Recent polls show a sharp contrast between black and white voters’ approval of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s job performance, with the majority of blacks disapproving, suggesting that racial tensions remain beneath the District’s liberal veneer.
Local political observers say that Mr. Fenty’s style and approach to governance, and his priorities on cultural issues, play less well with black residents, who traditionally see city government as helping them and view Mr. Fenty as a failure on those grounds.
“I think black people look at government as the entity that intervenes on behalf of those who have frequently been disadvantaged,” said Howard University associate professor Greg Carr, who chairs the school’s Afro-American Studies department. “To them, [Mr. Fenty] represents the elites, those who already have power.”
In the most recent poll of 501 D.C. voters, conducted by Clarus Research Group this month, only 22 percent of black respondents said they want Mr. Fenty re-elected, and 71 percent said they would want someone else. Among whites, 51 percent said they would support Mr. Fenty for a second term, while 32 percent would not.
A September poll of 500 voters, conducted by SurveyUSA for WJLA-TV (Channel 7), also showed a pronounced split between black and white voters, with 69 percent of black voters disapproving of Mr. Fenty, compared with just 24 percent of white voters.
Some longtime D.C. residents contrast Mr. Fenty’s style of governing to that former Mayor Marion Barry, who served four terms as mayor and is in his second term as a council member despite a past that included jail time.
Mr. Barry, now the Ward 8 D.C. Council member, is credited with opening stable, government jobs to black residents while maintaining his appeal to whites. He also created the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, for which its mostly black alumni frequently thank Mr. Barry when he’s in public.
Civil rights activist and D.C. resident Lawrence Guyot criticized Mr. Fenty’s approach to certain social issues, saying he has taken a “post-racial” approach and cut “racial preference” out of policy decisions, which has worked to Mr. Fenty’s detriment.
“He has taken on a number of issues that are dear to black people and acted as though he was unaware of the history. If he was aware of it, he completely disregarded it,” Mr. Guyot said.
He offered Mr. Fenty’s approach to the same-sex marriage debate as an example, saying the mayor did not try to persuade black churches on the issue, instead saying simply that he would sign the bill. Black churches and their congregations generally oppose same-sex marriage and are particularly offended by the comparisons that the unions’ backers such as Mr. Fenty make to the civil rights movement.
By contrast, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Mr. Fenty’s likely challenger, has generally been regarded as a unifying force on the council. Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray are both black.
Mr. Gray was widely credited with closing a two-year $666 million budget shortfall in July. A year earlier, the council passed the fiscal 2009 budget in just minutes with no discussion — an accomplishment Mr. Gray’s colleagues attributed to the chairman’s proactive approach to conflict resolution.
Mr. Gray, who was the founding executive director of the Covenant House outreach group for homeless youths, also has increasingly become the voice of residents and other stakeholders who feel they have been shut out of policy decisions, particularly those regarding education.
The Clarus poll numbers show Mr. Fenty’s biggest weakness is in and around Mr. Gray’s home turf in Ward 7. The results show 48 percent of respondents in Ward 6, 7 and 8 would vote for Mr. Gray in 2010 compared with 25 percent for Mr. Fenty. The remainder were undecided.
Wards 7 and 8 both have a solid majority of black residents.
Some observers of city politics see the schism as a generational one that happens to align with race.
Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer newspaper, said newer residents lack a memory of the populist governing style of Mr. Barry and other recent mayors and, therefore, Mr. Fenty’s style does not suffer by comparison in their eyes. Those residents also happen to be white, she said.
The demographics of the District have changed significantly during the last decade as the black majority has diminished.
In 2000, black residents made up 60.0 percent of the population, while whites made up 31 percent, according to U.S. census data. By 2008, the population was 54 percent black and 36 percent white, according to census estimates.
“They [new residents] probably have more access here than they had in the cities they left,” Ms. Barnes said. “To say ‘it’s race’ is too simple for me. It becomes race when the candidate doesn’t connect to the diverse population of this city.”
Ms. Barnes said the influx of new residents, combined with Mr. Fenty’s governing style, which critics have branded as driven by rapid decision making at the expense of inclusiveness, has deflated black voters’ confidence.
However, she and other observers think Mr. Fenty can win back black voters by reaching out to those who feel marginalized.
“[Fenty] is going to have to intervene in the lives of regular black folks,” Mr. Carr said. “Fenty’s going to have to get his hands dirty.”