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Ten floors above Judiciary Square, the regulars trickle into the mayor’s weekly press conference like old-timers shuffling into a dank neighborhood bar. Following Mayor Marion Barry around has long been an ugly business. But these days, the office has been so thoroughly stripped of power that even the ever-present potential for scandal has lost its allure. When the mayor and his entourage finally make their entrance—late, per tradition—they outnumber the reporters.
But the show goes on. As she has done for the past three and a half years, Raymone Bain, Barry’s press secretary, steps up to the podium and introduces the mayor with the same flourish she has always mustered. And then she lingers, a dutiful Ed McMahon hovering just two feet from the mayor’s side.
After Barry reads his prepared statements, it is Bain who calls on reporters for questions. Bain takes this job seriously, reprimanding the Washington Times reporter for hoarding the spotlight and making sure the Washington Post reporter gets his turn. When a reporter starts to badger the mayor about his plan to use a search firm to find a new police chief, Bain interrupts with an admonition and a lipsticked smile. “Are you finished?” she asks.
Amid all the drudgery at 1 Judiciary Square, Bain is strangely out of place. In a place and time drenched with unpleasant realities, she has somehow managed to sustain a certain misplaced glamour-girl mystique. Carefully accessorized and impeccably dressed—her black sunglasses perched on her head and her long hair cascading down one shoulder—Bain looks far more put-together (or put-on, depending on your taste in fashion) than your average government flack.
And the anomaly extends far beyond her wardrobe. Bain is a spokesperson who does not like to speak; she’s a professional spinner who hardly ever spins.
She has always been more of a gatekeeper than a press secretary, says Vincent McCraw, assistant Metro editor for the Times. And she has been very good at keeping the gate closed. “I think that was the job she was hired to do,” McCraw says. Most times, “You didn’t get through [to Bain], and if you did, you didn’t get a whole lot of information.”
“It was just like she was borrowed from Hollywood,” says WAMU (88.5 FM) political commentator Mark Plotkin. “This is no policy wonk.” And now she’s going home to the stars, turning her full attention to her public relations firm, which represents recording superstars like Boyz II Men and Babyface. New Year’s Eve is Bain’s last official day as Barry’s No. 1 groupie.
And Hollywood is probably right where she belongs. “Raymone seemed surprised at the intensity and ferocity of political reporters,” says Tom Sherwood of WRC-TV (Channel 4). Again and again, reporters say Bain has treated the mayor more like a rock star than a public servant.
On April 27, 1996, the mayor issued a press release that would have had most press secretaries throwing their bodies across the fax machine demanding a rewrite. In a two-page statement, Barry announced a surprise sabbatical to seek “spiritual and physical renewal.” The cryptic statement, which Barry read to top city officials and faxed to newspapers, invoked the guiding principles of 12-step addiction treatment programs—a motif that naturally sparked destructive speculation that the mayor had relapsed into alcohol or substance abuse.
Bain acknowledges that she “had input” in the writing of the bizarre press release, and she certainly waved it through. The resulting gossip was catastrophic. People close to Barry questioned his credibility, and Bain found herself publicly denying rumors of his imminent resignation. Bain still cites the incident as the most challenging of her tenure.
The primary job of a spokesperson is to move a politician out in front of the news and to frame him as a proactive force. But Bain’s function as a cold cement wall between the press and the mayor has made it difficult for his office to take the initiative.
“She had a really hard job,” says John Mercurio, a reporter for Roll Call who used to cover Barry for the Times. “But, that said, I think she harbored grudges.” And she always kept reporters at a gaping distance, he adds: “With some press secretaries, you can talk to them as press secretaries and you can talk to them as people. Raymone never let down her guard.”
But Cora Masters Barry, the mayor’s wife and a longtime friend of Bain’s, says that if Bain refused to speak candidly with reporters, she was only doing her job. “Nobody speaks for the mayor. He’s never had a press secretary that speaks for him,” Barry says.
But often the primary challenge in getting information out of Bain was finding her. “She was never around,” says one Post reporter. “You call the office, she’s not there. You call back, you leave a message. Hours, days, weeks go by and you hear nothing.” If you did somehow catch her, the reporter says, “you’d get this haze back from her—this sort of verbal fog. I never got a…concise, crisp answer.” The phrase “magical realism” comes to mind when thinking of Bain, the reporter adds. “I have not yet cracked the code.”
And that distance is something Bain defends with a passion. Last October, the Times’ Vincent Morris wrote a short story about Bain’s scarcity around the mayor’s office. “Flashy Bain gone from mayor’s side,” blared the headline. He described Bain’s “glittery presence” at the mayor’s side and then he defined “glittery”—”flamboyant leather miniskirts, knee-high boots and brilliant sweaters.”
“For some reason it didn’t go down too well with her,” Morris says, a little sheepishly. Bain let him have it at the next press conference. First off, she told him, she doesn’t even own a leather miniskirt or knee-high boots. “I showed my ignorance of women’s fashion,” Morris admits.
“He was totally off-base,” Bain says of the Morris story. “I have never worn miniskirts to the mayor’s office, and I don’t consider myself flashy.”
In spite of his fashion faux pas, Morris is sad to see Bain go. “The city is losing somebody who has a little bit of spunk,” he says.
Bain has known Barry for over 20 years, since she came to D.C. as a special assistant in the Office of Management and Budget under the Carter administration. Sounding again like a Hollywood refugee, Bain refuses to reveal her age. (She’s 43.)
Five years ago, Bain started Davis Bain & Associates, a PR firm representing music and sports celebrities. (The Davis stands for Eric Davis, the Baltimore Orioles’ outfielder, with whom Bain went into business after representing him when he played for the Cincinnati Reds.) Last summer, Bain took a sabbatical from Barry’s office to serve as Janet Jackson’s lead publicist for the unveiling of her new album. Then, in November, she returned, dismissed by Ms. Jackson in a housekeeping frenzy that Bain says was not personal. (Jackson’s new publicist has refused to comment on the firing.) But when Bain returned to Barry’s office, she submitted her resignation nonetheless, claiming that the obligations of her PR business prevented her from working for Barry.
But even with one foot out the door, Bain’s devotion to the Barrys remains unqualified. After all the embarrassing drama—the St. Louis retreat, the Yong Yun incident, the demise of home rule—she still gushes. “He knows this city better than anyone I’ve ever met in my life,” Bain says of Barry. “He has a very, very, very accurate instinct.”
Since she met Barry, Bain has grown quite close to his wife, even keeping a framed picture of Cora on her desk, according to reporters. The picture is a little eerie, they say, because it faces away from her, toward the guest.
“It was more than a job for her,” Cora acknowledges. “We trusted her ultimately….She will truly, truly be missed, especially by me.”
The admiration is mutual. Bain simply has not stood for attacks on Cora’s good name. Mercurio wrote a Times story about Cora last year that he now describes as “totally not critical.” But no matter. The piece “sent Raymone on this absolute warpath that I’ve never experienced from anyone before,” Mercurio remembers. “It astounded me.” She spent about 15 minutes yelling at him over the phone, he says.
Bain’s occasional bouts of fury betray the depth of her devotion. When the mayor and his wife left for the two-week “spiritual retreat” last year, Mercurio met them at Dulles Airport for their departure. He says he vividly remembers Bain’s outrage when he followed them through the airport. “She was ordering me to go back,” he says. “She was furious.”
Bain’s fierce loyalty exceeded professional boundaries more than once, says Jonetta Rose Barras, a Washington City Paper writer who is writing a book on the mayor. “Raymone would do whatever it took to protect the mayor,” Barras says, adding that Bain should have acted like Barry’s press secretary, not his agent. “The politician is responsible to the public, and therefore any representative of that politician has to be very careful about misleading the public. I think there were a number of times where Raymone lost sight of that,” Barras says.
And now Bain has apparently had enough of the spotlight. “I do think she understands…that there’s not much Barry can do for her now,” Barras says.
Faithful to the end, Bain insists she’ll miss representing the man with one of the rock-bottom worst names in the business. Her tenure with Barry has been, she says with undeniable accuracy, “very informative and very interesting.”
Although mayoral aides won’t say, Bain’s successor is rumored to be Linda Wharton Boyd, the mayor’s communications director, who has stood in for Bain during her recent absences. Bain’s advice to her successor: “Listen to the mayor, because the mayor is very politically astute.”
Or there’s Plotkin’s more practical advice:
“I never thought [Barry] needed a press secretary. He doesn’t have a name recognition problem. He doesn’t need a promoter. I think the job could be eliminated.”