HE thought that former mayor Marion Barry might be returned to office by Washington, D.C., voters must seem incredible to Americans outside the nation's capital. Only four years ago Mr. Barry was convicted of drug possession; he served a six-month jail sentence. The drug use, along with other lurid behavior, was captured on videotape by federal agents. In most places, these events would have ensured a permanent end to a political career.
But Washington is not a typical American city. It lives in the shadow of the federal government, both benefitting and suffering from it. Congressional committees, made up of members who don't live in or represent the district, have a large say in how the district is funded and operates.
This unique status underlies one theory for why Barry has undergone such a quick political resurrection -- a paucity of other leadership, which cannot develop under a stepchild system. Incumbent Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly has tried, but largely failed, to tackle the city's myriad problems. City Councilman John Ray, also a mayoral candidate, has credibility and credentials, but has evoked little passion.
Barry, whatever his personal moral shortcomings, proved early in his 12-year administration that he had leadership skills and ability to get things done. Later, by his own admission, his performance suffered from his personal shortcomings.
Today Barry strikes a chord with poor blacks, who see him as a role model, a man who's been brought low, but has risen again. He also has capitalized on racial themes, namely that ''the man,'' a white-dominated law enforcement and judicial system, conspired to bring him down and baited him into committing a crime.
As viewed from outside the city, Barry's election would be a national embarrassment. In practical terms, it is hard to imagine him being able to attract top talent to his administration. And his election could only worsen crucial relations with Congress.
Barry claims he has repented and turned from past mistakes. He says he has a renewed urge to serve others through public office. His story of sin and salvation resonates in the district's black Christian community.
It is not the role of others to judge where Barry is trodding on the road to redemption. But it is appropriate to wonder aloud, for his own sake as well as the sake of the district, whether it is a journey best undertaken while holding high public office.