Last week, Attorney General Peter Nickles says, he was walking outside the Wilson Building when someone in a silver Jaguar hollered at him, trying to get his attention.
The person behind the wheel was Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who called over to Nickles to show off the fancy ride. Nickles says he just kept walking.
A similar rebuffing occurred earlier in the month, when Barry fired off a testy e-mail to Nickles, demanding to be kept in the loop on a problem the Department of Health Care Finance had with Medicare and Medicaid money. Asked what Nickles did with Barry’s message, Nickles mimes throwing an invisible piece of paper into an invisible trash can.
“Marion is a guy who craves attention,” says Nickles, “He doesn’t know what to do with himself… He just wants to show that he’s still there, he’s still vibrant, he’s still relevant.”
If all Barry wants is attention, then last week—other than Nickles’ brush-off—was pretty good. In short order, Barry managed to become a born-again media star by making the universally accepted point that indefinite welfare payments to poor residents without any viable plan or program to get people off of government assistance is pretty lousy public policy. (Barry’s bill, which he introduced along with Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, calls for limiting cash assistance through the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program to five years, which is what the federal government agreed on 14 years ago.)
Barry’s star turn included plenty of local newspaper and TV coverage, an appearance on the Fox Business Channel, a positive editorial in The Washington Post, and his own op-ed in the same paper. (As LL noted on his blog, before the editorial or the op-ed ran, Barry penned a confusing, scolding e-mail to Post editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao, calling her unprofessional.)
The media appearances have been plenty entertaining to watch, especially when Barry tries to cast the white anti-poverty do-gooders who have problems with his proposal as sinister crypto-racists who want to keep people of color “enslaved in joblessness, poverty, and a dependency on the government.”
Never mind that 1.) perhaps no person in D.C. has gotten more people checks from the local government than Barry, and 2.) he called his own proposal “imperfect and incomplete.”
But besides attention, what else is Barry after? The more charitable souls in the Wilson Building say Barry’s stance on welfare reform isn’t out of line with his previous work against poverty.
“He’s been kind of consistent on this—he just went over to the provocative side,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. After a pause, Wells chuckles at what he’d just said: “Ha, Marion Barry, provocative.”
A more cynical view is that Barry’s welfare reform proposal, apart from getting him some time under the klieg lights, is aimed at furthering his own political aims.
One theory floating around is that Barry is trying to lay the groundwork to become the chairman of the Human Services Committee, which oversees welfare programs and other social services.
With Kwame Brown about to take over as council chairman, committee assignments are up in the air, and councilmembers are jockeying anxiously for position. Brown hasn’t said what changes he’s going to make, but he has said Barry will chair a committee.
Barry was stripped of his previous committee, Housing and Workforce Development, after being censured earlier this year for doling out contracts to his then-girlfriend. During the primary, Brown’s opponent, former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, said Brown had promised Barry the Economic Development Committee in return for an endorsement. That seems unlikely, as Brown might keep that committee for himself. Besides, he doesn’t appear to be the type of guy who wants to take his own political career out back and shoot it in the head by giving Barry such a plum assignment.
But giving Barry the Human Services gig might be a more realistic option. The committee’s current chairman, Wells, clearly has his sights set on other things—namely, Transportation, which would create an opening on a committee that’s not generally sought after by political up-and-comers.
One council source suggests Barry’s conservative rhetoric on welfare reform might play well with the west-of-the-park crowd, giving Brown political cover to give Barry the committee. (In Barry’s home ward, his proposal doesn’t seem to be getting much attention. Philip Pannell, president of the Congress Heights Community Association, says he was at a well-attended Ward 8 town hall meeting with Barry last week, and the issue of welfare reform never came up.)
Meanwhile, the committee chairmanship is a way for Barry to get access to a large chunk of the city’s budget and rev his stalled political patronage machine back to life.
The committee oversees five agencies whose collective budget is about $750 million. Being head of the committee responsible for so many social services would allow Barry, who is up for re-election in two years, to “pick up the phone and have checks cut, contracts crafted,” says the source.
“It’s like Christmas…This is just a big pot of money and an opportunity for him to get to it.”
Adding credence to that theory: Barry’s own statements. Laughter about Barry comparing himself to Richard Nixon making a trek to China obscured it, but Barry has argued for the D.C. government to “launch massive job training and career development programs” with a goal of creating job opportunities for thousands of jobs for current welfare recipients within the next year. Presumably, the head of the Human Services Committee would have a large hand in guiding such an endeavor.
Another source says Barry’s ambition might not be so grand; he could just want the current head of the Department of Human Services, Clarence Carter, replaced with one of his friends.
At a hearing last Monday, Barry played the role of a cat playing with its dinner, while Carter played the role of a spooked mouse. When a bumbling Carter muffed a question about job statistics, Barry pounced.
“Mr. Carter, you’ve been before this committee enough times to know that you should have come prepared with that information. Mr. Wells, and I myself, don’t like the idea of ‘I’ll get back to you.’ That doesn’t work around here,” Barry said, later adding. “All of this messedupness happened under your watch, didn’t it?”
For his part, Barry wasn’t very forthcoming when LL tried to ask about his motivation.
“I’m pissed at you. Let me call you back,” Barry told LL. He didn’t call back.
Maybe it’s helpful to look at the last time Barry made waves by reversing a long-held position. In 1997, there were a string of police officers murdered in the city. Then-Mayor Barry announced he was giving up his life-long opposition to the death penalty and introduced legislation that legalized the capital punishment for those convicted of murdering police officers.
The bill didn’t pass, and Barry was accused of making the switch for a wide variety of political reasons. Nevertheless, the Post reported that Barry’s conversion came shortly before a poll showed that the majority of the city’s residents, for the first time, were in favor of capital punishment.
Barry could be a slightly ahead of the political curve on the welfare issue as well. At a recent get-together with former Fenty fans in a living room on Capitol Hill, a woman asked Almost Mayor Vince Gray what he was going to do about welfare recipients who weren’t interested in finding jobs. Gray said he was going to take a “hard” look at TANF benefits and added: “I’m not sure that we haven’t become enablers.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery