Analysis: Poll shows voters like Fenty's achievements, but maybe not his style

Voters in D.C. cast ballots Tuesday in the closely watched Democratic primary race for mayor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray.
By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010

In four years, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has suffered an epic reversal of public opinion on his performance, The Washington Post's new polling numbers indicate. His comparatively underfinanced Democratic primary opponent, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, has built a commanding lead among both registered and likely voters, even as they credit Fenty for ushering in needed change.

Put simply, voters appreciate what Fenty has done but would like to fire him anyway. How did this happen?

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Fenty lost his base. This month, Fenty performed dismally in a straw poll of Ward 4 Democrats, and his campaign sought to downplay the result, saying that the straw poll attracted a motivated crowd of party regulars. But The Post's telephone poll suggests that the high-turnout ward that provided Fenty with the base for his mayoral run four years ago is no longer such friendly terrain. He won 69 percent of the vote in Ward 4 in the 2006 primary, but is registering below 50 percent there in his reelection effort: 46 percent of registered Democrats now prefer Fenty, 40 percent Gray.

( Photos: Battling for votes in the District. )

More broadly, Fenty appears to have alienated the middle-class black communities stretching from Ward 4 east across Ward 5 over to Gray's base in Ward 7. It's these neighborhoods that have been proven to vote in city races, but there's little evidence that Fenty's outreach to these communities has gained any traction.

Fenty betrayed his message. Fenty has strived to portray himself as a cool, dispassionate manager tugging at the levers of the municipal machine, immune to the entreaties of special interests. The message of the Fenty reelection push has been in part to present a cosmic battle of old vs. new, with Fenty fighting the old guard that ran the city into financial ruin in the 1990s.

He can justifiably boast that he shrank city spending after years of budgets bloated by the real-estate boom. But he's undercut his claims of fiscal responsibility by repeatedly overspending on his summer-jobs program. Critics have said that Fenty isn't as interested in evicting the old guard as in creating an old guard of his own, noting that Fenty's appointments to key boards have been filled with lightly qualified friends. And although Fenty has denied any role in the award of parks contracts to close allies, he has made no public effort to distance himself from the alleged "cronies"; one of them, Sinclair Skinner, is a key campaign organizer.

Fenty hasn't listened. Almost immediately upon defeating Linda Cropp in 2006, Fenty moved to adopt the profile of a "big-city mayor" eager to consolidate his power and wield it. That attitude manifested itself in ways big and small. His disdain for political dealing led to poisoned relations with the D.C. Council, alienating natural allies like Ward 3's Mary M. Cheh. His secrecy regarding his foreign travel peeved good-government advocates.

Where other metropolitan chief executives take care to maintain their political viability, Fenty keeps no close political counsel, putting his faith in his own sense of what "regular people" think. But Fenty either did not keep his ear to the ground or misunderstood that people often tell you what you want to hear.

Fenty launched his campaign nearly two years ahead of time, raising scads of money and promising to "take nothing for granted." But as the chorus decrying his arrogance and abrasiveness has loudened -- it was awfully loud by last fall -- Fenty continued to campaign on the premise that his results would trump all. Only in early August did Fenty take tentative steps toward promising to change his personal style.

Fenty misunderstood a changing city. Fenty's campaign has been betting that as the District has grown richer and whiter, the electorate has followed suit. But The Post's polling indicates that it may not have changed much. Four years ago, 60 percent of likely voters identified themselves as black. This year, that figure has ticked up slightly, to 63 percent.

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