased noticeably. More than half of residents see the city as heading in the right direction, a significantly more bullish view than before Fenty's 2006 election.

And yet Fenty's approval ratings across a range of specific issues have dived by double digits. Compared with two years ago, Fenty's ratings are up in only one area: reducing crime, with the increase there due almost entirely to white residents. Overall, slightly more than half of residents rate him "excellent" or "good" on reducing crime, an increase of 10 percentage points. Nearly eight in 10 say they feel safe in their neighborhoods.

By slim majorities, District residents give Fenty positive marks on his work attracting new businesses and improving city services, but he has lost support in both areas since January 2008. The mayor has also lost ground in the areas of improving the city's schools, creating jobs and eliminating waste and inefficiencies in government.

The results reveal a conflicted public and one with a clear willingness to consider alternatives to Fenty this election year, even though no major candidate has announced a bid against him.

In a hypothetical primary matchup, 35 percent of registered Democrats say they would vote for D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray and 31 percent would pick Fenty, with significant numbers undecided. Among those who say they are certain to vote in the September primary, Gray edges Fenty 38 percent to 31 percent. The numbers highlight an anti-Fenty atmosphere in a city where more than four in 10 residents -- including 36 percent of registered Democrats -- have no opinion of Gray, who is openly exploring a challenge to the mayor.

In the new poll, large numbers of District residents and majorities of African Americans see Fenty as not being honest and trustworthy and as disconnected from their problems. Overall, 47 percent of all adults see him as willing to listen to different points of view; 41 percent say he is not.

Variety of concerns

In follow-up interviews, poll respondents cited a wide variety of concerns about Fenty -- including his refusal to give the previously allotted Nationals tickets to D.C. Council members, a secretive trip to Dubai and his failure to attend memorial services for victims of Metro's deadly crash in June.

Nearly three-quarters of all D.C. residents characterize the relations between Fenty and the council as "only fair" or "poor," jumping from 59 percent in the previous poll to 72 percent now. And public blame has shifted: Among those seeing strain in Fenty's relations with the council, more than twice as many fault the mayor as do the council, a switch from January 2008.

The mayor's unwillingness to distribute the baseball tickets, for instance, irked Derrick Mitchell, 44, a military contractor who lives in Northeast Washington. "From what I've read, and his handling of the baseball tickets, he doesn't seem like a very personable person," he said. Mitchell said he is more disappointed in what he sees as the mayor's catering to wealthier neighborhoods. He questioned why Eastern Market in Capitol Hill was quickly rebuilt after it caught fire in 2007 while the O Street Market in Shaw, whose roof collapsed in 2003, remains vacant. "He has done nothing to perpetuate services for everyone," said Mitchell, who is black. "We have not had a mayor that has done anything for a lot of our constituency since Marion Barry was in office."

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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