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Before you see the candidate, you hear her voice. Over a grim beat, Natalie Williams intones from an RV blocks away about her life of “survival and service.” And she’s brought some backup from beyond the grave.
With the RV still out of sight, Marion Barry—dead now for five months—talks up Williams on a recording made years ago. There’s a wealth of less glowing Barry quotes about Williams to choose from, but the campaign has gone with one of the nicer ones.
A minute later, you see Williams’ face, four feet tall and plastered on the side of the RV. Then Williams’ name appears on the shirts of a dozen volunteers who spill out of the vehicle, hyping Williams like she’s come to this corner of Anacostia to claim the title belt.
At last, minutes after the speakers announce her arrival, the real Williams appears.
“We call them ‘jump-outs,’” Williams says, making a play on the police rush tactics that activists say terrorize the ward.
Metropolitan Police Department officers in jump-out units look for guns and drugs, but Williams’ squad only wants votes. Williams, a former Barry staffer and the president of the Ward 8 Democrats, has been competing with ten other candidates in the special election to fill the ward’s D.C. Council seat.
On a Wednesday afternoon two weeks before the April 28 election, the Williams road show rolls up to a laundromat parking lot in Anacostia that’s strewn with broken glass. About 30 people mill around the lot, but not many of them look like they’re there to do laundry. A sign on a needle exchange van nearby urges them to “ask us about Hep C.”
Williams volunteers hustle out of the RV. Two run across Good Hope Road SE to stick a campaign sign to a barbed wire fence. Others start rounding up people to talk to Williams. The whole operation is a show of force in a race that will come down to campaign organization, and it works well enough that one man jokes to Williams that it frightened him.
Williams’ tour doubles as an impromptu social work blitz for the District’s poorest ward. In two hours of campaigning, Williams encounters a catalogue of woes: a woman discovering her car window was smashed during a burglary attempt; a homeless lesbian couple who, estranged from their parents, takes their daughter to a park to sleep at night.
On 18th Street SE, Williams comes upon a man who has just been evicted from his apartment. Surrounded by the remains of his life on the curb, the man, who says his name is Leonard, praises Williams for her connection to the late mayor.
“That’s the seed that you came out of,” he tells her.
Not that everyone thinks so well of Williams and Barry: At the laundromat, Anacostia resident Hermener Brown tells Williams that she doesn’t like her or her old boss.
“The only time we see him was when he wanted a vote,” she says.
Brown won’t vote for Williams or anyone else. She turns away, warning others off the campaign.
Back on the RV, though, Williams grins. Aside from Brown, the laundromat crowd loved her. One man asked for her autograph.
Another pestered her through the glad-handing. I figured he was a crank; it turns out he wanted help feeding his four kids. Williams plans to find his family a meal at a church that night.
“That’s why they loved Barry,” Williams says. “And that’s why they’re going to love me.”
This is all happening because of what occurred on Nov. 23, 2014. That’s when Barry—four-term mayor, four-term Ward 8 councilmember, and perennial late night TV punchline—collapsed in front of his house. He arrived at United Medical Center in cardiac arrest. By then, the 78-year-old politician couldn’t be saved. Barry had been the mayor-for-life, but now he was dead.
Barry’s death set off weeks of official mourning and the most unpredictable Council race in recent memory. His final post as Ward 8 councilmember was a humbler one than his time as the city’s globe-trotting mayor. In 2014, it was hard to remember the Barry who taunted prosecutors and hobnobbed with world leaders. The U.S. Attorney’s Office hounded Barry when he was mayor, but toward the end no prosecutor could be bothered with his antics as councilmember.
Even the 2014 book tour to promote his memoir couldn’t help but reveal how diminished Barry had become. Asked about a proposed “yoga tax” on gym services, a confused Barry went on to announce his opposition to the nonexistent “yogurt tax,” filibustering on the nutritional benefits of cottage cheese.
Barry’s Council tenure earned a record two censures from his colleagues. When Barry died, he didn’t control any committees. Officially, the District’s most storied politician had about as much power as a newly elected freshman.
Despite a dismal legislative record and mishaps of almost every kind, Barry managed to keep a lid on the ward’s tumultuous politics. When he died, that lid blew off.
If someone wanted the seat, you could see it in the way they talked at the Barry memorial, an event that would help bring the District government’s tab for public grieving to nearly $100,000. Mourners interred Barry at Congressional Cemetery after a lengthy ceremony at the Walter Washington Convention Center, effectively firing the starting gun on a covert race that could finally move from living rooms and text messages to the D.C. Board of Elections. By the beginning of January, 23 candidates had picked up nominating forms to enter the race. Thirteen of them made the ballot for April 28, although two candidates dropped out earlier this month.
It’s a lot of hopefuls to keep track of, but who can blame them for running? For the first time since Barry retook his Council seat in 2004, Ward 8 pols don’t have to measure their ambitions against the most significant politician in District history.
“Marion was like the Goliath of politics, and no one except for a very few had the courage to stand up and run against him,” says Rev. Oliver “O.J.” Johnson, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner in the ward. “Once he died, all of those have come out now who basically didn’t have the courage to challenge a political Goliath.”
Barry’s would-be replacements represent nearly every stream of District politics in the last 40 years of Home Rule. Mayor Muriel Bowser has her champion in LaRuby May, a businesswoman who has crushed her opponents in fundraising. Representing the remains of ex-Mayor Vince Gray’s administration is former mayoral deputy chief of staff Sheila Bunn, who has received her old boss’ endorsement but little of his fundraising success.
They’re joined by a cast worthy of an east-of-the-river Game of Thrones. There’s Trayon White, a Barry protégé whose sizable organization and ties to the street evoke Barry’s origins as a young agitator. He’s facing longtime activist Eugene D. Kinlow and Williams, a one-time Barry confidante who became one of his most dedicated foes. Sandra Seegars, a distinguished political knife-fighter in a ward with no shortage of them, is testing how far decades of community work will take her.
And there’s Barry’s son Christopher, who since his father’s death has been going by the more politically advantageous “Marion C. Barry.” He’s looking to make good on a legacy that he’s spent much of his life avoiding. (In this piece, I’ll call the former mayor “Barry” and his son, Marion C. Barry, “Marion.”)
Five months after his death, Barry’s reputation and the voters who guaranteed him re-election are still here. A campaign isn’t a truth and reconciliation commission, but it’s striking how positive all the candidates are about Barry, whose legacy on actual improvements for the ward is, at best, mixed.
As Ward 8 tries to define its politics without the mayor-for-life, even his old enemies want to tap into that Barry magic.
Activist Philip Pannell says some of the candidates will stop at nothing for a piece of Barry.
“If they thought that possibly going to Congressional Cemetery and getting in the grave with him would help them get votes, they would do that.”
Eugene Kinlow has come to this Fairlawn door to scrounge up votes. Instead, he’s getting another story about the mayor-for-life.
“I know him personally,” the man who opens the front door says, pulling out his flip phone to show Kinlow that he has the now-useless number on speed dial. “I hate to see he’s gone.”
It’s yet another door for Kinlow, the 53-year-old activist and failed political candidate looking for some electoral luck after going a while without it. After successfully campaigning against a private prison and trash transfer station in the ward more than a decade ago, Kinlow now wants to take his work to the Council.
Kinlow has a vision for Ward 8, but driving around with him, it’s not easy to picture. As he passes by vacant storefronts and a drug market, Kinlow envisions the change rumbling east across the river from Southwest.
He knows all the best views, where the trees open up and the whole District appears in panorama. They’re places that would make a condominium tycoon salivate, if not for the crime rate and lack of stores and restaurants.
“With all these views, we still have the lowest-priced property in town,” Kinlow says.
Depending on your point of view, Ward 8 has either been spared from or missed out on the wave of development that’s sweeping the rest of the District. Last year, the ward led the District in murders, with 35 homicides, eight more than in 2013. Two years ago, Anacostia’s crime rate earned a travel warning from the French government. An Urban Institute study released this month found that, even as the number of areas “challenged” by poverty dropped west of the Anacostia River, they’ve increased in Ward 8.
More businesses and higher-priced apartments could reverse those numbers, but they will also likely mean pricing decades-long residents out to the suburbs, replacing them with moneyed, often white, new residents.
“I’m one of the only candidates letting people know, ‘Look, your rents are going to double or triple in the next five to ten years,’” Kinlow says.
That anxiety about change hangs in the air during the race. Twice while I reported this story, people assured me that they didn’t have anything against white people.
After decades of work in the ward, Kinlow is an encyclopedia of missed opportunities. He takes me to a Metro parking garage, where he looks out over Poplar Point. It was the proposed site for a D.C. United soccer stadium, but eventually lost out to Buzzard Point on the other side of the river.
“Man, they were almost there, but they still missed it by a half-a-mile,” Kinlow says.
Kinlow envisions a town center-style complex on the Anacostia in the stadium’s place, but it seems like he won’t get a chance to guide it. Despite some success in fundraising, his campaign still lags far behind May’s.
Historian and occasional Washington City Paper contributor John Muller pegs Kinlow as a representative of the ward’s middle class—and thus, not likely to do well on Election Day.
“Just look at the Census statistics or the demographics or whatever. That’s not going to be enough to carry him to victory,” Muller says.
At Ballou High School in early April, each of the Ward 8 candidates has one of their last shots to prove that they can beat May. But the candidate of the hour isn’t here yet.
Instead, May is a few blocks away at a cookout, where she and her mayoral patron are pumping up (and feeding) straw poll voters. Bowser waves a May sign on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, although the more than $200,000 May has raised with Bowser’s help has been more valuable. Without any public polling in the race, May, with a financial advantage and Bowser’s sizable campaign machine behind her, looks like the likely winner.
With gobs of big business cash, May has become a target for voters and candidates who fret that May and Bowser want to turn the ward into a developers’ playground. Perhaps more worryingly for rivals, the young Florida transplant looks poised to win a Council seat that others have waited decades for.
“There’s an incredible amount of resentment towards LaRuby May,” Muller says.
Still, May has her fans. When she yells out her “So 8 May Rise” campaign slogan at forums, they stand up, dressed in her signature purple and waving their arms like they’ve been hit by a shockwave.
A May defeat by Bunn, the Gray-endorsed candidate in the race, would give the ex-mayor, still facing a federal investigation into his 2010 mayoral campaign, some satisfaction at foiling Bowser’s plan to put an ally on the Council.
The defensiveness of the late-stage Gray administration has carried over in part to Bunn’s campaign. A page posted on a wall in her headquarters lays out “The Machen Plan”—that’s Machen as in ex-U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, the man Gray supporters blame for his primary re-election loss to Bowser last year.
“Get Rid of Vince Gray,” the page reads in part. “You know why? So 8 May Rise.”
It continues: “Handpick a puppet, LaRuby May. You know why? So 8 May Rise.”
Judging by his frequently heated interactions with police, Trayon White isn’t willing to be anyone’s puppet. White, a former State Board of Education member, is suing the city, alleging that an MPD cop slammed a car trunk on his head during one of Barry’s annual turkey giveaways.
White, an organizer who styles himself with the nickname “WardEight” for the ballot, knows the street. After arguing with a cop last year, police took him to a station to ask him questions about a murder. (Police records don’t suggest that White was a suspect, and he’s never been charged with a serious crime.)
“His is more than a campaign,” Pannell says. “It’s a crusade.”
White, Kinlow, Williams, and Bunn make up the most viable field of opponents for May. At the straw poll, she arrives late to boos from the diehards who have already cast their ballots and stuck around for the forum.
Their disdain isn’t enough to stop her. She beats her nearest opponents, led by White and Williams, by nearly 100 votes. In a ward where a 1995 special election came down to a single vote, that’s a big deal.
Weeks after the straw poll, Williams finds herself face-to-face with the power of May’s food giveaways. At a bus stop on Good Hope Road SE, she meets a man who promises to vote for “LaRo” because her campaign gave him food.
“You don’t even know her name?” Williams says, incredulous.
Later, she’ll complain to me about May’s belly-centric campaign style.
“That’s one-time feeding,” Williams says. “That’s tricking the people.”
Williams has her own mayoral connections. She counts her time working as Barry’s spokeswoman not in years but in travails: his kidney transplant, his 2009 arrest for stalking an ex-girlfriend, the loss of his committee after the Council discovered that he had steered an earmark to that ex-girlfriend and taken a cut for himself.
Williams’ campaign office includes a Barry calendar and a propped-up copy of his memoir. He features prominently in her literature, which comes in handy at a gas station, when Williams meets a woman who insists that only a man can hold the seat.
“Don’t do that to the sisters,” Williams says, pulling out her campaign hand card and pointing at a picture of Barry. “I learned from the very best.”
Since he’s dead, Barry can’t complain about his starring role in Williams’ campaign. But there was a time when Williams found herself on the outs with her former boss. When she tried to run against him in 2012, Barry blasted Williams as a newcomer ignorant to the ward’s needs. Williams, who came in fourth in the Democratic primary, was reduced to holding a sit-in in Barry’s Council office as a campaign stunt. Eventually, security came and asked her to leave city hall.
As a member of one of the ward’s most prominent political families, Bunn has her own complicated past with Barry. Her late father, James Bunn, rose to prominence alongside Barry as a ward businessman and played a minor role in his earmarks scandal. But now, Sheila Bunn says she’s offering the ward a “different type of leadership.”
“No one can be Marion Barry,” Bunn says. “And I’m not trying to be Marion Barry.”
Marion C. Barry isn’t exactly Babysitter’s Club material. In 2005, an unsuspecting cop found himself trapped in a headlock while Marion punched his head. In 2011, he jumped out of an apartment window in a botched attempt to escape police, leaving behind a vial of PCP, sandwich bags of pot, and a spray of blood. More recently, Marion approached police officers with a clenched fist during a neighborhood dispute.
Last year, a Secret Service officer discovered the younger Barry zoned out in a car downtown with synthetic marijuana on his clothes. The incident earned him probation and a suspended sentence. Unless he takes a plea deal, Marion will face trial next month for allegedly threatening a bank teller and destroying a security camera in a fit of rage.
But on Easter Monday, Marion and a handful of campaign staffers find themselves at the National Zoo in charge of two dozen kids, some as young as two years old. Soon after the Marion crew arrives, one boy tears off after spotting the buffaloes, yelling that he’s going to score “some buffalo wings.”
Marion’s campaign has brought the kids from impoverished Wellington Park to enjoy Easter Monday at the zoo, an African-American tradition in the District that dates back to segregation. But Marion, who has both his father’s reputation and pending criminal charges weighing on him, seems less interested in zebras or toddlers than his own political prospects.
“If they walked in my shoes, I don’t think they would make it,” Marion says of his critics.
(Two weeks later, at a press conference organized to insist that Marion won’t drop out of the race, one of his campaign staffers will tell me that his rivals are trying to “set up” the candidate—an accidental echo of his father’s famous exclamation, “Bitch set me up.”)
On paper, Marion’s father didn’t leave much behind. Along with royalties from his memoir, Barry’s assets totalled roughly $16,000, with much more than that waiting in tax debts. Another Barry creditor recently filed a claim for more than $20,000.
But Barry did leave his son something that can’t be litigated away: his name. Within weeks of his father’s death, he started going by Marion, his legal first name, instead of Christopher, the middle name he used for the first 34 years of his life. Marion says he’s just trying to honor his father with the switch, but it’s hard not to consider the benefits on the ballot.
No one works more under Barry’s shadow than his own son, and no one is more eager to claim his mantle. In a campaign handout dominated by a picture of Marion standing in front of a new mural of his father, Marion makes clear that he wants to lay the strongest claim to the family legacy, whatever that is. Other candidates tout their connections to Marion’s father, according to the handout, “but only I can truly carry the great responsibility of upholding the Barry Tradition.”
Ever since his introduction to District politics at 6 pounds, 7 ounces, Marion has been scrutinized. He may be the only baby in the city’s history whose birth required the Columbia Hospital for Women to create an impromptu press room. Months later, Marion’s father and mother, Effi Barry, brought out their infant at a diplomatic function to be coddled by the first lady of Egypt.
Marion was born into the District’s most famously tumultuous home life. Effi, a former model who shunned public life even as her husband wallowed in it, described her first year as the city’s first lady as a “nightmare.” The world outside the house, the elder Barry once told a reporter, was a “fishbowl” filled with “barracudas” and “piranhas.”
By 1986, things soured further in the Barry household. A bizarre Washington Post profile written at the time, apparently organized by Barry to put down rumors about his partying and philandering, featured the mayor insisting that his sex life with his Effi was going well while a six-year-old Chris Barry tore around the house.
“Put your brakes on, Christopher!” Effi yelled.
Marion played a cameo role in his father’s mounting scandals. Now chaperoning kids around the zoo, he once had his own city-funded chaperones at a theme park birthday party, a flap that caused a mini-scandal for his father’s administration.
On trips to the Caribbean islands where Marion’s father would reportedly use drugs, the mayoral bodyguard babysat Marion, sometimes across town from his hard-partying father. On one trip to the Bahamas, according to a government witness against Barry, a city employee took care of Marion while his dad enjoyed his eponymous “M.B. special”—a joint laced with cocaine.
“We were more like brothers than father and son,” Marion says.
City-funded babysitters would look like a lark compared to what was to come. On Jan. 18, 1990, the FBI finally caught up with Barry at the Vista Hotel. Barry’s on-and-off mistress convinced him to hit a crack pipe, and then gave agents in the next room the cue to burst in.
In a 2007 Post interview conducted months before her death from leukemia, Effi described getting a late-night phone call telling her that her husband was in custody. Stunned, Effi went and looked in on her son, sound asleep.
“I just stood there and cried,” she said.
With the help of a family friend, Effi smuggled Marion, face covered, past a growing crowd of news reporters. The mayor’s supporters created a fund to keep his son at the tony St. Albans School, but the money wasn’t necessary: Marion was soon pulled from school after classmates teased him over his father’s now infamous problems with women and drugs. After divorcing her husband, Effi moved to Hampton, Va., taking her son with her. He didn’t return to live with his father until high school.
When Marion thinks about his father’s drug use, he doesn’t dwell on the Vista and “bitch set me up.” Instead, he remembers the time between 1999 and 2004, when Barry had finished his final term as mayor but had yet to regain the Ward 8 Council seat.
U.S. Park Police arrested Barry in 2002 at Buzzard Point after finding cocaine and marijuana in his car. Barry claimed the drugs were planted, and he was never charged. Marion, looking for help from his father as he entered his 20s, instead found him “really off the deep end” with drugs.
“When I really needed his guidance, he was off on his own thing,” Marion says.
Marion developed his own drug problems in 2011 and 2012. His life foundered, he claims, after he became the victim of identity theft and a series of burglaries. Work slowed for the contracting company he had started and named after his mother. With his life falling apart, Marion started using PCP, a drug that causes numbness, detachment, and sometimes mania.
“Everything in my life was just chaos, and you put something in your body that makes chaos seem normal,” Marion says.
As Marion’s addiction grew, it became obvious to people who would see him scoring or getting high in the ward his father represented. Despite not even being the most famous drug addict in his family, Marion found his father unsympathetic to his problems.
“Him having struggled with drugs, I would have wished he was there more,” Marion says. “But he was more concerned about politics.”
Marion says he’s now sober, thanks in part to help from former Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. Barry asked Graham to help take care of his son, according to the ex-councilmember.
Even with Marion’s legal and personal problems, Barry apparently wanted his son to succeed him in the Council seat, a plan that, despite his death, has thus far worked out.
In 2011, political hopeful Jacque Patterson met with Barry. During their conversation, according to Patterson, Barry laid out his plans to win re-election in 2012, then resign the seat two years later and endorse Marion for the ensuing special election. If Barry had lived and stuck to this succession scheme, it would be going into effect right about now.
“He would have liked to see his son, during his lifetime, ascend to that seat,” Patterson, who ran against Barry in 2012, says.
When the Post reported on the dynastic plan, Barry claimed that it was just “bait” to test who in his inner circle would leak to reporters. Still, he kept pushing his son toward the office.
Two weeks before last year’s primary, Barry organized a press conference at a church to endorse Gray. Barry and Gray were on stage, of course, but so was Marion, who said nearly nothing during the endorsement. Marion’s surprising appearance seemed just short of an anointing with oil.
Now, Marion says his dad included him on the stage as part of the succession process. Just as important to Marion and his supporters, though, is Marion’s claim that his father, from his death bed, told him to run for the seat.
Marion has inherited his father’s gift for making a political point. As the zoo tour winds on, he stops by the elephant house to point at the kids he’s leading, all African American. They’re targeted, he claims, by Bowser, May, and the coterie of developers who fund their campaigns.
“They don’t want these children to be raised in Southeast,” Marion says. “They want them to be displaced.”
Barry could make as many signals as he wanted about posthumous plans for the seat, but he couldn’t control his son. After a politically momentous appearance at his father’s memorial, Marion made what could still be a fatal mistake for his campaign: He went to the bank.
On Jan. 13, Marion, who says he’s distrustful of banks because of his identity theft, walked into the PNC Bank’s Chinatown branch to make a $20,000 withdrawal. There, he says, he encountered a teller who had hassled him in the past.
“You have people sometimes that take advantage of their positions,” Marion says, adding, “I just think that when she sees the name ‘Marion Barry,’ she for some reason doesn’t like me.”
Court records tell a less sympathetic story. Marion, according to police, found his account overdrawn by $2,000. When Marion reduced the size of his withdrawal and was still refused, he allegedly threatened the teller.
“I’m going to have someone waiting for you when you get off, you bitch,” Marion told the woman, according to a police report. In a rage, Marion allegedly grabbed a trash can and threw it over a bulletproof barrier at another teller, destroying a security camera.
“I don’t think I had realized how much I was still mourning,” Marion says as he herds kids past the zoo’s panda cub.
Making yet another arraignment appearance at D.C. Superior Court a week after the bank incident, Marion seemed less like a viable candidate and more like Marion Barry’s volatile son. Marion, who says he was “disappointed in myself” after the incident, pleaded not guilty to three charges. After rejecting a plea deal offered by the prosecution, he faces trial in May.
For the son of a man who seemed physically grafted onto the Council dais, Marion has had a hard run for his father’s seat. After the alleged bank outburst, Marion lost his experienced campaign manager and turned in a dismal campaign finance report.
At the ward’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, Barry rode a horse and appeared in cowboy gear. It was a decision that Marion says honored his father’s love for horses, but also an eye-catching one for a candidate who had just been accused of bizarre behavior. Marion, undeterred, quips that he’s 6 feet three inches tall—or 6’8” with his cowboy hat on.
While higher recent fundraising totals suggest a recovering campaign, he still hasn’t successfully rallied all of Marion’s faithful (stepmother Cora Masters Barry, for example, hasn’t maxed out her contributions to him). Given the potential power of the Barry name, his upcoming trial raises the fascinating prospect of a newly elected councilmember being sent to prison after winning election.
“He could win, and then he has a trial or something,” says Muller, who wrote a one-man show about Marion’s father. “I mean, that’s crazy.”
As Marion circles the zoo, talking about his love of going off alone to a park to be away from people, I think of the advice Effi offered him in her Post interview near the end of her life.
“You don’t have to be Marion Barry, you are Christopher Barry,” Effi said. “You don’t have to fill the shoes of your father.”
But now he wants to be called “Marion Barry,” and his campaign quickly reminds reporters who think otherwise. After two hours at the zoo, Team Barry heads to a bustling park barbeque in Congress Heights.
While the candidate hovers by the grill, I talk to a crowd of people clustered around a bench. They hold forth on their love for Barry—both of them.
“If he’s anything like his father, man,” says Congress Heights resident Carl Magruder, before qualifying his support. “Look, I don’t know a lot about him.”
Congress Heights resident Sandra Smith is on board with Marion based on his family name alone. She won’t truck with candidates like “LaRay,” whom she describes as a “cutthroat.”
Smith’s benchmates pull on cans of Natty Light secreted in a black grocery bag, while men pass the time around a nearby convenience store. The west-of-the-river District boom seems very far away, even as it inches closer to Smith and the park. For now, though, it still feels like Barry town in Ward 8.
“Marion Barry paved the way for us,” she says. “And he’d want us to stay right here.”