WASHINGTON — JUST when it seemed that things could get no worse for Marion Barry, the District of Columbia's embattled mayor has managed to embroil himself in a new controversy resulting from his questionable public behavior. Appearing before an estimated 250,000 people at a city-sponsored neighborhood festival recently, Mayor Barry responded to a hostile reception from the crowd with an obscene gesture. Unfortunately for the mayor, his action was videotaped by a local television station and broadcast on that evening's newscast.
The incident left many local politicians wondering if the strain of managing a city with one of the highest murder rates in the nation, while at the same time being confronted with repeated and well-publicized allegations that he has used illegal drugs, has finally taken its toll on the resilient three-term mayor. Mr. Barry subsequently apologized for the incident.
During the past few weeks, pressure on the mayor has become particularly intense, with a number of witnesses reportedly testifying before a federal grand jury that they had seen him use cocaine. The testimony could expose Barry to a charge of perjury, if federal authorities can show that he was lying when he denied using drugs in testimony before a grand jury earlier this year.
Barry's personal problems have mounted just as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, often mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor in 1990, has increased his visibility in Washington.
Mr. Jackson moved to Washington from Chicago earlier this year, and although he has pledged he would never challenge Barry, a longtime friend, an indictment of the mayor could release him from that promise. ``All bets are off'' if Barry is indicted, said a local businessman who is close to the two men.
Ron Brown, chairman of the Democratic Party, while not commenting on Barry's difficulties, has publicly stated that he believes Jackson will enter the race, and that he stands a good chance of winning. Nevertheless, many of those disenchanted by Barry say they are wary of a Jackson candidacy, primarily because of his lack of local roots. ``I resent anyone who has to move into the city to run for mayor,'' said one former Barry aide who no longer supports the mayor.
Meanwhile, despite discreet pressure to step aside from even some longtime supporters, the mayor has gone ahead with plans to run for a fourth term.
In an interview, Robert Johnson, the cable television executive who co-chairs Barry's campaign, insisted that ``we are moving along according to schedule.'' The mayor, who has taken a defiant stance in recent public appearances, said in a television interview that he will ``definitely'' stay in the race.
The question will be, of course, whether he will be able to maintain that commitment should he actually face an indictment. ``It is not the indictment, per se, that will hurt him,'' said one former Barry aide. ``It is the fact that he will have to deal with even more media stories alleging drug use.''
The stories that have already appeared have been damaging enough.
In a poll conducted last May, long before the current round of allegations, about 40 percent of those who had backed the mayor in the 1986 election called him an embarrassment to the city, and nearly the same percentage said they believed he had used illegal drugs.
For many veteran city officials and politicians, however, the almost daily speculation over the mayor's future and talk of a possible Jackson candidacy have obscured the massive problems facing the city.
``We have a drug problem that gets worse every day, a bloated bureaucracy, and we are looking at a possible budget shortfall of anywhere from $30 million to $100 million,'' said City Councilman John Wilson, who is campaigning to become chairman of the council. ``That's what we should be focusing on.''