Despite poll, D.C. officials cite residents' approval

By Nikita Stewart and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; B01

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's reelection campaign chairman and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said Monday that a new Washington Post poll showing a steep decline in job approval ratings for the two leaders was offset by good news: Many residents like the results they've achieved, even if the process has left some unhappy.

Rhee said she didn't accept Fenty's 2007 job offer to win popularity, but to do what was necessary to turn around a school system regarded as one of the nation's weakest. She cited data from the poll showing that residents see some improvement in areas including school safety, teacher quality and the availability of books and other basic supplies.

"The bottom line for me is that more people think the schools are doing better," said Rhee, whose performance is viewed favorably by 43 percent of residents, down from 59 percent in 2008. "I know that people don't like change, and if they associate me with change but like the results, that's fine with me."

Fenty (D) said he had yet to examine another poll, published Sunday, showing that his overall approval rating has dropped from 72 percent in 2008 to 42 percent. "But once I have, I will be ready, willing and able to get you a statement," he said.

Former D.C. Council member William Lightfoot, Fenty's campaign chairman, said he was encouraged by the ratings District residents gave their neighborhoods and key city services, appraisals higher than at any point in 20 years of polling by The Post. Lightfoot called it "dramatic change."

"You've got to break eggs to make an omelet," he said.

According to the survey, Fenty trails in a potential matchup against Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) 35 percent to 31 percent. Large numbers of District residents, and a majority of the city's African Americans, see Fenty as neither honest nor trustworthy and as disconnected from their problems. Among African American residents, he has gone from 68 percent approval in 2008 to 65 percent disapproval this year.

Lightfoot said the numbers show that the public has not been exposed to the softer side of Fenty. "The mayor is personable one-on-one. The poll can't test that. It's a perception problem," he said.

Fenty, in Annapolis on Monday to discuss joint crime-prevention efforts with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), sounded familiar with one of the survey findings: that the public believes he is doing a good job on public safety.

"I can't say enough about what the police department has done," Fenty said. "I think if we keep doing this kind of thing, focusing on deliverables, statistics and results, the citizens will see even safer neighborhoods."

Rhee declined to comment on the erosion of her support among African American residents. Two years ago, 50 percent backed her and 38 percent disapproved. Now, 28 percent approve and 62 percent are dissatisfied.

"I have African American members of the community coming to me every day" noting improvement in the schools, she said.

Polling information on school leaders is limited. The Post, for example, has not surveyed residents about their attitude toward Rhee's predecessor, Clifford B. Janey. But available data suggest that urban school superintendents, with an average tenure of 3 1/2 years, are inherently unpopular.

Even those who achieve longevity never seem to get off the hot seat.

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, a mentor of Rhee's who pursued a similar reform agenda that includes raising academic standards and dismissing teachers deemed ineffective, has never enjoyed more than a 46 percent approval rating since he was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, according to Quinnipiac University's voter polls. Last year, when Bloomberg campaigned successfully for a third term, Klein's approval rate was 37 percent.

In a December interview with The Post, Klein said Rhee was dealing with an unavoidable backlash.

"She's doing some tough stuff, and she needs to do tough stuff for the District. And when you do tough stuff, you get push back," he said. "Systems don't change because you charm them. Systems change because you have levers that enable the system to move. And it will be noisy, because the people who are there often like the status quo."

But as with Klein, Rhee answers only to the mayor.

"As long as the mayor can get reelected and he is willing to spend political capital on schools, then it is sustainable. Then she still has the cover she needs," said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, and former Education Department official.

Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

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