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Poll shows D.C. Mayor Fenty getting more credit than support in primary race against Gray

By Nikita Stewart and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 12:01 AM

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is foundering in his reelection bid against his chief opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, despite a widespread sense that the city is heading in the right direction, according to a new Washington Post poll.

With early voting beginning Monday in the Sept. 14 primary, Gray is clearly ahead, leading Fenty 49 to 36 percent among all Democratic voters surveyed. Gray's advantage swells to 17 points, 53 to 36 percent, among those most likely to vote in the primary.

Although most of those Democrats polled credit the mayor with a record of accomplishment and say he brought needed change to the District, many doubt his honesty, his willingness to listen to different points of view and his ability to understand their problems. The criticisms are especially deep-seated among African Americans, who are likely to make up a majority of primary voters.

( Photos: Battling for votes in the District. )

Nearly six in 10 black Democrats see Fenty as caring primarily about upper-income residents; more than four in 10 see him as disproportionately concerned about whites in the District. In predominantly black Wards 7 & 8, east of the Anacostia River, where Fenty carried 54 percent of the primary vote four years ago, just 14 percent of all Democratic voters there now back him against Gray.

Citywide, most black voters doubt Fenty's honesty and say he doesn't understand their problems. Four years ago, just 17 percent of African Americans expressed unfavorable views of Fenty; now, that number has leapt to 56 percent.

The poll results show not only a dramatic drop in support for the mayor, but also the steep climb he faces in the two weeks left before the primary. Despite a recent promise to be more inclusive and more attentive to residents, Fenty's last-minute appeal may have come too late to change the minds of voters.

The mayor appears to have lost considerable ground to Gray, who entered the race at the end of March and only recently started running television ads. Gray, 67, who has run on a theme of "One City," says he is better suited to overcome the city's racial and class divides. In the poll, Gray is broadly seen as honest, open to various viewpoints and empathetic, all areas of perceived weakness for Fenty. Overall, Democratic voters give Gray the edge when it comes to being an effective leader and divide about evenly on which of the two candidates has a clearer vision for the District's future.

2006 vs. 2010

Comparing the latest poll results with the results of Fenty's unprecedented citywide sweep in the 2006 primary shows a significant drop in support everywhere in the District except wards 2 and 3. In those largely white wards, Fenty would get 55 percent of the vote now, matching his showing four years ago.

Fenty's most dismal poll showing is among African Americans, with 19 percent of black Democrats saying they would support him, compared with 64 percent for Gray. Among white Democrats, Fenty leads Gray by 64 to 28 percent.

African Americans typically make up about six in 10 city Democrats, and this year, they account for 63 percent of the likely primary electorate, according to the poll, conducted by telephone Aug. 19 to 26. Even if the turnout was evenly split among blacks and whites, Gray would have an advantage because he scores higher among whites than Fenty does among blacks.

Gray's support is highest in Ward 7, on the city's east side, which he represented for two years before he was elected council chairman in 2006. There, 70 percent of Democrats say they prefer Gray, compared with 14 percent for the mayor. Gray holds a similar lead in neighboring Ward 8.

By contrast, Fenty is struggling to hold on to his home base of Ward 4, in Northwest, which he represented as council member for six years and where he won 69 percent of the primary vote four years ago. Now, Fenty leads Gray by 46 to 40 percent, among all registered Ward 4 Democrats and has a similar edge in Ward 1.

The poll included interviews with 780 registered Democrats in the District. The results for those 780 voters have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points; the margin of error is five points for likely voters.

The perception that Fenty favors wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods persists despite his administration's efforts to build or renovate schools, parks and recreations centers across the city.

Danielle McDonald, who lives off East Capitol Street in Ward 7, said the mayor was too focused on "putting up high-rises and condominiums" and has not done enough to improve life in her neighborhood.

"The big bucks go downtown where the rich people are," said McDonald, 66. "He's for all that, and then throws a little something on the side to us and says, 'Oh, we gave you this.' "

McDonald said she likes Gray because he performs well in the council sessions she watches on the government cable access channel. "He seems to be for neighborhoods and was always willing to question what the mayor was doing to hold him accountable," she said.

Northwest of McDonald's home, William Herron, a Ward 2 resident, disagreed. Herron, 68, said he is satisfied with the improvements made in his Dupont Circle neighborhood under Fenty. "I like the new bike lanes," said Herron, a retired personnel manager. "He's as good as it gets. . . . I just think it's a healthier city."

A change in attitude

In recent weeks, Fenty has taken a humbler, more contrite stance after receiving negative feedback from some voters. He acknowledged shortcomings to some voters one-on-one, and his campaign spread the apologetic message in advertising, debates and interviews.

His initial TV ad campaign featured supporters trying to put a positive spin on his reputation as "arrogant." They said Fenty was a leader whose tough attitude yielded improved services and made city projects move faster. Fenty coupled that effort with attacks on Gray's record as head of the Department of Human Services in the 1990s, saying that Gray was a failed leader.

The number of Democrats holding favorable views of Gray has moved higher since the beginning of the year; public assessments of Fenty's trustworthiness have not improved since a Post survey in January. In the latest poll, 39 percent of Democrats say Fenty is honest and trustworthy, compared with 61 percent who say so about Gray.

Thelma Harris, who lives in Michigan Park, in Northeast, said she recently decided that "Fenty hasn't been honest from the get go" and that she will vote for Gray. Fenty "seems to represent the interest of only a select few, and he is arrogant," said Harris, 52, a social worker at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I know his commercials say he appears arrogant. Well, he is arrogant."

Elsewhere in Northeast, Carol Holston, 52, who lives in Benning Heights, credited Fenty with providing recreational centers and football fields, but she said they remind her of the ongoing investigation into whether the administration unfairly awarded tens of millions in construction contracts to his friends and fraternity brothers.

Harry Gates, 71, a resident of the Palisades, in Northwest, is a defector from the Fenty camp who said he volunteered for Fenty's 2006 mayoral run. "We did have a team, but there was always a wall up between the rest of the team and Adrian. I always wondered if he was listening," Gates said. "The pat answer everyone has is the day he moved into the Wilson Building, he turned his back on everyone who put him there."

Among Democrats who say they voted for Fenty in 2006, fewer than half are backing his reelection.

Emphasis on education

To a large extent, Fenty has staked his reelection on education reform, and he has repeatedly promised to retain Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. He has faulted Gray for declining to say whether he would keep Rhee in her post should he unseat Fenty.

Education is the top voting issue in the poll and one that works toward Fenty's advantage, particularly among whites. White voters overwhelmingly see the District's schools as better than they were four years ago. But black voters are as apt to say schools have deteriorated as improved.

Talk of Rhee's performance and future is a constant on the campaign trail, but the deep polarization over the chancellor does not give either candidate a clear advantage. In the latest poll, 41 percent of Democrats say her record is a reason to vote for Fenty; 40 percent say it is a factor against Fenty. Among white voters polled, 68 percent say Rhee is a reason to support Fenty, but 54 percent of African Americans consider Rhee a strike against him.

Marilyn Barrette, 43, a Capitol Hill resident with three children in public schools, said she will vote for Fenty because of the work he has done on education. "I've seen some improvements in the facilities themselves. As far as the curriculum and bringing in Michelle Rhee, things are moving in the right direction," said Barrette, an elementary school teacher in Prince George's County who has taken time off to be with her children.

But McDonald said Fenty lost her vote after Rhee fired 266 teachers and gave what she considered a misleading reason for their dismissal. "He really plucked my nerves when he messed with the schools and fired the teachers," said McDonald, who holds Fenty and Rhee responsible for the firings.

Beyond the schools, Gray wins among voters who emphasize most other issues, including the economy and jobs. Most recently the Gray campaign has focused on the issue of endemic unemployment in wards 7 and 8.

Although Democrats generally see quality of life improving in the city, only about a quarter of them say their families' financial situations are better now than four years ago.

In the homestretch

Fenty's army of paid canvassers and sizable campaign war chest give him an opportunity to reverse the tide in the race, but organization and money may be not be enough to change the dynamic.

As an incumbent, he must overcome seemingly settled opinions about him and his leadership style. Another challenge is that Gray supporters appear more committed and passionate than Fenty's are. In the poll, nearly half of Gray supporters say they are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy, compared with only about a quarter of Fenty's.

One opportunity for Fenty will come Wednesday, when the two candidates are scheduled square off in a highly anticipated debate at the Newseum. But more information isn't necessarily the answer for the mayor: Voters who have been contacted by the Fenty campaign are as likely to call the contact annoying as helpful.

Wild cards for both campaigns are new, potentially consequential changes to D.C. voting rules. For the first time, voters can cast ballots at designated locations before primary day, and eligible adults can register at the polls.

And a sizable number of voters - about a third of those most likely to vote - are either undecided or say they could change their minds between now and the primary election.

Marion Buelken, 74, a Ward 6 resident, said she is struggling to make a choice between the two leading candidates. She said that improvements in the school system have been impressive but that she has been turned off by Fenty's style. "Fenty's very abrasive," she said. "I don't appreciate his handing contracts to his cronies without going through the proper channels, running roughshod over teachers."

Catherine Magruder, 59, a poll respondent from Anacostia, in Ward 8, summed up her choice: "There is a lot of things [Fenty] did do good, but I prefer, what's his name? Gray."

stewartn@washpost.com cohenj@washpost.com

Staff writer Tim Craig and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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