Voter registration drive, resentment among blacks propel Barry's victory PRIMARY 1994

September 15, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Marion S. Barry Jr. may talk a lot about his spiritual rebirth and the "God force" within him, but his triumph in the Democratic mayoral primary was a miracle of old-fashioned political organizing that captured the resentment of black voters.

Mr. Barry's sophisticated voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts paid off in record vote totals in many poor neighborhoods, where he is regarded as a symbol of proud defiance against the city's black and white establishment. His message of personal redemption, coupled with his command of the details of the District's government and politics, enabled him to carry six of this city's eight election wards.

The former mayor's decisive victory was fueled almost exclusively by black voters, including many from this city's dwindling middle-class. Analysts said those voters not only found the former mayor's message of redemption compelling but were energized by the pounding Mr. Barry took from people who view him as an incorrigible scoundrel.

"There is a resentment factor in sections of the black middle class who feel they're being lectured to and condescended to when it comes to Marion Barry," said Howard Croft, chairman of the urban affairs department at the University of the District of Columbia. "Also, there are sections of the black middle class who did well under Marion Barry."

Mr. Barry finished with 65,308 votes, or 47 percent of the Democratic vote in the three-way primary contest. He now becomes the heavy favorite to win the Nov. 8 general election against Republican nominee Carol Schwartz and Councilman Bill Lightfoot, an independent.

"There was a broad cross-section of our citizens who voted for me," a jubilant Mr. Barry said at a news conference yesterday. "I think what was happening was that a majority of citizens want to change the direction of the D.C. government."

It was Mr. Barry's campaign that gave voters the idea that change could come from a former three-term mayor who left office in disgrace in 1990, after being videotaped smoking crack cocaine in an FBI sting operation.

But claiming to be strengthened by his downfall, Mr. Barry approached the electorate as a new man.

He not only delivered a message, based on his own experience, that this troubled city could flourish again, but he made sure voters cast their ballots. His campaign registered, by Mr. Barry's count, 12,000 new voters, ran telephone phone banks, vans, buses and cabs to ensure that his backers made it to the polls.

As a result, vote totals were up substantially in this city's poor and working-class areas, where he is most popular. In Ward 8, the least affluent area in the city, which Mr. Barry used as a base for his comeback, he received 10,497 of the 12,791 votes cast Tuesday. In the 1990 Democratic primary, that ward -- which elected him to the City Council in 1992 -- cast a total of 8,348 votes.

Mr. Barry also was helped by the fact that many black voters see him as something other than the embarrassing figure he became during his last term as mayor.

"Black people are aware of the full scope of Marion Barry," said Rock Newman, a D.C.-based boxing promoter who helped finance Mr. Barry's election effort. "The media has focused on his personal problems . . . but many people remember him as an effective, compassionate, caring, 30-year veteran of the social and civil rights movements."

A Mississippi native, Mr. Barry, now 58, abandoned his doctoral studies in chemistry in the early 1960s to become a leading civil rights organizer in the Deep South. Later, he moved to the district, where headed an anti-poverty program before serving on the school board, in the City Council and then as three-term mayor.

That combination of history, street-smart politics and a resonant message overwhelmed Mr. Barry's two major primary opponents, Councilman John Ray, 51, and incumbent Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, 50.

"I supported Barry because since I've been of age to notice, he's done a lot for the poor," said Brenda Coleman-Marbury, a 28-year-old federal employee and mother who lives near downtown. "Sure, he's done wrong, but who hasn't? He did his thing and he paid for it. I think it's time we move on. Times are tough now, and the people need somebody who will work with them. He'll do it."

While many black voters evidently have forgiven Mr. Barry for his misdeeds, he remains extremely unpopular among many white voters who view him as little more than a hustler, because of his history of womanizing, drug abuse and corrupt municipal management.

In Ward 3, a mostly white, middle-class section of the city, Mr. Barry received only 586 out of the 17,333 Democratic votes cast Tuesday. Asked yesterday what he would tell those voters, Mr. Barry said: "Get over whatever personal hang-ups you may have. Get over it."

L Mr. Barry expressed confidence that he will win in November.

History and the numbers are on his side. Almost four of every five registered voters are Democrats. In 1986, he defeated the same Republican nominee, Ms. Schwartz, in the mayoral election by 28 percentage points.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lightfoot, a millionaire who collected enough signatures to appear on the November ballot as an independent, appears to be facing an uphill battle.

With Ms. Kelly, the incumbent, expected to throw her support to Mr. Barry, Mr. Lightfoot risks being branded as a spoiler by fellow blacks for attempting to block the overwhelming choice of the city's black voters.

"The citizens of Washington want somebody who is running for mayor because he has ideas, and courage," Mr. Barry said. "They don't want someone who is running to stop somebody else."

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