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In a city where political administrations are judged on their first 100 days in power, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. is acting as though he indeed holds lifelong tenure. No fast start for this mayor in his fourth term. Barry is not about to run around desperately seeking TV cameras, microphones, and book deals before the spotlight dims, à la House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Nor will Hizzoner move about so quickly and often that he leaves no impression but a blur, à la Bill Clinton.
Barry has managed little more than a stroll through his first month as mayor-again. Despite the crisis that gripped this city at the start of the new year, he has revealed almost nothing about his budget plans since his first week in office, when the city received a $250-million loan from international banks, minus a hefty finder’s fee. Barry’s nonchalance makes Alfred E. Neuman (“What? Me worry?”) look paranoid.
So far, Barry has deployed inaction against a wide variety of issues: everything from deciding whether D.C. cabs should be equipped with meters to refereeing a bitter dispute within his advisory task force on public schools. He has yet to hire a city administrator to run the day-to-day operations of the government, and many key posts remain unfilled or occupied by holdovers who come to work each day wondering whether they’ll be asked back the next. Thus, it was no surprise that Barry returned to his lone success this week by touring Cleveland’s downtown sports arena.
Barry’s feat in finagling a new arena deal with local sports czar Abe Pollin, and pushing Barry friend-turned-foe Bob Johnson out of the picture, remains the single achievement of Hizzoner’s young term. But that easy victory was just waiting to be captured: Last fall, congressional opposition clearly signaled that the arena deal was dead unless Pollin ponied up more and D.C. taxpayers spent less.
As details of the arrangement dribble out, however, it seems that Barry’s new deal with Pollin may not differ much, if at all, from the old deal fashioned by the Kelly administration and the D.C. Council. Instead of the $15-to-$25 million Barry estimated, the city is likely to spend close to the $90 million the original agreement called for.
But Barry has succeeded in wresting control of the sports arena from the group of private individuals who seemed to have little interest in the city. A new group of arena partners and investors with Pollin will now emerge, and don’t be surprised to see boxing promoter Rock Newman, Barry’s pal and political adviser, gain prominence. A role for Newman in the sports arena also seems to have been part of Barry’s agenda.
Another area where Mayor Barry has moved decisively has been the anointment of a successor for his Ward 8 council seat. But that endorsement, announced last weekend, threatens to split apart the Ward 8 political organization—the same organization that ensured Barry’s comeback after he left federal prison less than three years ago.
Barry presided over a rancorous meeting in his ward last Saturday, Jan. 21, to unveil his choice among the crowded field for his council seat. Hizzoner hoped to secure solid backing for Eydie Whittington, but he apparently expected trouble from the outset. He looked nervous as the meeting started at Allen Chapel AME Church on Alabama Avenue SE, and threw the press out before the fireworks began.
According to audience members, the crowd quickly grew agitated over Barry’s manner of running the meeting, and wanted to discuss other issues—such as Barry’s unfulfilled promises to bring jobs to the city’s poorest ward. Or his hiring Cora Masters Lady MacBarry‘s brother, Walter Masters, who just moved to town and doesn’t yet live in Ward 8, as his paid Ward 8 coordinator. Finally, the mayor choked debate and dissent by reportedly declaring, “This is not a town meeting. We aren’t going to argue back and forth.”
An angry Barry then said those who didn’t like what he was doing about the Ward 8 council race could leave, and several, led by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Robert Yeldell, did just that.
The gathering included several candidates who had presumed to be Barry’s heir apparent. William Lockridge, whom Barry endorsed for a school board post last year, figured he had the inside track. Charles “Chuck” Dixon told friends and supporters that Barry had personally promised to support him. And Sandy Allen, who ran Barry’s successful 1992 Ward 8 council campaign and played a key role in last year’s mayoral race, was also considered likely to receive the nod. If her loyalty to Barry were not enough to secure the anointment, Allen recently was engaged to marry Bob Bethea, a longtime Barry friend and a key player in his mayoral campaign.
Whittington, who also worked in Barry’s 1994 mayoral campaign, is considered bright and energetic by observers both in and out of the mayor’s organization. But those traits are not what secured Barry’s backing, claim her rivals. “He’s chosen somebody that he can control. It’s just that simple,” carps Ab Jordan, among the many vying for the council seat. “On the city council, you can’t say he has a lot of supporters. I’m sure he would like to have a councilmember here like he had in Wilhelmina Rolark.”
Former Ward 8 Councilmember Rolark was Barry’s most steadfast supporter on the council during his previous three terms. And he rewarded her loyalty by unseating her in 1992.
But, say some of Barry’s Ward 8 supporters, the most important factor was not what Barry wanted, but what his wife wanted. “Cora Masters Barry came up with this Eydie endorsement,” claimed one Ward 8 Barry supporter. “It was an anti-Sandy Allen thing.”
Cora Barry and Allen have not gotten along since Mrs. Barry had Allen replaced on her husband’s council staff in 1993. Now Cora Barry is serving as Whittington’s campaign manager.
After Mayor Barry informed Allen two weeks ago that he did not plan to back her because Ward 8 needs “new, young blood” (this from the oldest blood in D.C. politics), dissension rapidly spread among Allen supporters in Barry’s political camp. Many last weekend vowed to reject their leader’s wishes and oppose Whittington. But others said Barry’s political operatives have warned them not to expect jobs and appointments to city boards and agencies if they refuse to fall in line.
“Arms will be twisted,” predicted a Ward 8 Barry supporter.
That’s the Barry way.
Mayor Barry’s task force to improve D.C.’s troubled schools has become so divided that it sent two reports to the mayor. So far, Barry has not acted on either one.
One task force faction supported Superintendent Franklin Smith, arguing that he deserved a chance to work his reforms; the other felt he should be removed immediately.
Disputes also arose over an outside, extensive audit of the school system. Supporters of an audit note that the task force has been unable to pinpoint exactly how many people the D.C. school system employs. One set of documents puts the total at 14,000; another sets it at 18,000.
Critics charge that such an extensive audit would be costly, at just the time when the city needs to save money. They cast a doubtful eye on the audit supporters’ suggestion of enlisting the Congressional General Accounting Office, and thus sparing the city the expense.When the task force met Jan. 9 to ratify its final recommendations, some members discovered that task force co-chair Carrie Thornhill had toned down some recommendations and completely removed the call for an outside audit. After much rancor, the earlier recommendations were restored. But task force members said the language was changed again before the report was forwarded to Barry. So co-chair Monica Guyot sent Barry a copy of the earlier, tougher recommendations, along with a letter explaining the conflict.
Guyot this week declined to give details of the dispute. Barry has asked members of the task force to refrain from discussing their recommendations with reporters. “You have to look at this task force in some ways like a family,” Guyot said. “You fight, you make up, and you move on.”
Meanwhile, the mayor called his dysfunctional family together again last Sunday to urge the task force to oppose teacher layoffs as a means to achieve budget cuts. He asked task force members to testify at a council hearing on the school budget scheduled for this week….
Although Barry and political consultant Ted Gay ended up bitter political enemies, Hizzoner still wanted to speak at Gay’s funeral service at All Souls Unitarian Church last Saturday, Jan. 21. That request divided Gay’s family members and friends, some of whom viewed Barry’s wish as the height of hypocrisy. But since Gay had stood for inclusion rather than exclusion, his family decided to extend an invitation to Barry to speak. After all that, he failed to show anyway. Former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly showed class by attending but not insisting that she be part of the service.
“I need to think of [Gay] as a politician because it makes me think better of politicians,” said D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was among the speakers. “Ted Gay elevated politics. We have lost one of the anchors of D.C.’s political and social life.”