Marion Barry doesn’t quit — ever.
Nor is the former D.C. mayor about to take back remarks that rubbed some people the wrong way as he forges ahead with a mission to protect ex-offenders from discrimination in the nation’s capital.
In the past two weeks, Mr. Barry — a Democrat who represents Ward 8 on the D.C. Council — openly criticized his fellow city lawmakers, dispatched a letter that calls out a key business leader and appeared on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s radio show in his push for a law that prohibits employers in the nation’s capital from discriminating against job applicants solely for having a criminal record.
Mr. Barry, who says he will try to pass his measure at the council’s final legislative session on Tuesday, is making his case at the end of a tumultuous year — one that forced the legendary politician to play both offense and defense when it came to discrimination.
In April, he had to apologize to the Asian community after he used the spotlight during a resounding victory in his ward’s Democratic primary election to say “we got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops.” He also said “we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”
His remarks garnered condemnation from Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting member of Congress, and a battery of criticism from Asian-American groups.
“That was not discrimination,” Mr. Barry said in a recent interview at his city hall office. “I mean, I could have said it a little bit better, but these places are dirty and nasty and people shouldn’t eating at them. How do you call it discrimination?”
Instead, the former mayor sees discrimination in the plight of ex-offenders in the District, which sees 2,500 felons being released into the city’s communities each year, according to a legislative report on Mr. Barry’s bill. The report also noted that more than 90 percent of all inmates in the city are black.
Mr. Barry, who openly touts his political abilities and track record as a four-time mayor, failed to enlist enough of his colleagues to pass his anti-discrimination measure earlier this month amid misgiving from the business community and controversy over how it got through the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs.
But that hasn’t stopped Mr. Barry from going down swinging, a reflection of the populist vigor that drove him to renown during the civil rights movement and to a startling comeback as mayor despite his 1990 arrest for crack cocaine possession in an FBI sting.
“As we all know, historically Mr. Barry has been a defender for the underserved and those whose voices are not heard,” said Albrette “Gigi” Ransom, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 5 who supports “the spirit” of multiple ex-offender bills before the council.
Through multiple channels, Mr. Barry has accused his colleagues this month of failing to address what is keeping ex-offenders from finding work. He brazenly denounced council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a Democrat, at a council breakfast and in a series of messages on Twitter, after Mr. Mendelson said he could not support the ex-mayor’s anti-discrimination bill.
The 76-year-old Mr. Barry —or at least one of his aides — is a frequent user of the social media site. In a string of online messages, Mr. Barry said he is “appalled” that Mr. Mendelson and six other council members “voted to continue discrimination against returning citizens this week.”
He used more traditional means to blast Barbara Lang, the president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce whose organization called the Barry bill “unworkable,” by sending off a Dec. 7 memo to his colleagues that questioned her dedication — as a black woman — to fighting discrimination.
The chamber said Mr. Barry’s letter “was well beneath the stature of the position he holds.”
Mr. Barry, as he often does, brushed aside the criticism.
“I’m considered the most strategic, brilliant political strategist around — you’ve heard that,” he said. “And I’ve done that because I know how to say certain things when I say them, don’t say them. Like a prizefighter, you don’t telegraph your left hook. Otherwise, the person will duck out of it.”
He also thinks he can convince enough of his colleagues to come to his side on ex-offender discrimination before the end of the legislative session. He signaled on Monday he would introduce an anti-discrimination amendment to Mr. Mendelson’s parallel bill on ex-offenders.
Mr. Barry’s own bill earned strong support from two colleagues, council members Vincent B. Orange, at-large Democrat, and Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, who said the District is “behind a lot of cities” on the issue.
Philadelphia broke ground in March 2011 when it passed a law to “ban the box,” a reference to the spot on job applications that asks about a person’s criminal history. Although more than 40 cities and counties have passed similar legislation, Philadelphia set a benchmark for the movement by becoming the first jurisdiction to ban upfront discrimination by public and private employers, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Maurice Emsellem, a policy co-director for the law project, said in a phone interview it is “great it’s an issue that is being debated in the District.”
He preferred to comment on the substance of the proposals, and not who is leading them but did say Mr. Barry’s bill appears to be an effective tool in the arsenal of methods to fight employment discrimination against ex-offenders.
“Several states have legislation that is pretty similar, and they’ve made a lot of progress,” Mr. Emsellem said.
As a practical matter, Mr. Barry’s own bill appears dead for now. The bill had faced stiff opposition from the business community over fears that the bill would expose them to litigation when ex-offenders were turned down for jobs.
Instead, the council gave preliminary approval to an alternative bill on ex-offender rights introduced by Mr. Mendelson. Mr. Barry tried to amend the bill to include his anti-discrimination measures, but it failed by a 7-5 vote.
Mr. Mendelson said from the dais that the sticking point with Mr. Barry’s bill is that it is an anti-discrimination bill that goes beyond banning the box. The problem, he said, is it is not clear when it may be appropriate to deny an ex-offender a job — except in very obvious situations such as giving a convicted pedophile a job at a day care center.
“There will be an enormous amount of litigation, as well as difficulty for employers, because there is not a bright line (on) when discrimination will be warranted,” Mr. Mendelson said on Dec. 4.
The chairman’s bill makes it easier for ex-offenders to have their records sealed and makes certificates of good standing available to qualified ex-cons. It also offers limited liability to employers who are sued over an ex-offender’s actions on the job.
Mr. Mendelson said Monday he does not expect his bill to face any hurdles that will prevent it from passing on final reading.
Not surprisingly, the “mayor for life” is not satisfied.
“I don’t concede defeat ‘til it’s over,” Mr. Barry said last week. “It’s over when it’s over I don’t quit. We fight ‘til the very end.”