Washington Mayor Barry admits errors, cites gains for poor
Washington — Marion Barry's hold on the mayoralty of the nation's capital remains secure. Mr. Barry won the Democratic primary nomination (tantamount to reelection in this heavily Democratic city) for a third term on Sept. 9, despite a cloud of impropriety that has hung over his administration since soon after he became mayor of Washington, D.C., in 1979.
He ascribes his garnering of 71 percent of the vote to a philosophy of representing those who in the past have been shut out of the political process.
The Mississippi sharecropper's son and former civil rights activist said in a Monitor interview: ``My focus is [on] those who have been left out, locked out, kept out, and those who wouldn't get anything unless they had a mayor like me.''
What is he like? The critics say Barry is a civil rights revolutionary become turncoat -- betraying Washington's black majority by tolerating corruption in his administration. His supporters think him a pioneer who helped force out Jim Crow and now is breaking new ground as a first-generation black power broker within the political system.
Barry is pliant and soft-spoken when responding to criticism -- a far cry from the self-described ``extreme statements,'' dark glasses, and dashiki that characterized him when, as a leader of the radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, he was attempting to influence rather than make policy.
``I let some people down maybe, or I might have disappointed some people in the performance of our office. Letting people down is different from betrayal. Betrayal is the worst thing that can happen to you. Judas betrayed Jesus. I don't equate myself at all with Jesus. I'm using that to mean that betrayal is the harshest of terms.''
If the Barry administration had a Judas, he was Ivanhoe Donaldson. Mr. Donaldson had been Barry's right arm since their days in SNCC. Donaldson was caught with $200,000 of embezzled city funds and is now in federal prison.
``Mr. Donaldson should not have done what he did, there's no excuse. He should be in jail, where he is. I'm opposed to anyone taking one penny of anybody else's money, whether it's the government's money or your mother's money,'' Barry says. ``I'm opposed to stealing, period. We have systems in place now that make it difficult for people to steal. But if you steal and we catch you, you are going to jail.''
Barry says his administration should be judged on the total picture: ``If you look at the whole crew of people I've hired since I've been mayor, there have been a thousand times more successes than failures.''
In politics, as in baseball, he says, ``you go to the World Series based on the season, based on a record.''
The mayor's political season has had slumps:
Robert L. Green, president of the University of the District of Columbia resigned in August 1985 amid charges of misuse of funds.
Three principals of a construction company with city contracts pleaded guilty last January to income-tax evasion.
Deputy Mayor Alphonse Hill resigned last spring after admitting acceptance of $3,000 from a city contractor.
Barry attributes some of his government's difficulties to the inexperience of blacks in positions of power. ``Al Hill's misfortune was an error in judgment,'' he says. ``I'm not giving excuses, but rather reasons.
``Reasons are in. Excuses are out. We didn't grow up around a lot of people who were managers -- with briefcases, and titles by their names. There were no opportunities for us,'' the mayor explains. ``We make our share of mistakes. Maybe we made more than we should, but we have a right to fail and succeed like everybody else.
``Things will be different for Christopher [Barry's young son]. He will grow up with people around him who are doing things. When I ask him, `What do I do?,' he says, `You're in charge of the city.' Now, he doesn't know what that all means, but at least he has a concept.''
The mayor's concept of successful government is helping people become ``self-reliant.'' In the last three years his administration has provided 50,000 new private-sector jobs. Washington boasts a youth summer-jobs program rated first in the nation, and its job-training program is No. 1 in the United States on a per capita basis. In addition, more than 1,600 welfare recipients went to work last year.
``A job is the core of one's existence,'' Barry says. ``I've gone from a budget of $150,000 to almost $28 million for job training. When one is working, one has a sense of self-respect and dignity.''
Washington has its share of social problems, among them an epidemic drug problem. A recent city report said that 85 percent of incarcerated offenders had histories of substance abuse.
Mayor Barry, who has proposed the first drug-treatment prison in the country, says many drug addicts perceive themselves as powerless and devoid of hope. He maintains that answers must come from within the people themselves, with government help.
But there are many things the District of Columbia government cannot do for itself. The city has had limited autonomy, or ``home rule,'' for the last 11 years. Before that Washington was run by a federally appointed commission. The city remains, to a large degree, under the thumb of Congress. Although the local government is charged with most of the responsibilities of a state or municipality, Congress retains final approval over its budget and veto power over its legislation. The district has a single, nonvoting delegate in Congress.
``I suspect that if we had a 70 percent white city without a vote, that the attitude of the decisionmakers might be a little different,'' the mayor says. ``It [race] is a factor on the minds of a lot of people. It shouldn't be, but it is.''
With victory in the November general election a virtual certainty, Mayor Barry says he will continue pressing for political, social, and economic self-definition. Full autonomy is the least that should be afforded a city that derives 80 percent of its revenues from local taxes, he argues.
``I am the mayor of all of the people, but a lot of people can take care of themselves,'' Barry says. ``People making $50,000, $60,000 a year can make it without government assistance. They need safe streets, the fire put out if their house catches fire, quality schools.
``But the poor, those who don't have power, they have to have government be their power.''