Voters and the Barry Machine

September 14, 1990

Washingtonians have been roundly criticized for rallying round Mayor Marion Barry who created a monstrous, unresponsive bureaucracy before falling victim to his own demons. On Tuesday, the voters spoke -- loudly and decisively.

The surprise victory of Sharon Pratt Dixon, a gutsy neophyte with impressive credentials but no political seasoning, is an unmistakable call for wholesale change in city hall. Underscoring that message is the fate of some long-time fixtures in D.C. government. Walter E. Fauntroy, the district's non-voting congressional delegate, finished dead last in the mayoral race. Veteran councilwoman Nadine P. Winter lost her seat to Harold Brazil, a political newcomer, and four other city council members were snubbed at the polls.

The overriding theme of Tuesday's contest was widespread and warranted voter dissatisfaction with the status quo. The victories of Ms. Dixon and Mr. Brazil testify to the electorate's need to distance itself from the Barry machine, a need so strong that voters opted to pin their hopes on unknowns rather than veterans of a tainted administration.

The pain of the Barry years goes far deeper than the embarrassing imbroglio surrounding the mayor. Washington is an international city in the worst way -- known around the world for drug trafficking, high homicide rates and peccadillo-prone government officials.

Worse, it is on a slippery financial slope, staring down a $100 million deficit that threatens to raise already burdensome taxes while gutting a pool of subpar government services.

In a field of impressive contenders, Sharon Pratt Dixon alone had the conviction to put into words what everyone else was thinking. She was the first major city figure to call for the mayor's resignation. She argued, loudly and convincingly, for the cutting of 2,000 government jobs. She built an unlikely campaign on widespread unhappiness with the leadership in the nation's capital, urging voters to break with the Barry political organization and its legacy of fiscal, administrative and ethical embarrassment. That took courage in a city where folks had their doubts about the legitimacy of the government's costly pursuit of the mayor and preferred to criticize him in private.

Nonetheless, voters came out of the closet this week, electing a woman with no power base, little money and less name recognition than her opponents. Ms. Dixon's quest has only just begun. True, the district is overwhelmingly Democratic -- 9-to-1 in voter registration. But she faces a highly legitimate November challenge from Republican candidate and former police chief Maurice T. Turner. If she clears that hurdle -- and many think she will -- Ms. Dixon faces a far greater task -- turning her "clean house" campaign rhetoric into fiscal and administrative reality.

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