A broad majority of D.C. residents approve of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s overall job performance, and she gets positive marks across racial and geographic lines in the city near the end of her first year in office, according to a new Washington Post poll.
Nearly 6 in 10 respondents said that the mayor is doing a good job. But 41 percent of those who rate Bowser positively also say they only “somewhat” approve of her job performance. Seventeen percent say they “strongly” approve — a figure in line with the 18 percent who say they have no opinion of her whatsoever.
The poll’s findings suggest that Bowser (D) lacks the reservoir of goodwill that some other mayors had at similar points in their tenure. Former mayors Adrian M. Fenty and Anthony A. Williams, also Democrats, each had about twice the level of intense approval as Bowser roughly one year after taking office.
There are additional signs in the poll that the mayor’s support is soft. Even though a majority of the respondents in The Post’s poll say the city is on the right track, residents also give Bowser and the city poor marks on issues that were central to her campaign and her first year in office.
Fewer than 3 in 10 respondents say the city is doing a good job in creating or maintaining affordable housing or helping the homeless.
District residents’ worst assessment of their mayor concerns the problem that they care about most: the unexpected 58 percent surge in the city’s homicide rate. By a 30 percentage-point margin, more residents rate her negatively than positively in dealing with the issue.
Residents also give Bowser negative marks on the issue that voters had said set her apart from former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D): reducing graft in city government.
One positive area for Bowser was education: Residents think she is doing a good job with the city’s schools.
There is room for Bowser to solidify her soft support, the poll shows, as her priorities already align with voters’. She is pushing for greater powers for law enforcement to address the homicide increase, which could allay the concerns among 51 percent of surveyed residents who call the police response inadequate. And her high marks on education position her well on an issue perennially important to parents. Bowser also is committing hefty budget resources at the outset of her four-year term to begin building affordable housing and remaking services for the homeless, both of which align with voters’ concerns.
Shawn Durham, 38, a self-employed writer and actor in the Shaw-Mount Vernon area, said he voted for Bowser but, like several of his friends, worries about rising rent costs and the city’s growing unaffordability.
“I like her. I think she’s a progressive type of person,” Durham said. “But a lot of people of my ilk, we want to see more proactive policies, not just the ‘keep-Washington-growing-and-gentrifying’ theme.”.
His feeling of personal financial insecurity is also converging with an impression that monied interests still have too much influence in city politics.
“If I was going to tell someone about D.C. right now, I would say it’s all about the money — people who have money are getting it, and people who do not have money are being pushed out and disenfranchised.”
Bowser may have to address vulnerabilities related to her main campaign promise. Although she ran on a platform of bringing a deeply divided city back together and as someone who would run a clean government and stand up to corruption, just over 4 in 10 District residents say she is doing a good job on that score.
The mayor also receives negative marks on reducing the influence of wealthy political donors on government decisions, with 51 percent saying she is doing a “not so good” or “poor job” and 31 percent saying she is doing a good job. And those ratings come despite the fact that most residents say they have not heard about the political action committee set up by her closest supporters. It was disbanded this month in the face of accusations of pay-to-play politics because most PAC donors have business before the city or are seeking it.
In fact, more than half of the poll respondents, 53 percent, said they support a more stringent ban on campaign financing than Bowser has so far been willing to support: a prohibition on contributions from companies or individuals doing business with the city or seeking to do business with it.
“I think she’s been pretty okay, but I’m getting worried about some of the stuff that’s going on now. I mean, what is she doing with this PAC, for gosh sakes,” said Karen Graves, 78, a retired medical center employee who was among the 41 percent who said they approve “somewhat” of Bowser’s job performance. “Just do your job, work on the Fire Department, the Police Department. You don’t need a PAC and to get reelected right now.”
Graves is the kind of voter who explains why Bowser remains below the standing Fenty had after one year in office. Graves said she was an enthusiastic backer of Fenty, Bowser’s political mentor. “I was so excited with him. I thought, ‘Oh, God, things are finally changing.’ Then with [Mayor Vincent] Gray . . . things seemed to go back to the same old ways. I was hoping Bowser would be different. We’ll see.”
Bowser’s strong support among 17 percent of respondents is 7 percentage points above that of Gray during his first year, when he was already hampered by a federal corruption probe into campaign spending on his behalf. Fenty and Williams each garnered well above 30 percent, or about twice the level of intense approval as Bowser within their first year of taking office.
Lack of familiarity could be playing a key part in Bowser’s less-enthusiastic approval. More than 1 in 6 District residents had no opinion of the mayor at all, according to the poll.
Idriis Bilaal, a retired Army officer, said he was in the “somewhat” category in the poll and supports Bowser “because I support D.C.,” he said. “But what’s my opinion of Bowser? I haven’t formed one yet,” said the 88-year-old resident, who lives in the rapidly gentrifying NoMa neighborhood. “I didn’t vote for her. She’s just there, like she’s biding time.”
Shengquan Dan, 29, who has been busy working at a start-up in economic market research, also gave the mayor a courtesy response of “somewhat” supportive. But the recent American University graduate said he didn’t know that Bowser had just spent eight days in his Chinese homeland. “I missed that,” he said. “I honestly don’t know much about her. I know about my neighborhood; I like it.”
Christopher Siddall, 47, a management consultant who has held top positions in two charter schools, was among poll respondents who see room for Bowser to grow.
He has studied how she has forcefully backed popular Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and has continued to keep the topic of improving District schools a top priority. Bowser’s marks on the topic were 49 percent positive to 36 percent negative, near Fenty’s highest rating in 2008 after winning a mayoral takeover of city schools.
Siddall said he also believes that the dust-up over FreshPAC, the committee started by Bowser’s close allies, will blow over.
“I don’t see any traction in the charge of straight cronyism. And FreshPAC? It makes sense on a lot of levels. If you want to preserve and maintain your status, you want to help your allies. . . . What would you do if you were the mayor?”
Bowser can also boast of following through on her campaign slogan to work for “All Eight Wards.” Bowser has more positive than negative job ratings in all wards of the city and among both black and white residents (60 and 55 percent).
That’s a notable measure of success in a city where recent elections have split sharply along racial and regional lines, divisions that contributed to her mentor’s loss in 2010 and Gray’s loss last year. Bowser’s best approval mark is 65 percent in Ward 7, the same largely African American ward where 82 percent voted against Fenty in 2010’s Democratic primary. Her lowest marks come in Ward 6, with 49 percent approving (compared with 34 percent disapproving). Safety concerns have grown there after a string of Capitol Hill robberies.
Elliott Johnson, 50, a federal IT consultant who lives in Ward 4, like Bowser, said that breaking through as a great mayor may require the mayor to stretch and become something she has never been.
“She’s not as down-to-earth as several other mayors, not as personable,” Johnson said. “The last two mayors seemed grass-roots, and we all know that Marion Barry was grass-roots. I don’t think she’s fully connecting with the citizenry.”
A remedy? “I don’t know,” Johnson said. “She’s probably got to do something pretty different. When I look at it from the hard question of, ‘What has she done thus far?’ I can’t really say.”
Durham, the Shaw resident, said he yearns to see more from Bowser in the form of intensity on a signature need of the city, such as education or housing. “I haven’t seen her roll up her sleeves on education or something and really take hold of it.”