A miracle comeback for Marion Barry?

July 25, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Marion S. Barry Jr. is clearly in his element as he trolls for votes in the lobby of Marbury Plaza, a well-tended high-rise apartment complex in this city's southeast section.

"Have you signed up for the Barry crusade? Are you a registered voter? Can I count on your support?" the buoyant mayoral candidate asks resident after resident.

Here, in the heart of Mr. Barry's political stronghold, the responses are unanimously positive.

"Glad to see you," says one graying woman, extending a hand of support to the candidate. "Everything will be fine."

The support evidently is widespread. Just two years after his release from prison, polls show that Mr. Barry is the front-runner in the race for his old job.

Meanwhile, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who catapulted into office 3 1/2 years ago largely on her promises to clean up "the mess" left by Mr. Barry's 12 years as mayor, finds herself lagging in third place, far behind Mr. Barry and Councilman John Ray.

The most recent poll, taken by the Washington Post last month, found Mr. Barry supported by 38 percent of respondents, Mr. Ray by 26 percent and Mrs. Kelly by 16 percent. In this heavily Democratic city, a victory in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary would be tantamount to winning the election.

The mayor's prospects were further dimmed last week when the U.S. Senate, convinced that the district was spiraling toward insolvency, ordered the city to reduce spending by $100 million. The federalintrusion increased the possibility that Mr. Barry could be elected mayor again.

Considering his spectacular fall, Mr. Barry's political resurrection widely regarded as miraculous. Four years ago, he was caught smoking crack in an FBI sting operation. The spectacle was captured on videotape and shown around the world.

But now Mr. Barry claims to be a new man. Newly remarried and claiming to be spiritually reborn, he has succeeded in transforming the circumstances of his drug-induced downfall into political asset.

"Traditionally, people who themselves have had a hard time would resonate with someone who has had a hard time and is coming back," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's delegate to Congress, who is neutral in the mayor's race.

While many people in Washington doubt that Mr. Barry is ready to be mayor again, others seem convinced that he has recovered.

"Barry would be good for the city," said Martha Feggins, a retiree who lives in a racially mixed neighborhood. "He did more for people than any of the rest of them. Personal problems? I don't think that should have anything to do with it. He's a good man."

The 58-year-old Mr. Barry, who was elected to a four-year term on the City Council shortly after his release from prison in 1992, has been employing his considerable reservoir of personal charisma and grass-roots organizational skill.

He and his green-and-white T-shirted campaign workers are out early at subway stations to greet voters. He has gone to shopping centers, even venturing into the city's mostly white, affluent upper northwest sections, where polls show that he has virtually no support.

Among black voters, polls show Mr. Barry with strong backing. The Post poll found that 53 percent of the city's black voters support Mr. Barry, while 16 percent back Mr. Ray and 12 percent Mrs. Kelly. Mr. Barry's support is most evident in his political base, the mostly black, working-class neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where green-and-white Barry for Mayor signs seem to be everywhere. Everyone seems to have fliers for his latest campaign events, whether a fund-raising "go-go" party or a family picnic.

The candidate has even taken his campaign to halfway houses and prisons, reaching out to register voters and establish his presence in every corner of the city.

"Here [in Washington], you can vote if you are on probation or parole," Mr. Barry said.

Sharp contrast

In this city of sharp racial and class divisions, Mr. Barry, with his back-slapping, populist style and history as a civil rights organizer, contrasts sharply with the stern Mrs. Kelly, who has been criticized as being unable to connect with her poor and working-class constituents. The other major candidate in the Democratic field, Mr. Ray, is often attacked as being too close to business interests.

That leaves Mr. Barry to cast himself as the man of the people as the Sept. 13 primary approaches. On the stump, Mr. Barry talks plainly about his "recovery" from drug and alcohol addiction and says that his humiliating fall from power taught him lessons that will be invaluable if he is again elected mayor.

"Some people have expressed genuine concern about my recovery," Mr. Barry said in a letter sent to potential voters in working- and middle-class neighborhoods in Northwest Washington. "I can tell you that I have had a remarkable recovery."

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