In D.C., Cora Masters Barry guards husband's image, career A Force to be Reckoned with

October 30, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington--On primary night last month, Marion Barry's new wife stood by his side at the microphone, drinking in the glory of his resurrection just as she had shared in the humiliation of his fall.

After his triumphant speech, as the ebullient mayoral candidate and his wife were ushered out by a security retinue, she broke away from the guards and made a beeline for a local columnist who had attacked Mr. Barry in print and predicted his sure defeat.

"What are you going to write now?" she shouted in what she would later describe as a spontaneous outburst she could not fight. "What are you going to write now? Well, write that you were wrong! -- that you were wrong before, you're wrong now, you're always wrong! Write that!"

Even on this most remarkable night, when the man considered an embarrassment by much of the city's white power structure had defied the odds, victory wasn't enough for Cora Masters Barry. She had a score to settle -- and when it comes to Marion Barry she always takes names.

Rough where her husband is smooth, stubborn where he is forgiving, cool where he is gregarious, the woman who has been buddies with Mr. Barry for more than 20 years and in January became his fourth wife, is the unofficial gatekeeper, the image guardian, the emotional anchor. She is the fiercest protector of the man who -- despite being caught on videotape smoking crack cocaine in 1989 -- is poised to become the District of Columbia's mayor once again.

"She is the most stabilizing, influential, determined spirit in the life of Marion Barry," says the Rev. George A. Stallings Jr., the renegade Catholic priest who is a close friend.

Sometimes called "the local Hillary" because of her active role in her husband's career, Cora is a far different political spouse than Mr. Barry's previous wife, Effi, who never wallowed in the hurly burly of politics the way Cora does.

She campaigns with her husband often, wading easily into a crowd of supporters by herself, standing on a stage at a rally with him clapping and dancing to the music, pulling aside reporters to chide them about their coverage, telling her husband when it's time to go -- and when it's not.

At a recent campaign stop, she sat for a caricaturist who drew her in a Superwoman outfit, saying "Marion, we can win this thing." She liked the portrait.

She won't discuss what specific role she will play in a Barry administration, except to say she would like to focus on "empowering" the District's residents and bringing the racially divided city together. But if her role in the campaign is any indication, she will be a powerful player.

"She views herself as a major political adviser," says Mark Plotkin, an analyst of D.C. politics. "She will have a lot to say about who serves in government."

Mr. Barry calls the strong-willed 49-year-old political science professor his "helpmate" -- "very bright and beautiful and tough."

Just how tough?

"I have two sons," says her mother, Isabell Masters, "and they were more afraid of her than of me."

*

The renovation -- of just about everything in Cora Masters Barry's new life -- is still going on.

This summer, the Barrys moved into a beige clapboard house in Anacostia, the city's poorest section, where Mr. Barry began mounting his comeback in 1992 by winning a seat on the D.C. City Council. They have been knocking down walls and tearing up carpeting, stripping paint and refinishing floors, installing French doors and bedroom skylights, ever since.

Today, men are working on the basement, which Mrs. Barry hopes will become a refuge for her husband's 14-year-old son, Christopher, who lives with them. The drilling and banging is so ferocious that, upstairs, a large photograph of a beaming Marion Barry on the campaign trail is knocked over on a shelf.

"It's nothing like it was before," Mrs. Barry, sitting on the porch, says of the house.

She could say the same thing about her husband's political renovation, which will be complete if, as expected, he wins a fourth term as mayor on Nov. 8.

Mrs. Barry, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia who had her own brush with scandal and the law in the late 1980s, has been at the center of both his political and personal make-over, lending a spiritual direction to his life that resonated with voters.

A mother of two grown daughters, divorced from her first husband in 1987, she says her friendship with Marion Barry -- whom she met at a campaign event in the early 1970s when the civil rights activist was taken with her big Afro -- ebbed and flowed over the years.

"I've always been a person who, if Marion wanted the truth he called, and if he didn't he wouldn't," she says, puffing on Benson & Hedges cigarettes, which she has vowed to give up after the election.

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