D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty poised to get the boot?

Opinion polls on Tuesday's Democratic primary for mayor of Washington, D.C., don't bode well for incumbent Adrian Fenty. The schools and social-class disparity are key issues in the contest.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty speaks during a debate against mayoral candidate Vincent Gray at the Newseum in Washington, Sept. 1.

Adrian Fenty began his day Sunday by swimming 1,500 meters, biking 40 kilometers, and running 10 kilometers in the Nation’s Triathlon.

But for the mayor of Washington, D.C., an experienced triathlete, the tougher challenge comes Tuesday: overcoming a significant deficit in polls to survive the Democratic primary, which, in a heavily Democratic city, would be tantamount to reelection.

The latest poll, released Friday, shows Mayor Fenty trailing his top opponent, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, 51 percent to 38 percent. The so-called “Supermarket Poll,” conducted by students from George Washington University and a university official, Bernard Demczuk, has accurately predicted every D.C. mayor’s race since 1994. They interview voters at grocery stores around the city.

Two other polls released last week showed Fenty down seven and 11 percentage points. In late August, a Washington Post poll showed Fenty trailing Mr. Gray by 13 points among Democratic voters, and 17 percent among likely voters.

The mayor’s reversal of fortune is nothing short of stunning. Fenty won election four years ago by sweeping all 142 precincts after impressing voters with his tireless door-knocking and promises of rapid improvement in city life, including the district’s benighted school system.

Now he faces an electorate divided along racial lines. Though most D.C. voters say he has brought improvements, almost 60 percent of African-Americans say he cares primarily about upper-income residents, according to the Post poll. Fifty-six percent of black voters hold an unfavorable view of Fenty, up from 17 percent in 2006. Across the city, most black voters say they don’t trust Fenty and believe he doesn’t understand their problems. The down economy doesn’t help. In the poorest, largely African-American sections of the city, unemployment reaches 30 percent.

Voters say education is their No. 1 issue, and therein lies another problem for Fenty: his polarizing schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Ms. Rhee is in some ways a Korean-American version of Fenty (who is half black, half white). She is young, ambitious, and, many say, arrogant – closing schools, firing teachers, replacing principals in a way that her supporters applaud and that critics say lacks due process and input from stakeholders.

Noting Rhee and Fenty’s racial backgrounds is not gratuitous. D.C. is a highly sensitized city when it comes to race, and many black D.C. voters see themselves underrepresented in the top levels of D.C. government – and therefore underserved. Gray is African American and lives in Ward 7, which is 97 percent black and one of the city’s poorer areas. Fenty lives in Ward 4, which is more racially and socio-economically mixed.

D.C. voters are split right down the middle on how their view of Rhee affects their vote for mayor: Forty-one percent of registered Democrats say her record is a reason to vote for Fenty and 40 percent say she’s a reason to vote against him, according to a Washington Post poll on Rhee taken in August. The poll also shows Rhee with 44 percent job approval and 38 percent disapproval.

Gray has not indicated whether he would keep Rhee on if elected, but it is widely assumed that she would not stay under a Mayor Gray. Rhee has taken the unusual step of campaigning for Fenty, which for all intents and purposes signals her intent to leave if he loses.

Some analysts call the mayor’s race a referendum on Rhee, and even though her record reflects on the boss, who backs her fully, chances are the mayor would be polling better if the election was just about Rhee. Perhaps more than anything, it is a contest over personal style. Gray, at age 67, is old enough to be the 39-year-old Fenty’s father. Gray’s calm temperament bespeaks a courtly manner and an emphasis on process. Fenty is all about action.

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