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District of Columbia Voters Resurrect Barry From the Political Graveyard

Ex-mayor easily wins a City Council primary. He says people are 'clamoring for change.'

September 16, 2004|Emma Schwartz | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Marion Barry is the Lazarus of District of Columbia politics: Just when you think he's politically dead, he rises -- most recently on Tuesday in a City Council primary, trouncing his opponent with 57% of the vote in a city where winning the Democratic nomination is tantamount to victory in November.

From the praise heard outside Barry's campaign headquarters Wednesday, it was clear this was about more than the return of a former four-term mayor. His constituents in the city's poorest district are, in Barry's words, "clamoring for change."

Despite Washington's efforts to move into the big leagues of U.S. cities -- housing prices are rising, jobs are plentiful and there are plans to build a baseball stadium downtown if the Montreal Expos end up here -- the primary was a reminder of just how little has changed for some people on the other side of the river from Capitol Hill.

And those people were willing to rest their hopes on a 68-year-old man who has served time in prison for possessing cocaine.

Things were tougher for Barry the candidate this time around. He was unable to meet fund-raising goals; some called him unrealistic for pledging more affordable housing and summer jobs for teens; others were concerned about his deteriorating health, which aides attribute to diabetes and high blood pressure. Even Barry's pastor endorsed incumbent Councilwoman Sandra Allen -- whom the former mayor crushed Tuesday.

None of that stopped him. "The call was here," Barry said Wednesday.

His home turf in Southeast Washington -- across the Anacostia River from downtown -- is a world away from the upscale storefronts of Georgetown and the funky ethnic restaurants of Adams Morgan that have blossomed with the district's turnaround.

In Ward 8, nearly all the approximately 70,000 residents are black and poor.

There are no spiffy sit-down restaurants; residents complain of drugs and school violence. A recent study by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that the gap between rich and poor was as big in the district as in any major city in the country -- and that the difference had only increased as the economy here had flourished.

Rendell Dews, one of Barry's constituents, is a barber who got his first job through a summer jobs program Barry supported while he was mayor from 1978 to 1990. Were it not for that, said Dews, 35, he doesn't know where he would be.

But now, as a single father, he said, he worries about his three children, about their safety at school and on the streets. He makes them stay home to play video games because there are no nearby recreational centers, he said.

Barry, he believes, will change that.

"He always looks out for the community," Dews said.

Barry came out of that community in the 1960s as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, fighting against discrimination and segregation.

But unlike the battles in black inner cities across the country, the struggle in the nation's capital also focused on electoral rights. Long under the control of Congress, district residents weren't able to vote for their own mayor or City Council members until 1974.

As the district inched away from federal domination, Barry transformed from radical activist to political leader. From organizing the city's poor and neglected, he moved into the mainstream: first on the school board, then on the City Council and, finally in 1978, as mayor.

He led the city for three consecutive terms, dealing with budget troubles and overseeing a statehood referendum, but personal weaknesses led to his political downfall. It culminated in a 1990 FBI sting in which Barry was videotaped in a downtown hotel room smoking crack cocaine with a female acquaintance.

Six months in prison on a drug conviction might have ended other politicians' careers. But in 1992, Barry recaptured his council seat, and two years later returned to the mayor's office. This time, however, a new financial control board placed restrictions on the mayor's power.

And when Barry left office in 1999, after announcing he would not seek reelection, the city was moving in a new direction: away from the grass-roots summer jobs and affordable housing programs toward a more professional, business-oriented leadership, epitomized by the current mayor, Anthony Williams.

Two years ago, Barry wanted to try again for the City Council. But after police said they had found a small amount of marijuana and $5 worth of crack cocaine in his parked car, his bid never got off the ground. No charges were filed, and Barry has repeatedly denied the police account.

Now, he says he is back, ready to shake up city politics once again. Two other council incumbents lost their seats Tuesday -- and both of their challengers championed the poor, just as Barry did.

"Everywhere I'd go, people were just clamoring for change," he said in an interview Wednesday.

And that, he said, is what he will give them: Within his first 30 days in office, he would introduce legislation to guarantee summer jobs to all teens, to create affordable housing and to make the school board more accountable. He also opposes using taxpayer money to erect a stadium downtown when people in his neighborhood suffer from the highest unemployment rate in the city.

On Wednesday, Barry was surrounded in front of his headquarters by cameras, reporters and adoring constituents. Supporters honked, hollered and cheered from their cars. Others stopped on the street to congratulate him.

"Glad to have you back," one man said.

"I'm so proud of you," said another, embracing Barry.

Ever the politician, Barry rushed to greet passengers on a stopping bus, delaying its departure.

"The image of the Southeast is going to change," he vowed.

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