Washington City Paper has only existed during the Marion Barry era and afterwards. We asked several former Loose Lips writers and editors to send their recollections of Barry over the years. This one is from Elissa Silverman, who wrote LL for City Paper from 2002 to 2004 and is now about to become an at-large member of the D.C. Council, after winning an election this fall in which Barry endorsed her for the job.
Marion Barry‘s impact on District politics is immeasurable, and he weighed in on matters big and small, including my own career. I’ve thought a lot about one remark Barry made about me 10 years ago. I’ll keep the remark private, but I’ll also tell you he was right.
Barry had a complicated relationship with many people and institutions in this city, and you can’t really be a major player in D.C. politics without having some kind of Barry imprint on your life. My first personal memory of being with the mayor-for-life was at a birthday party for a D.C. civic leader in 2002, when Barry was rumored to be considering an at-large run to challenge Phil Mendelson. I was a 29-year-old Loose Lips columnist who had moved to the District in my early 20s as the Control Board took over. I spent the evening trying to reconcile the image of the man who was like a magnet for everyone who attended the event that night—he really was a rock star, constantly surrounded by those who wanted to be near him—with the man I had read about in the Washington Post and in Dream City. Barry’s enduring appeal is a difficult thing for many newcomers to D.C. to understand, particularly for those of my generation or younger who did not grow up here.
I saw it in full bloom two years later, when Barry did stage his next comeback and win the Ward 8 seat. I also experienced Barry’s nuanced relationship with the press. Let’s just say I wrote some things as Loose Lips, and Barry told me—repeatedly—that he was not going to discuss them. Then he banned me and City Paper from talking to him. I remember standing outside on a Ward 8 street that election night—I want to believe it was outside Player’s Lounge, but it might have been elsewhere along Martin Luther King Avenue SE—and reporting the scene to Kojo Nnamdi on WAMU. Ward 8 needed a fighter, and his supporters flooded the streets to cheer him on.
MB was back.
I did not experience Barry the groundbreaking civil rights leader or much of Barry the mayor. I did learn that he was the financial wizard he billed himself as, because he did know the D.C. budget in ways that many do not. When I left journalism and went to work at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, I spent a lot of time in the Wilson Building talking about unsexy issues like TANF, taxes, and affordable housing. We always made sure to drop off talking points with Mayor Barry. Many times I didn’t get to speak with him in person, but then I would watch the Council hearing and hear him make our points better and stronger. He wasn’t afraid to talk about poverty, and how much it was an obstacle not only for his ward but for our city.
There were some times when Barry did not vote the way I would have liked. A few days after one of those votes, I was with my family at a restaurant on Barracks Row, celebrating my brother’s birthday. Barry spotted me, graciously greeting my parents and brother, and then told them he hoped I wasn’t upset. I told him I needed him for the next big vote, and I’ll work harder to win him over next time.
I will always think of Barry as a voice for the voiceless in our city, and his advocacy was authentic.
I believe he understood what was authentic in my voice, and I believe that’s why Barry shocked many in D.C. politics by endorsing me for the at-large Council seat this fall. We made plans to talk about D.C.’s budget in the coming weeks—we would work together to tackle the great inequality and opportunity gaps in our city. I am stunned to think that I will now have to take on these great challenges without Mayor Barry to work with me on these issues. The enormity of the task is even greater now.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery