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On Alabama Avenue and Randle Place SE, in the heart of Ward 8, five middle-age men sit at the old Congress Heights School playground talking about their new councilmember, Marion Barry. All are speaking at once. One is calmly repeating, “He just got in there. You’ve got to give him a chance.” Another is cursing the “white motherfuckers” who brought Barry down in 1990.
Ronnie Hainsworth’s voice rises above the din. Hainsworth looks to be in his late 40s and, like the other men, came here this morning to register at a Ward 8 job fair.
“When it’s time for him to get things together, he gets it together,” Hainsworth says. The others nod. “He was resurrected. He was given a second chance, and he’s on the road back.”
Both Hainsworth and another man, who calls himself Zapp, worked in Barry’s Pride Inc. program in the late ’60s. “He’s trying to see if he can come in and do something,” Zapp says. “He’s trying to make it better for all of us.” Zapp, a 38-year resident of Ward 8, continues: “He’s a person who’s lived in the community, been involved in the community….People feel a kinship to him. He’s like family.”
Further up Alabama Avenue, other constituents of the new councilmember gratefully welcome his return. Maria Wallace, a young grandmother, stands outside her church, next to a bricked-up project, and tells stories of how Councilmember Barry has already arranged the repair of her public housing complex and helped her get the food stamps she needs.
“We love Mr. Barry because he’s the only person we can talk to,” she says. “He’s been through some of the same things we’ve been through. He’s a good man.”
Or there’s Mari Armistead, a carpenter’s apprentice who just lost her job. “He makes himself available,” she says. “He’s sees what’s going on because he’s right in the middle of it….Today he’s not for Marion Barry. Today he’s for us.”
Defying political death, Marion Barry has returned. And, hard as it is for many to believe—or to stomach—he has brought with him the creativity, organizational skill, and cunning that made him the District’s most effective, most beloved, and most reviled leader for 20 years.
With every probing question he asks as D.C. councilmember, every speech he gives advocating summer jobs for kids and government jobs for adults, every welfare mother he registers to vote, every community meeting he presides over, and every day he is sober and prompt and attentive to his supporters, Marion Barry, Ward 8 councilmember, redeems himself.
Barry’s 1992 election to the D.C. Council mystifies the thousands of Washingtonians who still cringe at the memory of The Tape. But American politics abounds with second acts—just ask Richard Nixon, who has had so many that he’s lost count, or James Michael Curley, elected mayor of Boston while under indictment (he served from a federal prison cell).
When Barry was exiled in 1990—humiliated by the public display of his sins and wasted by drugs and alcohol—many thought that a once-glorious career was dead, murdered by weakness and hubris. They rolled the stone in front of his tomb; the city elected a political neophyte as its mayor and tried to expunge Barry from District history. But those who buried him forgot that the Marion Barry who smoked crack in the Vista also was the alpha and omega of District politics, its creator and its unchallenged master.
Forgiven by Ward 8, Barry remains the political entrepreneur he was when he set up shop in the District three decades ago, and he is repaying Ward 8’s forgiveness with tireless advocacy and community mobilizing. Now, just three years after a sordid trial and 16 months after release from federal prison, a rededicated Barry reigns ascendant over Ward 8, a political boss with an unmatched organization, grandiose plans, and a legitimate claim to speak for a ward that’s never had a voice.
Barry, better than anyone, knows how Ward 8’s residents have been neglected. As a “dashiki-clad” activist for urban blacks in the ’60s, Barry built his career on the backs of Washington’s disenfranchised. As mayor in the ’80s, Barry abandoned them when realpolitik demanded it, exchanging the civil rights crusade for a permanent campaign. In place of community empowerment and class politics, Barry substituted appeals to real-estate developers and the voters of the black middle class.
Now back at square one, Barry again offers himself as savior to poor and working-class blacks. His thirst for power matches theirs; their salvation is hitched to his. His organizing is winning them political clout; their political clout is winning him citywide power. With tactics honed by 30 years of populism, Barry is leading Ward 8 out of a forgotten wilderness, and his constituents adore him for it.
Even if he never regains widespread credibility among whites and blacks, even if he never succeeds in capturing a fourth mayoral election, Marion Barry has accomplished something few believed was possible: He has come back and made Washington heed him again.
At the deepest level, Marion Barry’s redemption depends on Marion Barry’s fall.
“The people of Ward 8, and some people in other wards, felt that Marion Barry got a raw deal, even though he did tremendous wrongs and embarrassed the city,” says Ronald Walters, professor of political science at Howard University. “It was a symbolic act, bringing him back. It was an act of retribution. They were going to pick him back up.”
The white system tried to defeat Barry, his supporters believed, the same white system that tosses thousands of Ward 8 men and women into jail, denies them jobs, and banishes them to the shadows. By raising their fallen mayor, Washington’s dispossessed raised themselves.
This sense of victimization resonated deepest in the black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, and Barry sensed it in November 1990, when he suffered the only electoral defeat of his career. Knowing that he couldn’t win the 1990 mayoral race, Barry re-registered as an independent and ran for an at-large council seat during the interval between his conviction and sentencing. Lacking organization, money, credibility, and social standing, Barry finished a distant third citywide, but first in Wards 7 and 8. The loss served notice that Barry, no matter what the rest of the world thought, still owned the loyalty of thousands of Washington blacks.
“What he found [in Ward 8] was a deep, heartfelt residual of resentment from people who thought he was wronged in the way he was brought to justice,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith. “There were a lot of people who were sympathetic to the kind of plight he found himself in.”
Ward 8 responded to Barry’s troubles because of its own. By every measure of social chaos, it is Washington’s poorest, most troubled ward. Its median household income is lowest. Its percentage of families in poverty and its unemployment rate are highest. It has the fewest homeowners, the most residents of public and subsidized housing, and the lowest property values. The ward contains few retail stores and only one supermarket. More crimes against persons are committed in the 7th Police District, which includes all of Ward 8 and small parts of Wards 6 and 7, than in any other.
Ward 8 also has the highest percentage of children (33 percent) and the fewest people of voting age. District politicians—and Mayor Barry was no exception—have ignored the electorally impotent ward with impunity. It was the poorest ward when Marion Barry was elected mayor in 1979; it was the poorest when he left in 1991; it is the poorest today.
“Ward 8 is a ward for which the rhetoric of redemption is the life of the ward. You get people whose lives are completely caught up in the criminal justice system,” says Barry Passett, president until 1991 of the ward’s Greater Southeast Community Hospital. “Ward 8 was made to order for [Barry]. There are all the men who had been through the process and all the women who had watched the men go through the process…and he came out of it saying he had been through it and could serve them better. My God, what a story!”
Smith concurs with Passett, adding that the fallen Barry sought out a sympathetic audience. “I think he saw himself as sort of a prodigal son, someone who had been stigmatized by the arrest, stigmatized by the jailing, and who was now trying to find his way back to society,” Smith says.
Redemption. Resurrection. Prodigal son. The language of Barry’s return is religious, and it’s no accident. Since the fall, Barry has advertised his professions of faith and has convinced admirers of his spiritual rebirth.
“African-American vernacular culture permits the redemption of a person in both religious and social terms and therefore permits it politically,” says the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley, pastor of Ward 4’s People’s Congregational United Church of Christ.
The public faith serves a political end. The Rev. Willie Wilson, a prominent Ward 8 minister, has accorded the reborn Barry a new name: Anwar Amal, “Bright Hope” in Arabic. The renaming allows him to assert both a Christian and a voguish Afro/Muslim identity, as well as to parade his new religious humility. But Anwar Amal is still a part-time name, painted (in parentheses) beneath his given name on his District Building office door. The part-time status doesn’t hurt: He gets credit for a metaphysical rebirth, but preserves 100-percent name recognition as Marion S. Barry Jr.
Barry has also trumpeted his return as an African-American leader by climbing back into kufis, African shirts, and kente scarves. As he told the Washington Post, these dashikis of the ’90s symbolize that he has cast off Establishment values that he “subconsciously” adopted when he was wearing Raleigh’s suits. One quick makeover, and he taps into the chic African-culture scene while giving a friendly wink to black political and cultural nationalists.
“The other members of the city council have not made that connection,” says Howard University’s Walters of Barry’s new garb. “To wear those symbols in the city council is not only an act of defiance, but of cultural legitimacy. It bespeaks a kind of boldness that others on the council lack.”
Coming full circle, Barry has both remembered his past and chosen, wisely, to repeat it.
Marion Barry is like an old house that’s been painted a dozen times: Each coat covers all traces of the last, but beneath the paint, the house remains the same.
Strip Barry of his outer coat—a sober, driven, populist community organizer and ward boss with an agenda of equity and empowerment—and you reveal 1990 Barry: a race-baiting, drug-addled disgrace desperate enough to do anything to save his career. Strip that layer to 1986 Barry and find an egotistical imperial mayor expediting downtown development in order to generate property taxes (as well as campaign contribu tions) that he could use to bloat city government and endear himself to Washington’s black middle class, even as poor black supporters waited for the aid he never brought them and former white followers began to loathe him.
Then strip to 1978 Barry, a progressive young mayor tidying city finances and nurturing the original rainbow coalition, a base of liberal whites, gays, senior citizens, and poor blacks who united around his promise to open city government and make it run well. And to 1968 Barry, a community activist organizing and winning jobs for poor blacks and leading one of the first movements for home rule.
Strip one more layer to 1963 Barry: a civil rights leader with boundless energy deploying the shock tactics of the movement—sit-ins, protests, and non-negotiable demands—while privately working for compromise. Here, at last, is the Ur-Barry, the political entrepreneur symbiotically coupling his constituents’ prosperity to his own power.
Already a civil rights activist, Barry helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and briefly served as the radical organization’s first chairman. In 1965, SNCC dispatched Barry to Washington to bring the Southern civil rights movement to the aid of Northern urban blacks. At the time, Washington was the largest majority-black city in the country, but black and white Washingtonians were powerless at the polls. The peculiar institution of federal rule isolated authority in the hands of Congress and three presidentially appointed commissioners.
Barry immediately took advantage of the opportunities Washington offered to manufacture black political power. With no experience of the city and no contacts among its power brokers, he quickly became a leading community activist who, homeboy by homeboy, attracted a loyal following of lower-income blacks. First, he arranged a bus boycott, a one-day protest against increased fares that caused the city’s private bus company to (temporarily) rescind the hike. Actually it wasn’t a boycott. Barry called it a “mancott.” Even in 1966, Barry knew a good hook.
By 1967, Barry had broken with SNCC and founded the Free D.C. movement, a campaign for home rule. When it had to, Free D.C. coerced: Barry, backed by a cadre of young black followers, demanded that businesses display Free D.C. stickers and threatened boycotts if they didn’t. It was blackmail, and although public pressure forced Barry to abandon the campaign, he made his point: The enfranchisement of Washingtonians depended on businesses linking their prosperity to the city’s.
But mostly, the Free D.C. movement organized, and Barry adored organizing. He led protests and threw Free D.C. block parties for young people, setting up a turntable, spinning soul records, and preaching about home rule between songs. The police arrested him a few times for partying in the street without a permit—all the more publicity. Kids and young adults—the germ of a constituency—flocked to him. Barry’s agitating won him a following; the following brought him influence; the influence eventually enabled him to reward his followers.
But despite an image as an Afro-wearing, gun-toting radical, Barry pursued compromise. Political gains, he believed, came through the system: Image and rhetoric were weapons in seeking pragmatic goals.
In pursuit of this traditional agenda, Barry always allied himself to the powerful. In 1967, for example, Barry mau-maued U.S. Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz, then befriended him. Wirtz challenged Barry to devise a community War on Poverty program, and Barry founded Youthpride Inc. (later known as Pride Inc.). Wirtz’s department funded Pride, beginning with $300,000 seed money and ultimately topping $3 million per year.
A nonprofit venture committed to black economic development, Pride established businesses in ghetto areas and staffed them with young, unemployed black men—often high-school dropouts, often former criminals, and always ignored by society. These “street dudes” (as the newspapers liked to call them) were not a promising group to build on, but they were Marion Barry’s core constituency and they needed the helping hand. Like the bus mancott and the Free D.C. block parties, Pride proved Barry’s commitment to helping those who required the most assistance. An equally enduring legacy: Pride also showed Barry that he could milk the public teat to augment his own power.
Pride workers killed rats, cleaned streets, operated gas stations, and managed an apartment complex. For several years, the program was a surprising success: The businesses stayed afloat, the street dudes stayed off the street, and Barry made himself hero, spokesman, and provider for a loyal following. But in the early ’70s, as Barry departed Pride for the D.C. school board, the businesses all fell apart, victims of their locations and their inexperienced employees. At the same time, Pride’s employees were plundering it: Barry’s first wife, Mary Treadwell, ultimately served 15 months in prison for defrauding a Pride-related apartment complex. (But she and Barry had the last word: Soon after Treadwell was released, the Barry administration parole board hired her for a $27,000-a-year job.)
The Pride financial scandal marked the first evidence of Barry’s tolerance for corruption. By permitting, tacitly or otherwise, Pride officials to skim money, Barry slightly enriched a few friends and strengthened his following, with little damage to Pride. In that scandal, as in the ones that wracked the Barry mayoral adminstration, Barry did not profit. Corruption, like compromise or organizing, was a political tool.
In pre-home-rule Washington, Congress wrote the laws and unelected commissioners ran the government. What power did exist rested with a white elite of well-off Democrats like John Hechinger and Polly Shackleton and a black elite of upper-middle-class Dunbar High School and Howard University gradutes, led by Walter Washington. Impoverished blacks and recent arrivals from the Great Migration didn’t belong. Why should anyone listen to them? There were no meaningful elections, after all. The city shortchanged them on city services and that was that.
Barry changed all this. By the time he transferred from street-level activism to elective politics in 1971, Barry was the voice of the left-out, and their voice mattered. The Rev. Stanley accounts for Barry’s spectacular popularity by calling him a “vernacular African-American.” Then as now, Barry had a thick Southern accent and a warm and easy manner. “He is the way people are at home,” Stanley says. “He is publicly the way blacks speak to and relate to each other.”
Barry personified modern black history: He was the Representative Man, a Southerner who came to the North, a farm boy who came to the city, a civil rights veteran. “Marion is someone whom lots of blacks identify with not just in the political sense, but in the existential sense….He was automatic for the people,” says Jamin Raskin, associate professor of law at American University and longtime Barry friend.
Barry also possessed the most powerful campaign weapon of all: charisma. The ’60s Barry, like the 1993 Barry, could make friends with a dyspeptic rattlesnake. Capitalizing on his nearly photographic memory for names and faces and his personal warmth, Barry wooed his supporters like a lover. The women swooned over him, the men identified with him, and nearly everyone followed him.
In 1971, Barry took the natural next step in the civil rights movement. He ran for school board, then the only elective office in the District except for congressional delegate. By exploiting his network of volunteers, and by out-hustling and out-fund-raising his incumbent opponent, Barry won easily. When Congress finally granted home rule, Barry sought an at-large seat on the first city council in 1974, quitting as school board president to run. Same story, same result: the network of volunteers, the loyal personal following, the grass-roots network, the 24-hour campaigning, another easy victory. And again in 1976.
For the 1978 mayoral primary, Barry and right-hand man Ivanhoe Donaldson orchestrated an amazing campaign, the best in District history. Challenging the two dominant leaders of the day, Mayor Walter Washington and Council Chair Sterling Tucker, Barry forged his tenuous coalition of poor blacks, white liberals, gays, and senior citizens around a platform of inclusion and progressive reform, and eked out a victory from 34 percent of the vote.
But the poor could carry the ambitious Barry only so far. Political necessity dictated that he, as mayor, gather other tendrils of power: middle-class blacks, business leaders, the Democratic Party establishment. The Reagan boom ballooned the city treasury with tax revenue, which Barry spent on patronage as fast he could. He added 8,000 workers to the city payroll in the mid-’80s, solidifying his claim to a vast and loyal army of middle-class black voters.
Left behind were his original constituents, who endured a perverse sort of benign neglect. The rising tide allowed Barry to expand social services, but the poor remained poor. More generous welfare programs did not reduce crime, improve lousy public schools, or develop ghetto neighborhoods. By the late ’80s, only a rhetorical illusion of power remained for poor and working-class Washingtonians. In return for their loyalty, Barry assuaged them by dispensing racially charged accusations about congressional interference and hinting of “The Plan” of the white man to retake the city.
But Barry had banked two decades’ worth of goodwill with the District’s dispossessed, an account he drew on as mayor and still draws on today.
“Everyone out there, Marion has had some part in their life. Everyone out there has a story about how he got them their first job or helped them in some way,” says Sandy Allen, Barry’s campaign director in 1992.
A measure of the accuracy of Allen’s statement: Of 10 people I spoke to on a Ward 8 street one Saturday morning, three had worked in Pride, two were Barry-government employees laid off under Mayor Kelly, one gained his first professional training in Barry’s Summer Youth Employment Program, and one was a Barry campaign worker.
Now back to his grass roots, Barry is doing what he does best: bringing power to the excluded and helping himself.
“The organizing that he is doing now, the organizing that he was doing to get elected to the [council] and to maintain it is almost exactly what he did at Pride in terms of pulling together various people and setting up an organization that is responsive,” says Julius Hobson Jr., a WTOP-AM commentator on District affairs and former Ward 8 school board member.
“In his current form, he is a traditional American ethnic politician,” says Passett. “The organizing stops at the electoral process. You elect me. I deliver for you.”
Based on his Ward 8 showing in the 1990 at-large contest, Barry could have defeated incumbent Ward 8 Councilmember Wilhelmina Rolark without campaigning. But by going back to basics, Barry turned what would have been a narrow victory into a landslide. Which candidate would you vote for if you lived in Ward 8? A no-account incompetent or a brilliant activist with a history of Getting Things Done and an understanding of the community’s needs?
“People in Ward 8 are as smart as people in Ward 3,” says Passett. “Here was an opportunity to get a councilman who knows his way around, who knows the city. With Barry in office, the ward would be favored….The only question was whether he was impacted by his drug problem.”
In a place often called “the last frontier,” because development and influence have passed it by, Barry’s promise of power galvanized supporters.
“The problem in Ward 8 was that it was not organized,” says Barry campaign director Allen. “We’re like babies learning how to be heard in the political arena….Council member Barry has taught us how to do that. That’s his constant lesson.”
The Barry crusade to conquer and save Ward 8 began on April 23, 1992, the day he was released from prison. A caravan of five buses holding 300 cheering, praying supporters escorted him from Loretto, Pa., back to Washington. Soon after his return, Barry changed his residency from Ward 7 to Ward 8 (he didn’t want to run for the seat held by old friend H.R. Crawford), and in June announced his challenge to Rolark.
Barry garnered no big-name endorsements: The establishment grew queasy at the thought of his return and threw its weight behind Rolark.
But Barry didn’t need any help. For three months he toured his new ward at a jackrabbit’s pace. He sold $5 T-shirts and washed cars. Bake sales and fish fries raised money for campaign posters. He walked the main streets, the side streets, and the back alleys of the ward; he knocked on doors, attended every civic event, and phoned undecided voters to lobby for their vote. More than 400 people volunteered, says campaign director Allen, and Barry molded them into a precise campaign network, every precinct and every block covered.
He also implored Ward 8 to register to vote. In May 1992, just after Barry’s release, 25,237 people were registered in the ward, just 53.7 percent of the voting-age population. By Election Day, another 3,000 had been added to the rolls. The numbers paid off for Barry and served notice on the rest of the city.
“Politicians will pay more attention to where the votes are coming from,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. “Anything he has done to reinvigorate the ward in that area will reap benefits [for it] in the future.”
Rolark spent $76,000 on her campaign, Barry only $30,000, but Barry’s energy erased the disparity. On the day of the primary, nine Barry vans cruised the ward to ferry voters to the polls. Barry’s air-conditioned bus picked up senior citizens and served them lunch on the way to the polling station. The Barry campaign even resorted to trickery: According to the Washington Post, Barry campaign workers wore Rolark T-shirts outside polling places, and told prospective voters that, though they worked on the Rolark campaign, they were supporting Barry.
Robert Yeldell, a Ward 8 ANC commissioner who backed Rolark, was amazed at how Barry steamrollered her. “He did a terrific job getting out the vote that had never been gotten out before. The welfare recipients. The people in public housing,” Yeldell says. “He rallies the people….He’s like a pied piper.”
Others weren’t so surprised. After all, Marion Barry had dispatched school board President Anita Allen, Mayor Walter Washington, Council Chair Sterling Tucker, and former HUD Secretary Patricia Harris, ushering them to political oblivion. Most who had watched those victories knew that Barry would add Rolark to his list of kills. “Marion is a 24-hour politician,” says Hobson. “While you’re at home asleep at night, he is awake and plotting.”
Barry crushed Rolark. He won with 6,297 votes to her 1,872. Barry’s registration campaign added more voters to the rolls than cast a ballot for Rolark. Barry won three times as many votes as Rolark in her home precinct.
The turnout was similarly impressive: Overall, 24 percent of registered District Democrats voted in the 1992 election. In Ward 8, where voter apathy had reigned for decades, 38.6 percent showed up at the polls.
“He did all the right things in touching those people,” says District political consultant Ted Gay. “He did an unbelievable job in getting the largest voter turnout that ever happened in that ward.”
Julius Hobson Jr. says that traditionally, councilmembers deal simply with the elite in their wards, but that Barry possessed the skill and fire to attract the masses.
“[Voters] have just not been in the habit of seeing their elective representatives on their doorstep,” says Hobson. “He has gone back to that and it has been successful. And as long as he continues to do that, he can probably stay in office.”
The new Barry campaign hasn’t ever really stopped. Constructing a new machine demands ceaseless post-election politicking, so he has converted his campaign’s volunteer staff into 13 precinct councils that keep local residents informed about ward and city affairs. His volunteers remain active, holding meetings and registering voters.
In his brief tenure, Barry has radically altered how the ward does political business. He has vanquished its apathy and is juicing it up with more meetings, summits, and events than ward residents have seen in decades. “When Marion Barry comes to town, Ward 8 roars!” says Ward 8 ANC Commissioner Lewis Ecker II. “The man’s politics are sound. He has a profound way of putting people together and making people want to work.”
Since his inauguration in January 1993, Barry has convened community summits on health care, economic development, and drug abuse, all drawing more than 200 people. The economic summit produced the ward’s first attempt to draft a detailed development plan and created a marketing task force that will sell Ward 8 to businesses and potential residents. Barry also plans summits on violent crime and child care.
He presides at town meetings, publishes a Ward 8 newsletter, and plies constituents with notices announcing his legislative initiatives. He is reinvigorating community forums such as the Seventh Police District Advisory Committee, where citizens complain about police services. According to Committee President Aletha Campbell, before the 1992 campaign, six to 10 people attended the monthly meetings. Then Barry arrived and asked to be membership chairperson. Now, Campbell says, “35, 45, even 50” people, including Barry, show up.
In every Ward 8 endeavor, Barry involves himself and advances his agenda of community control. In August, for example, community activists held a job fair to recruit local laborers and contractors for a new government-funded school for handicapped children to be built in Ward 8. Leaders wanted a big piece of the $8 million project for local workers and minority contractors, so Barry arranged a meeting with general contractor Jeffrey Sigal, an old friend from the halcyon days of District real-estate development, to establish a system to ensure that locals would be employed at the site. The fair registered about 200 applicants.
“Every person here is a Ward 8 resident,” Barry aide Bob Bethea says at the job fair. “It was negotiated by Ward 8 people with the councilmember from Ward 8.” The ward’s new motto, Bethea adds, is, “we’re doing it for ourselves.”
Of course, job fairs are only job fairs. As one applicant says, “It’s a good idea, but it’s not enough to have a job fair and show jobs to people. You have to have the jobs.”
Barry’s summits and rhetoric have yet to create new employment or economic development in the ward, but his admirers emphasize that he has just begun. Barry fiancee and UDC political science professor Cora Masters argues that citizen involvement, by itself, will eventually translate into citizen power. “It starts with where you live,” Masters says. “There is nothing more exciting than people waking up and realizing what power they have.” No wonder that Barry aides and supporters intone the phrase “community empowerment” like a mantra.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who also represents constituents east of the river, endorses the Barry strategy. “[Barry and I] are in full agreement that the areas east of the river have been treated like pariahs by the city government,” Chavous says. “And the best thing that Marion Barry has done is to highlight that.”
Like any machine, Barry’s depends on delivery of constituent services. Barry has taken the unusual step of placing his constituent services office in his ward rather than in the District Building, as most councilmembers do. The new Barry excels at the little things that keep constituents loyal: visiting neighborhood block parties; listening to complaints, returning constituents’ calls (if not journalists’—Barry’s office ignored repeated requests for an interview with the councilmember); and distributing goodies. When 500 free tickets were given to District kids for the Riddick Bowe/Jesse Ferguson heavyweight-title fight at RFK Stadium, Bowe-pal Barry ensured that Ward 8 kids received more than half of them.
And Barry is having a ball. He loves the job, enjoys charming a whole new generation of voters. “He’s good with constituents because he’s having fun,” says Masters. “He’s really interested in people, and he doesn’t forget them….That’s who he is.”
But in the new Barry lurk vestiges of the old. Barry’s Ward 8 newsletter, Bright Hope: Anwar Speaks, for example, makes demagogic appeals to the alienated. The newsletter’s logo superimposes the outline of the District upon that of Africa; both city and continent have the same top-heavy shape. Ward 8 corresponds to the southern tip of the continent, and for those who don’t immediately grasp the parallel, Ward 8 is shaded in to correspond to South Africa. If Ward 8 is South Africa, then is Marion Barry…Nelson Mandela?
The newsletter’s style is millenarian, almost revolutionary. “We intend to work to eradicate all negativity whenever Ward 8 is portrayed in the news media, because this truly is the “Dawn of a New Day,’ ” reads the cover page of the debut issue. “Yours in the struggle. MARION BARRY. Ward 8 Second to None.”
Barry has married his machine to his legislative work, but he keeps a much lower profile on the D.C. Council than he does in his home ward. In the District Building, Barry replaces his familiar rhetoric with an equally familiar pragmatism.
“I thought he would be more visible and prominent [on the council],” says WAMU-FM commentator Mark Plotkin. “But he is biding his time and letting the public get used to him. He wants to be viewed as a responsible member of the legislature. There are no antics.”
On the council, Barry has adopted the role of elder statesman, a small shock given Barry’s flamboyant history. Says Ward 2’s Evans: “With his years of experience as mayor, as city councilmember, as a school board member, he brings an experienced viewpoint to the discussion that is helpful, especially in matters relating to the executive.”
In the ’70s, Barry chaired the first council’s finance committee, and he’s legendary for his mastery of the Byzantine intricacies of the District’s budget and bureaucracy. With the death of John Wilson, no councilmember can rival him. “I think that Barry’s greatest contribution…is that he is familiar with the finances of this government,” says Councilmember Smith. “I think that hisadeptness at that has helped him here in the council and has helped his image.”
Even as elder statesman and budget guru, Barry has quietly and surely advanced his own and his ward’s agenda. For five years, Ward 8 has been desperately waiting for a drug treatment center, which until now has been held up by disputes over location and contracting (aggravated, many say, by Rolark’s stalling). This summer, Barry negotiated an agreement, and the Department of Human Services hopes to open the facility on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in spring 1994.
Barry has vigorously fought proposals that would balance the budget by slaying the civil service monster he built in the ’80s. He considers government the proper employer of last resort: To his thinking, it’s better that people perform (quasi-)meaningful work than wait for welfare checks. Either way, the city pays.
Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly contends that the one-two punch of a shrinking tax base and a recession leaves her little choice but to dismantle much of the Barry job machine. Barry, patronage pol to the bitter end, is resisting. This is not a popular stand across the city. Ted Gay cites polls that say more than 50 percent of city employees favor eliminating jobs—though, presumably, not their own. But in Ward 8, where many of the employed work for the city and where poverty makes residents more dependent on city services, people agree “150 percent” with Barry, says ANC Commissioner Yeldell.
“It goes over fantastic out here anytime you can talk about saving someone’s job,” Yeldell says.
The mayor of Ward 8 also intends to revive one of his old populist progams: summer jobs for kids. In the ’80s, he created the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which employed upwards of 25,000 kids a year. Parents thanked him for getting the kids out of their hair, and as the kids matured into voters, they too became Barry enthusiasts. The Kelly administration knifed Barry’s program: In 1986, it employed 25,627 kids and the District government paid for 11,921 of them; in 1991, it employed 13,145 and the District paid for 1,466.
The Mandatory Youth Employment Training Act, introduced in spring 1993 by Barry, would dispense summer jobs to any of the District’s 48,000 14- to 21-year-olds who want them. In a ward where a third of the population is under 18 and where any discussion of ward problems immediately leaps to children, drugs, and violence, Barry has again linked policy ideals with self-interest. Barry held hearings on the summer jobs proposal in four wards this summer and plans to take his roadshow to the other four this fall.
Even as Barry gears up to sell summer jobs to the city, he is flexing his political muscles in the race for D.C. Council chair.
The Sept. 14 election will measure the strength of the Barry machine: If he delivers a hefty chunk of Ward 8 voters to the winner, Barry will become the broker for future elections and will renew his claim to citywide power.
The council chair candidates desperately want the Barry bloc, or want it neutralized, but not so badly that they’ll embrace or reject Barry outright. Barry tacitly supported Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis over former Council Chair Dave Clarke and At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp until Aug. 23, when, on a slow news day, he phoned the Post to announce his endorsement of Jarvis.
As Barry no doubt anticipated, his endorsement made Page 1 of the Saturday Post. Jarvis did a double take, telling the Post she had not sought Barry’s public endorsement and was “stunned” that he would offer it. Caught between the irresistible lure of Barry’s voters and the fact that Barry is still poison to white Washington, Jarvis froze and embarrassed herself. Cropp gleefully attacked the “Barry-Jarvis” team, and Clarke intuited that there was “a deal behind” the endorsement. The big winner was Barry, who collected another nugget of legitimacy: the public recognition of his power to sway the election.
“If Charlene wins,” says WTOP’s Hobson, “and wins a significant portion of her vote east of the river, his power would be enhanced manyfold. On the other hand, if Linda Cropp wins, it would decrease his power, because Cropp is not somebody he can control.” Even if Clarke is the victor, Hobson says, Barry gains. “It’s to Marion’s advantage if Dave Clarke wins the chairman’s race because Dave is volatile, the mayor is volatile, and you would have a great deal of friction. Then Marion could step in immediately and still enhance his power.”
Barry’s nascent power-brokering makes Councilmember Smith wonder if his colleague can endure for long the pothole complaints, Section 8 forms, and school transfers that constitute the daily diet of a councilmember. “You have to want to be a ward representative. It’s a lot different than being at-large or mayor,” he says. “You can’t do it looking over the fence at some other job.”
Dwight Cropp, a former Barry aide and husband of Barry’s D.C. Council rival Linda Cropp, takes an even dimmer view of Barry’s ambitions. “He is using his constituency for his own political advancement. He is using it to expand and utilize political influence in order to catapult him into the mayor’s office….He’s exploiting the people of Ward 8, and eventually they’ll find that out.”
But like the many ward residents convinced of Barry’s sincerity, Cora Masters rejects charges of Barry opportunism. “There are always people who are going to be cynical, and that’s the biggest disservice done to him,” she retorts. “It’s not a political game. It’s not a strategy to get another office.”
What does Marion Barry want?
When he ran for council in 1990 and again in 1992, some predicted that after serving for two years and qualifying for his 20-year pension, Barry would pack his bags and go. But the events of the last 18 months prove that Barry wants to be king again, or at least kingmaker, and the jockeying over the council chair’s race is prelude to Barry’s larger quest for vindication.
Some still harbor the hope that public service alone will fulfill Barry. “Barry can move through and become a permanent folk hero in the Washington black community and nationally if he doesn’t aspire to too much,” the Rev. Stanley says. “If he stays where he is, he proves his sincerity and commitment.”
But Marion Barry has always wanted more. More alcohol, more drugs, more sex, more power. Now he wants more redemption.
Only a fourth coronation as mayor will satisfy Barry’s boundless ego. Despite his dedicated work as councilmember, despite assertions that all he wants to do is represent his ward, he requires a more public acknowledgment of his legitimacy.
“I’m certain that returning to the mayor’s office would complete the political resurrection that he probably sees as necessary to vindicate himself,” says AU’s Raskin. “There would be a nice literary quality to it, to have fallen so far and to return to reclaim the office he lost in disgrace. There is not much doubt in my mind that he would like to come full circle….He’s put the dashiki back on again.”
Election oddsmakers believe that Barry could win a narrow victory in the 1994 mayoral primary only if it were clogged with candidates: Kelly, Councilmember John Ray, and others. Barry can count on a loyal following of perhaps 20 percent, hailing mostly from lower-income black neighborhoods, and though he might attract other blacks to his camp if he continues to work hard on the council, he can’t hope to recover his former popularity. At best, observers say, Barry could poll 25 to 30 percent in a mayoral election.
“If he had to go one-on-one against the mayor in the primary, he probably could not win that,” Hobson says. And even if he were to win the primary, Barry would probably lose the general election to a strong independent candidate such as At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot.
If Barry does try to be mayor again, he will face a media and a city that, however much it approves of his Ward 8 mobilization, is not amnesiac. His future would be judged by his past; his candidacy would again divide the city along clear and nasty racial lines. “I don’t think he is going to do it. This guy reads the tea leaves as well as anybody down here, and he knows he doesn’t have prayer in a citywide race,” Smith says. “I don’t think he’s been in the redemption process long enough for people to gain faith in him and his seriousness for him to get elected citywide.”
More than anything else, white voters obstruct Barry’s quest for power. Forgiven by much of black Washington, Barry will never heal his rift with whites, who comprise 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. Ward 3 is 88.5 percent white, and when Barry ran for the at-large council seat in 1990, he won 1.4 percent of the vote in Ward 3. That is 2.5 percent less than pornographer Dennis Sobin collected in the ward when he ran for mayor in 1982.
“There are still some white people who like the guy a lot [personally], but there is bedrock opposition to him in the white community,” says AU’s Raskin. “If you talk to the average joe white person, Marion’s not on the list of the top 10 mayoral candidates for the 21st century.”
But the mayor doesn’t hold a monopoly on District power. There is another attractive scenario for Barry—one that enables him to preserve his credibility, protect himself from personal attacks, play the elder statesman, and position himself for the future. Barry could pull the strings behind the scenes. “It might be more to his advantage not to run for mayor, but help somebody else run,” says Hobson. “In other words, to help someone else become mayor who can do for him what he wants. That takes him out of being out front. It lowers the target profile.”
Kingmaking might be especially pleasant for Barry if Jarvis wins the chair’s race on the strength of Barry’s support. If Jarvis wins, and Barry doesn’t run in 1994, “the candidates for mayor have got to come by him,” Hobson says. “That’s a lot of power. And for that, you can get some very significant concessions.”
But Barry owns a will to power unmatched in District government. Would the imperial mayor sacrifice public dominance for a background role manipulating someone else? “He is older. He’s more mature. He’s been through a lot of wars. He may not want to go through it again.” Hobson pauses. “On the other hand, there is the ego part.”
Second-act politicians like Barry possess infinite hubris. If he doesn’t run in 1994, there’s always 1998, when he’ll be only 62 years old. Barry has always defied limits, doing exactly what people say he can never do. He became Memphis’ first black Eagle Scout. He headed SNCC. He was elected president of the school board. He beat the two most powerful men in the city to become mayor. He returned from personal humiliation and public ignominy, and defeated an incumbent to return to the D.C. Council. When Barry wants something, only the brave bet against him.
Even redeemed, Barry is ruthless. Don’t forget that he destroyed Wilhemina Rolark, one of his most loyal allies, to win his current job. His colleagues know all too well the tactics—especially racial politics—of which Barry is capable. “His audacity and boldness are so much greater than the others’ [on the council] that they fear him,” says WAMU’s Plotkin. Even if Barry couldn’t pull off a mayoral victory, he would sear the flesh of his opponents in any citywide campaign.
Mayor or not, Barry has already achieved a remarkable comeback. “Has he resurrected himself?” muses Plotkin, “You see Sharon Pratt Kelly going to the [anti-crime] Night Out…and there she is going up to Marion Barry, hugging him and kissing him….The point is, he is part of the body politic again. He is not a pariah.”
Plotkin understates the case. “He’s been out there for 25 years, and he’s done some good in each of his incarnations. He is the black community’s version of Horatio Alger. If you can come from where he has come from, several times, and not lose the common touch,” says the Rev. Stanley, “that’s not PR hype. That’s substantive.”
Marion Barry is a politician, and in every scene of this second act (or is it third? or fourth?), he will manipulate his followers and his enemies. Sometimes that manipulation will help others; sometimes it will only help Barry. But until now, in the 16 months he’s been out of jail, Barry has aided those who needed it. There’s nothing tangible yet, no new buildings, no drop in crime, but Barry has put Ward 8 back on the map. Still a political entrepreneur, he has turned a backwater ward into an emerging force, a quiet electorate into noisy democrats. He has reclaimed the legacy he lost in the ’80s.
At the Ward 8 job fair, 26-year-old Gregory Goodman recalls that Barry’s summer youth program trained him for the electrician’s job he just applied for. “He’s been beautiful,” Goodman says. “[With his return] he’s given a lot of young black men today a different perspective on life and the will to live….I welcome the brother back.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.