Revenge of the 'Other' Washington

September 17, 1994

What happens in the District of Columbia often is a mystery to people living outside the capital beltway. But this week's stunning electoral comeback of former mayor Marion S. Barry, who was forced from office after the FBI videotaped him smoking crack cocaine, has people throughout the country shaking their heads in disbelief.

Mr. Barry won decisively in a three-way Democratic primary against incumbent Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and City Councilman John Ray. Ms. Kelly failed to deliver on the high hopes that swept her into office four years ago. She ran a distant third. Mr. Ray, a lackluster campaigner but the only viable alternative to Ms. Kelly's malaise and Mr. Barry's demagogy, polled a respectable 37 percent but fell victim to the Barry steamroller.

How could voters reward a man who brought such disgrace upon himself and his city?

Mr. Barry mounted a massive registration campaign in the poorest neighborhoods, where his support is strongest. He also made a show of turning his personal life around, using his "redemption" as a metaphor for the revitalization of his city. Not everyone believes Marion Barry is a changed man; he is a hugely divisive figure. Yet while he has alienated many whites, he showed surprising strength among the city's black middle class.

Visitors to Washington often forget that the government buildings around the Mall, the new downtown with its shops and restaurants and the tony delights of Georgetown represent only a sliver of the District. Great expanses of the city are occupied by grim, impoverished neighborhoods riddled by violent crime, poor schools and urban decay -- and inhabited by people seething with resentment against a Washington establishment that ignores their plight. Many of them voted for Mr. Barry simply to thumb their noses at the elites who treat them as if they were invisible.

What does Washington's embrace of Mr. Barry bode for the future? If he goes on to win the general election in November -- a likely possibility since D.C. Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-1 -- the District will have rough sledding in Congress, which still controls the city's purse strings. Middle-class white flight could accelerate. And the dream of District statehood will wither.

Yet that is a price many District residents seem willing to pay. To them, Marion Barry is the only politician who really cares about them. In their minds, he may be a scoundrel -- but at least he's their scoundrel.

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