Malt of the Earth: Barry takes aim at gritty demographic.
Malt of the Earth: Barry takes aim at gritty demographic. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

When he announced his run for an at-large council seat six years ago, Marion Barry pulled out an old chestnut: “I will represent the least, the last, and the lost,” he declared. That’s long been one of Barry’s favorite bons mots, especially now that he represents Ward 8—widely regarded as the least, last, and most lost of city quarters.

Now Barry, as far as some of those downtrodden folks are concerned, might be reneging on his campaign promise. You see, many of the least, last, and lost have a favorite pastime: buying a single beer from a corner grocery, popping that baby open on the sidewalk, and making a day of it.

Such were the recent Friday afternoon plans of Bill Herris, a 36-year-old patron of the Martin Luther King Grocery in Anacostia. “I’ll go anywhere where they got singles at, so I go to the south side,” he says, standing at the store’s Plexiglas cashier’s window ready to shell out $1.25 for a 24-ounce can of Olde English 800. “This is the south side.”

Herris is what you might call a malt-liquor refugee. Since summer, he and his fellow individual-serving aficionados have been shut out of the north side—meaning Ward 4, where the single-sales ban pushed through by then Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty finally went into effect in August after court challenges.

Now, if Barry and his colleague from Ward 7, Yvette Alexander, have their way, Herris & Co. might be completely shut out of the single-beer market east of the Anacostia River. In December, Barry and Alexander both introduced legislation that would ban the sales of single beers in each of their ward’s liquor stores.

For Alexander, her stand against singles isn’t much of a stretch; her electoral appeal was built on pledges to clean up neighborhoods and be responsive to community busybody types. Barry’s support of a singles ban, however, goes against his well-crafted populist image.

It’s an image, for instance, backed up by his stand against a similar moratorium on single-sales along the H Street NE corridor in Ward 6. When the D.C. Council had to vote to approve the measure last July, Barry pulled out this defense of the little guy: “My understanding is that there’s serious divisions in this community around this issue.…The residents who are among those long-term residents who have been there for some time who’ve gotten accustomed to this way of life like it, and people who recently moved in [don’t]—that’s what I understand.”

Barry voted to table the moratorium approval, and after that failed, he voted against it. (Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. also opposed the bill; At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz voted present.) “I’m not getting involved in the morality of drinking or not drinking,” Barry said at the time. “That’s another issue.”

Compare that to his remarks at a Feb. 8 hearing on the Wards 7 and 8 bans:

“There are a lot of ills affecting our community in Ward 8, a lot of negative behaviors, but another ill in my view is alcohol. It’s addictive; I’ve had that experience myself, so have others…and we all know that single sales of beer contributes to that situation.”

Barry even cited some other inner-city ills that have been recently addressed by the council: “We had a big debate on payday loans—all these things contribute to the negative behavior and activities that are destroying our community.” Of course, faithful LL readers might recall that Barry co-introduced payday-loan reform legislation—and then voted against it (Loose Lips, “Making Flippy-Floppy,” 9/5/2007).

What accounts for Barry finding religion on the single-sales issue? For one thing, with a re-election campaign coming up, Barry has plenty of reasons to play nice with the do-gooders populating his ward’s advisory neighborhood commissions and civic associations. They turn out votes. Block-huggers, not so much.

In fact, the Carrie Nation act wasn’t a big part of Barry’s shtick at the February hearing. Here’s a more representative comment: “Part of democracy,” he said, “is to represent your constituency.”

The mastermind of the Ward 8 push is Anthony Muhammad, a Fairlawn resident and chair of the advisory neighborhood commission representing that neighborhood and Anacostia. Muhammad says he been trying to combat singles for years by protesting liquor stores that file for license renewals, thus forcing them to agree to ban singles. Since the Ward 4 ban was first floated, Muhammad says he’s been working on a blanket moratorium for his neighborhood, much like on H Street. But when he took the idea to his councilmember in December, he says, Barry told him he’d only support a ward-wide ban.

Muhammad had no trouble getting behind that. “If Ward 4 has it, and it’s considered a better ward than Ward 8,” he says, “then what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

At the February hearing, several dozen opponents of the single bans showed up in bright-yellow T-shirts that read, “say no to the Ward 7 and Ward 8 Single Sales Ban Bills!!!” Organized by the Korean-American Grocers Association and the D.C. Association of Beverage Alcohol Wholesalers, they were largely made up of liquor store owners and their customers.

Paul L. Pascal, head of the wholesalers’ association, says the industry’s counterstrategy is a “grassroots campaign” to convince the legislators of the single beer’s appeal. His group, for instance, has circulated a petition that’s thus far attracted more than 7,000 signatures. “My view is, if there’s a strong customer response, that the councilmembers should listen to that,” he says.

Whether their ears will be open is another matter: “Candidly, if it goes to the full city council, I expect it would pass,” Pascal says.

It would certainly receive a warm welcome in the office of Fenty, the founding father of singles bans. “I think they work, I think they’re effective, and I support councilmembers who introduce them in their wards,” Hizzoner says.

Peter Cho, whoowns Martin Luther King Grocery, says he’s opposed to the Barry measure because his customers are opposed to the Barry measure. To that end, his store—one of 90 or so east-of-the-river liquor-selling establishments—has signs posted warning of the potential singles ban, complete with phone numbers for Alexander and Barry.

Cho says he’s not that surprised by Barry’s stand. “I don’t see Councilmember Barry walking down the avenue like he did in his younger days,” says Cho. “He needs to come out and talk to the people.”

As for how much revenue he stands to lose, Cho declines to estimate, but he says that his customer base isn’t likely to stay loyal: “I’m going to lose customers, because P.G. County ain’t far way.”

Sitting outside Cho’s store is 41-year-old Washington Nationals employee Rico Seabrooks, who says he’s not a single-beer buyer himself but still took the time to head down to the John A. Wilson Building to testify against the singles ban.

His perspective: Banning singles would mean more problems, since he says “bootleggers” would buy cases and sell singles illegally on the street. It’s a big enough concern, he says, that he’s rethinking his electoral preferences. “I would vote against Marion Barry,” he says. “Like they say, when it’s time for a change, it’s time for a change.”


• As LL eagle-eyed the March 10 campaign-finance filings, he spied this entry on Ward 2 incumbent Jack Evans’ expenditure list: $150 to “DC Treasurer, P.O. Box 77411, Washington DC 20013.” The expense was earmarked for “Local Travel.”

That line item caught LL’s eye for a simple reason: He’s done some “Local Travel” of his own over the years requiring occasional checks to the D.C. Treasurer in multiples of $50.

That is, LL’s caught his share of parking tickets.

Evans campaign manager Keith Carbone confirms the expenditure was to pay for parking citations. The tickets, he says, were incurred by the official Evans campaign vehicle—a 1980s-vintage GMC Safari van that once belonged to the candidate’s father—while out distributing yard signs and “just doing various different things.”

Says Carbone, “Nobody can escape D.C. parking tickets.”

Wesley Williams in the city campaign finance office says spending electoral dollars on tickets is kosher. “If it’s in the performance of your duties, I don’t see what the issue would be,” he says. “If it was just hanging out on a Friday night, then I don’t know about that.”

• Barry might have some real competition in Ward 8. Yavocka Young, an Anacostia resident and longtime local business booster, tells LL she’s gearing up for a Democratic council run against the mayor-for-life. She expects to file her papers before the end of the week.

Asked about the incumbent, Young plays nice. “I think there are many people like me that feel that a change in leadership is necessary in order to move the ward to the next level. In life, you’re effective at certain things for certain times,” she says. “I’m looking at it more as…a baton pass.”

Her priorities? “Quality-of-life issues and economic development” is about as specific as it gets at this point.

Young, 39, wouldn’t name any of her supporters but did describe her base as “basically young urban professionals,” plus “some longtime Anacostians who know my history in the ward.” Young has been a homeowner for 15 years and has held positions with the Anacostia Economic Development Corp., the East of the River newspaper, and, currently, the Main Street Anacostia nonprofit.

Thus far, the only other official entrant in the Ward 8 race is Congress Heights rabble-rouser and perennial also-ran Sandra “S.S.” Seegars, who couldn’t quite gain 5 percent against Barry four years ago.

For the record, the single-sales ban will not be a wedge issue. Young reports that she, too, supports it.