Sign up for our free newsletter
In 1990, the last time Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. left town to tend to his recovery, he cut short his stay at a Florida clinic and rushed back to D.C. to protect his power base. He won’t have to worry about such things during his current “rejuvenation” respite—much of his power is already gone.
Two days before Barry stunned his administration and the city with his April 27 announcement that he needed to take at least a week off to avoid a relapse into drugs and alcohol, Congress shifted another chunk of the mayor’s rapidly disappearing power to Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams. Williams was given total power over the purse strings, and Barry became even more of a figurehead/ribbon-cutter. In fact, U.S. Rep Tom Davis (R-Va.) suggested the city will be better off without Barry around to constantly interfere with those who now actually possess power—Williams and the financial control board.
LL can understand how Barry ended up at the end of his rope and decided to beat a tactical retreat to Anne Arundel County. After only 16 months back on a job that he considers his for as long as he wants it, Hizzoner has had to spend most of his time and energy finding ways to circumvent Williams and the control board. That kind of “herculean effort”—to borrow one of Barry’s favorite phrases—takes its toll on a 60-year-old body that has suffered as much abuse as his. The mayor who slipped away to the quiet Maryland countryside last week was not the same leader who stood on stage at the Lincoln Theatre March 25 and declared he still had the fire in the belly to transform this sinking city. Less than a month later the fire had gone out, and he has left the city to rekindle it.
Between the city’s lack of health and his own, the past few months have been punishing ones for Barry. At the press conference in November during which he revealed that he had cancer, Barry maintained, “I feel good, and I look good, too,” but he hasn’t been on his game since. When Barry announced the creation of his health care policy transformation task force at an April 23 news conference, he slurred his words and sweated profusely, a tableau reminiscent of his drug-using days. He uncharacteristically stumbled through his prepared text, rambled on, laughed too long at his own jokes, and no longer seemed able to walk the walk. He clearly has lost a step.
Rumors of Barry’s relapse into sex, drug, and alcohol addictions have circulated ceaselessly since his stunning 1994 comeback, but the media has been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, the extraordinary statement the mayor’s office suddenly issued last Saturday—which spoke of “spiritual relapse”—did more to conjure up Barry’s past than any rumor ever could.
For their part, reporters from the Washington Post were madly scrambling around the Tom Tom restaurant in Adams Morgan on Monday afternoon, following up on a wild tip that someone there had witnessed the mayor buying cocaine on 18th Street in front of the restaurant. No one there could verify the information. You can bet both the Post and the Times will be on the Barry lifestyle beat now that he’s put the issue back in play.
Barry loyalists justifiably grumble that he has a right to take some time off now and then, just like presidents who leave for an entire month every August without much complaint. But when President Bill Clinton headed off to Jackson Hole, Wyo., last August, the White House didn’t issue a press release denying that he was going on vacation because of pressures from the Whitewater investigation, or constant nagging from Hillary, or embarrassment from Gennifer Flowers’ published revelations that he has a small penis.
What LL found most intriguing about the getaway statement Barry issued last weekend was its use of passages from Stephen Covey’s best seller, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Barry said in his statement he was following Covey’s advice that leaders take time off now and then to “sharpen our saws.” The last time LL got a peek at Hizzoner’s reading list, a clerk called last summer to report that Barry had purchased How to Argue and Win Every Time at a local bookstore (not in D.C.). (We really shouldn’t say Barry was reading the book, since he bought the cassette version.)
Perhaps he purchased the treatise on argumentative strategy in an attempt to hold his own with his persistent wife, Cora Masters Lady MacBarry. The mayor’s current retreat was a wife-induced maneuver, according to sources close to the mayor. Opinions are divided whether the first lady was simply looking out for her husband’s health or that his tenure on the not-so-funny farm was part of a deal he cut to keep her off his back. But sources close to the Barrys say her major concern is the recovery of their marriage, which the same sources say has been rocky since the mayor’s December prostate surgery.
Lady MacBarry has been riding herd closely on her husband of late—too closely, according to some Barry aides. They say that part of what Barry really needs to get away from is the Lady herself.
Fat chance of that.
If the Barrys are feeling hounded right now, they have no one to blame but themselves. After the ill-considered initial announcement, the very odd press opportunity on the way to St. Louis Wednesday poured more gasoline on the fire. In the past, the Barrys have shown an ability to slip quietly out of town to places like Jamaica and Disney World—why create such a fuss now?
But Barry detractors shouldn’t fret too much over the mayor’s tenure. LL is ready to bet that Lady MacBarry will convince him to step down at the end of his current term, if not before. And Barry shouldn’t worry about coming back to work right away; the city can get along fine without him for a while—of course, he’s probably afraid that’s what D.C. residents will discover in his absence.
After a Virginia resident got into a tussle with a D.C. cabdriver last Sept. 2 over the correct fare and shortest route from Georgetown to Rosslyn, the rider immediately filed a complaint with the D.C. Taxicab Commission. The irate driver allegedly kicked the pesky passenger out of his cab, and police who happened onto the scene had to break up the argument. Nine months later, the passenger—who has requested his name not be used—is still waiting for the commission to act on his complaint.
That may take some time, says Taxicab Commission general counsel George Crawford. (Or former general counsel, to be more accurate. Crawford’s job was eliminated April 26 in a budget-cutting move.) Crawford says the commission has held very few hearings on complaints from dissatisfied cab customers since February 1995. The commission gets 600 to 700 complaints annually, he says, so LL’s math suggests the backlog may be reaching close to a thousand unheeded gripes by now.
According to Crawford, most of the commission’s 12 members have not attended adjudication hearings since December 1994, when the D.C. Council voted to eliminate their compensation. Before the council acted, commission members earned $150 a day, or a maximum of $7,000 annually, for hearing complaints and deciding policy for the city’s approximately 7,000 cabdrivers.
Only three commission members are needed to hear complaints—two of the eight consumer representatives and one of the four industry representatives on the commission. But finding even three members willing to spend six or seven hours to consider complaints gratis has been an impossible task.
“After eight or nine years of making $150 a day, and then to be told we still want your services but we don’t want to compensate you, you can understand their frustration,” Crawford said. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, the industry’s biggest defender on the council (not coincidentally, son Harry Thomas Jr. is an industry lobbyist), has introduced legislation to restore compensation of $25 a day, or a maximum of $2,000 annually. But that may not be enough to get the commission reactivated. At the moment, caveat emptor will be the watchword for anybody climbing into a D.C. cab.
Next Tuesday, the District will hold an election that need not take place. The May 7 presidential primary, in fact, was in danger of being axed when the financial control board cut the D.C. Board of Elections’ budget earlier this year. But a small, vocal bunch of people who like to see their names on the ballot cried foul, arguing that D.C. has a democratic right to hold this primary. The $300,000-plus cost for the presidential primary will come on top of the cost of another primary in September and the general election in November. The control board bowed to pressure once again and allowed the pointless polling to proceed. The only question now facing next week’s election is, how low can the turnout go?
With no meaningful contests on the ballot, the turnout, or lack of it, could set a record. To do that, nearly 90 percent of D.C. voters must stay away from the polls on Tuesday to beat the previous low of 33,455 voters who cast ballots in the 1976 presidential primary. LL figures the District has a shot at the record, unless there are a large number of Democrats out there dying to choose between Clinton and convicted tax evader Lyndon LaRouche in the Democratic primary we don’t know about. D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton will be re-elected regardless on Tuesday since she faces no Democratic primary opposition; and neither the D.C. Republican Party, the Umoja Party, nor the D.C. Statehood Party could find a candidate who wanted to go up against her in November.
The real rivalries on the ballot involve contests for Democratic party offices and seats on the D.C. Democratic State Committee. The state committee, the ruling arm of the city’s only viable political party, is busy trying to get the national Democratic Party to adopt a plank in its presidential platform calling for abolition of D.C.’s financial control board. Norton has vowed that will happen only over her cold, dead body.
As insignificant as these contests may be to the everyday lives of D.C. residents, they don’t lack for heat and passion. In the most divisive contest, fractious former school board member Barbara Lett Simmons, U.S. Shadow Senator/statehood lobbyist Florence Pendleton, and former Alcoholic Beverage Control board Chair Mary Eva Candon are vying for the Democratic National Committeewoman’s seat being vacated by former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
At a Ward 8 forum last weekend, Simmons warned black voters against splitting their votes between her and Pendleton because they would end up with Candon. Sources who attended the forum said Simmons argued that Candon shouldn’t have the post because she is white in a predominantly African-American city.
Interestingly enough, although Democrats whined last year that local party Chairman Bill Simons should have given up his post as D.C.’s Democratic National Committeeman after being elected state committee chairman, none of the whiners could muster enough courage to challenge Simons for the committeeman’s post.
Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell has put together the “Unity Democrats” slate to challenge the “Dems ’96” slate of party boss Simons for state committee posts. Pannell’s slate includes John Daniels II, Chuck Hicks, William Lewis, Rick Sowell, David White, Vera Abbott, Wanda Alston, and L. Yvonne Moore. The Dems ’96 slate includes such “heavy hitters” as Harry Thomas Jr., Paul Strauss, John Capozzi, Pat Elwood, Lillian Huff, and Katherine Pearson-West.
The most interesting name on the Republican ballot belongs to Michelle Bernard. Bernard, you may recall, was Barry’s hand-picked head of the redevelopment board overseeing the downtown sports arena project; she took a lot of heat last year for saying the city wasn’t getting the best deal it could on the arena. She also was the attorney for Barry protégé Eydie Whittington against charges of voter fraud in Whittington’s one-vote victory in the special Ward 8 council race.
Now Bernard is an official of the D.C. Republican Party, since she faces no opposition for an at-large seat on the party’s central committee. Perhaps the charismatic Bernard can help lead local Republicans out of their self-imposed political hibernation. Most GOP central committee candidates are unopposed, except in Ward 6, where a slate of three young congressional staffers—Joel Garrett, Michael Jahr, and Cindy Gustafson—is challenging a slate of party regulars.
Several readers of last week’s column called to dispute the claim by Malik Shabazz that his April 19 anti–control board forum attracted a crowd of 400. “There were not more than 15 people that I saw,” said Bonnie Cain, publisher of The Bulletin Board newspaper in Ward 1. “He lost some of the crowd when he asked for $5 admission.”
But Art Spitzer, legal director of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said Shabazz’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was denied use of Bruce-Monroe Elementary School for the event. “The school board can’t pick and choose who they allow to use their buildings in the evenings,” said Spitzer. “I don’t know why Malik Shabazz didn’t call us.” Perhaps Shabazz, who has been known to make anti-Semitic remarks, thinks the ACLU is just the left vanguard of the Jewish conspiracy.CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, Ext. 302, 24 hours a day.