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Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has arguably the longest political memory of anyone in the District. Through his years as a community activist, civil rights leader, school board president, four-term mayor, jailbird, and now councilmember, he’s seen it all, and he can recount nearly every detail. So it was a shame when I had to limit his take on D.C.’s relationship with Congress to a single line in last week’s cover story on House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa. I’ll rectify that now.
Several sources in my story blamed some of the tension between District leaders and their congressional overlords in the 1990s on Barry and the embarrassment he caused with his arrest for crack possession and subsequent re-election, in addition to fiscal mismanagement by his administration and that of his successor/predecessor Sharon Pratt Kelly. Barry lays the blame squarely at Kelly’s feet. “By the time I got in here [after my 1994 reelection], look at the books, the budget,” says Barry. “Mayor Kelly had left the city with a $331 million cash deficit, even before I came in in December of ’94.” (Barry appears to have this backward: According to numerous sources, Barry left Kelly with a $331 million deficit in 1990, though Kelly did swell that figure further.)
There was another problem: At the same time Barry was elected, Republicans led by Newt Gingrich swept into power and sought to overhaul the policies governing the District.
“’94 was when Newt Gingrich and the Republican coup came in, determined to reform the Congress and everything else,” Barry says. “I knew then I was in trouble, because there’s a philosophical difference between Republicans and Democrats.”
But there was a hopeful note for the District. Taking over the subcommittee in charge of D.C. oversight was freshman Republican Tom Davis, a Northern Virginia moderate who quickly reached out to D.C. leaders. Barry says Davis invited him to a picnic and a party and the two “hit it off.”
Still, Barry wasn’t wild about the Financial Control Board set up by Congress to oversee the District’s budget, given that it took considerable power away from his administration with its authority over nine city agencies.
“There was a natural tension between the Control Board and the city government,” he says. “The Control Board could make cuts with impunity. In fact, they did make cuts, and I had no control over it.”
But Barry soon found an unlikely ally: the man who had come into power with such fiery rhetoric about reforming the District, Gingrich himself.
“Newt Gingrich and I put together an unlikely couple,” Barry says. “Newt Gingrich, conservative Republican, and Marion Barry, a liberal progressive Democrat. Newt Gingrich and I were on the cover of Time magazine. I had my dashiki jacket on, my dashiki hat, and a kente cloth. He had on a suit.”
A test of their alliance came when the two appeared together at a city school to speak about management of the District. Gingrich had begun signalling that he no longer wanted to rule the city with an iron fist, but Barry knew he’d still have a tough reception in a city where he wasn’t terribly popular.
“I said, first of all, you’re gonna get booed, so you better get ready for that,” Barry recalls. “I told him I’d try as much as I could to keep the crowd respectful. So we went on stage, and the boos went on for four or five minutes. Not little boos, big boos, all over the place. But then I put up my hand and they stopped.”
But ultimately, Barry says, tensions flared up again because the Control Board, led by Andrew Brimmer, kept interfering in city affairs.
“It didn’t work hardly at all because the Control Board, Dr. Brimmer, kept dipping and dabbling in everything we were trying to get done,” Barry says. “The mistake that I made was that I didn’t say much about what they were doing wrong.”
So what does Barry make of Issa’s unexpected turn as D.C.’s most important ally in Congress? He says he isn’t surprised; Democrats controlled Congress for years and didn’t do much to help the District, so it doesn’t pay to be skeptical of Republicans like Issa.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery