- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

The modern-day history of the nation’s capital is a history of racial and political ironies. Washington, D.C., 2004 hardly resembles the segregated Washington, D.C., of four decades ago. Indeed, it barely has any resemblance to even a decade ago. While the ideology of its elected leaders has changed not one iota and its public schools remain mostly bankrupt of academic successes, the demographics and economics of today’s Washington belie the reversal of series of misfortunesthat used to pockmark its landscape.In short, this no longer is Marion Barry’s Washington. So, if Washingtonhas changed,has Marion Barry?

I was a teen when the handsome and charismatic Mr. Barry came to run the D.C. chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Without my parents’ knowledge, I cut class a couple of times to help pass out handbills in the name of the “cause.” (I also began a love affair with Ben’s Chili Bowl; SNCC offices were across the street.) For me, those days ended when my parents found out. My “job,” dad said, was to go to school, not “hang out with troublemakers.” Later, when I secured a job with Mr. Barry’s Pride Inc., my dad scolded me again with the same lecture.

My face-to-face encounter with Mr. Barry didn’t come again until the late 1970s. Mr. Barry had risen from civil-rights activist to elected school board member to mayor of “Chocolate City.” I was working for The Washington Star and covering a gala. As I squatted to interview a seated Vernon Jordan, who at the time was president of the National Urban League, Mayor Barry walked over. I rose to greet him, but found that courtesies weren’t on his mind; my cleavage was. I saw Mr. Barry most recently at the funeral of little Chelsea Cromartie, a 9-year-old relative of mine who was felled by a stray bullet.

Those encounters flashed in my mind’s eye as news flowed that Mr. Barry is about to reincarnate himself as a lawmaker. Mr. Barry said his motivation is the lack of jobs and affordable housing, and the troubled public school system — and amid the irony of all ironies is that Mr. Barry complained about the direction of D.C. government. Nothing new there; just more of the same Marion Barry.

Indeed, the District’s low-income and public-housing stock fell into irrevocable disrepair during the Barry years. The school system, which used to prepare young minds for tomorrow’s realities, began its decline during the Barry years. Moreover, one cast partial blame at Marion Barry for misdirecting teens into believing that earning a summer paycheck was more important than spending the summer earning Carnegie Units for high school graduation.

Another irony is that those very teens who relished the Barry years and the summer paychecks are now the very same adult voters that he hopes to lure to his side as he steps back into the political arena. A resident of the city’s poorest ward for several years now, Mr. Barry told the Washington Afro-American newspaper, “Most of my campaign staff will be from Ward 8.”

Mr. Barry would be challenging his former campaign manager, Council member Sandy Allen, and school board member William Lockridge — two veteran pols who, in my mind, have yet to make a substantial mark on behalf of the have-nots in Ward 8. And if Mr. Barry were returned to a perch on the council dais, I don’t believe he would do any better.

As I said, Washington, D.C., 2004 is no longer the Washington built of Marion Barry, by Marion Barry and for Marion Barry. Sure, he has the right and might have the wherewithal to run. But do the taxpayers and homeowners who have moved into Ward 8 during the post-Barry era want to return to yesteryear? Do they want a council representative who can talk the talk but walk up to Capitol Hill and receive not a measurable modicum of respect?

Marion Barry embarrassed himself, his family and this city when he was caught by the FBI doing you-know-what on that 1990 videotape. Drug addiction, in many instances, really and truly is an illness, and redemption certainly has its rewards. But what about political addiction?

Mr. Barry only needs about 250 qualified signatures on a nominating petition to make the cut for the Democratic primary in September, and gathering those signatures will be a cakewalk. What do you suppose Washington will look like after four years of Marion Barry?

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