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In 15 memorable years of mayoral service, Marion Barry has cultivated his share of enemies. They fire well-aimed shots at Hizzoner from editorial pages, candidate soap boxes, and community meetings. But the mayor has always seemed most concerned with a more lethal sort of sniping. Day and night, he covers his bases with a 31-member security detail, priced at $1.2 million per year, to protect himself, his wife, his house, and his child. Critics have railed against Barry’s regal approach to personal security over the years, but Barry has remained steadfast; when Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) mentioned that Barry’s personal army seemed a little excessive, the mayor told him to “go to hell.”
Barry has his reasons for making sure somebody’s watching his back. After all, the mayor isn’t so popular these days. And 20 years ago, he took a bullet during a terrorist attack on the District Building led by a group of Hanafi Muslims. It was a flesh wound, but still.
Big-city mayors have big-city enemies. Mayors in cities the size of Washington all have body guards, from Seattle to Boston. But security is a relative term. In Seattle, Mayor Norman B. Rice keeps a mere two cops on hand. But in the shiny Northwest, the steady drizzle of rain is the biggest threat to mayoral well-being. New Orleans, which boasts violent crime and urban decay on a par with the District’s, might provide a better benchmark, but Mayor Marc Morial’s detail also totals just twodown from five after budget reductions.
Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell maintains six officers in his entourage, a security halo that some critics have called extravagant, according to a mayoral aide. Philadelphia’s mayor keeps a posse of six. Memphis rang in at three.
In city halls across the nation, press officers erupted into uncontrollable laughter when told of our mayor’s thirtysomething-strong posse. “That’s a unit,” gasped an administrator at the office of Boston Mayor Thomas Merino, who has a security staff of seven. “They should be on the streets, with all the crime in D.C.,” she said.
That’s what Davis said last week, when he called on Metropolitan Police Department Chief Larry D. Soulsby to eliminate the detail. As chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on the District, Davis is in a position to make Barry nervous. If the mayor wants a security team, Davis said, he can pay for it out of the mayor’s budget.
In his annual state of the District speech last week, Barry reminded us that he is not in office for the perks: “I enjoy being your mayornot for the limousine, not for the security, not for the big office.” A spokeswoman in his office said the size of the detail is up to the police chief.
If you were searching for a comparably protected head of state, you’d probably have to head to a Third World country that hosts juntas more often than elections. A vocal contingent of D.C. councilmembers and residents says the detail should at least be downsized and maybe even privatized. Maybe Barry should take a tip from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s office: Aides in Gotham City maintain a policy of never discussing the mayor’s security personnel with the press. Now that’s real protection. CP