The ground-floor auditorium at 1 Judiciary Square is awash with students, faculty, and supporters of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), all waiting for Mayor Marion Barry to show. The forum on Jan. 9 is slated to start at 12:30, but at 12:50 the crowd is told the mayor will be down from his 11th-floor office by 1 p.m. The excuse is that Barry wants to allow students more time to make their way through the snowy weather. (He is actually finishing an interview with CNN, which is preparing a special segment on the District of Columbia.)
A few minutes after 1 p.m. Barry strolls into the room accompanied by his wife, Cora Masters Barry. He stops to shake a few hands but then heads for a table on the stage draped in red cloth and backed by a red and white banner that says, “Save UDC”the mayor’s name runs across the bottom. Barry basks in a generous ovation as he takes his place in the front of the room. There will be no hecklers today, as there have been at recent town-hall meetings. No one will chastise him because he’s late. This is Barry’s crowd.
The fight at UDC emanates from race, class, and entitlement, a neat trifecta of Barry’s pet issues. As he did last spring, when he joined civilly disobedient students in blocking Connecticut Avenue, he has arrived not as decision-maker but as victim.
“This is not just my struggle,” he tells the upturned faces. “This is not just the cause of the day.”
What he doesn’t mention is that he can do nothing more than commiserate about the control board and the chief financial officer’s plan for a $16.2-million spending reduction for the university during fiscal 1997. Except make speeches.
“Every other American city in every other state has access to a wide range of baccalaureate programs at public institutions,” Barry continues, his voice rising as he takes aim. “The question before us is, are we going to allow misinformation and a misdirected council to decide the fate of UDC?”
The answer, of course, is that it has no choice, but the crowd knows the drillit responds with a resounding, “No!” The crowd’s approbation imbues Barry with the luster of days gone by, vaulting him back to the days when he was a civil rights organizer, or when he was the newly elected mayor of an only recently democratic city.
Riding the wave of energy coming off the assembly, he separates himself from the day’s Public Enemy No. 1: “My role is clear. I’ve advocated this money,” he says, noting that he initially requested $45 million for the university and later sought to increase it to $48 million. But, he explains, the control board and council reduced UDC’s subsidy to $38 million for fiscal 1997.
“I never agreed to this budget mark. I never supported this budget mark,” he continues. “The council and control board seem not to understand the point of this moment.”
Building to the conclusion of his speech, which has been interrupted several times by applause, Barry reassures the crowd that his position isn’t motivated by politics.
“It’s principle with me. I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to stand up to these giants,” he says. “But I believe you have to stand up for right.”
It’s a lovely charade, but a charade nonetheless. Barry’s own city administrator and the CFO have already signed a memorandum ordering agency directors, including UDC’s acting president Julius Nimmons, to cut their budgets and present a plan for personnel layoffs by next week. But right now Barry wants to demonstrate to his political foesthe ones he has identified as the students’ enemiesthat he can still pull a crowd, that he still has power to incite, if not lead.
The choreographed UDC appearance is just the latest tack in the mayor’s program of fashioning a steady stream of setbacks into a political opportunity of sorts. What has appeared to be a willy-nilly series of offensives and quick retreats is really a strategy, a way of losing battles to win the war.
Many would like to write the mayor off as irrelevant, but Barry is still working on the next chapter in one of America’s most enduring political dramas. You can make book on it. Forget the hoopla over his spring spiritual retreat, when many speculated that he had had a drug relapse. Forget the prostate cancer surgery, the medication, and the inconstancy. Forget the spat over what’s-his-name who used to run the Department of Human Services. Forget the control board. Forget the CFO. Forget it all. Barry says he’s back. Ready to seize opportunities and fight for his core constituency. Maybe ready to run for an unprecedented fifth term.
But talking ain’t walking. Like heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali when he was past his prime, Barry may dazzle with a flurry of feints, bobs, and shuffles, but it all seems temporaryunsustainable. The brawls of years past, and the relentless assaults of more recent days, seem to have taken their toll, leaving him unable to match the power and cunning of his opposition. The whispers are growing louder. Maybe Barry is washed up.
“Marion is not a young man anymore; his body and mind have been through a lot of ups and downs,” observes Jamin Raskin, associate dean at the American University law school. “Like Dave Clarke, he is beginning to show signs of wear and tear.”
And unlike in 1990, when he was caught in a hotel room with a woman other than his wife and a crack pipe in his mouth, there is more than a personal image to repair. The entire bureaucracy has gone to hell, and Barry is on the wrong end of the blame game. Naysayers surround him, challenging his stewardship over a city he was elected to lead and telling anyone who will listen that now that the feds are running the place the only problem left is Barry.
Jacketless, in a white shirt and suspenders, Barry sits at a long conference table munching on popcorn. A notorious snacker, Barry has been known to walk into town-hall meetings with a large bag of potato chips. The four-term mayor of the nation’s capital doesn’t stand when his press secretary and I enter the office; instead, he remains seated at the table, which doubles as his desk. He rarely uses his traditional-style desk, a trait that suggests that he is uncomfortable with one of the trappings of power. But that may be the only one.
The windows wrapping around him offer a panoramic view of downtown Washington. A visitor can’t help being struck by the fact that many of the people in those buildings have made it their business to strip Barry of the powers he was elected to exercise.
But from where Barry sits the view is different. He sees himself on top of the worldeverything is going his way. In his version of reality, he is the master executive, expertly grappling with an old, flawed governance structure, jostling with obstructionists, and turning aside those who would lay his city low.
Barry has always been the chief consumer of his own brand of Kool-Aid, a characteristic that has allowed him to endure what has been a profoundly emasculating fourth term. He is not just fronting, flashing freshly manicured nails, tinted hair, and an easy grinBarry is genuinely relaxed in his world. He leans back in his chair, offers his visitor a cup of coffee or tea and the easy charm that is one of his hallmarks. Early on in the interview, City Administrator Michael Rogers interrupts to report that the D.C. Council has approved a procurement-reform bill the mayor initiated. Barry’s smile spreads a bit wider at the news.
“That’s a little-known story about how successful we’ve been on the council,” he gloats. He has a point: For the past year, his legislative agenda has flown through the council with little resistanceevidence, Barry says, that his administration holds the keys for a D.C. revival.
“It doesn’t take the control board or Congress to tell me what to do,” he insists. “I know what we need and I’m going to be in front of it. I’m going to be leading the charge to change fundamentally how D.C. government operates.”
Councilmember Linda Cropp says she sees the signs of a revived mayoralty: “There’s no doubt he’s been very active recently.
“I hope he is trying to leave a legacy of a city moving toward an upswing as he serves out his last term in office,” she adds.
But for a man who believes he’s leading the parade, he ends up getting run over a lot. Take for example the White House’s federal takeover plan. On Jan. 14, Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines proposed that the feds assume responsibility for D.C. prisons, Medicaid, road and bridge repair, and other state functions. The plan, expected to be part of President Clinton’s 1998 budget, also permits the city to borrow $500 million from the U.S. Treasury to finance the District’s cumulative deficit.
The plan drew oohs and aahs from almost every corner of the District the day it was unveiled, hailed as a brilliant way to level the D.C. playing field. But anyone who has followed District affairs heard direct echoes of Marion Barry in the administration’s proposal. In February 1995, just weeks after the start of his fourth mayoral term, Barry announced he had inherited a $722-million deficit from predecessor Sharon Pratt Kelly and called on Congress to absorb city-run functions that traditionally fall to state governments. At the time, home rule fanatics called it capitulation. Two years later, the feds arrived at the same conclusionand the mayor held a press conference to remind people of his foresight. “I was the lonely voice in the wilderness,” he told reporters.
You wouldn’t know that from reading the papers the next day. Although both the Washington Post and the Washington Times ran photographs of the mayor at his press conference, neither mentioned that Barry had been among the first to suggest that the federal government act as D.C.’s de facto state. He was left to defend the plan’s more intrusive aspects without getting credit for the innovation behind it. In other stories on the jump page, the Times wrote about a report from the control board that indicated that the District spends more on city services than other comparable municipalities. The paper also ran a story on the same page about the Supreme Court test case over the constitutionality of requiring drug tests for candidates for higher office. The law, according to the Times, was passed because Georgia officials did not want to face the “shame and enormous pain and anguish that [Barry’s] arrest produced in Washington.”
What should have been a big news day for Barry, a day in which the feds finally came around, produced more of the same old shit. But even if he were able to take credit, congressional opposition to the plan is expected to mount over the coming months. About the only person Republicans dislike more than Bill Clinton is Marion Barry.
But Barry is used to the heat and he plans to remain in the kitchen: “I have media critics, political opponents who are just hoping I die on the vine. They got another thought coming, if they think that.”
The newsrooms in town are not the only spot where Barry attracts throngs of detractors. Everybody, it seems, wants a piece of the mayor. They think he’s wobbly, gone soft in the head and weak in the knees.
Earlier this month, Barry received a less than gracious welcome at the council’s swearing-in ceremonies. Would-be contenders stood in line to throw haymakersopening salvos in the 1998 mayoral election. At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil openly challenged Barry to reform the city, while Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous, another likely contender, jabbed subtly, saying, “Let’s stop talking about what we can’t do and do what we can.” Over in Ward 2, Jack Evans hasn’t put up his dukes yet, but his time will come soon enough.
U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, after a year of flat denials that he was interested in the mayor job, sat still for a will-he-or-won’t-he? profile in the Post. It put a little more political shine on two earlier Post Op-Ed pieces Holder wrote that laid much of the blame for the city’s crime problem at Barry’s feet. Over in Ward 8, former Barryite Sandy Allen has made every effort to embarrass the mayor. And up in Ward 3, Jeffrey Gildenhorn, a one-time Barry supporter, has used the marquee above his upper Connecticut Avenue restaurant to salute CFO Anthony Williams, control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer, and Holder.
Barry’s most vociferous opponents are also his most powerful. The tag team of the control board and the CFO have roughed Barry up big time. Over the mayor’s objections, a member of his cabinet was forced to resign. He lost the power to appoint members of the D.C. Lottery Board when the control board dissolved the group. He was forced to snatch back his appointee as advocate for the disabled community. Any influence he ever had over the schools has been eliminated by the control board’s appointed posse. And every line in the sand he has drawn has been rubbed out almost as soon as he has drawn it.
For now, Barry isn’t fighting to win, he’s just fighting to avoid the knockout, to hang on until the next round. Barry brushes off the control board’s forays into mayoral prerogatives, but he refuses to hide his contempt for the board’s powers.
“I was opposed to the control board,” he says. “Any mayor would have been. Ed Koch was opposed to the control board in New York. [New York’s version was appointed when Abe Beame was mayor.] Wilson Goode was opposed to it. Wilson even refused to meet with them.”
“I knew we needed one. Anytime anybody gives you any major amount of money they want some control,” Barry continues. “Banks want collateral. You are not going to borrow $100,000 [from a bank] without some collateral. So they were not going to lend any money for this city without some control.”
Cagey old bruiser that he is, Barry has gone through the motions of fighting the control board at key junctures, but behind the scenes he seems to recognize the futility of the battle. “I knew there was going to be a control board, but I had to be principled about it and say I don’t want it, I don’t like it,” he adds.
Almost from the beginning, the control board and the CFO, with the complicity of the media, have used Barry as a punching bag. They blame the Barry administration entirely for the recently publicized $85-million projected deficit for fiscal 1997, but the reality is that at least 50 percent of that amount has nothing to do with whether Barry did or didn’t implement various budget initiatives: $25 million was caused by congressional action, nearly $13 million is the result of overspending by a court-appointed medical receiver at the Department of Corrections over which neither the mayor, CFO, nor the control board has any authority, $16.2 million is attached to UDC, and $3 million comes from an unemployment-compensation shortage caused by accelerated layoffs.
Barry is proud of the fact that the D.C. budget recently passed by Congress was substantially his own and likes to suggest that he controls the government because he controls the numbers.
“The fundamental part of the city government is the budget-making process,” he asserts. “I am the only entity in Washington that formulates the District’s budget as an initiative with programs, priorities.
“If you don’t control your budget, don’t control budget priorities and the initiation of it, than you can’t control anything,” he says.
But the most recent round of cuts clearly outlined his impotence. Barry watched as the control board sliced $3 million in local funds from his prized summer jobs program and $5 million from a youth violence prevention program he supports. And members of the UDC board of trustees, technically mayoral appointees, ignored his plea not to pass a plan that would impose $16.2 million in spending reductions on the school during this fiscal year. He says the move will destroy the university. Once, appointees to city boards and commissions would never have crossed Barry. But the control board has made it clear who’s barking and who’s biting.
Barry knows he will lose the UDC fight. His position as a public defender of the notoriously inefficient university reinforces his legacy as the architect of D.C.’s budgetary bloat, but he says that when it comes to deficits, he’s just a piker compared to his predecessor.
The city’s current fiscal woes began while Kelly was in office. That’s when Reps. James Walsh, (R-N.Y.) and Pete Stark (D-Calif.) first called for the General Accounting Office report on the city’s finances. To Barry’s way of thinking, Kelly pulled the biggest scam of all, obtaining $100 million in cash from Congress and authorization to borrow another $300 million for deficit financing, and then negotiating an increase in the federal paymentall in the same year. Even with all those gifts, gifts Congress would never consider bestowing on him, she left the city broke and in trouble, he says.
“I sat up there and watched Sharon get grilled and castrated because she had not been honest with Congress,” he asserts. “The fact is, the deficit was $335 millionthe largest in the history of the city. Larger than Boss Shepherd ever would have thought about running up; larger than me.
“Even in my worst year, in 1990, my deficit was $118 million,” he continues. “That’s when nobody was listening to anything I had to say.”
But American University’s Raskin contends that Kelly was only a “brief hiccup in the long career of Marion Barry.”
“The District government is wrapped up with the career of Marion Barry,” says Raskin. “It’s very hard to separate an analysis of home rule from an analysis of how Marion Barry has performed in office.”
Barry says he isn’t taking the fall for the image of the District of Columbia as corrupt, poorly managed, and broke. The culprits are Congress, the media, and those who have made a sport of Barry-bashing.
“It’s like football. If I got the ball, 11 people are looking for me. That’s the reality,” he explains in hushed tones, as if sharing insider information. “I have a lot of these balls, so they’re looking for me.”
The only reason Barry hasn’t died an unnatural political death is because he and home rule have been intertwined for 18 years. An attack on Barry is seen as an attack on home rule, a notion that spells more trouble for the predominantly white Congress than does the peripatetic mayor. For now, people seem satisfied to leave Barry in a semicomatose state. But the city will never get the respect and resources it deserves until it shakes its addiction to the man who once proclaimed that he is the District of Columbia.
Politics is essentially the art of repackaging. Barry has practiced this art all his lifebut unlike other politicians, he doesn’t even wait for elections. The self-described situationist is proud of his ability to get his arms around almost every circumstance. In religious circles, and down South where Barry was born, it might be called rebirth. In the lexicon of his 1992 and 1994 campaigns, redemption. Sinner becomes savior. Obstructionist becomes collaborator. The past disappears and the present is all there is, shiny and brand new. And no one is better than Barry at making the old new.
As a civil rights activist and community organizer, Barry often had to repackage losses to give the impression that his followers had achieved a victory, a skill that never lost salience as Barry made his way out of prison in 1992 and into the Ward 8 council seat. In 1994, he cast himself as the only savior of the city, a champion of poor residents and a financial wizard who could make the red ink black. He has flopped in all those roles.
Now the repackaging for 1998 has begun. It began shortly after Barry returned from his September retreat (or “advance” as he likes to call it) at Coolfont in Berkeley Springs, W. Va., where he stood before his cabinet and said that at the end of 1997 he wanted to have his options open. He came back to town and went on a counteroffensive, meeting with the editorial boards of all of the city’s papers, summarizing his successes midway through his term. He is in the midst of attempting to redefine himself as chief architect of the District’s reform.
For example, he called a press conference last month to set the record straight about the $85-million deficit projected for fiscal 1997, after the Post quoted CFO Williams accusing the mayor of foot-dragging. Williams ate his words before cameras and reporters. Later, when Williams continued to question the mayor’s sincerity in balancing the budget, Barry accused the CFO of being “dishonest” and “not being a team player.”
After seeing what the control board has done to the city’s school board, Barry is anxious to stay ahead of the five-member panel in other areas of his domain. In December, he signed the memorandum of understanding with the control board and U.S. Attorney Holder to conduct a “top to bottom review” of the police department. Combined with his earlier announcement of a new crime and violence prevention policy, Barry hoped to morph into public safety maverick, while attempting to squelch growing calls by Ward 6 residents to federalize the city’s police department.
And in order to establish his bona fides as a reformist, Barry rolled over part of his core constituencyhe snatched optometric and dental benefits from unionized workers last fall. But the move was as calculated as all the others. Barry, who knows labor laws like the back of his hand, must have known that the dispute would go to the labor relations board and that he would lose. Time and again, he leaves the real heavy lifting to the control board.
“He has decided to let the control board take the heat for a lot of the tough decisions, while he takes a different approach. You can see that with these recent budget cuts; [the control board members] are the heavies. He is saying, ‘I want to take the humanitarian approach,’” says University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters.
The strategy explains Barry’s recent assault on the control board and selected members of the council regarding cuts to UDC. Barry has said that Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and others are being “insensitive,” that they don’t want black and poor people to get an education. The rhetoric is vintage Barry: the Barry of 1994, who told whites in Ward 3 to “get over” his re-election. Put him on the ropes, and he will come flying back with the race card. In a town burdened by stark racial and class differences, and a functional majority of poor black people, race will win every time. And Barry knows it.
But Barry’s offensive is not all smoke and mirrors. In fact, Barry helped reduce spending in fiscal 1995 by $150 million, accurately predicted the projected deficit, and has made the first real reductions in employment in the history of the District. His administration has successfully privatized whole sections of the government, specifically food services in the Department of Corrections and the Corrections Treatment Facility. With D.C. General Hospital at risk, Barry can point to the creation of the Public Benefits Corp. as an alternative to decimation. He also created a separate, cabinet-level Department of Public Healtha promise Kelly made but never realizedand has hired new community-health workers. And for those who say he is not respected by the surrounding jurisdictions, he can point to the regional Water and Sewer Authority Rogers helped broker. He can also take credit for the new snow-removal plan, which included putting money in escrow for independent truckers, permitting the city to tap more than 400 pieces of equipment. In spite of all the Chicken Littling about the health of the city, D.C.’s infant-mortality rate is at an all-time low.
But like the federal rescue plan for the District, it is unlikely Barry will receive much credit for any of this. The control board and CFO can make claims, too: Without them, none of it would have happened.
Barry’s perilous political status invites comparison with Muhammad Ali, back when Ali was defending his title against Larry Holmes in 1980. Old and heavy, Ali was pulverized by Holmes, his former sparring partner; the fight had to be stopped in the 10th round. There was no floating, no stinging, just a tired boxer, a pale imitation of himself.
“Ali had that great fighter’s heart, boundless courage, all that pride,” says Holmes’ manager and trainer Richard Giachetti in Thomas Hauser’s book Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.
“And he got his brains beat out by Holmes. It was like watching an automobile accident that kills someone you love,” adds Giachetti, who also once worked for Ali.
Sam Smith, political activist and editor of the Progressive Review, says Barry knows how to avoid the knockout but can’t effectively use his old skills.
“If I were his manager, I’d keep my fingers crossed,” Smith adds.
Some say that even Barry at the top of his game would have a hell of a time getting past the challenges he currently faces. He has been denied some of the tools with which he might engineer his own redemption.
“Barry is now laboring under the weight of several layers of governmentcouncil, school board, the real school board, control board, Congress, the White House,” notes Raskin.
“A lot of the fun is draining away from this job,” continues Raskin. “Perhaps it will occur to Marion there are other ways he can contribute to Washington and America. Maybe he will just walk away from it and give someone else a chance. But it goes against most people’s nature to walk away from power.”
Ali didn’t walk away from his title; it’s unlikely Barry will walk away from the prize he has held for most of the past 18 years. A formidable opponent will have to arrive and send Barry to the mat, but Walters doesn’t see Holmes’ political equivalent on the horizon.
“He could beat [former Councilmember William] Lightfoot and Holder, especially with so much anger in the community surrounding the situation with Holder using the grand jury against this woman [at Marcus Garvey Public Charter School],” says Walters. “Even middle-class people I talk to are saying, ‘What kind of mayor would he make?’”
Brazil is no match for Barry, even with the obvious support he’s already won from the Post. Barry let Brazil know how it was going to be when he told the Post that District residents were not about to elect another Pepco executive who doesn’t know what he is doing. Kelly worked for the utility company, and the roundly held view is that she was in over her head from the start.
Contenders and pretenders aside, Barry still has political assets. While it may appear that his support has dwindled because Eydie Whittington, his hand-picked choice for Ward 8 council representative, recently lost in her re-election bid, Barry controls about a third of the electorate going into any election. And as he proved in 1994, he knows how to augment those numbers simply by registering more voters.
His support is derived from those in the city who still see Barry as one of their own, under attack by a bunch of white Republicans who don’t know squat about life in the District. Home rule activists see him as part of the resistance movement, fighting against a Congress that wants nothing less than to turn back the clock to a commissioner form of government. He retains the support of civil rights stalwarts, like Lawrence and Monica Guyot, who will never abandon him. Poor and working-class people, like many in Ward 8, view him as their only hope among elected officials.
And the Post may end up being Barry’s surest vehicle to a fifth term, creating sympathy for the mayor by what are perceived as continued attacks. Last Sunday’s article about Barry is just the kind of story that seems uniquely designed to fire up his base. The piece explicitly stated that Barry will not play a big role in pushing the federal plan for the District through Congress. That kind of marginalization and disrespect enrages some of the city’s black residents.
The solid bloc of pro-Barry voters is bolstered by a ballot that will likely contain just as many candidates in the Democratic primary as it did in 1994. Opponents will undoubtedly split the vote in those areas of the citywhite and some middle-class black communitieswhere Barry is looked on as a pariah who must be destroyed. Barry has done the math and knows he is still very much the one to beat in 1998.
The only person who might have citywide appeal and could send Barry running for I-295 is Chavous, say most political observers. Chavous can attract the same constituency as Barry. He is welcome in a crowd of UDC students, can talk the jargon of cultural nationalist if called on to, and can empathize enough with his poor constituents that they feel he cares about what happens to them. And like Barry, Chavous can be a relentless candidate. But if the past is any indication, Chavous won’t buck the populist mayor. When the two were on the council, Chavous and Barry often teamed up on issues. And Chavous, accepting the mayor’s invitation, showed up at the recent UDC forum, sitting with Barry almost as co-convener.
James Gibson, head of the D.C. Agenda Project, which is currently examining possible changes to the city’s home rule charter, says the discussion about who could whip Barry is moot. The towel has already been thrown in.
“Marion right now is a passive participant; he has no chance of re-election. The general public opinion has reached that stage,” says Gibson. “I think he has an idea of that, which is why he’s been passive. He’s too shrewd to declare himself a lame duck.
“He’ll make noises as though he’s going to run again; I don’t think he’s got a prayer,” adds Gibson. “Every so often he’ll have surges of ego, but I think he’s lost it.”
Gibson is not alone in hoping that Barry will go quietly into the night and end up in some endowed chair at a historically black college or the vice presidency of a corporation.
“A lot of people think it’s time for him to step down,” confides one business leader, who requested anonymity. “In fact, there was some talk with people in the White House of trying to get him an ambassadorship to some African country, maybe Senegal.
“He might fit in there. If you look at the recent pictures of Mobutu [returning to Zaire], he did look a little like Marion returning to the District,” continues the business leader. “I don’t know where the discussions are now. The idea was to let Marion leave quietly and with some dignity.”
It seems unlikely that a president who will not share a photo opportunity with Barry will make him an ambassador. After all, every newly appointed ambassador gets a grip-and-grin with the president. There will probably be no golden parachute out of the mayoralty for Barry.
And Barry will not go quietly. He derives pleasure from making his enemies squirm, and he approaches his job with the swagger and aplomb of a man who has seen the bottom and isn’t afraid anymore. If he could rise again to political office after his crack-smoking abasement, what bogeyman is there that could actually make him back off? And though he doesn’t talk of such things, he certainly bears them in mind.
Shadowboxing can help a fighter stay in shape, but it has a deceptive quality about it. It deludes the fighter into thinking he’s ready to get in the ring, that he has everything under control. After a long layoff, Muhammad Ali believed he could send Leon Spinks crying for his mama. But the champ barely made it through the fight, and although he won in a decision, Ali never looked so bad.
Since Barry has been boxing alone so long in the District, he may not know his own true measure, or that of his opposition. The recent budget fight suggests that Barry has lost a step. He was sure he had the CFO in his corner, bragging about his bold new alliance with his former nemesis.
“The point I’m trying to make is that Tony and I had our little rough spots when we first got startedjockeying around and trying to see who was here, who was not here, and the control board wasn’t helping,” Barry says. “[But] now we’re comfortable because he knows his role.”
Three weeks later, Williams sucker-punched him, sending a letter to Brimmer blasting Barry for not acting decisively and urging the control board to make budget cuts based on Williams’ plannot the mayor’s. Barry was left to wonder what the hell had hit him.
Still, there are times, as at the UDC forum, when the old Marion Barrythe one who could kick ass and take names all night longshows up on the scene. Several weeks ago Barry announced that the feds had taken a sudden interest in the District’s snowplowing capacity and had decided to help out with direct assistance and capital investment. The city’s failure to clear streets last winter was national news, riling local and federal officials. Barry put together a plan that would permit putting money in escrow to help pay private plowers and intimated that if the “snowstorm of the century” happened again, the Mall and nearby offices would be last served. He argued that most of the money for snow removal was local funds and he intended to spend it in D.C. neighborhoods. While the big snow hasn’t come yet, Barry’s posture won him accolades from the people who countDistrict voters.
“When I read the description on the snow plan, I said, this is the old Marion,” recalls Sam Smith. “And then I go to [radio station] WDCU and who’s being interviewed but Mrs. Barry. I say to her, ‘Tell Marion that Sam Smith said that’s the way he ought to be running his outfit.’ She says to me, ‘Yeah, he’s just talking, not walking.’ It was sort of a put down; I didn’t know quite what to make of it,” adds Smith.
Everyone else does: The “old Marion” doesn’t stay around long. He gets tired fast, distracted often. And besides, he is simply out of tricks. And Barry’s management experience is far too limited for the complexity of the economic and structural problems facing his beloved city. Instead of admitting that he may be overmatched by the CFO, the control board, and even some members of his own administration, Barry shuffles and repackages.
Ask him, for example, to analyze where the city is today. “I think the question is where would the city be if I weren’t mayor,” he says, his audacity and ego rendering the reporter speechless for a moment. He goes on to comment that if John Ray, Sharon Pratt Kelly, or Carol Schwartz had been elected in 1994, D.C. would be up shit creek without any air freshener.
“Our finances would have been far worse. I had foresight to identify the problem in February 1995, when I announced the deficit. I scared everybody to death; nobody has yet proved the number was not accurate,” Barry asserts.
“In terms of the overall transformation, we would have had the same old cooked-over sauce, wine in the same old wine bottles. Employees would not have had the kind of leadership I’m trying to give. We definitely wouldn’t have had the MCI arena; the city wouldn’t have a new convention center. We would not have done the reforms”
“That’s how I start out,” he continues, the famous Cheshire Cat grin sneaking across his face. “What would have been the case if Marion Barry had not been mayor?”
Barry has been mayor so long that few can fathom the answer to that question, but a whole bunch of people are aiming to make sure the city has the opportunity to find out in 1998.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.