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My friendship with Marion Barry was complex, fun, long-lasting, and surprising to most, but not to us. It was built on some shared background, some common views, and both of us being people persons.
We first met in the early 1970s, when I was volunteering as a drug counselor at the Blackman’s Development Center and he dropped by. My first impression was he was charismatic, cocky, and a little too radical then for my liking. The first two impressions stuck throughout our relationship.
Marion left the Board of Education to run for the Council in 1974, and I ran for the school board that year. We were both proud to be on the city’s first Home Rule ballot.
After he became mayor in 1979, I developed a real respect for his intelligence, coupled with his undeniable street smarts and true love of people. He wanted to do good and he did in many areas—like summer jobs for youth and bringing minorities into government, both as employees and contractors, including women and LGBT people.
In the mid-’80s when I was an at-large member of the Council and he was mayor, we developed a real friendship. We shared similar beginnings. Marion was born in Itta Bena, Miss., and I in Greenville, Miss. I spent my first five years in Oak Ridge, Tenn., while Marion’s family moved to Memphis. Although his experiences I’m sure were far more difficult, we both had financial and prejudicial challenges as youngsters, and we talked about them. It helped in our bonding.
Marion and I worked well together, but I became more concerned about looming budget deficits caused by a bloated bureaucracy, crony contracts, and his drug use and indiscreet womanizing.
In 1986, because of my concerns that his issues might cause his and the city’s undoing, I tried to get Democrats who shared my concerns to run as independents against him, but to no avail. Finally, one week before petitions to get on the ballot were due, I decided to run, and I eventually got a third of the vote. Unfortunately, several years later, his drug use did him—and us—in.
Even after I ran against him, I talked to him straightforwardly about some of his behavior. Instead of being mad at me, he seemed to appreciate my honesty.
He had a mantra when people criticized him for his past problems: He would always say, “Get over it.” In the 1994 campaign, during our last debate, he kept saying about me, “Republican this, Republican that.” I said, “Marion, enough of the Republican. Get over it!” He burst out laughing. Everybody stood up and cheered, including his supporters. As we all know, he was rarely self-deprecating, usually the opposite, but he also had humor and appreciation of those who gave it back to him—making him appealing and lovable.
After the 1994 campaign, I went to his election night party. We held up our arms together to show unity. After each of the elections we competed in, we had a public lunch within a couple of days. The loser—me—paid both times. Call it double jeopardy!
We did share some unlikely common views: In 1997, we were the only two elected officials who supported the death penalty for killing a police officer in the line of duty. We also had similar views on welfare, that for the able-bodied and able-minded it could be detrimental—self-perpetuating and demoralizing. Both of us were happy to see President Bill Clinton change the program.
We had fun times together. During one official trip to South Africa as part of then-Mayor Anthony Williams’ delegation, Marion sat next to me on a bus. As usual, I chattered away. “Look at those beautiful trees.”
“Can’t you ever stop talking?”
“Oh, I can.” I absolutely shut up. He kept asking me to talk, but I wouldn’t say a word. “Carol, talk to me.” Then he took the bus’s microphone and said, “Everybody, please help. Make Carol talk to me. She never shuts up. But when she does, I miss her talking.” Now I’ll miss him telling me to stop talking.
Some other moments I’ll remember: When my dear husband David died in 1988, only 14 months after I ran against Marion in 1986, he called right away and then came to my house. He didn’t just come to pay respects, but he sat there for much of the day for a few days. I had met Marion’s mother several times in D.C., and when I was going to Memphis for a personal function in 2006, I took breakfast over and had a wonderful visit with his mom and sister.
I knew we were friends, but did not feel I was particularly important to him. That changed in February 2009. I had just been off the Council for a little over a month and was in Florida. My cell phone rang, and it was Marion. He said, “Hey, Carol. What are you doing?” “I’m in Florida. What are you doing?” If I had turned off Judge Judy and turned on CNN, I would have known that he was at Howard University Hospital for his kidney transplant operation. I asked “When’s your surgery?” He said, “Any minute,” which I really didn’t believe as why would he be calling me now? Then somebody came and said, “Mayor Barry. It’s time to go.” I said, “Godspeed.”
His 73rd birthday was March 6 that year. I called, and I asked what he was doing, other than recuperating. He had no plans. I said, “Would you like company?” He answered, “Yes.” Later, I asked, “Was I really the last person you called before your life-threatening surgery?” He said, “Yes.” And I said, “Why me—the gal who ran against you twice?” And his response was: “Carol, I always liked you, and I kept thinking about you. I knew I just needed to talk to you.” In my 70 years, that was one of the most flattering things that ever happened to me.
Marion was an unforgettable character with his endless self-promotion and self-victimization. But all the while, he could get away with it because he was enormously charismatic—and endearing.
Whenever I would go to fancy functions, people always wanted to talk to me about Marion Barry. Most wondered what D.C. residents saw in him. I would mention his charisma, and they would say, “That’s ridiculous.” Then I would say, “I bet if he walked in here now, you’d change your mind.” They would scoff. Sure enough, sometimes he did walk in, and they would turn and say, “You’re right.” Marion Barry in his heyday was the best politician I ever met. (And by the way, the second was Bill Clinton, and the third, Ronald Reagan.)
This does not discount his transgressions—nor should those discount the good he did for the city, especially during the early days of Home Rule and his needed voice in these last few years on behalf of those most in need.
I remain shaken and saddened as I, like others, thought Marion Barry was invincible. He personified D.C., and his passing is a great loss. I loved and appreciated Marion Barry Jr. and will miss him greatly
Correction: Due to an editing error, this post originally incorrectly stated Schwartz and Barry were the only two members of the Council to support the death penalty for people who killed cops in the line of duty in 1997. Barry was mayor then, not on the Council. Carol Schwartz served on the D.C. Council from 1985 to 1989 and from 1997 to 2009. She ran against Barry for mayor in 1986 and 1994.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery