'The Other Washington' Propelled Barry to Victory

September 18, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

Near the beginning of Tom Wolfe's novel "Bonfire of the Vanities," the hapless hero Sherman McCoy takes a wrong turn off an expressway and suddenly finds himself not in glittering midtown Manhattan, as he expected, but deep in the urban war zone that is the South Bronx.

There McCoy becomes inexorably enmeshed in tragic misadventures that ultimately lead to his personal and professional ruin.

The city of Washington has its own version of Wolfe's unlucky exit ramp, and every year thousands of unwary tourists suddenly find themselves negotiating the mean streets of Anacostia and other blighted inner-city neighborhoods that lie just beyond the imposing monuments on the Mall and the glittering shops of downtown.

Such excursions generally are the only time outsiders ever get to see the "other" Washington -- a city of chronic unemployment, violent crime, broken families and blasted hopes that is as bad as any depressed urban area in the nation.

Yet that is the Washington that gave Marion S. Barry his stunning comeback victory in last week's Democratic mayoral primary.

And it was that Washington Mr. Barry spoke for when he told white voters, who had overwhelmingly rejected him at the polls, to "get over whatever personal hang-ups you got," about his being mayor. "Get over it," he said.

If there was a note of defiance in that admonition, it was calculated to reflect the resentment many residents of the "other" Washington -- the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and the city's troubled youth -- have long harbored against a white and black establishment that traditionally ignored their plight.

In their minds, Mr. Barry was the only candidate who could be trusted to speak up for them, the only one willing to defy the powers that be on their behalf.

They voted for him in record numbers, along with thousands of middle-class blacks who nurture their own grievances over the city's second-class status under home rule and who are tired of being lectured at and condescended to by Mr. Barry's white critics.

For his part, Mr. Barry crafted a masterful campaign around the twin themes of resentment and redemption.

He managed to register thousands of new voters in the city's poorest wards largely because he was able to persuade them that in returning him to office they were expressing faith in the possibility of their community's redemption as well as his own.

Mr. Barry also skillfully used the hostility of the national media to portray himself as a victim of a white conspiracy to destroy black elected leaders.

And despite his very public fall from grace four years ago after an FBI sting operation videotaped him smoking crack cocaine in a downtown hotel room with a woman not his wife, he was able to exploit a widespread perception among blacks that black elected officials who err are subject to an alleged ''double standard'' by the courts and criminal justice system.

To most white voters, such tactics smack of shameless opportunism and racial demagogy. What they overlook is the profound alienation even many middle-class blacks feel toward a "system" that seems designed primarily to benefit the privileged and the powerful.

Indeed, it was Mr. Barry's surprisingly strong showing among middle-class blacks that gave him the decisive margin of victory over his two main primary opponents, incumbent Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and City Councilman John Ray, who between them split virtually the entire white vote.

Mr. Barry still must face a general election in November. But he is already heavily favored to win that contest.

He faces Carol Schwartz, a Republican in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-to-1.

Bill Lightfoot, who had pledged to run against Mr. Barry as as an independent, dropped out of the race Thursday.

After that, though, Mr. Barry will confront tough challenges in trying to govern a racially polarized city threatened by insolvency whose purse strings are controlled by a Congress that increasingly seems inclined to rein in the limited self-government the district was granted under the home rule charter adopted in 1976.

Already, several district agencies have entered court-ordered agreements to improve their services under the watch of special court masters.

Last month, the city suffered a devastating blow when a judge ordered it to surrender control of its public housing department, saying that the district government could no longer manage the $150 million-a-year agency.

Like the hapless Sherman McCoy, the district has entered a dangerous spiral in which, little by little, it is losing control over its own destiny.

Marion Barry crafted a hugely successful campaign around the resentment generated by that fact.

The question now is whether he will be able to deliver on his promise of redemption to the people who elected him -- or whether he, like Mayor Kelly, ultimately will fall victim to the same high expectations that swept him into office.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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