- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

I couldn’t reach the resurrected “People’s Prodigal Prince” — the unstoppable Marion Barry — after Tuesday’s election victory, but I did talk with Vera Abbott, a longtime Ward 8 community activist.

Remember, Mrs. Abbott was the gracious woman who politely informed Mr. Barry that she would not vote for the “mayor for life,” yet he made a spectacular comeback by defeating incumbent Ward 8 D.C. Council member Sandy Allen in the Democratic primary. Defeat? More like debacle.

“No, I did not vote for [Mr. Barry] just like I promised him I wouldn’t,” she said. I bet she wouldn’t. Then again, I bet he’d lose.

Mrs. Abbott said Mr. Barry’s victory was “very surprising” because “I didn’t think he had the momentum.” She was more baffled by “the few votes for Sandy.” Mrs. Abbott is not alone. Count yours truly among that crow-eating crowd.

Last week, a low-key Mr. Barry countered that Mrs. Abbott was “in the minority” when she said, “I’d rather see him work on his investment business or teach at UDC.” Yesterday, Mrs. Abbott chuckled. “Well, I am in the minority, and he sure showed me,” she said of Mr. Barry’s resounding victory that found even his former wife, Effi, dancing in the Southeast streets.

I chuckled, too. I was wrong, too. However, we were not in the minority who thought this was Hizzoner’s last hurrah. He showed a lot of folks, including me, that things are not always as they appear. He had warned: “You know better than to bet against me.” Indeed I do.

Indeed, I should have stuck with my past experience that this larger-than-life folk hero would prevail in what is unmistakably “Barryland.” Who, except the boastful Mr. Barry, could have predicted a 60 percent win? Then again, we know that some folks come out to vote only when the Barry name is on the ballot.

Still, on my late-summer meanderings east of the Anacostia River in an attempt to break away from the pedantic conventional wisdom, I saw signs that slowly clouded my vision. Even longtime ward observers, such as Phillip Pannell, said the race was too close to call.

Mr. Barry had no visible presence at several forums. (He conceded that he didn’t attend because they are staged with other candidates’ supporters.) With her hefty campaign coffers, Ms. Allen had a larger and louder cabal. Her signs, shirts, mailings and motorcades were everywhere. When his minister, the Rev. Willie Wilson, threw support to Mrs. Allen, it added fuel to the finality.

Clearly, the ward demographics have changed. So, too, has Chocolate City.

How was Mr. Barry going to rally his disengaged voters without money? (He kept those 4,000 voter support cards — the Underground Barry Railroad — awfully close to the vest.) His failure to file financial reports was symbolic of the campaign’s disarray.

I bought into the doomsday whispers of his longtime friends, who said they couldn’t support Mr. Barry — after trying to persuade him not to run — because of his health, which I also feel is his greatest challenge.

Though Mr. Barry is visibly frail, I should have remembered how often he repeated that old adage: “I’m bloodied but unbowed.” Unbowed and soaring, the Underground Barry Railroad has cause to celebrate. It is undeniably “A New Day.” Although Mr. Barry’s “Ward 8 is a-coming,” things won’t return to the old ways.

Take heed, this people’s political hurricane is about much more than the delivery of constituent services, or the lack thereof. There’s a grass-roots groundswell, a deep-seated resentment and anger resulting from feeling pushed out and left behind while the gentrification gravy train rolls over longtime residents and neighborhoods.

Political newcomers Kwame R. Brown, who handily defeated at-large council member Harold Brazil, and Vincent C. Gray, who handily defeated Ward 7 council member Kevin P. Chavous, tapped into those seething sentiments about “absentee council members” and a vehemently disliked mayor.

The message is not only a cry for help, but also a wicked warning that “we’re mad … and we’re not going to take [being disregarded and disrespected] anymore.” You cannot keep giving government goodies away to private interests while cutting basic public and social services, and not expect a people’s revolt. Who better to lead that revolt than the People’s Prodigal Prince, who proved yet again that “money can’t buy votes, and money can’t buy love.” The silver lining in these latest D.C. primary results is in the demonstration that people power triumphs. The election and governance strategy that caters to residents in wards west of Rock Creek Park may now need to be revised.

“The depressed black vote has come out of its doldrums,” said Bernard Demchuk, a longtime political activist who worked for two D.C. mayors, including Mr. Barry.

Ever gracious, Mrs. Abbott said, “I’m glad for [Mr. Barry] and wish him all the luck in the world, and I’m here to support him in any way I can as a community activist.” After all, she added, “People love Marion Barry and his promises to look out for the poor and the middle class.”

What’s important about this primary election is not what happened Tuesday, but what the winning results portend for 2006. If he’s still in the running, you can bet I won’t make the same miscalculations against the People’s Prodigal Prince again.

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