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.
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.
But the majority of the people in Washington understand what the "deal" was with the federal government's "sting" operation that jailed him, he says: "It was the federal government's drugs, the federal government's woman [who offered him drugs], the federal government's [hotel] room."
Barry and his supporters are largely impatient with questions about his cocaine use and conviction.
By focusing only on the drug issue, curious observers "probably think `these poor, dumb people reelected this guy,' " says Tom Chapman, president of the Greater Southeast Community Hospital, the largest employer in Ward 8.
Mr. Chapman says the "missing link" in this logic is the context of Ward 8 and the longtime incumbent - Wilhelmina J. Rolark, whom Barry defeated in an upset. "He obviously offered something not offered" by the incumbent, Chapman says. Councilwoman Rolark served through the '80s.
Other political observers here hammer home the idea that Ward 8 voters - like blacks anywhere - are a diverse group that would not necessarily act monolithically solely out of sympathy for Barry.
Ward 8 is located "east of the river," the Washington equivalent of every city's neglected "other side of the tracks." It often is characterized as a blighted, poor, drug- and violence-ridden part of the city. But, while it does have the highest levels of poverty, infant mortality, and high-school dropouts, it has a large share of working-class and even some upper-income families.
Voters here, say observers, see a need to improve their neighborhood. Barry, with an impressive record of political accomplishment, could be the only hope for change after years of political neglect. `He understands the city'
Barry's campaign promises are very appealing here: He aims to pass a law requiring a city summer job for every youth who wants one and to lobby the private sector to hire from Ward 8.
There's plentiful evidence of his ability to do these things, observes Sam Smith, a journalist and historian here. During his tenure as mayor, Barry brought 70,000 jobs to Washington, Mr. Smith says. But given that District unemployment rose under Barry, those jobs were largely created for suburban commuters, he says.
"He could be a real powerhouse because he understands the city better than anyone," Smith says.
Indeed, city officials fearful of a future Barry bid for mayor did their best to defeat his council run. But they are now rapidly mending fences with what promises to be a formidable presence on the council.
"He'll be able to bring home the `pork,' " in terms of local money, says Mike Smith, alluding to pork-barrel politics. Mr. Smith owns housing throughout Ward 8 that depends on federal rent subsidies. "But federal money is very important and he can't do that."
He's referring to the longstanding feud between Congress and District officials. Congress retains authority over the District and yanks federal purse strings when the District displeases it.
"This is a cruel joke on the people of the city," says Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R) of California, who serves on the District of Columbia oversight committees in Congress. "You can't take a guy in prison just a few months ago and elect him to office and expect to be taken seriously."