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When Los Angles Times reporter Bella Stumbo followed Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. through a day on the job back in January 1990, D.C.’s bumptious mayor performed for the comely brunette reporter by fingering women’s underwear at a Connecticut Avenue lingerie store, touting his sexual prowess, joking about his suspected cocaine use, and dissing Jesse Jackson as only being interested in “runnin’ his mouth.”
By comparison, Hizzoner appeared to be on his best behavior last week when ABC’s Nightline crew followed him around town, but he still managed to step in some trouble. A nifty piece of footage depicted Barry ordering his security detail to stick the flashing red light on top of his Lincoln Town Car limo, turn on the siren, and head the wrong way down a one-way street in rush hour—to get to a tennis court on time.
The broadcast was a stiff rebuke to all those naysayers who doubted that this redeemed, recovering mayor was no different from the crack-smoking, fun-loving, woman-chasing Barry of old. This one always gets to court on time.
As Nightline anchor Ted Koppel and crew filmed Barry rushing around to find a vacant tennis court last Thursday morning, Aug. 14, commuters across town sat steaming in a traffic jam caused by the water-main break on Canal Road NW. Not once during the 14-hour tour of duty did Barry venture over to inspect the damage and chaos caused by the water and mud clogging one of the city’s main commuter routes. But he did phone a Department of Public Works director to inquire, “Are the streets flooded out there or what?”
Now that’s leadership. Or as Barrywho likes to spout his words of self-praise in triplicatewould say, “That’s leadership. That’s leadership. That’s leadership.”
Koppel expressed amazement that Barry would allow himself to be portrayed to a national TV audience as more concerned about getting in his morning tennis game than in tending to the problems of the nation’s capital. In this particular photo-op, Barry passed up a golden opportunity to convince Peoria that he had been unfairly stripped of power by Congress last month and was perfectly capable of leading this troubled city back to the promised land.
But that was not the point, Barry told Koppel.
“What we’re doing this morning, as you very well know, is trying to stay on schedule,” the mayor explained on camera. And his morning schedule called for batting tennis balls around, not sloshing through the mud on Canal Road.
What Koppel was witnessing is Barry’s tendency to act out before the national media. The national attentionas last week’s Nightline broadcast vividly demonstratedprovides the mayor ample opportunity to give his equivalent of the finger to the white-owned media establishment that has long been critical of him and his government. Never mind that his desire to act up before national reporters continues to hold up his city as a national disgrace, a laughingstock that has earned the enmity of the rest of the country.
While his behavior seems almost pathological, Barry makes no apologies. As he told Stumbo in the Times article published Jan. 9, 1990, nine days before his drug arrest at the Vista Hotel, Hizzoner was not about to change his behavior just because some reporters were snooping around.
Barry believes that such brattish conduct resonates with a disenfranchised electorate that can still be wooed by hackneyed civil rights rhetoric. And he can convince himself that little has changed since he first took control of the city government back in 1979. He still has the media spotlight, the Lincoln, and all the perks of the city’s highest elected office. And no one’s threatening to wrest those important prerogatives away from him in next year’s election.
The main difference now is that the control board, instead of his administration, has to do all the real work in municipal government. Barry, who admitted to Koppel last week, “I just like to have fun,” probably won’t miss that loss of power all that much, even though he will try to capitalize on his political emasculation as an election-year issue.
It just might do the job: The city’s political establishment may no longer fear Barry as much as it once did, but it has yet to produce a formidable rival. The four obvious challengersCouncilmembers Kevin Chavous, Harold Brazil, Carol Schwartz, and Jack Evanshave failed to project a vision or build a record of accomplishments that would inspire change-hungry voters.
Schwartz has already challenged Barry twice, with no success. Chavous remains reluctant to heap much criticism on Barry, or to show up for work at the council. He has been phoning in from the beach in recent weeks to defend Barry and the city from the recent congressional intrusions. Reform, Chavous insists, should not be focused on getting rid of Marion Barry.
Chavous just doesn’t get it. Even Barry realizes that it will be darn near impossible to extricate him from the city he has infested like poison ivy. “I am the city,” he often tells reporters, only half joking.
Brazil has been the most critical of Barry. But the would-be challenger has lately been wandering, Hamletlike, in the political wilderness trying to decide whether the stripped-down mayor’s office is worth seeking. That kind of indecision won’t inspire voters. The disappearance of Chavous and Brazil from the scene has left the spotlight to Evans, who leaves no doubt that he still considers the mayor’s office worthy of pursuit.
Evans has been showing up everywhere, newborn triplets in tow, strutting his bald desire to be mayor. But Evans will have to deal with allegations that he is part of “the Plan” to return this predominantly black city to white rule. That specter has already been raised by Barry surrogates Calvin Lockridge, a former school board member, and Lawrence Guyot, a city employee who preaches racial harmony but often practices something less. Lockridge and Guyot claim the recent congressional actions amount to implementation of the Plan, and the election of a white mayor is the next step.
“The District is one of the few cities still caught up in that,” Evans laments. “But I think the next election will be based more on qualification and less on race. I think if it even comes up, it will be raised by only a small group of people.”
Many voters appear to still be waiting on the arrival of Candidate X, that unknown savior who will emerge to inspire and lead the city out of the Barry maelstrom. D.C. voters have been awaiting the emergence of Candidate X since Barry first won re-election in 1982. She appeared to arrive in 1990 in the form of Sharon Pratt Dixon, but Dixon turned out to be a fraud.
The other candidates may be making some noise, but Barry still has the clearest handle on what it will take to re-obtain the office he has so handily diminished. Washington, say hello to Candidate X. Again.
Looking for every edge in her campaign to recall Barry, Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars recently sought an audience with D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Seegars wanted Norton to push through an amendment removing current requirements to collect signatures from 10 percent of the registered voters in five of the city’s eight wardsor 4,000-plus signatures per ward. “It shouldn’t matter where they’re from,” says Seegars.
But before Seegars got a chance to plead her case, Norton went to the White House and got a face-saving assurance from the Clinton administration that it would keep the control board from further intruding on home rule. Norton suddenly lost interest in Seegars’ case, and top aide Donna Brazile called to cancel the meeting. “She said this is not the time, and the press would make it into something else,” Seegars related, meaning that a mere meeting would be seen as support for the Barry recall effort.
Brazile claims that no meeting was scheduled but that she offered to arrange a meeting for Seegars with Norton staffers next month. “We’re not going to boost her movement,” says Brazile.
Norton, like everyone else in this city, appears reluctant to step on Barry rule, as well as home rule.
“She’s frightened,” Seegars says. “She sure did an about-face. People used to say, ‘Why doesn’t Norton run for mayor?’ They’re not saying that anymore.”
During her first six years in office, Norton quickly rose to become the city’s most popular political leader. She demonstrated a rare willingness to speak out on the shortcomings of the government Barry built. But her independence and candor evaporated three weeks ago after she was confronted by a few protesters blaming her for the congressional actions stripping Barry of control over city agencies and placing that power with the control board.
Now Norton appears to have retreated into the circle of Barry defenders. Congressional sources say the city is finally getting a good look at the “classic Norton” that they have seen “moving around on the issues” for some time now.
In her Christmas Eve 1996 message to the city in the Washington Post, titled “Home Rule is Ours to Lose,” Norton was still on message, as the politicians say. “After the scandals of Boss Shepherd’s time, Congress took back home rule in 1874. Our generation may be remembered for giving it back.”
Three weeks later, she was embracing President Clinton’s initial rescue package for the District without hesitation. “The Clinton plan will result in more home rule, not less,” Norton proclaimed Jan. 14. But by mid-February she was backpedaling in the face of outcry from city leaders that the District was being forced to give up its $660-million annual federal payment in exchange for the unrealistic hope that Congress would end its oversight over the D.C. budget.
In community meetings, Norton was also attacking D.C. control board chairman Andrew Brimmer for stripping the city’s elected school board of authority and putting the school system in the hands of an appointed board. However, by late spring, Norton was suggesting that the elected school board had been a failure and should be permanently abolished.
“Y’all never would have closed those schools,” Norton admonished elected school board president Don Reeves at a May 1 congressional hearing on the school crisis, referring to the much-criticized decision by the appointed board to close 13 schools. Norton told Reeves the elected school board lost its power because it was afraid to act and only responded to congressional pressure.
“Inaction is a threat to home rule,” she warned, again back on message.
Then came her biggest flip-flop.
On July 30, as Congress was passing the D.C. rescue package relieving the city of costly expenditures and stripping Barry of management powers, Norton hailed the legislation’s passage as “a big win for the District.” Back on message, she also defended the management reforms, telling D.C. officials, “If you want home rule, rule.”
But after she was branded a “traitor” by a band of protesters two days later, Norton abandoned her message altogether. She appeared to completely reject the legislative package, telling the Post on Aug. 4 that the feds’ financial rescue of D.C. was “too high a price to pay” for the loss of home rule powers.
Three days later, Norton was shifting again like a barrier island in a hurricane. “The price was too high, but I didn’t say I repudiated the deal,” she amended Aug. 6. “The price for the suit I’m wearing this morning was too high.”
“Obviously, I’ve added to the confusion.”
After meeting on Aug. 8 with Brimmer, whom she had blasted three days earlier for quickly removing the city’s agency directors and appointing interim heads, Norton proclaimed, “We’re all on the same page.”
Over the past month, Norton has shown an ability to talk out of both sides of her mouth, cozy up to the powers that be, and bend like Gumby with the political winds. Maybe she is Candidate X after all.CP
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