Barry's Popularity Plummets, Poll Shows
By Vanessa Williams and Richard Morin
Mayor Marion Barry's popularity has dropped to a near all-time low, with almost two-thirds of Washington residents saying they disapprove of his performance and an overwhelming number saying he should not run for reelection next year, according to a new Washington Post survey.
For the first time, the African Americans who voiced disapproval of Barry outnumbered those who said they continued to support him.
Overall, the poll results rivaled those taken early in 1992, when Barry was serving a federal prison term for a misdemeanor drug conviction. Almost 80 percent of those polled this month said he should not seek reelection to the post he has held all but eight years since the city elected its first mayor in 1974.
Barry said the poll shows he is "paying the price for the severe budget cuts and service reductions in this city, which have decreased significantly the quality of life of our residents."
However, the mayor said, "I am determined to work with a greater sense of urgency to completely turn things around by completing my transformation of the D.C. government, which will make it more efficient, effective and responsive."
Sixty-three percent of those polled said they disapproved of Barr y's stewardship of the city, and 41 percent of that number said they disapproved strongly.
"I don't think he should run again, because I think we need some new blood in the city -- totally new people," said Belinda Russ, 35, a onetime Barry supporter who lives in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. "I think what he did in the past was okay, but now we need somebody with a new perspective."
The survey, taken 16 months before the mayoral primary, is not necessarily a reflection of Barry's electability. He won the 1994 primary, generally tantamount to election in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, by capturing 47 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Barry has not revealed whether he intends to run next year, nor has any potential challenger emerged.
The survey showed sharp deviation along racial lines. Ninety percent of the whites polled disapproved of Barry's job performance, and a slightly higher number said he should not run for a fifth term. About half of the African Americans voiced disapproval, and about 7 in 10 blacks said he should not run again.
The survey of 1,004 randomly selected Washington residents from April 30 to May 4 revealed that Barry's approval rating had dropped sharply in the last year, particularly among African Americans. Two-thirds of black Washingtonians polled in May 1996 supported the mayor; 43 percent did so in the recent poll.
Overall, the number of people who said they held a favorable opinion of the mayor dropped from 55 percent a year ago to 37 percent this month. Last year's poll was conducted shortly after Barry took a two-week sabbatical to "recover from physical exhaustion and to seek spiritual renewal."
Fifty-eight percent of those polled this month said they had an unfavorable opinion of the mayor, a number identical to that registered while Barry was in prison five years ago.
By contrast, President Clinton was rated favorably by 85 percent of the people polled this month, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) was viewed favorably by 81 percent.
The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Barry won the 1994 mayor's race on a theme of redemption, promising to rebuild the District government the way he had resurrected his personal life after being caught in a videotaped sting smoking crack cocaine. He rallied poor black residents, particularly those who lived in neglected neighborhoods, and appealed to the racial pride of middle-class blacks to win back his old job.
In March 1995, three months after Barry took office, 58 percent of those surveyed approved of his performance. A year later, that number had slipped by 10 percentage points. In the latest poll, only 31 percent said they approved of the job Barry is doing.
Those who said it was time for Barry to give up the mayor's office included many people who said they had supported him throughout his 23-year career in Washington politics.
Even in Southeast Washington, the incubator for Barry's political rebirth, 50 percent of those polled disapproved of the mayor's performance, and 72 percent said he should not run for reelection. It was Southeast's Ward 8 that returned Barry to public office -- a seat on the D.C. Council -- after his release from prison. Two years later, he used that base to build the political machine that carried him back to the mayor's office.
The poll suggests that the emotional tide that swept Barry to victory in 1994 has subsided.
"I've lived in D.C. all my life, and I know it's bad to say, but we don't need a mayor. We did much better when we didn't have one," said a 65-year-old woman, a retired federal worker who lives in Ward 1. The woman, who raised five children in the city, said she feared having her name in the newspaper.
Sallie Melvin, 51, a Potomac Electric Power Co. worker who lives in the Barney Circle area of Southeast, said Barry has become "a burden" for the District. She said she voted for Barry the first two times he ran for mayor.
"At that point, he'd put a great coalition together of blacks and whites," Melvin said. "I thought he really was trying to appeal to everybody."
Now, she said, her opinion has changed.
"I don't think he's very good for the city," she said. "At this point, whatever he does, certainly Congress is finished with him, and it's just counterproductive to have him around anymore."
Sylvester Coles, 65, a retired federal worker who lives in Northwest Washington, recalled a cleaner, safer and more vibrant city in the late 1960s. These days, he complained, street cleaning is sporadic, and crime is so bad he is afraid to go into some areas of the city.
"It's pitiful; you have to limit where you can go," Coles said. "I don't think anybody with any good sense could believe in [Barry] anymore after the problems he's had."
David Barnaby, 21, a clerical worker for the federal government, said he thinks it's time for Barry to move on.
"I mean, he should give somebody else a chance," Barnaby said. "He's had his time; he really can't do anything else for us."
Steve Clyburn, a church administrator who lives in Adams-Morgan, said he strongly disapproves of Barry's performance and hopes the mayor does not try to seek a fifth term.
"I think he would be foolish to run again, because he has not proven that he can run this city," said Clyburn, 45, who moved to the District eight years ago from North Carolina. "In the eight years we've been here, things have deteriorated. The quality level of the educational system . . . cleanliness, safety have all gone downhill. It's unacceptable, and it's a direct reflection of who's in charge."
But fellow Adams-Morgan resident Alan Sharpe was not as adamant about whether Barry should retire from District politics.
"He's been much more outspoken than anyone else in supporting gay rights, and that's important to me," said Sharpe, 44, a playwright who has lived in the District for 11 years. "I'm kind of indifferent to whether [Barry] does or does not" run for reelection.
"I'd be happy to see someone get in there if someone else seems capable of doing more than the mayor" has done, Sharpe said.
Some black residents said they still see Barry as the champion of the city's disadvantaged and suggested that the city hasn't received the help it needs because the majority of its residents are black.
Tanya Porter, 24, worked for five years in Barry's summer youth employment program.
"He's always been good for the youth of the city," said Porter, who is unemployed. "I think he should run again. I think he's good for the city."
Porter, who grew up in Southeast Washington and was a volunteer in Barry's early campaigns, said that the city's financial situation is "kind of racially motivated. If this city was populated by mainly white people, it would have a lot more money."
Betty Minor, 63, a retired apartment complex supervisor who lives in Northwest Washington, suggested that Barry should give up the mayor's office for a somewhat novel reason.
"He's having such a time, and so many people are against him. . . . If it was me, I would just give it up," Minor said. "He's been through so much, and he's a great fighter . . . [but] he's done as much as he could."
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