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Poll: Polarizing D.C. schools chief Rhee helps, hurts Fenty among Democrats

Voters in D.C. cast ballots Tuesday in the closely watched Democratic primary race for mayor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray.

Others said that Rhee's personal style seems cold and disdainful, damaging her ability to be effective. After last fall's layoffs, she left the impression in an interview with a business magazine that an unspecified number of the terminated teachers had sexually abused students. Later, she said that just one of the laid-off instructors had been under a sexual-misconduct investigation.

"There's something about her I don't like. Can't put my finger on it," said Clarise Whitfield, 68, a Ward 7 resident who supports Gray. "She doesn't know how to express herself with people."

White Democrats see Rhee as someone who has taken encouraging steps to turn the system around. But they are concerned that she won't continue the progress that has been made because she has strongly hinted that a Gray victory would prompt her departure. Rhee has raised doubts about Gray's ability to withstand the criticism that comes with making difficult decisions.

"If Fenty doesn't get four more years, I have to move out to the suburbs and commute," said Amy Weiser, 43, who has a child in kindergarten at Key Elementary in Northwest Washington. Gray, she said, strikes her as someone who is "going to hold hearings and hem and haw and nothing's going to get done."

Even among some white Democrats who support Fenty, there are doubts about how Rhee treats people. "I have mixed feelings about Michelle Rhee. I don't necessarily like her style or approach," said Debbie, a Ward 4 poll respondent and Fenty supporter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because her husband is a political consultant. "I think you have to take bold action. But I don't know necessarily that insulting people is the way."

There is not a wealth of polling data on urban school leaders, but what's available shows that they are rarely wildly popular. Support in New York for city schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein -- a mentor of Rhee's who recommended her to Fenty -- has never been higher than 46 percent in the Quinnipiac University poll. The mayor who has employed him since 2002, Michael R. Bloomberg (I), has had approval ratings in the 60s. Last year, when Bloomberg won a third term, Klein's approval rating was 37 percent.

Polling director Jon Cohen and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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