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Marion Barry built his political career—and his current comeback—on the aspirations of the poor. But during the 12 years voters gave him as mayor to improve the lot of the poor, Barry failed miserably. Washington remains one of the poorest and sickest cities in America, plagued by rampant unemployment. On the economic front, the Barry years stand as a textbook example of how not to develop a city.
Carolyn Johns-Gray, a civic activist in Ward 6’s Anacostia neighborhood, remembers the Barry administration as no friend to the poor: “He did for a small group of people and told them to brag about it and that made people think he actually did things for poor folks.”
Government records and other published reports of the Barry years—offered below—support Johns-Gray’s assertion, and beg the question: Why do poor people believe his empty promises?
Judge for yourself.
Children and Youth
In 1990, an infant born in the District was less likely to survive until his first birthday than a baby born in Cuba or Jamaica, according to a report released by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). The rate of infant mortality rose in the District every year between 1984 and 1990, until the city boasted the highest in the country, according to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And government documents reveal that only 43 percent of the 2-year-olds in the District between 1989 and 1990 were immunized.
Is it fair to lay the problems of infant mortality and under-immunization at Barry’s feet? Barry cannot force teen-agers to avoid pregnancy or parents to immunize their children. But consider this:
In 1989, Barry cut funding to the city’s 15 neighborhood clinics over the protestations of then-Public Health Commissioner Dr. Reed Tuckson. Citywide, clinics were forced to curtail hours of operation; the Ward 8 Congress Heights Clinic stayed open only because city workers volunteered their time. A mother hoping for a prenatal visit had to wait as long as three weeks before receiving an appointment.
Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly reversed infant mortality rates: In 1989 under Barry, the city recorded 23.1 deaths per 1,000 live births. But three years after Kelly took office, she had reduced the number to 16.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. Kelly also raised the immunization rate by 6 percent using outreach programs.
The foster care system is perhaps Barry’s worst legacy. His administration neglected to claim $14 million in federal government money for foster care programs between 1980 and 1989, according to CDF. In 1981, D.C. Auditor Otis Troupe issued a scathing report on Barry’s failures, and four years later issued another report alleging that hundreds of reports of child abuse and neglect were going uninvestigated by the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS). The number of reports of abused and neglected children further increased by 61 percent, from 6,005 to 9,677 between 1985 and 1989.
Foster care showed no improvements until 1989, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class-action lawsuit against the District government demanding improvements including creation of a system to accelerate adoptions.
A year after Barry took office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) placed D.C.’s housing projects on its “operationally troubled” list, and Barry promised to renovate 3,000 public-housing units. The status of public housing went from critical to code blue under his 12-year tenure, largely because 10 acting or “permanent” directors rotated through the housing authority.
“He ran through public-housing administrators faster than he ran through women,” says Harry Jaffe, co-author of Dream City.
Thousands of public housing residents were dislocated while the renovation contracts were awarded to Barry allies, but the repairs went largely undone. In fact, the number of vacant units—apartments unused except by squatters, gangs, and dealers—almost doubled between 1983 and 1987. The waiting list for public-housing units mounted from 7,600 families in 1980 to nearly 13,000 families by 1987.
Families lucky enough to find a place in the projects lived in squalor, overrun by vermin and gangs, according to a 1986 Troupe audit: Plumbing was erratic, paint peeled, and appliances faltered; left broken were fire escapes, windows, elevators, and doors. More than 50 percent of the maintenance requests were ignored, Troupe found. One reason was that between 1984 and 1985, the housing authority’s maintenance team spent 15 percent of its time renovating the authority’s headquarters. Minor repairs to apartments were left unattended for so long that many led to more costly renovations. A federal judge ruled in 1987 that the city wasn’t providing heat and water in some cases, and had “ignored or walked away from [its] responsibility.”
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The city blamed tenants for trashing their own apartments and Barry ranted that federal cuts had crippled his ability to improve the projects. But his rhetoric was largely a smoke screen. The city had plenty of federal funds earmarked for repairs, but more than $47 million simply went unspent in the first decade of the Barry administration, according to the Washington Post. HUD documents show that an additional $18 million went unused in 1989.
“In the end, his administration’s record on public housing was pretty abysmal; he left the agency in shambles,” Lynn E. Cunningham, a member of Barry’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Housing told the Washington Post.
As the passport out of poverty, education is one of the most vital programs to the poor. Barry, who served as school board president between 1972 and 1974, did little to improve the system as mayor. When the dropout rate for junior-high and high-school students hit 40 percent in the 1988-89 school year, Barry blamed the school board he had once led.
Barry’s relationship with the board had become so strained in 1987 that the board members, led by Linda Cropp, took Barry to court and demanded that he make good on his promise to provide a $3.9-million budget increase to the schools. Meanwhile, school system procurement went straight to hell. In 1979, for example, schools had been paying $8 for a carton of cornflakes until Deputy Mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson signed a deal for $13.50 a carton. The system’s heating oil contract was turned over to Barry supporter James Hillman, and the cost of oil rose 25 percent.
School Superintendent Vincent Reed confronted Barry over the inflated prices for school lunches: “I understand that you want to give contracts to black companies,” Reed said, “but when you tell me to take food out of a black kid’s stomach so some black dude can get rich, I have to ask, what’s your rationale?” According to this account from Dream City, based on interviews with Reed, Barry responded that black entrepreneurs had to come first. Reed resigned shortly thereafter.
Other Barry cronies benefited from the housing and social service contracts. Friend of Barry (FOB) Cornelius Pitts was paid $16.4 million in city funds between 1985 and 1989 for housing and feeding the homeless. Similar contracts were dispensed to FOBs Kimi Gray, Roy Littlejohn, William Fitzgerald, and former Barry girlfriend Diane “Rasheeda” Moore, who later lured the mayor to the room at the Vista Hotel.
D.C. Auditor Troupe consistently blasted the Barry administration for awarding sole-source contracts, and for failing to ensure that the services paid for were actually provided.
The Barry administration left the city’s two poorest wards—7 and 8—unprotected from 1984 through 1989. These years parallel the upsurge in crack cocaine warfare that culminated in 483 murders in 1990—the highest in any American city and nearly triple the rate of 1985. Half of those killed were African-American men under the age of 25, many from neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
During the first year of massive crack violence—1987—only 352 of the city’s 3,880 officers were assigned to Ward 8, and another 234 to the police district that covered the rest of the city east of the Anacostia River. Precincts that covered Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan each had at least 100 more officers than the poorer wards.
“You ask what precipitated the crime wave; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. People had lousy places to live, terrible police protection, and nowhere to go if they needed drug treatment,” says Jaffe.
During the go-go ’80s, Barry harnessed rising government revenues to make the city the employer of last resort. Between 1984 and 1989, the number of people on the city’s payroll burgeoned from 38,721 to 47,273. But what is the fiscal legacy of his “jobs program”? And if re-elected, can he create the 10,000 new jobs he has promised?
Barry isn’t the first politician to build an empire on patronage, but much of the city’s current fiscal nightmare can be traced to the fiscal load of Barry’s “jobs program.”
To make ends meet, the Barry administration consistently went to Wall Street for short-term borrowing in the form of Tax Revenue Anticipation Notes (TRANs). From 1984 through 1987, the Barry administration issued $150 million in short-term bonds. In 1989, Barry went back to Wall Street three times, issuing $450 million in TRANs to help pay bills. By 1989, these and other debts were costing the city 8.3 percent of its budget.
“He just went full steam ahead in hiring and overspending—giving the money to friends and cronies, and not to programs for the poor,” says Betty Ann Kane, former D.C. councilmember and Barry’s 1982 opponent for mayor. “You could see the beginning of the unwillingness to face the fiscal limits the city had.”
Politicians of the left and the right can argue about whether expanding city bureaucracy helps to build the economy and provide jobs for those that need them the most. But in Washington, it’s a moot point. Those jobs have dried up, and, despite Barry’s promises, they aren’t likely to come back.
Barry sent city finances into a tailspin that Kelly has been unable to brake. “Things got progressively worse; the quality of government never got better,” says Troupe.
Four years after Barry left office, the poor are still paying for his lack of foresight and his free-spending ways. The District now faces a $200-plus-million deficit, and Congress has ordered government officials to cut 2,000 city jobs. To make ends meet, city officials—including Ward 8 Councilmember Barry—have cut benefits to all welfare recipients and decreased rental and daycare subsidies. They also intend to reduce benefits to pregnant women.
This may be Barry’s real legacy to the poor.