Poll: D.C. residents positive on city services, negative on Fenty administration

Bill Turque and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 1, 2010; 10:00 AM

The Post's latest poll of D.C. residents finds an increasingly positive attitude toward city services contrasted with falling approval numbers for the Fenty administration. Post staff writers Bill Turque and Nikita Stewart discuss their stories about the findings.


Brookland, DC: Isn't this sort of a disconnect, approval of services up, approval of mayor down? But Marion Barry remains popular in certain quarters today, and services under him were absolutely abyssmal.

Bill Turque: It is a disconnect, to be sure, but probably not that uncommon. I've seen a lot of polling that shows people hating the federal government, for example, but still valuing the services they get close to home..


DC 20009: While I'm generally pleased with Mayor Fenty's performance, I must admit his high-handedness, and at times what seems to be disregard for the law, can be irritating. For example, has Peter Nickles (who drives me nuts) ever moved to DC? I must say, based on his campaign, I expected him to be more approachable. But overall I think he has done a good job.

Nikita Stewart: Fenty campaigned on an inclusiveness that many residents say they cannot feel as mayor. They had high expectations after his unprecedented win in 2006. Nickles says he has an apartment in Penn Quarter.


Adams Morgan: Hello! I assume this chat also encompasses Michelle Rhee, since the two are so closely related. I had misgivings about bringing her in, and those have been borne out. On the other hand, she has made some progress, but at what seems to me a very high price.

I work for the Federal Government, where it is almost impossible to fire anyone, even for cause. This is not good. But, other than the 9 (out of 266) teachers who were fired for cause, she seems to have selected the others let go almost at random. She has admitted they include a number of caring, competent teachers. I took my kids out of DC public schools because of numerous bad experiences; and 2 teachers I consider to be completely incompetent, one of whom has a serious drinking problem, are still employed. This is not good, either; and I no longer have confidence in her ability to solve these problems.

Bill Turque: I think one thing the Chancellor is trying to do in negotiating a new contract with the teachers union is to get more latitude in dismissing teachers deemed to be ineffective. So far, though, she hasn't been able to close the deal.


Washington DC: Why has the Post ignored the actions of Fenty and Rhee especially the deliberate character assassination and humiliation of the RIF'd teachers first as being ineffective, then months later sexual deviants and child abusers?

Bill Turque: I think the record will show that we've hardly ignored it. We've written and blogged about it in detail.


Bethesda, MD: Wow -- the silly baseball tickets tiff (which I agree made Fenty look petty) had that big an impact on the poll? Let that be a lesson to politicians everywhere: you had better sweat the small stuff, or people will notice!

Nikita Stewart: The baseball ticket saga annoyed so many people. When I interviewed people who participated in our poll, everyone of them mentioned the ticket drama without prompting. Folks saw it as petty.


Washington, D.C.: How do you see these numbers affecting the 2010 election?

Nikita Stewart: There must be an opponent. Right now, Fenty is fighting himself: the fresh-faced populist of 2006 versus the honeymoon-is-over politician of 2010. But remember Fenty has money in the bank, and according to his supporters and critics, no one else is going to get out there and knock on doors like Fenty. I looked closer at our numbers, however, and compared them to his 2006 primary win. He has lost so much ground, in terms of approval, in wards 1, 4, 7 and 8. Ward 1 really surprised me since he received 61 percent of the vote in the primary there.


Washington, DC: Did your poll address the issue of Natwar Gandhi and his tenure in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer? Has his failed leadership and repeated instances of financial mismanagement had any effect on the Mayor's approval rating? Did any of the persons polled question why he still remained the CFO?

Nikita Stewart: The poll did not address Gandhi's performance. Our 2008 poll included him because the tax scandal was still a huge issue. Maybe we'll include him in the future.


Washington, D.C.: How will Fenty respond to these numbers? Should we expect a charm offensive, or is he in denial?

Nikita Stewart: No response to the poll from the Fenty camp yet. Co-chair Jim Hudson once told me that Fenty has the ability to adjust. There is a disconnect between Fenty and the success of the city. Many people appear happy with city services, etc., during these difficult economic times, but they don't give credit to Fenty. He has rubbed the public the wrong way. He often says, "I'm not perfect. I'm going to make mistakes. I learn from my mistakes."

We'll see.


Michelle Rhee: Do you think there's a been a backlash against her in part because she's become such a high-profile national figure?

Bill Turque: I think there's clearly been a backlash, but not simply because she's bacome a national figure. I think it's how she's presented herself to national audiences that has caused a backlash: ie. the broomstick, comments about the quality of teachers,etc.


How did they get here?: Fenty seemed like such a talented politician who really understood the value of constituent services. How did he become so tone-deaf once he took office?

Nikita Stewart: Constituent services remains a priority. Look at the new parks in your neighborhood. Your trash is probably getting picked up. New roads are being built. The problem is how he's delivering. Those polled appeared upset about the recreation construction contracts that were routed through the D.C. Housing Authority and awarded to firms with ties to the mayor. They were upset about his secrecy from not explaining how his twin sons were allowed to enter the out-of-boundary Lafayette Elementary to letting the public know he took an expense-paid trip to Dubai after he returned. They also felt that Fenty does not understand their problems.


Arlington, VA: I wonder if you intend to poll in other jursidictions in the area such as Montgomery, PG County, Fairfax and even tiny Arlington to get a sense of whether the anti-Fentyism is a manifestation of general distrust of government in sour economic times.

Nikita Stewart: That's an interesting point. But we found that the public's satisfactory view of the council is holding steady. In 2008, those polled blamed the council for the poor relations with the mayor. That has turned around. It appears that the anti-Fentyism is anti-Fenty.


Georgetown, DC: I agree that the baseball ticket dispute was petty, but in my neck of the woods, at least, there has been much improved public space upkeep, school repairs, even improvements at the DMV. I don't have school age children, but I know people who are returning to public schools in the wake of Ms. Rhee's efforts. And Ghandi is actually a good manager; the City's rating has improved. The RE Tax office scam started before his watch. Saturday as I drove home from Bethesda after slipping and sliding on the untouched-by-plow Maryland side of Wisconsin Avenue, the DC section was being plowed.

Bill Turque: I guess what we're seeing here is that good governance and good politics are not always the same things. If people feel left behind,then making the trains run on time is not enough.


Capitol Hill: I can't help but observe that snow removal this year has been dramatically better than in the past. Yet Fenty's arrogance makes me reluctant to give him credit. By and large, I think he is doing a good job. But these arrogant missteps may result in D.C. replacing him with someone who will not run things as well.

Nikita Stewart: That's exactly what we found in the poll. Why do you think the public is so turned off by his "arrogance?" What difference does it make if he's getting things done?


Peter Nickles: Yes, but dollars to donuts it's not his primary residence, as that term is legally defined. That's the sort of legal hairsplitting that drives some of us crazy.

Nikita Stewart: Many of the disputes between the mayor and the council have actually gone back to Nickles's interpretation of the city's laws. But he noted in an interview with me a few months ago that his car is registered in D.C. and he's registered to vote in D.C. This kind of dual residency isn't uncommon in District government. Remember that Nickles was initially reluctant to "move" to the District because he thought it would be disingenuous.


Capitol Hill: As a long time resident of DC, I am accustomed to young people rolling into town with each new administration with idea that they will fix everything because they know everything. Therefore, Rhee's 'my way or the highway' approach coupled with her arrogance was not new. However, even if you really are a savior, it helps to be nice and not tell everyone how smart you are and how stupid they are. The truly great leaders make people want to follow them.

I have no idea if Rhee really is the savior of DC's public schools. I hope she gets the message that her act is one we've all seen before and maybe she could try toning it a little. Any chance this is sinking in?

Bill Turque: She has always worked steadily at meeting with people in the community. But I think her view is that of she's going to get anything done,she's going to make some people unhappy.


washingtonpost.com: Nikita and Bill had to sign off. Thanks for all your questions.


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