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Barry to get purview on ex-felons and other ‘natural constituencies’

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2011

With the D.C. Council gearing up to vote Tuesday on committee assignments and oversight priorities, Marion Barry, who was stripped of a committee chairmanship last year, is expected to head a panel that will give him power over bills to aid ex-felons.

It's a power the former mayor wants to use.

The 74-year-old lawmaker likely will lead the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs, where he will have the ability to move a bill to amend the city's human rights laws to open up employment doors and educational and housing opportunities to persons returning from prison or jail.

Mr. Barry already has introduced an ex-felons bill and says his legislative plate is full, but doesn't "runneth over."

As head of that panel, Mr. Barry will have jurisdiction not only over issues related to senior citizens, but bills related to gays, ethnic minorities and women. He also will hold sway over civil rights and human rights issues, statehood affairs and the taxicab industry.

"I'm very blessed," he said in an interview with The Washington Times, during which he discussed his decades of civil rights activism and elective office — both before and after his 1990 drug conviction.

"This committee lets me keep a citywide presence. It takes me back to my natural constituencies," he said.

The measure reaches beyond the scope of the D.C. "Ban the Box" movement, which seeks to eliminate the check box that asks job applicants whether they have been convicted of a crime.

Specifically, his Human Rights for Ex-Offender Amendment Act would prohibit housing, job and educational authorities from discriminating against applicants who were "previously questioned, apprehended, taken into custody or detention, held for investigation, arrested, charged with, indicted or tried for any felony, misdemeanor, or other offense pursuant to any law enforcement or military authority other than for offenses that are sexually related."

Mr. Barry, who served four terms as mayor, also wants to ease the lives of offenders with his Work Release Act, which would allow parole and corrections officials to release offenders on electronic, home-based monitoring devices.

Council Chairman "Kwame [Brown] said don't underestimate him, but don't underestimate me, either," Mr. Barry said.

Mr. Barry represents Ward 8, which has the city's highest concentrations of poverty and unemployment as well as crime. His new post also gives him more ability to deliver services to such natural constituents as the unemployed and underemployed.

He said he is considering legislation regarding building permits, freedom-of-information laws and health care.

"I have a full plate, but it's sectioned off and doesn't runneth over. I'm going to work as hard as I can for senior citizens. These are people in the twilight of life, and they should have our highest priority for social services," Mr. Barry said. "Seniors and the other constituencies are people with whom I've been fighting for all my life for justice and equality."

Mr. Barry also has introduced some uncontroversial legislation over which his new post will give him more power, including a measure that would require charter schools to keep the name of the original school if its lease or ownership changes hands.

Although it's not clear whether gay marriage will come up again as a human rights issue, Mr. Barry voted against same-sex marriage.

Mr. Barry held sway over the housing panel until his colleagues stripped him of that power because of ethics indiscretions regarding a female acquaintance. He said he would have liked to have become chairman of the economic development panel, which Mr. Brown led.

However, its chairman's seat also was sought by several other council members, and other key assignments were snapped up quickly.

"Kwame kept education in the Committee of the Whole, and I respect that. David [Catania] wanted that committee," Mr. Barry said.

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