By Tim Craig and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 7, 2010; C01
District residents are generally supportive of the progressive, activist social agenda being pursued by the D.C. Council, putting their stamp of approval on efforts by government leaders to enact policies while Democrats control Congress.
A Washington Post poll conducted last month finds majorities favor same-sex marriage, want medical marijuana to be legalized and support the creation of an elected attorney general.
Even when it comes to paying more for grocery bags based on promises that it will help save the environment, nearly half of residents embrace the new city policy.
The poll responses, along with sky high approval ratings for President Obama, help confirm the city's reputation as one of the most left-leaning jurisdictions in the country. City leaders said they felt constrained when Congress, which has the final say over whether a council bill can become law, was controlled by Republicans from 1995 to 2007. But with Democrats running Congress and Obama in the White House, the overwhelmingly Democratic council feels more liberated to set policy.
When the GOP was in control, Congress prevented the District from setting drug laws, blocked taxpayer-financed abortions for low-income women and would not allow the city's needle exchange program to proceed. Last year, the Democratic-controlled Congress lifted those restrictions.
The council, which has found a willing ally in Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), is moving rapidly to implement the programs.
"It's unfortunate the District is placed in a position where we basically have to wait for Congress to be one way or another," said Jim DiNatale, 39, of Adams Morgan, a supporter of same-sex marriage, medical marijuana and the bag tax. "It comes down to us being denied certain things, but now I am glad they are pushing everything as fast they can and as much as they can."
But overall support masks racial divides on many of the new policies approved by the council, underscoring that residents in majority-white areas feel far different about a variety of issues than their counterparts in majority-black neighborhoods.
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Although most District residents are in sync with the council in support of same-sex marriage, there is widespread public support for putting the question to a city-wide vote.
Nearly six in 10 residents say they would prefer to vote on the issue. City leaders have said a public vote would be discriminatory. "I don't think it should be a decree made by the government," said Pablo Barreyro, 72, of Chevy Chase. "I don't think it should be left to a small party of politicians. . . . I really wonder what the outcome would be if it becomes available for public input."
If it lands on the ballot, however, the District would be well positioned to become the first state-level jurisdiction in the country where voters embraced same-sex marriage, according to the poll.
Nearly six in 10 D.C. residents, including 83 percent of whites, favor making it legal for gay couples to marry.
The broad support for same-sex marriage in the District's white community cuts across cultural lines that divide opinions on the matter nationally. Regular white churchgoers nationwide generally oppose same-sex marriage, but two-thirds of whites in the District who attend services monthly or more often support same-sex marriage.
African Americans tilt against same-sex marriage. Thirty-seven percent of black residents back legal same-sex marriage. A slim majority opposes it, and the bulk of opponents say they feel that way strongly.
But some divisions are evident in the local black community on this issue, with sharp divides by church attendance and education.
One in five African Americans who attend church services weekly favor same-sex marriage, and support rises to 47 percent among those who attend less often. A narrow majority of black college graduates supports gay marriage, compared with about a third of African Americans with less formal education.
The poll indicates that council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) were representing their constituents' views when they became the only two members to vote against the same-sex marriage bill.
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The new poll found a similar racial divide over the new law requiring retail stores that sell food to charge for paper or plastic bags. Support for the new tax peaks in mostly white wards 2 and 3, and opposition to the tax is widespread in the heavily black wards. Overall, one in three black residents approved of the new tax.
The bill, overwhelmingly approved by the council in June and signed into law by Fenty, is designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed by reducing the consumption of bags. The tax is set at 5 cents a bag, and the proceeds, which are estimated at $10 million over the next four years, will support the new Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund.
According to the poll, three out of four white residents support the tax. It appears to be changing behavior across Washington, particularly in neighborhoods with large concentrations of well-educated voters and the areas closest to the Anacostia. Nearly half of the respondents have used more reusable bags since the tax, one of the first of its kind in the nation, took effect.
By geography, support for the bag tax bottoms out in Southeast and Northeast Washington, where a third favor the charge. But Southeast residents are more likely than those north of the Capitol to say they have reached for a reusable bag (74 percent vs. 63 percent).
"I understand it's for a good cause," said Patricia Richardson, 44, of Capitol Hill. "It's caused me to be more green. I keep my bags in my car. If that tax didn't happen, rest assured I would not have bags in the car."
Barbara Mays, 72, said the tax gives her another reason to travel to Maryland to buy groceries.
"I just don't think you should have to pay for a bag when you go grocery shopping," said Mays, who lives in Northeast. "I would have to pay quite a bit because when I go to the store, I get quite a few bags from Giant."
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But Mays said she supports legalizing medical marijuana. Last month, Congress lifted the ban on allowing the District to set drug policy. The council is considering a bill to open up to five medical marijuana dispensaries.
According to the poll, eight in 10 Washingtonians favor allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana, with broad support across demographic and ideological groups.
District residents are split on legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use, with 46 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed. Whites are more likely to support it than blacks (60 percent vs. 37 percent).
Over the past year, council members have taken the lead in pushing for same-sex marriage, the bag tax and legalizing medical marijuana. Fenty, who is up for reelection this year, has supported the proposals.
Residents, by a margin of 56 percent to 30 percent, also approve of Fenty's push two years ago to require meters in taxis, although income and race are dividers. Voters part ways with Fenty on whether the attorney general should be elected.
The council approved a bill Tuesday calling for the creation of an elected attorney general position despite opposition from the Fenty administration. According to the poll, 55 percent want it to be an elected office.
The poll was conducted by conventional and cellular telephone Jan. 24-28 among a random sample of 1,135 District adults. Results for the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.