Ex-D.C. Mayor on the Rise Again
Marion Barry, back from prison, is all but certain to win a city council seat in Ward 8
JUST a year ago, former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry was beginning a prison term for a misdemeanor drug conviction that bitterly divided this city along racial lines.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, just months after Mr. Barry's release, voters in the city's poorest neighborhood, Ward 8, are expected to reward him with a city council seat.
Many across the nation who remember broadcasts of videotape capturing the former mayor smoking crack cocaine in a government drug "sting" react to Barry's comeback with puzzled disbelief: How could a politician rebound from that?
Residents of Ward 8 respond with an equally puzzled disbelief that outsiders don't understand why they support Barry.
"If you listen to those who can't believe it," says Jessica Gardner, an office manager and mother of two grown sons and a high-school cheerleader, "they are probably white, from different backgrounds and different paths who wouldn't understand that what [Barry] is fighting is what we all fight all our lives - the degradation.
"The turnout was the black community sending a message to those who took him out of power," she says of September's Democratic primary. Platform of jobs, respect
Barry campaigned as someone who could bring jobs, redevelopment, and the respect and attention the ward has never gotten from city leaders (leadership that included Barry himself as mayor for 12 of the last 14 years). In a record turnout for the ward, Barry won a landslide 70 percent of the vote - the equivalent of election in a city of few Republicans.
Even those who didn't vote for Barry defend him, seeking to explain his appeal.
"I'm not overjoyed about him being my council member," says James Bunn, a tax consultant who lives and works in the Ward 8 section of Anacostia. Voters picked Barry, Mr. Bunn says, "as much because he can relate to their problems as that they're still mad at the federal government for what it did." The government didn't make Barry use drugs, "but the everyday guy on the street just doesn't see it that way." Barry went to jail for his conviction, but "if it had been any John Doe, he wouldn't have served t ime for a misdemeanor."
Barry himself says his arrest and conviction "may have helped" elect him.
Interviewed at his sparse campaign headquarters, Barry is a man whose legendary charisma and self-confidence seems to be at full voltage these days. He seems undimmed by his fall from power, the indignities of prison, the difficulties of breaking his drug and alcohol habit, the breakup of his marriage, and the near-total rejection of him by the political leadership of the city.
He has exchanged the business-suit uniform of his 12 years as mayor for the traditional, colorful African clothing that was his trademark when he was a civil rights crusader in the 1960s.
Ward 8 voters "see me as having gone through a lot, having come out of it whole," Barry says. "They have problems in their lives and need inspiration to hold on....
"The country doesn't understand why people would be sympathetic to me or see me as having been redeemed, recovered, renewed," he says.