Midway through his term in office, Marion Barry is getting mixed -- but largely unfavorable -- reviews for his performance as mayor, and most Washingtonians think the city has made no progress in coping with several fundamental city problems, according to the findings of a new Washington Post poll of city residents.
Clear majorities among those who express an opinion are critical of Barry's performance, with the sharpest criticism coming from city employes.
A majority of respondents also criticized Barry's handling of the District's financial crisis, and there was strong disapproval of Barry's policy of laying off city workers and reducing services rather than raising property taxes.
In all, fewer than three in five of those interviewed who said they voted for Barry in the Democratic mayoral primary two years ago say they would vote for him again if the election were played over today.
In a test of overall popularity in the poll, Barry scored seventh among eigh public figures, trailed only by former City Council member Douglas E. Moore.
"I think Barry is looking out for Barry and not the people," said one woman interviewed, a 31-year-old federal government worker named Nancy who voted for Barry in 1978 but who says she would switch to former mayor Walter E. Washington if she had it to do again. Nancy, who lives in Northeast Washington, said Barry's "proposals for the people are the pits."
At the same time, however, Barry drew overall favorable ratings among those polled on particular personal characteristics, such as handling the mayor's office with dignity, keeping the public informed and providing honest leadership. The mayor has his admirers as well.
Barry "has brought a great deal of energy and intelligence and innovation to city government in D.C.," said a 37-year-old foreign service officer from the city's largely white Ward 3.
"I like his hard-nosed leadership," commented a retired city worker from Southeast. "He believes in government carrying [its] own weight."
Barry said yesterday that he is not surprised by the findings. "I inherited a mess and realized early on that it would take four years to turn that situation around," he said. "I imagine that if a similar poll were done in any major Eastern or Midwestern city, where expectations are high and resources are inadequate, the results would be similar."
He said he is gratified that 33 percent of those persons polled said he was doing a good job.
"Remember that only 34 percent of the voters thought I should be mayor in 1978," he said, referring to his margin of victory in the city's Democratic primary. "A one percent drop during a very difficult two years further strengthens my resolve to continue to do all that I can to improve the government and the quality of life for all our citizens."
It is far too soon for a poll to assess Barry's chances of being reelected in 1982. He won the general election with 69 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the new Post poll of 1,078 city residents 18 years old or older points to a series of obstacles Barry must overcome should he seek to retain the mayor's office:
First, through a policy of layoffs and sharply curtailed pay increases for city employes, Barry has antagonized a hefty chunk of the District's citizenry. As a group, households with city employes in them accounted for nearly 15 percent of all people polled -- a bloc large enough to swing just about any local election, and one that is far more critical of the mayor than is the rest of the population.
When asked to rate Barry for his handling of the mayor's job, 52 percent of those from city employe households judged Barry negatively, saying his performance was either "not so good" or "poor." Twenty-eight percent gave him a positive appraisal, either "excellent" or "good," and 20 percent took a middle position, saying he was doing a "fair" job.
The rest of the population was more closely split -- with 40 percent giving Barry an unfavorable rating, 33 percent a favorable rating and 23 percent in the middle.
Second, Barry continues to be generally suspect among blacks as a group. Winning election by a bare 35-33-32 margin in a three-way race in 1978, he was seen by many as the darling of white liberals, and that perception lingers on. Among whites polled by The Post, Barry emerges with a narrow 37-to-34 positive rating for his handling of the mayor's job. But among blacks, he draws a 45-to-31 negative rating. Barry does particularly badly among lower income blacks.
And third, many Washingtonians feel personally hurt by the city's financial crisis and upset at Barry's manner of dealing with it.
More than 7 in 10 of those polled believe that the budget crunch is real and not something concocted by government. By a 4-to-3 margin among those who express an opinion, they feel that Barry has not been up to the job of handling that crisis.
In particular, those polled are highly critical of Barry's decision to cut services and lay off city employes rather than call for any increase in property taxes to cope with the budget crunch.
Although almost half those polled said they owned the residence they lived in, sentiment against the mayor's position was lopsided. Fifty-four percent said they would prefer an increase in property taxes to continued layoffs and reduced services, and only 17 percent took the opposing view. Another 15 percent said they would prefer a mixture of an increase in property taxes and cuts in services.
Furthermore, almost half those interviewed said they personally had suffered in one way or another because of the city's financial crisis.
"It's getting so that you can't get a job, forcing city residents to move because of high taxes," said one 57-year-old inner city widow who owns her home but says she has to get by on an income of less than $8,000 a year.
Much of the criticism of Barry's handling of the budget crisis had to do with the 6 percent increase on gasoline taxes that he imposed in August and then withdrew Dec. 1 after widespread complaints and reports of sharp declines in gasoline sales. "I think the gas tax was about as dumb a move as anyone can make," said one Georgetown resident.
The Post poll asked opinions on whether "Barry cares equally about the needs of all the residents of Washington," or whether "he cares more about certain groups." Almost half those interviewed -- 48 percent -- said he cares about all residents. But another 36 percent said he cares more for special interests, and some of the comments volunteered about which special interests Barry caters to were especially caustic.
"He cares more about the moneyed people; he has turned his back on the poor and elderly," said a 66-year-old central city widow.
That charge was leveled frequently by both black and white Washingtonians:
"He doesn't care about the poor people . . . ."
"He leans to upper class and upper middle -- he does not care about lower-income people . . . ."
"Cares about those who are like him -- moneyed . . . ."
"Takes real good care of his friends . . . ."
"His own crowd -- the 'in crowd,' he gives his staff raises . . . ."
Of course, there are those who see Barry quite differently:
"He cares about senior citizens and the unemployed," said an elderly black woman whose only complaint about the mayor was that he is "always late for appointments."
He "cares more about minorities," said a young Southwest woman.
By and large, the accusation that Barry cares more about certain groups is tinged with a complaint that the one-time civil rights street worker has moved toward the establishment, that, as one woman who described her profession as "legislative lobbying" put it, he cares more for "whoever is going to keep him in office."
Such personal observations form only part of the public's impressions of the mayor.For the bulk of the population, the poll suggests, Barry is being measured at least as much by perceptions of his record.
Right now, according to the poll findings, there is a clea link between attitudes toward Barry and opinions of how well the city has handled key problem areas during his stewardship.
One series of questions in the poll asked residents whether they felt the city had made progress or lost ground in the past two years in the quality of its schools, in public transportation, in the fight against crime, in keeping property taxes down and in keeping streets and roadways in repair.
As the findings on the public schools show, Barry is viewed favorably among those who think a particular service has improved -- but unfavorably among those who think it has declined. Three in 10 of those interviewed felt that schools had shown improvement. Overall, they were strong supporters of Barry, with 45 percent rating him favorably and 27 percent unfavorably.
But half those interviewed felt the schools have lost ground in the past two years, and they were sharply critical of the mayor. Among them, 54 percent rated Barry unfavorably, and only 25 percent favorably.
Similar patterns emerged for most of the other services. Those who perceived improvements in the fight against crime, in keeping taxes down and the streets in decent shape were generally approving of Barry; those who felt those services were declining tended to be highly critical of him.
The bad news for Barry in these findings is that, for almost every problem area mentioned, more people see decline than improvement. The one striking exception is public transportation, which is overwhelmingly viewed as having improved, no doubt because of the growth of the Metro subway system. But hardly any among those polled seemed to associate the success of public transportation with Marion Barry's record.
In another series of question, The Post asked city residents to rate Barry's record in keeping the people informed, in keeping property taxes down, in handling the mayor's office with dignity, in providing honest leadership, in working effectively with the City Council, in planning and controlling development in the city and in providing responsive city government.
Barry scored best on the highly personal attributes. Forty-five percent of those interviewed rated him excellent or good for dignity in office, while 22 percent rated him unfavorably, with the rest either expressing no opinion or taking an in-between position. On personal honesty, 42 percent gave the mayor a favorable rating, 24 percent an unfavorable rating and the rest either were undecided or gave him a middle rating.
Blacks, however, were much more skeptical than whites about Barry's honesty. Among blacks, 38 percent of those interviewed rate Barry "excellent" or "good," and 28 percent "not so good" or "bad." Among whites, 53 percent gave one of the positive ratings, and 18 percent a negative rating.