Tried-and-true formula resurrects Marion Barry

ON POLITICS

September 15, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The formula used by former Washington Mayor Marion Barry in his startling comeback primary victory is an old and simple one that more than a decade ago propelled another black underdog candidate, Harold Washington, into the mayor's chair in Chicago.

Both went out and registered thousands of unregistered black voters and won in a race in which the white vote was split between two other candidates.

The major differences in the Chicago and District of Columbia primaries are that Washington helped put as many as 100,000 new black voters on the rolls, compared with an estimated 12,000 by Barry, and that Washington's two opponents were white, whereas both of Barry's, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and City Councilman John Ray, are black.

Harold Washington's formula was not only to register new black voters but to turn them out in record numbers. His white opponents, Mayor Jane Byrne and then-Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley, now Chicago's mayor, garnered almost no black votes and struggled to divide the white vote between them.

Marion Barry's formula was basically the same, holding tenaciously to the black vote, particularly in the city's notably low-income Ward 8 where he lives, winning roughly 10 out of every 12 votes there.

In carrying six of the city's eight wards, he effectively ran against overwhelming white opposition, making race an issue as telling as possible, considering that his two opponents also were black. He successfully implied that the city's white establishment, having sent him to prison in his celebrated drug bust, also was keeping the black majority down and that he would redeem it just as he had achieved his own redemption.

It is largely forgotten now that when Harold Washington won his first mayoral primary in 1983 he also had a prison record, albeit a minor one, having served one month for failing to file a federal income tax return. Like Barry, he converted the matter into a campaign plus by visiting the Cook County Jail at Christmastime, telling inmates that he understood their plight -- and bolstering his standing with Chicago's black voters.

In Chicago at that time, with two white candidates running against Harold Washington, the political climate was more racially inflamed than it has been this summer in the District of Columbia.

The notion of having a black mayor in the old Daley stronghold that was still a white-majority city was a shocker.

In Washington, where the majority population is black, where having a black mayor is nothing new and where all three candidates were black, the opposition to Barry was based mostly on his criminal record and previous performance as mayor, not on his race.

Harold Washington's campaign had a clear racial message in the slogan "It's Our Turn." When Washington won the primary, the white community mounted an effort to deny him the mayor's chair by backing long-shot Republican Bernard Epton in the general election, with Epton pleading for votes "before it's too late." Washington won narrowly, 52 percent to 48 percent.

In the District of Columbia, the mood in the wake of Barry's victory is a mixture of disbelief and bitterness, not only in the white community but among many middle- and upper-income blacks who had hoped that Ray would save the city the embarrassment of electing a convicted felon.

Here, too, an effort to boost the Republican nominee, Carol Schwartz, will probably be made. But the District of Columbia is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the general election picture is further complicated by the plan of another black city councilman, Bill Lightfoot, to run as an independent. Such a move likely would divide the anti-Barry vote and bury any modest chance that Schwartz might have.

In Chicago, Harold Washington proved to be an effective mayor, calming the racial waters. He won re-election in 1987, beating Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary by again amassing an overwhelming black vote. He then added some liberal white support and routed longtime Democratic Alderman Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, running as a Republican, in the general election.

But Marion Barry, if elected in spite of his checkered career, may have a harder time emulating Harold Washington as mayor than he has, so far, as a reborn candidate.

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