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Things are looking up for former Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry.
He’s got a newish kidney that’s working well, the feds don’t seem to care that he shared some of the city’s wealth with his girlfriend, and his time in the D.C. Council’s penalty box is about to come to an end.
And oh yeah—the next mayor and council chairman are from his side of the river, and Barry isn’t shy about telling people what he thinks that means.
“To the victor go the spoils,” Barry tells LL. “We demand more than our fair share because we’ve been neglected for so long, it’s as simple as that.”
Sigh. That’s the sound Almost Mayor Vincent Gray just made when he read that line—because if Gray is going to be successful as leader of his “One City,” he’ll have to convince white residents (especially in neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park that voted for Adrian Fenty last week) that he’s not a rampaging Visigoth who wants to take their new breadmakers and Subarus and give them away to families living east of the Anacostia River.
Barry, it seems, isn’t interested in helping Gray out. Witness the former mayor-for-life at last week’s Democratic Party unity breakfast, an event designed to soothe the wounds of the bruising primary that saw Gray defeat Fenty along largely racial lines. Asked to give some “words of unification,” Barry gave the friendly crowd this clunky message:
“[The] good news this morning is that there will be four representatives from east of the river. The mayor, the city council chair, Yvette Alexander and Marion Barry. So we know that each of them are going to flourish—gonna flourish. Not at anybody’s expense—nobody’s expense—because you don’t have to take from those to give to those that were in need. It’s a matter of redistribution of that which was there.”
As you might expect, the “R” word raised more than a few eyebrows around the Wilson Building. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh told The Washington Post that Barry’s comments were just “rhetoric.” Another councilmember told LL Barry’s comments were “bullshit” (but then again, “rhetoric” is how you say “bullshit” in a family newspaper).
But Barry isn’t backing down. He says Cheh apologized to him for making that comment to the Post. “You’re damn right she’s going to apologize,” Barry tells LL, adding that he won’t tolerate any dissent from the idea that Ward 7 and Ward 8, both majority black wards on the east side of the Anacostia, have been neglected.
“We’re tired, and we’re not going to take it anymore,” Barry says.
For her part, Cheh remembers the conversation differently, saying she and Barry disagreed on what the word “rhetoric” meant and that she said only that she was sorry Barry felt the way he did.
Later in his conversation with LL, Barry explained that he’s really only promoting the idea of giving hiring preference for government jobs to those living east of the river, and that the “haters” and “part of the enemy” are distorting what he’s saying.
Of course, it’s easy enough to dismiss anything inflammatory coming from Barry’s mouth as just more of the seemingly endless “rhetoric” he’s spouted off during his long career. But chances are there’s more to come: soon-to-be D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown has promised Barry a committee to chair, and thus more of a position of power on the council—and thus more potential for mischief.
And it’s also worth remembering that Brown’s father, Marshall Brown, worked for Barry, and Brown comes from a generation of young black leaders in the District who came of age idolizing Barry.
Brown didn’t seem to appreciate it when LL approached him to ask him about Barry. Brown grabbed LL’s iPhone/voice recorder and pretended LL was Brown, and Brown was LL.
Here’s the first question from new LL Kwame Brown, which had a little bit of an edge to it:
“My name is Kwame Brown, and I’m going to ask you some questions. I’m with the City Paper, and what I really want to know is why do you sit next to Marion Barry. You always sit next to Marion Barry—is that because you want to grow up to be like Marion Barry?”
(If you liked that, just wait until LL the D.C. Council chairman unveils his legislative agenda!)
Brown scoffed at the idea that Barry would run wild during his term as chairman, saying that’s a red herring that comes up no matter who chairs the council. And he’s got a point. Gray, as chairman, generally gets high marks for “managing” Barry, but don’t forget how Barry injected himself into Gray’s campaign during the final days—showing up unannounced at events, even debating Fenty friend-to-the-end Ron Moten live on Fox5, much to the surprise and consternation of Gray’s campaign staff.
Besides, Brown is coming to the job after a campaign season that saw some of his colleagues endorse him publicly—and then dis his intelligence to reporters on background. Gray may have the pressure of trying to heal a racially divided city, but Brown will have the pressure of proving to his colleagues that he’s got the brains and backbone to lead, and sometimes stand up to, 12 councilmembers with large egos. The largest ego of the bunch, of course, still belongs to Marion Barry. What better way for Brown to show he’s in charge than to keep Barry in check?
That may be getting easier; these days, Barry isn’t the most involved councilmember. Since he was censured and stripped of his post as head of the housing committee in March for steering contracts to then-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, Barry spent most of his time submitting “disapproval resolutions” to various spending measure. The effect of those resolutions was mostly to give Barry a few minutes of grandstanding on the council dais about whatever was on his mind (mostly his general opposition to the Fenty administration), before he’d withdraw the resolution, and life would continue.
“Marion tends to inject himself into things and then kind of disappears,” said Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. “Kwame…will be respectful, but will not allow Councilmember Barry to steal the show.”
Which may not be good for ratings on Channel 13. But it might be good news for everyone else.
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MURIEL?
Speaking of councilmembers with the initials “M.B.,” it’s hard to imagine Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser isn’t a little bit worried about her re-election prospects right about now.
Mayor Adrian Fenty was absolutely spanked in Ward 4, where he served as councilmember for six years before becoming mayor, losing to Gray by 19 points. (That’s an even bigger spread than the ward’s straw poll, held in early August, which Team Fenty pooh-poohed at the time as a protest vote from a few disgruntled activists.)
Fenty won his home ward by nearly 45 points in 2006. His negative turnaround suggests that his handpicked successor, Bowser, might be facing a steep uphill climb when she tries to hold onto her own job two years from now.
Might the stink of Fenty’s loss stick to Bowser? Not counting Evans’ largely forgettable pro-Fenty commercial, Bowser was the only councilmember LL ever saw actively campaigning for Hizzoner. And an e-mail chain forwarded to reporters from Ward 4 residents unhappy with Bowser suggests there’s at least a small but vocal group of Gray supporters who are eager to see Bowser—who has been one of Fenty’s staunchest allies on the council—gone.
But Bowser probably doesn’t need to hit the panic button just yet, as she has a couple of things going for her.
The first is time. As LL heard multiple times while talking to sources about this story, “Two years is a long time.” Voters are like goldfish. In two years, they probably won’t even remember Fenty—giving Bowser plenty of time to win back the voters he had, then lost. (Pro tip: if you’re going to do an apology tour, don’t wait to start it until a month or two before the election.) Also, Bowser has time to carve out more of an identity for herself on the council, instead of just being the reliably pro-Fenty vote.
The second thing going for Bowser is the fact that Gray ran on a platform of inclusiveness and doesn’t seem as vindictive as Fenty was. Sure, Bowser had it nice with Fenty in power: her calls to department heads were actually answered and executive branch representatives actually showed up to testify at her council hearings. But it’s doubtful Gray is going to freeze her out entirely—after all, he doesn’t want Ward 4’s fickle voters lining up behind someone else in 2014.
From Bowser herself, LL couldn’t get much more than the standard boilerplate answers on what she thinks about her re-election chances, other than that she was surprised by how big Fenty’s margin of defeat was in Ward 4. She says she worries about every election, and the next one will be no different.
“My job is to worry, prepare, work hard and deliver for Ward 4,” she says. “That’s what I’ve done in three years, and that’s what I’m gonna do in the next two years.” She didn’t add—but may as well have—that the only poll that matters is on election day, and that she’s going to leave it all on the court.
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