The Resurrection of Marion Barry

September 18, 1992

Washington's local establishment woke up to its worst nightmare Wednesday when former Mayor Marion Barry won the Democratic primary for the city council seat representing the District's poorest ward. The victory is tantamount to election, because Mr. Barry faces only token GOP opposition in November.

That Mr. Barry was able to resurrect his political career only a few months after getting out of prison, where he had served a six-month term for cocaine possession, is a measure of the powerful anti-incumbent mood among voters. He easily defeated four-term incumbent Wilhelmina Rolark, despite her strong backing from current Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who feared a Barry win.

Yet voters in impoverished Ward 8, which has Washington's highest crime and jobless rates, clearly wanted to send a message. By choosing a candidate whose fall from grace was beamed around the world less than two years ago, they registered in no uncertain terms their profound alienation from the city government. Mr. Barry may be a scoundrel, Democratic voters of Ward 8 seemed to be saying, but he's our scoundrel.

We suspect a similar impulse may have played a role in the showing of the Rev. Al Sharpton in New York's bitterly contested, four-way Democratic Senate primary Tuesday. Though Mr. Sharpton came in a distant third, behind state Attorney General Robert Abrams and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, he won overwhelmingly among black and Hispanic voters, exploiting their discontent with traditional liberal politics. Mr. Sharpton polished a new persona for the campaign, exchanging his in-your-face, rabble-rousing image for that of conciliatory healer.

Mr. Barry is also trying to change his image. He insists he is a different man, that he has overcome his addictions to drugs and alcohol and that his sole mission now will be to fight for the poor.

Whatever else he may represent, Mr. Barry has recast himself as the personification of a powerful undercurrent of anger and frustration with the political process that is by no means restricted to black voters. That dangerous discontent, more than anything Mr. Barry may do or fail to do as a city councilman, is what really ought to have leaders of both parties worried this election year.

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