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Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. expects rough receptions on Capitol Hill and at community meetings. But Hizzoner wasn’t quite prepared for the indignities, real or imagined, served up by Derek McGinty and Mark Plotkin on the Oct. 24 airing of WAMU (88.5 FM)’s D.C. Politics Hour. McGinty upset the mayor when he asked how he fills up his days now that he has so few powers. And Barry felt Plotkin slighted him before he even got into his question; the longtime commentator, who once fawned over Barry, addressed him as “Mayor,” instead of his customary “Mr. Mayor.” In retaliation, Barry refused to answer Plotkin’s question at his Oct. 29 media therapy session.
The mayor’s office sent a three-page letter of protest to WAMU after the show, complaining that McGinty and Plotkin had “disrespected” Barry during the live interview.
Since Congress stripped him of much of his power last summer, Barry looks like the dethroned king who wanders his domain seeking solace from the few who still pretend, for his benefit, that he remains as powerful as ever.
After being the pace-setter for nearly two decades, Hizzoner now always seems to be lagging behind the D.C. financial control board, Congress, and the slow-footed D.C. Council. In a display of control board envy, Barry last week announced he would hire his own “better and cheaper” consultants for the 10 minor agencies he still commands. Even tales of his legendary prowess as a lothario, which once titillated a nation and kept reporters busy, now produce little more than a yawn.
If Barry’s encounter with Plotkin and his media dates haven’t convinced him that he’s lost his raison d’être, his weekly phone-a-thon to D.C. government agency heads should do the trick. Since he is excluded from the weekly Wednesday-afternoon cabinet meetings with the control board, Hizzoner has to call around to find out what happened. It used to be the other way around, with cabinet heads and aides desperately seeking Barry’s approval before they dared make a move.
Before anyone begins feeling too sorry for the man who single-handedly destroyed home rule, just remember he still has a firm grip on the mayor’s office and shows no signs of relinquishing it. Barry, however, demonstrated recently that he’s still capable of wielding his famed political magic, if only in spurts.
He derailed the taxicab industry’s effort to recall him by backing off some of his most controversial reforms for the industry just as the recall drive appeared to be picking up steam. Hizzoner also appointed recall leader Louis Richardson to the taxicab commission. Because of these politically calculated moves, the recall deadline expired Oct. 28 with supporters at least 6,000 signatures short of the minimum needed to force a recall election.
More importantly for Barry’s 1998 re-election strategy, the recall effort failed miserably in voter-rich Ward 4, which is considered the key battleground in next year’s mayoral election.
Barry also summoned his old-school political skills last weekend in convening an “emergency meeting” of the D.C. Congress of Parent-Teacher Associations to pressure the Parents United school advocacy group into dropping its lawsuit over fire-code violations. The move was a response to reports that Parents United and D.C. officials were close to a settlement that would remove D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian from the dispute and keep her from closing more schools while roof and boiler repairs are made.
The meeting, although late in the three-month public relations campaign against Parents United, came in time to let Hizzoner claim a role in last Tuesday’s resolution of the 3-year-old legal battle. And Barry wisely chose the PTA Congress as his supporting cast. The group is well known for being out of touch with local politics and susceptible to manipulation. Many members of the congress haven’t had children in D.C. schools since the Senators last rounded the bases at RFK. This is the same organization that school head Gen. Julius Becton claimed he consulted in August before making the widely unpopular decision to open schools three weeks late.
Barry kicked reporters out of the Saturday-morning meeting, apparently so the public wouldn’t learn that not everyone present blamed Parents United and Christian for dilapidated school buildings. No one, including two members of the Stand Up for Democracy Coalition, objected to the exclusion. Although city officials and residents continually slam the control board for operating in secrecy, protesters, as usual, are willing “to stand up for democracy in D.C.” only when it doesn’t involve standing up to local leaders.
During the 90-minute closed-door session last Saturday, Duke Ellington School of the Arts student body president Lamar McIntyre told Barry, “I’m so angry I could explode,” and demanded to know why D.C. officials had ignored school repairs for so long, according to meeting attendee Steve Donkin. Barry was also urged to fix the schools before he repairs the streets.
Later, several meeting participants, including McIntyre, stood alongside the mayor before the TV cameras and praised Hizzoner for convening the meeting.
Barry’s peripheral involvement in the settlement yielded another choice media moment: Hizzoner appeared in the background of a Washington Post photo of a post-settlement hug shared by Becton and Parents United executive director Delabian Rice-Thurston.
While Barry thrusts his mug in front of the cameras, a small group of local business types is still working behind the scenes to save the city from a fifth term. Led by high-powered lobbyists and Barry allies Fred Cooke and David Wilmot, the group hoped to raise enough money to set up a think tank headed by Barry on a salary befitting his lofty role in local and global politics.
But according to one source, the business community won’t commit the dollars without a commitment from Barry that he won’t run again, and Barry won’t make such a promise until business leaders show him the money.
“Knowing Barry, he’ll take the money and still run,” observes a city official.