Barry wins D.C. primary in stunning comeback PRIMARY 1994

September 14, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In an extraordinary political comeback, former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. rode the votes of poor and working-class blacks to victory in yesterday's Democratic mayoral primary.

By capturing almost half of the primary vote -- a much bigger share than anyone had predicted -- Mr. Barry immediately became the favorite to win the November general election in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Mr. Barry's campaign to reclaim the job he left in disgrace four years ago was waged on a theme of personal redemption that resonated among much of this city's black population, especially those from the city's least affluent wards. It also marked the first time in recent years that this city's white voters did not decide the winner of the Democratic primary.

"Obviously, I think he is reformed," Miranda P. Lewis, a real estate agent and Barry supporter, said at his victory celebration last night. "I think he is the one who can lead the district out of the trouble it is in. His life is an example to everyone."

Turnout was heavy. With all but a few absentee ballots counted, Mr. Barry had 65,308 votes, or 48 percent, to City Councilman John Ray's 50,923, or 37 percent.

Almost lost in the stunning Barry victory was the fact that the incumbent, Sharon Pratt Kelly, was thoroughly repudiated after a single term in office. She trailed badly, with 13 percent of the vote.

Normally, the winner of the Democratic primary can count on election in November because the district electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic.

But Mr. Barry could face a twin challenge in the general election from Carol Schwartz, who won the Republican primary yesterday, and well-financed Councilman Bill Lightfoot, an independent who said he would run if Mr. Ray were defeated.

Mr. Barry's supporters were jubilant when numbers showing that he was pulling ahead flashed on a big-screen television in a cavernous hall of the Washington Convention Center. They rushed toward the television and began chanting, "Barry! Barry! Barry!"

"What time is it?" the master of ceremonies asked. "What time is it?"

The answer came from all over the room: "It's Barry time."

Mr. Barry's attempt at a political resurrection was widely regarded as daring, considering his spectacular fall and the controversy that dogged his years in office.

In 1989, he was caught smoking crack cocaine and begging an old girlfriend for sex during an FBI sting operation. The embarrassing spectacle was captured on videotape and shown worldwide.

Mr. Barry subsequently served a six-month prison sentence on a misdemeanor drug possession charge in connection with the sting.

This summer, Mr. Barry marched through the campaign claiming to be a new man.

Recently married for the fourth time, and claiming to be drug-free and spiritually reborn, he managed to transform the circumstances of his downfall into a political asset among many district voters, particularly those from the city's less affluent wards.

On the stump, he talked openly about his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. He also said that his humiliating fall from power taught him lessons that would be invaluable if he was again elected mayor.

Mr. Barry, who was elected to a four-year term on the City Council shortly after his release from prison in 1992, employed his considerable charisma and grass-roots organizational skills in this campaign. He was out early to greet voters at subway stations. He went to shopping centers, even venturing into the city's mostly white, affluent upper Northwest neighborhoods, where polls showed that he had virtually no support.

His sophisticated street-level campaign helped generate record voter registration and strong support in the poor and working-class sections of the city where he is most popular. But he faced deep animosity from many middle-class voters, who regarded him as little more than a scoundrel, because of what they saw as his long record of womanizing, drug abuse and corrupt municipal management.

In 1990, in the aftermath of his arrest, Mr. Barry ran citywide for a council seat but his independent campaign finished a distant third, with 19.8 percent of the vote. He came back to the council as a representative of Ward 8, the city's poorest.

In rejecting incumbent Mrs. Kelly, 50, district voters were turning their backs on the first black female mayor of a major city, a first-time candidate who won the office in 1990 largely on her promises to clean up "the mess" left by Mr. Barry's 12 years as mayor.

Despite the euphoria touched off by her election, Mrs. Kelly managed to turn off district voters during her term in office with her perceived haughtiness. At the same time, she was unable to bring the district's huge budget and crime problems under control.

Instead, many of her former supporters settled on Mr. Ray, 51, who had been beaten in three previous primary races for mayor. A lawyer and longtime member of the council, Mr. Ray promised to improve the quality of life, a message that resonated among this city's diminishing middle class.

While he lacked the flash and -- of his opponents, Mr. Ray promised voters the bread and-butter of government: more sanitation workers and police officers, polite bureaucrats and fewer high-salaried municipal executives.

But that theme had to compete with Mr. Barry's story of personal redemption, a message that moved many of his supporters who think he deserves another chance.

"I believe maybe 90 percent of that stuff," said Chris Hauser, supporter. "With Marion Barry inheriting the government, I know we will be in the fire. Then, I think we have two alternatives: We can go up in smoke as a city or we can go up."

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