Populist, Peacock and a Ray of Hope

July 02, 1994

A little less than two years ago, an editorial on this page opened with the unhappy prediction: "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."

Mr. Barry indeed went on to win the general election in November 1992, thereby resurrecting a political career that had been abruptly cut short when he was forced from office in 1990, after being convicted on a drug possession charge. Yet even after his comeback, few people believed Mr. Barry could ever become Washington's mayor again.

Today, however, one need change only a few words in the editorial quoted above to accurately describe Mr. Barry's

prospects for regaining his old office. A recent poll shows Mr. Barry far ahead among the pack of Democratic hopefuls in the run-up to the district's Sept. 13 mayoral primary, out-polling both incumbent Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and City Councilman John Ray.

Although early polls are subject to change, Mr. Barry's strong showing is giving pause to all who remember how his earlier misconduct embarrassed and divided the city. Yet 36 percent of those polled said they would vote for him again. By contrast, Mr. Ray had the support of 26 percent of voters and Mayor Kelly trailed far behind with just 16 percent. Mr. Barry's support was particularly strong among young people and all but the wealthiest black voters. But he is supported by a scant 1 percent of white district voters.

Mr. Barry's rise is as much due to the failures of Mayor Kelly as to his own populist appeal. Ms. Kelly entered office pledged to clean up the mess left by her predecessor. But the district's fortunes have declined steadily in recent years and disillusion with her administration is widespread among blacks and whites. She also displayed an unfortunate tendency to confuse public relations with policy-making, and she seemed to regard her office and its perks as a sort of mini-version of the Peacock Throne. One of the ironies of this year's three-way race is that significant numbers of voters view two of the contenders, Mr. Barry and Ms. Kelly, as being in the "anybody but -- " category.

Mr. Ray has run three times before for mayor. He is a solid though unexciting campaigner whose calls for fiscal responsibility and smaller government get drowned out by Mr. Barry's bombast and Ms. Kelly's glitter. Still, he is probably the best qualified to put Washington on a sound financial footing and address its massive social problems. But he will have to work a lot harder at getting his message across if he wants to win this year.

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