Upon his return to the kingdom this week, Mayor-for-life Marion S. Barry Jr. proved again that he’s at his best when he’s at his worst. Emerging from a two-week hailstorm of criticism, conjecture, and resignation demands in the wake of his sudden “rejuvenation” flight from the city on April 27, Hizzoner stepped up Monday morning and delivered his best public performance since taking office for his fourth mayoral term in January 1994.
“I have come back better prepared and better able to govern,” Barry declared convincingly before a bank of TV cameras and a roomful of senior government officials at 1 Judiciary Square.
The purpose of the news conference– cum–cabinet meeting was to convince his wavering supporters that none of the rumors surrounding the rejuvenation hiatus is true. In his address, Hizzoner wasted no time in getting categorical, denying the stories of an alcohol or drug relapse and blasting as “outrageous” speculation that he may have contemplated suicide. (Barry, naturally, overlooked his own pre-departure statement that he was “haunted” by the suicide of former D.C. Council Chairman John Wilson three years ago.)
Barry disavowed any contact with the FBI or the U.S. Attorney’s office regarding a federal investigation into his 1994 mayoral campaign and renovations on his new house—another item bandied about as a possible reason for his flight. And he claimed he never once thought about resigning during his 15-day respite from his troubled city. The break, which he refused to call a vacation because “I was working on me,” also helped his relations with wife Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, he added.
As much as a seminar on spiritual healing and personal rejuvenation, the Barry address was a clinic on media manipulation. By setting up the unusual hybrid of staff meeting and news conference, Hizzoner raised speculation that the address would feature a dramatic announcement about his political future. The scuttlebutt ensured live TV coverage from all major local stations for an event that was primarily designed to repair the political damage created by his sudden departure. But instead of an epiphany about his plans, viewers heard a riveting lecture on the 12-step program and healthful eating habits. “The body needs carbohydrates,” quipped the mayor, who urged his audience to ditch fast food and junk food in favor of “proteins, vegetables, and fruits.”
Barry—who in the past has confronted questions about his health with the quip, “I feel good; in fact, I look good, too”—this week told his cabinet and his constituents watching on TV (although not in so many words), “I feel good, I look good, and so can you.”
Barry supporters and critics alike often wondered whether this mayor could ever have a life, or make a living, if he weren’t mayor. With his performance this week, Barry is threatening to replace Deepak Chopra as the new guru of mind, body, and soul. (But Barry won’t get the multimillion-dollar advance for his views on spiritual health and well-being that he would for a tell-all memoir on former mistress Karen Johnson and his prior drug use.)
In the May 13 conference Barry also played corporate management guru, declaring that he would no longer work 16-hour days, and counseling his staff to follow his example. He said he intends to check their schedules regularly to make sure they are taking time off now and then, as he plans to do.
Barry announced he had once again kicked the cigarette habit, which he had taken up recently after a 14-year abstinence, and had gotten up to a half-pack a day. Hizzoner said his nicotine withdrawal this time had been aided by a patch he wore for three days. The trimmer, healthier-looking Barry said he was down to 198 pounds and hopes to stay under 200. He revealed he suffers from “type 2 diabetes,” which does not require insulin injections but can be controlled through diet, exercise, and occasional medication.
Barry said he had taken up bowling on his retreat, and during the news conference, he challenged Washington Post reporter Yolanda Woodlee to a bowling match.
Yes, this is the stuff pivotal Barry news conferences are made of.
The mayor was so convincing on Monday because he has played this role before. He performed essentially the same character six years ago when he returned abruptly from a drug treatment clinic in Florida. His mission at that time was to convince the jurors in his upcoming trial that everyone falls once in his life, and deserves a second chance. The strategy worked: Hizzoner ended up with only a misdemeanor conviction despite being videotaped smoking crack.
Barry also played the victim’s role, albeit less convincingly, in December 1989, after being discovered in a downtown Ramada Hotel room where drugs were being used. Police were ready to pounce but held off when they discovered the mayor was inside. After that incident, Barry surrounded himself with police and family for a brief and defiant news conference in which he denounced the Post but refused to answer reporters’ questions.
So we in the media, as well as many residents of this city weary of the Barry melodrama, can be forgiven for not doing back flips over his performance this week, stellar as it was.
The whole event had a bizarre aspect to it. First of all, LL never knew that Barry’s cabinet had so many levels to it. Only members of “cabinet levels I, II, and III” were allowed to attend the two-hour address/news conference. Cabinet level I consists of department heads. Levels II and III seem to be mayoral staffers who turn out as room fillers for every Barry news conference. Cabinet members of lesser rank were told to leave the room. Except for his pledge to forge a better working “partnership” with the D.C. financial control board, Hizzoner made no mention of city business during his seminar on living right and eating well.
He did hug his nemesis, Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, at the start of the staged event, and “welcomed” the fact that powers that once were his now belong to Williams. Accepting his diminished role may be part of Barry’s new low-stress approach to being mayor.
His cabinet members were also unwilling to talk business. Lottery Board member Dottie Wade eagerly informed the mayor that two D.C. residents had won multimillion-dollar Powerball jackpots in the last three weeks. The lottery dumps $85 million annually into the D.C. Treasury.
And D.C. Parole Board chair Margaret Quick raised another vital city issue when she asked how Barry had managed to kick the nicotine habit. Latino Affairs director Manuel Uriarte felt compelled to reveal that he secretly had gone back to the butts of late but was trying to quit again. Bernard Demczuk, the mayor’s governmental relations director, threw Hizzoner a softball, asking whether Barry thought the media had “stepped over the line” and “hounded” him while he was away.
Of course he did.
After watching this show, LL can understand why the mayor’s cabinet meetings are closed to the media.
Noticeably absent from the well-orchestrated event was fourth wife Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, whom Barry mistakenly referred to as Effi, his third wife, before catching himself. Barry deflected media reports that his top advisers were chafing over his wife’s meddling in critical District decisions. “My wife rarely interferes in the operations of government,” Barry insisted. Still, Lady MacBarry’s sway over the staff was apparent at the news conference. LL couldn’t help noticing that Williams had opted for a regular cravat instead of his trademark bow tie. In a Post story on Barry administration turmoil, Lady MacBarry was reported to have despised the CFO’s bow ties.
Also missing was Barry’s minister, The Rev. Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia. “I don’t need any minister for me to connect with God,” said Barry the evangelist.
Boxing promoter Rock Newman, who held a news conference during the mayoral retreat to suggest that perhaps Barry should step down, didn’t show for the event. (Maybe he wasn’t back from New York, where he attended the Lennox Lewis–Ray Mercer match last Friday night. One of LL’s stalking horses saw Newman in Greenwich Village and asked him what was going on with the mayor. “I am not doing any commenting on the mayor.” Perhaps Newman meant he’s not doing any more commenting on the mayor.)
The absence of these three loyal allies from Monday’s dog-and-pony suggests that all is not yet quite well in the kingdom.
Last weekend marked the kickoff of this year’s council campaign season, with four candidates throwing their hats into the ring. Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil didn’t exactly announce for the at-large seat being vacated by four-term Democratic incumbent John Ray, but held a “petition party” on May 10 to get his name on the September primary ballot. He doesn’t have to give up his ward seat unless he wins.
Before some 35 supporters gathered at Eastern Market’s Market V, Brazil said he wants to switch seats so that Ward 6 can have two members on the council, a line previously used by Dave Clarke when he gave up his Ward 1 council seat in 1982 to run for chair. When asked why he would want to commit taxpayers to holding a $75,000 special election to fill his vacated Ward 6 seat, should he win, budget-cutter Brazil sidestepped the question. “That’s part of our democracy,” he said.
Barney Circle Freeway opponent John Capozzi kicked off his at-large council campaign with a May 13 announcement in which he pledged to “make D.C. more business-friendly.” Capozzi, the city’s elected “shadow” statehood lobbyist to the U.S. House of Representatives, also pledged to abide by the old limit of $100 on campaign donations. That won’t be hard for Capozzi, who isn’t exactly a darling of big-name contributors. The council recently hiked the limit back up to $2,000 for citywide races.
Capozzi, who also lives in Ward 6, will face Brazil in the September Democratic primary, as well as numerous others expected to join the fray.
With a May 11 campaign kickoff at Allen A.M.E. Church in the heart of Ward 8, Sandy Allen set the stage for a rematch with current Councilmember Eydie Whittington for the Ward 8 council seat. Allen lost by one vote to Whittington in last year’s special election to fill Barry’s unexpired Ward 8 council term.
At-large school board member Valencia Mohammed, who may quit the school board to run for a council seat this fall, showed up for Allen’s announcement, accompanied by her campaign manager, Conrad Smith.
In Ward 4, incumbent Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis turned out a few heavy hitters, including City Administrator Michael Rogers, for her May 11 campaign kickoff for re-election to a fifth term. “Economic growth is the key to survival of the city,” declared Jarvis last weekend. She is in charge of the council’s committee on economic development, but very little development has reached Ward 4 during Jarvis’ tenure.
Before LL gets too far into the next election, we must point out the winners and losers of last week’s historic low-turnout primary. “Dems ’96,” the slate of Democrats assembled by party Chairman Bill Simons and the party bosses, swept the contests for posts on the Democratic State Committee (DSC), the party’s official D.C. organ. Ward 8 Democrat Phil Pannell’s slate of challengers got wiped out.
D.C. Democratic party Vice Chairman Donna Scheeder and party treasurer Jim Lawlor also lost their posts. Scheeder owes her stunning defeat—she finished last—to her refusal to join Simons’ official Democratic party slate as an at-large DSC candidate. Scheeder insisted on running independently for her Ward 6 seat.
On the Republican side, newcomers Cindy Gustafson and Joel Garrett, both congressional staffers, won party posts by defeating GOP regulars.
In the heated battle for D.C. Democratic National Committeewoman, Mary Eva Candon proved that the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is no stepping stone to higher office. Candon finished third, well behind winner Barbara Lett-Simmons and runner-up Florence Pendleton, despite spending the most money. Candon’s face appeared all over town on cardboard banners, and flyers, and mailings. And her mother even got into the act with a telephone blitz of Democratic voters. Many of Candon’s campaign donations came from the restaurant and bar industry she regulates as an ABC board member.
Now, this week Candon, along with fellow board member Jim O’Dea, may lose their board seats as part of the board’s reorganization and expansion. CP
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