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Incumbents, beware! Sports teams, pay up! These and other lessons for District politicians

The D.C. Council used to be one of the most popular legislative bodies in the United States.

This wasn’t in some hazy, long-ago Camelot era, either. Barely two years ago, Clarus Research Group found 62 percent of District residents approved of our elected lawmakers. At the time, a nationwide Gallup poll put the approval rating for the legislative body down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Wilson Building at 19 percent. Whatever the secret to political happiness was, D.C.’s local leaders had, apparently, found it.

But the two years since then haven’t been great for local politicians, as the latest Washington City Paper/Kojo Nnamdi Show poll of likely District voters makes clear. Our poll didn’t explicitly ask for approval ratings for our local politicians, but it didn’t find much to cheer up anyone whose job security depends on keeping Washingtonians happy.

Incumbent At-Large Councilmember Michael Brown barely leads a little-known challenger for the seat reserved for non-Democrats. More voters than not think the city’s closed primary system, which leaves November’s general election an afterthought for most municipal races, is unfair. Nearly two-thirds of voters think the D.C. Council should ban outside employment, ending second jobs for several lawmakers. The same proportion thinks campaign donors have too much influence on D.C. politics—an impression that’s hard to argue with as the FBI probes the 2010 election.

City Paper and the Kojo Nnamdi Show commissioned the poll, a survey of 1,222 likely District voters conducted by Public Policy Polling from Oct. 12 to14 with a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percent, because we wanted to gauge how satisfied District residents are with the powers-that-be—both elected leaders and big institutions. What we found was a general impression that life here is pretty good, but that residents have a fair number of specific gripes.

Citywide, 55 percent of respondents said the quality of life in their neighborhoods had gotten either a little or significantly better in the last two years. (When we asked that question about the previous four years in our 2010 poll, 58 percent said the same.) In nearly every ward, there was a hefty majority of residents that thinks things are improving—except Ward 3, where 46 percent saw no change and only 31 percent saw an improvement. In a city that’s often split by race, black voters and white voters agreed on quality of life; 56 percent of whites and 54 percent of African-Americans saw either slight or significant improvements around them since 2010.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for D.C. to improve. Take current taxi service, with which 56 percent of voters are either somewhat or very unsatisfied. (See page 22.) Or schools, the hot-button issue of the 2010 election: Less than half of people we polled who have a school-aged child want to send him or her to their local D.C. Public Schools building, preferring to try charter schools, the out-of-boundary lottery, private schools, or even move elsewhere.

Despite those complaints, our poll did find an engaged, active citizenry. More than half of respondents had attended some sort of neighborhood meeting in the last year, though that may be partly because of PPP’s “likely voter” screen, which filters out people who don’t vote regularly and probably leaves a pool of residents who are predisposed to go to hear a local Advisory Neighborhood Commission’s discussion. Nearly a third of respondents, 28 percent, said they or someone in their household had at one point worked for the District government.

Some of the divisions the city has grappled with for years don’t show any sign of vanishing. Newer residents are less likely to support greater representation in Congress for the District, for instance, than longer-term Washingtonians. They’re far likelier to think closed primaries are unfair, and they’re likelier to want the city or Metro to pick up the tab to get fans home from Nationals Park after late games. Likewise, the poll shows the District government may be a less abstract concept for black residents than for whites; 48 percent of African-American respondents say they or someone in their household has worked for the local government, compared to only 6 percent for white residents.

Throughout this week’s paper, you’ll find articles and infographics about the poll and next month’s election. On the presidential level, of course, the outcome (in D.C., at least) is virtually certain. But you already knew that. Flip through the pages here, and click through the poll’s crosstabs at washingtoncitypaper.com/go/poll, and you’ll see there’s plenty to learn. And on Nov. 6, remember—your vote doesn’t count for much here in the District, so seize the chance to use it when you can.