Washington's frailer comeback


Barry: The former mayor wins the primary race for City Council.

September 23, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Icon. Ghost. Legend.

Call him what you will, Marion S. Barry Jr. is back.

Barry, 68, Washington's one-time "mayor for life," star of a videotaped FBI drug sting, a civil rights leader whose travails with drugs and womanizing were a staple of late-night comedy shows and front-page news stories, was effectively elected to the D.C. City Council last week by a large margin.

His latest political comeback, in a town that rewards a dose of redemption in the voting booth, introduced a possible complication in the on-again, off-again matter of bringing Major League Baseball to the nation's capital, posted a footnote to a quarter-century-long career that has been as pliable as a Florida palm tree and offered city residents something new: an older, frailer Marion Barry.

At his best - before the addictions to drugs and alcohol, before the prostate cancer, the diabetes and high blood pressure - he could be a force to behold, a leader who paired a sharp tongue with a bold swagger, a rapier wit with a scrapper's attitude.

The thing is, Marion Barry isn't exactly the man who just swept up 61 percent of the vote in Southeast Washington.

In recent years, his health has faltered, prompting some of his closest advisers to warn against yet another run for office.

Bernard Demczuk, a Democratic strategist and longtime Barry friend, had worried about the former mayor's constitution going into the primary race. Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a Southeast Washington political consultant, also doubted Barry was up to the rigors of campaigning.

And he may not have been. David Morton and Jason Cherkis, Washington City Paper reporters, painted a pitiable portrait of Barry's last few campaign days.

"Marion Barry wobbles," Cherkis wrote, describing a vastly different man from the mayor whose term he covered six years ago. "The new Barry, the new older Barry, what is the word, you see the look in people's faces, and that is the `oh my god he is old' look."

A bodyguard and driver help Barry get around. An assistant makes sure he has something to drink. His sentences fade out midway.

Still, Demczuk said, few who know Barry's resolve doubt he will apply himself to the job of representing Ward 8 now that he is a virtual shoo-in for the general election Nov. 2. Barry, an aide said, was on vacation and could not be reached.

"Ward 8 needs a fighter," said Demczuk, who teaches African-American history at George Washington University. "He will fight for people who have drug problems, who have teen pregnancy problems and who are unemployed."

The battle won't be easy.

The ward Barry will represent is hemmed in on two sides by the Anacostia River. It remains the city's poorest ward, a statistical anomaly compared with other areas, where crime, unemployment and poverty have steadily dropped. Ward 8 has Washington's highest percentage of poverty, unemployment, violent crime and households on public assistance, according to the most recent census data.

The area had an effective leader at City Hall in Sandra Allen, the incumbent councilwoman and Barry protege whom the former mayor trounced.

"There have been, what, six long good years of balanced budgets, of revitalization around the city? But for Ward 8, the choice was simple," Demczuk said. "Marion is an icon."

And like any icon, Barry is a victim of and a victor over time, said Kinlow, who backed incumbent Allen instead of the politician he called "a shadow of his former self."

"He did not look good; he did not sound good. In hindsight I forgot one crucial thing about Marion Barry: He is a legend."

"You remember Marilyn Monroe in the late '50s and early '60s, when she was at the top of her form. You think of Clark Gable, right at that moment. And people remember Marion Barry as the strong, strutting, virile, handsome, charismatic, take-charge, in-your-face, anti-establishment person who was able to build coalitions between black, white, straight, gay and poor," Kinlow added.

That's the Barry whom Kinlow said he wanted to congratulate after Tuesday's election. But the man he asked for a job on the transition team no longer fit that description, though Kinlow asked anyway.

Patronage, after all, was a defining characteristic of Barry's public service.

As mayor, he instituted a policy that gave city residents preference for D.C. government jobs. When Congress dismantled the requirement in the late 1980s, the number of resident city government workers plummeted by half.

He created widely popular summer jobs programs that offered a resume entry and a paycheck to every youngster.

And he promises more of the same in January, pledging to introduce 10 pieces of legislation in his first 30 days.

Campaigning on a platform of jobs and revitalization for the troubled Southeastern expanse that is Ward 8, Barry was one of three candidates who upset incumbents who favored public financing for a downtown ballpark. Barry has used the phrase "over my dead body" to describe his opposition.

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