We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Mayor Marion Barry was proclaimed irrelevant a month ago by at least one member of the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (aka the control board). At the time, the eternally cocksure mayor appeared to have thrown up his hands, surrendering territory and responsibility to the five-member control board. But in true rope-a-dope tradition, Barry came flying up off the canvas just a week later, suddenly producing a credible effort to downsize the government and improve its management. In tone and content, the budget document he espoused is full of tough choices and hard realities—definitely not the Barry people have come to know.

Clearly, the mayor meant business when he announced his plan Feb. 14. Dressed in a traditional suit instead of the Afrocentric attire he has favored of late, Barry held forth for the media in the conference room of Group Decision Support Systems Inc. in Georgetown (the consulting firm that helped the administration develop the document). He declared himself “architect” of a bold transformation plan, “A Vision for America’s First City.” The document’s specificity signaled he wasn’t ready to be counted out and stunned many of his critics into silence. He seems determined to prove, once again, why the name Marion Barry is synonymous with resurrection.

A few quickly dismissed the plan as yet another of Barry’s halfhearted strategies—a grand scheme he has little or no intention of implementing. Even those who believe the mayor is sincere aren’t sure he has the political will to pull it off. Recapturing the District from the jaws of default, a hungry Republican Congress, and a muscle-flexing financial control board is a long shot, even for someone with a history of self-invention.

Countless valid reasons exist to question Barry’s resolve to “make DC government smaller, better trained, better equipped, more citizen-friendly, more business-friendly, more competitive, and fully benefiting from modern technology.” After all, Barry created the bureaucracy he now promises to dismantle. Any genuine cutback will hurt friends of his who have been at the government’s tit sucking up resources through salaries and contracts for years. And even the dumbest student of D.C. politics will tell you that Barry’s political base has been built through adroit deployment of municipal dollars. But despite his history and the likely fallout, Barry sounded like he meant it when he pledged to privatize whole sections of the government and reduce the work force by 25 percent over the next three years.

Is this just talk from a politician feeling the squeeze of an impatient electorate, his own mortality, and the potential unkindness of historians? The answer to all three questions is unabashedly yes. But it doesn’t end there. You have to consider the man’s pride, which is a large and durable phenomenon: He’s been on a mission to rehabilitate his reputation since 1990, when he was caught on tape smoking a crack pipe.

Because he has fallen so far, it’s hard to remember how high Marion Barry once flew; before that dark day in January, Barry was considered one of the more competent politicians in the country and one of the few African-American mayors who could point to tangible achievements, not the least of which was markedly increasing the city’s black middle class. Barry wants to be remembered for something other than “the bitch set me up.”

Consequently, Barry’s transformation plan should not simply be viewed as a blueprint for pulling the nation’s capital from near ruin, but also an attempt to write the final chapter in the phoenixlike politician’s rise from convicted addict to home rule savior.

“We can no longer look elsewhere for our salvation,” said the newly energized Barry at the press conference. “We must accept responsibility for acting where and when we can. To radically change our future, we must begin with ourselves.”

Barry’s self-fueled transformation gives him a measure of credibility in his attempt to remake D.C.

Like the city, Barry has been counted out time and again, but history demonstrates that a bet against Marion Barry has been a bad bet. No one should forget that just a few months after his release from prison, with a globally smeared reputation, Barry managed to upset a former political ally to become the D.C. Council representative from Ward 8. Two years later, he returned to office as mayor, beating out incumbent Sharon Pratt Kelly and At-large Councilmember John Ray. It was a heady, breathtaking comeback, but it bumped right into some steel-edged realities.

James Gibson, head of the DC Agenda

Project and a fellow at the Urban Institute, says Barry knew even before the inauguration that he was “walking into an unmitigated disaster.”

“His ego said, ‘This is a cash flow problem, and I can get on top of it.’ He was right it was a cash flow problem,” continues Gibson. “But all of us underestimated the scale of it; none of us realized how much of a free fall the…Kelly administration had been in.”

Once Barry realized the hole he’d fallen into was bottomless, he demanded that federal authorities take over functions like corrections, mental health care, and Medicaid. When the feds spurned his requests, Barry alternately played the race card, the colonial card, and any other card he thought might draw attention to the chronic inequities in the relationship between the District and the federal government. He spent a lot of time defending territory and prerogative, which the media played as arrogant and foolish posturing. But Gibson says the moves were part of a black thing.

“If you have been a conquered people, what is your psychology about assimilation, about joining the enemy?” asks Gibson, “There is a deep maintenance of boundaries. To fully collaborate or assimilate, to some extent, has connotations of capitulation to the conqueror.

“In a sense, because race is such a factor, as are issues of equity and concepts of fairness, you see Marion trying to find a stance that retains integrity for him and the people he represents,” continues Gibson. “What I think he has done masterfully is to take on the insidious implications of the way reform has been pushed. The Congress and control board have said to elected officials, ‘You cut until we tell you to stop.’ And Barry has said, ‘The people who elected me have a stake in this; they didn’t tell me to run that errand for you.’”

Consciously or unconsciously, Barry used the tactics and the rhetoric of his civil rights past to keep the control board and congressional overseers at bay while he and his staff came up with a cogent response to the District’s financial bereftness. His willingness to address fundamental questions about the size and function of government stems from his read of current realities. During the last mayoral campaign, in an interview with the New Yorker, he said he was capable of adjusting to any situation, unintentionally dubbing himself the “situationist.” Right now, the situation calls for a determined executive with a command of the numbers, and he apparently intends to act like one. People should keep in mind that it’s not the first time Barry has announced his intention to remake D.C. government.

In 1982, during his second administration, Barry oversaw the “reformation” of the District government under the theme, “from dependence to self-reliance.” While that effort was on a much smaller scale than the current transformation proposal, it embraced bona fide government re-engineering. Among other things, three deputy mayor positions were fashioned from one city administrator post. Barry also consolidated several business agencies and government functions, created the current Department of Public Works from three other agencies, and sliced the mammoth Department of Human Services into three separate commissions.

“The main thrust was to develop services in government that would reduce dependency on government and put emphasis on economic development—to expand businesses in D.C. so that there would be new jobs for people,” says Dwight Cropp, former secretary of the District who served on Barry’s 1982 transition team.

Back in 1982, there was more room to move; there wasn’t a control board or any hot-breath congressional Republicans on Barry’s neck. Much of the electorate was still madly in love with the civil rights rabble-rouser turned politician, and home rule still had a virginal flush, unsullied by cronyism, nepotism, and general corruption. By consolidating government, Barry sought to solidify his political base to ensure his status as kingfish of the newly freed District government.

“Marion wanted to be more involved [with day-to-day operation],” recalls Cropp. “The city administrator basically became a deputy mayor; Ivanhoe [Donaldson] became deputy mayor for economic development. The idea also was to tie in Marion’s political structure with the business community, so the business community would be more knowledgeable about the mayor’s political structure.”

Establishing three deputy mayors diluted the influence of the city administrator, who during Barry’s first term had been a powerful personality and competent administrator in the person of Elijah Rogers (who continues to have pervasive influence on the current administration).

Barry also reorganized the regulatory functions of the government, consolidating permits and licenses, among other things, into the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which he dubbed a “one stop” center.

He also proposed massive cuts in the bureaucracy, particularly middle management—but backed off the effort, fearing an angry union response would spell political suicide. Unlike today, Barry could afford to blink: The life of the city didn’t depend on cutting a few jobs from an overly large bureaucracy. It would have been good management, but it wasn’t good politics.

Insiders will tell you that the self-confidence that fueled Barry’s re-invention of government and mastery over it also led to the demise of his administration.

“Marion simply burned out in office. He was a brilliant man who brilliantly performed,” says Gibson. “His ego was up to it, and then it ate him up. He needed an ego to do what he did, but it was chewing on everything, including him.”

Now the ego is back. And there are other equally powerful egos surrounding the mayor—all personally staked in implementing the comprehensive plan they spent 22 weeks developing. His team is determined to implement the Barry vision thing, which in many respects looks and smells like the 1982 reformation thing.

Like the 1982 cabinet responsible for implementing Barry’s reformation, this 1996 transformation crew—Barry Campbell, Enid Simmons, and Michael Rogers—are skilled political operatives and administrators. Individually, Campbell, Simmons, and Rogers bring powerful elements to the mix.

Rogers, chief transformation implementer—and likely fall guy if anything should go awry—calls the plan well thought through and sober,” and says it “makes a break with the past.”

“It does not presume we have to do everything the way we’ve been doing it, nor does it even presume we should do everything we’ve been doing,” Rogers adds.

As announced by Barry, the plan calls for the District to privatize nearly all of its correctional system, the maintenance of public spaces, including street lights, and whole sections of the public health system. Although Barry didn’t buy into creating a public safety commissioner, he does propose establishing a public safety administrator, at the assistant city administrator level. That person would oversee those areas that have proved troublesome over the past year—fleet maintenance, budget, employee readiness, and emergency response for police, fire, and corrections.

As in 1982, the 1996 transformation plan targets business development. Barry proposes to create yet another ‘one-stop business center,’ while consolidating all the economic development activities of the government under a new Department of Business Services and Economic Development. The core of the plan is a completely computerized department with resident-friendly terminals in strategic places throughout the city.

Moreover, Barry wants changes in federal laws that have provided undue benefits to nonprofits and other major corporations at the expense of the District government and its residents. The vision thing advocates discontinuing tax exemptions for organizations such as Fannie Mae, the Brookings Institution, the Kennedy Center, and the National Education Association.

Rogers says the plan will help the city “break loose from its shackles and cease to act like a federal department and truly be a city.” In a recent interview, he suggested that the administration is already engaged in a “full-fledged full-court press” to implement sections of the plan. He says that among other things, an implementation team is already meeting to sculpt a Public Benefits Corporation that will take over D.C. General Hospital and the city’s public health clinics.

A major weakness in the transformation plan is public health, where proposed savings are built on overly generous assumptions. There are other flaws in the mayor’s vision: The grand scheme of a fully computerized government is costly and ambitious. Strategies for paring down welfare and improving schools—both critical to the city’s rescue—are far too sketchy. But there is enough substance in Barry’s transformation plan to actually allow for some hope in what has been a very bleak era in District political life.

“It’s going to change,” promises Rogers, his voice reflecting equal measures of ego and confidence. He cites the recent passage of legislation creating the independent regional Sewer and Water Authority as a model for the pace at which the Barry administration will pursue transforming the District.

Rogers also cites legislation already awaiting congressional approval that would permit Barry to alter the city’s personnel rules to limit so-called bumping rights, which permit an employee in a high position who has received a layoff notice to push out another employee in a lower-level post. For those who doubt this administration’s ability to accomplish the vision thing, Rogers proudly points to the $150 million in expenditure reductions the administration achieved for fiscal 1995.

“Things are getting done,” he says simply.

But making progress and genuine transformation are two different things. And ego or confidence aside, realizing the vision thing won’t be easy for the Barry administration, simply because the situationist is at the helm. There is a disbelieving electorate, an ornery Republican Congress, a five-member volunteer panel of do-gooders-cum-politicians, a disintegrating school system, and a reluctant work force that will have to be dragged into the 21st century.

Barry will have to completely eliminate his empathetic ways and confront his former allies in labor. Reducing the work force by 10,000 positions won’t be a pleasurable thing for an executive who built his base using the patronage system. And the D.C. Council, which hasn’t shown much interest in punching in on the new realities, could be the greatest obstacle.

“Marion [also] doesn’t have a working majority [on the council] to get them to buy into it. That’s going to make it difficult for the vision piece to go through in total. By the time the various factions on the council tear it apart, there won’t be much left to it,” says Cropp.

Barry nearly beat his chest at the press conference to demonstrate political will and resolve. But some suspect he has badly assessed the amount of energy and determination it will take to transform a government that has been in decline for nearly a decade. Pushing through a reformation plan in 1982 was a breeze: Barry was a younger, more arrogant politician, with thousands of compatriots. Today he is older, with thousands of adversaries.

“In ’82 and ’83, he was flushed with victory and coming into a situation where he had options and he had resources. With the victory of ’94, he came into a situation that immediately overwhelmed him,” observes Cropp. “He is not as energetic, although he’s more serious; that is the irony of the situation. I think he finally understands the seriousness of the situation.”

In the past, understanding has only produced the situationist. Barry must forgo constant re-invention in favor of steady leadership and sound management. Though he doesn’t publicly admit it, Barry wants to bury parts of his past by coming to grips with present realities.

“He does want to be vindicated. He wants to get 1990 in another perspective in his life and in history,” says Gibson. “If he can provide leadership in this circumstance, despite all the negative presumptions, the lack of benefit of the doubt, and in the face of reluctant allies, he will have achieved his goal.”CP