Murder Rate Has Mayor Reeling. Scandals and Barry's ties to alleged drug dealers help threaten autonomy of district. WASHINGTON HOMICIDES

MARION BARRY, mayor of the nation's capital, recently stood in the glare of television lights trying to explain why murders are being committed in his city at a rate of one every 16 hours. News media grillings, sometimes on national television, have multiplied for Mayor Barry since Washington, D.C., this year achieved the distinction of having the highest homicide rate in the nation.

On Monday, William Bennett, the federal narcotics chief, criticized Barry's administration for not doing more to stem the drug crisis that has yielded the flood of drug-related murders.

``The plain fact,'' Mr. Bennett said, ``is that for too long and in too many respects, the D.C. government has failed to serve its citizens.'' He then proceeded to detail a Bush administration plan to combat drugs in the nation's Capital.

The result: Mr. Barry, whose administration was already weakened by previous scandals, is now fighting for his political life. He also faces the specter of the federal government wresting control of the district's police force after 14 years of district home rule.

Last month, the mayor appeared before a Senate subcommittee and was sharply criticized for his handling of the district's crime problem. Later that day, he requested $102 million in federal aid to hire 800 more police officers, boost drug prevention programs, and expand prison space.

The flurry of public criticism has only added to Washington's deteriorating public image. A recent Washington Post nationwide poll found that about half of all Americans believe the District of Columbia government is more corrupt than other large cities and that problems in the city were out of control.

Barry's troubles intensified last December when he was linked to a suspected drug dealer he met in a hotel room that police were watching. Washington police detectives were investigating charges that the man was dealing cocaine. Add to that fiasco the most recent federal investigation into alleged improprieties by members of Barry's administration involved in a consulting project between the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands.

Now, when calls for his resignation are echoed even by some of his own supporters, Barry shrugs and says, ``That's democracy. You win some and you lose some.''

But not all Barry's supporters have abandoned him. Given the heightened media attention, Barry has engendered some sympathy in the black community, observers say. Many blacks, for example, question why the Washington Post is spending more time investigating Barry than it did pursuing the perceptions of scandal in the Reagan administration, says Alvin Thornton, a professor of political science at Harvard University.

``The issues are being framed in such a way that Barry's supporters have to love him,'' Mr. Thornton says. They think ``he and black power are being unduly attacked, and that the problems Barry faces are intractable urban issues.''

Barry has been mayor of Washington for 11 of the 14 years that the district's residents have been allowed to vote for their city government under home rule. Despite the current furor, Barry can point to a number of achievements. During the 1960s, Barry was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of the original Freedom Riders who helped spread the civil rights movement in the South. He was the first black activist to be elected mayor of a major city.

He has been credited with helping the poor of the city, especially with helping black youths find jobs. He has encouraged a business climate that has enabled the once decaying downtown to flourish.

`THE greatest failing the mayor brought on the district is that when people live in ghettos the first thing they need is a sense of hope and a sense that people in charge are living a life style they can emulate,'' Thornton says.

But Barry's administration has been hit with so many scandals and crises recently that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill now question whether Washington is even ready for home rule. Bills have been introduced to federalize the district's police department.

Barry insists that his problems are not unique to big-city mayors. But the fact that he presides over the nation's capital gives his problems national notoriety.

Yet it is the city's killings that have pushed Barry's many other problems into the background. Last year the city had a record number of homicides. But this year's pace makes 1988 seem calm. As many as four people have been killed in one night in this city of less than 700,000.

Barry claims there is little he can do about such drug-related, assassination-type killings. ``Drugs are the problem, not Marion Barry,'' he says. ``We're not a murder capital, we're a target-killing capital.''

As long as the federal government cannot stop cocaine from reaching its destination, he says, there will be murders in the cities, especially in affluent Washington. But Barry's critics say he cannot be the commander of a drug war when it is unclear whether he uses drugs or has ties to a drug dealer.

Barry insists he doesn't use drugs, and he is being tarred with guilt by association - what he calls ``the new McCarthyism.'' Yet with the scandals that have rocked his administration, Barry is faulted more widely for running a lax administration.

``The new reality that Washingtonians who have been supporters of Mayor Barry must painfully face,'' wrote Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam who writes on minority issues, ``is that he is now more of a drag on our city than an inspiration.''

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