Marion Barry's Third Act

  • Share
  • Read Later
To hear Marion Barry tell it, his latest comeback is more George Washington than Robert Downey Jr. The one-time Washington, D.C. mayor, long ago dubbed “Mayor for Life’ for serving three terms, leaving office after being caught on film snorting crack cocaine and then winning reelection to lead the nation’s capital in 1994, says he had “paid the rent” — the service to his fellow man that God requires of a person on Earth. In Barry's view, he, like Washington, was spending his time in blissful retirement when he was called by the people once more to serve. Having lunch at an aide’s house recently, the ex-mayor recalled that every time he visited the Safeway grocery near his house in recent years, he wound up staying there two or three hours, with residents constantly coming to him to complain about the city’s leadership and beg for help.

That’s one version of the story. Another, from Barry's many detractors, who include scores of former supporters, almost the entire city council and members of Congress who thought he mismanaged the city as mayor, is that his comeback is about feeding an epic ego and replenishing his bank account on the $92,500 salary city council members are paid. But after winning 58% of the votes in a September Democratic primary that included seven candidates, including the incumbent, Barry just finished his fourth week councilman representing Anacostia, one of DC’s poorest areas.

Barry, who grew up in Memphis but moved to Washington in 1965 while doing work for the Civil Rights Movement, WAS a symbol for a dysfunctional capital city as mayor in the 1980’s and 90’s as he bloated the city’s payroll and ran up a massive debt. He became perhaps America’s most lampooned politician when he uttered the phrase “bitch set me up” as officers arrested him for cocaine use during an FBI sting in 1990. Barry served six months in prison and recaptured his throne as mayor from 1994-1998.

Now a senior citizen, Barry walks with a slight limp, coughs frequently and looks thinner and MORE frail. He’s in the process of finalizing his fourth divorce. Gone is the kente cloth and other African garb from his previous comeback to politics, replaced by dark slacks, a derby hat and a gray beard. Besides his drug and alcohol addictions, which Barry won’t talk about except to say he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he also suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and prostate cancer. “I don’t have health problems, I have health issues,” he snaps. And he’s also tired of talking about his past. “You hardly hear anything about Bill Clinton or Robert Downey, Jr. There's racism in the downfallen community,” the ex-mayor says. “If you’re white, people forget about it in a year.”

Under Barry’s successor, Anthony Williams, Washington has vastly improved: a balanced budget, lower crime rates, and a reversal of the flight to the suburbs of the 1980’s.The former murder capital of the nation is undergoing a revitalization, with retailers like Anne Taylor moving downtown and a housing boom that has sent rents skyrocketing to $1500 a month for one-bedroom apartments in previously undeveloped areas. Barry, while blaming others for the city’s budget problems under his leadership, takes credit for the business boom, handing anyone who questions his work a 17-page list of his achievements in office that modestly concludes that Barry “brought Washington from a sleepy Southern town to a thriving metropolis.”

But that prosperity, no matter who created it, hasn’t been spread equally, helping to fuel Barry’s latest comeback. For many in Washington, the housing boom has meant they can’t afford to live in many of the new apartments built in the city. And the income gap between Washington’s richest and poorest has grown wider, with the average income of the top fifth of Washington’s population 31 times as high as the bottom fifth. The recent controversy over a public-financed baseball stadium, which Barry opposed, illustrated that concern, as both white and black residents complained that $400 million for a ballpark could be spent on social services. “This is the biggest stick-up since Jesse James and the Great Train Robbery,” Barry said of the stadium deal approved last month that will bring Major League Baseball's Montreal Expos to Washington.

The Yale-educated Williams was once known as the anti-Barry, the technocrat the city needed. Now Williams has became a symbol of a leadership many feel is out of touch with the concerns of residents. Enter the “Mayor for Life,” who shows up on the streets and asks residents how their mothers are doing. “We miss you, we’re so glad you're back,” 51-year-old Sunetta Vincent yells from her car a Safeway parking lot to Barry, who made a short trip there a few days before he was to start his city council job. People come up to him and thank him for giving them summer jobs when they were kids, a program that endeared thousands to Barry when he was mayor. He greets women with a “hey darling, what’s happening,” kissing the younger ones some on the cheek and telling one, “you look fabulous, you know.” Barry says he’s only focused on his ward and not interested in his old job, and most Washington political observers says his support is too limited for him to win another mayoral race. But it looks Barry will stay on the political stage for some time to come..