- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2014

Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who rose from the sharecroppers’ shacks of Itta Bena, Mississippi, to the executive suite of the District’s City Hall and overcame an embarrassing public drug arrest while in office to return as D.C. mayor and council member, died early Sunday. He was 78.

Despite a career in elected office that spanned the history of home rule in the District, the indelible image of Mr. Barry was crafted on the night of Jan. 18, 1990, when FBI agents and D.C. police officers set up a sting at the Vista International Hotel on Thomas Circle. The grainy videotaped image of Mr. Barry smoking crack cocaine became emblematic of the violent drug epidemic that was ravaging the District and urban America.

But while his arrest and his public declaration that he had been set up disgraced and defined Mr. Barry for the nation, his role in the District as the pre-eminent political leader, deal-maker and champion of the underclass continued to thrive. In the hallways of public housing, in church pulpits, in business corridors and in school auditoriums, the former civil rights activist remained beloved as an advocate of the “last, the least and the lost” and of the city’s continuing struggle for self-determination.

“During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand opportunity, and begin to make real the promise of home rule,” President Obama said in a statement. “Through a storied, at times tumultuous life and career, he earned the love and respect of countless Washingtonians, and Michelle and I extend our deepest sympathies to Marion’s family, friends and constituents today.”

The sentiment was echoed by the District’s mayor, Vincent C. Gray, who ordered flags to be lowered at city government buildings in Mr. Barry’s honor.

“Marion was not just a colleague but also was a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about governing the city. He loved the District of Columbia, and so many Washingtonians loved him,” he said.

Despite failing health, Mr. Barry — who in his later years embraced the sardonic moniker of “mayor for life” — had been busy promoting his autobiography, in which he frankly discussed his personal failings, including the drug addiction that plagued him for much of his time in office.

He died hours after he was released from Howard University Hospital on Saturday. He was transported to United Medical Center about 12:15 a.m. after collapsing at his home and was pronounced dead at 1:46 a.m., hospital officials said. The medical examiner said the cause of death was heart failure, related to poor kidney function complicated by diabetes.

He died days before his annual turkey giveaway on Tuesday — a pre-Thanksgiving ritual that epitomized Mr. Barry’s connection to the underserved community he long represented and that his supporters vowed to continue in his honor.

Early years

Riding into Washington with an image as a streetwise civil rights organizer, Mr. Barry liked to make joking references to his rural roots and to his jobs as a teen working in Southern cotton fields.

He received a bachelor’s degree in research chemistry from LeMoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1958. As president of the college’s NAACP chapter, he led a student campaign to force the resignation of a white board of trustees member who had made disparaging remarks about blacks.

The young activist was threatened with expulsion two weeks shy of graduation. The school’s president reversed the decision after fellow students protested on Mr. Barry’s behalf. Two years later, he received a master’s degree in chemistry from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

“My desire to be a research chemist was replaced with a desire to fight the wrongs that gave birth to the civil rights movement,” Mr. Barry said during a 1998 speech announcing his decision to leave office in January after four terms as mayor. The fourth term followed his dramatic return to public life after the disgrace of his drug conviction in 1990.

He came to Washington in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement as a fundraiser for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and quickly developed a reputation as an activist.

Mr. Barry, who wore the dashikis popular at the time, was an officer of the committee, which organized sit-in demonstrations in many Southern cities.

“From my earliest encounter with Marion Barry, when he was the first chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee until I came back home and found him mayor of my hometown, I have seen Marion take hold and write his signature boldly on his own life and times and on the life of the nation’s capital,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting congressional representative. “Many took his struggle to personify in some way their own, endearing him and making him a larger-than-life figure as he became a creator of post-home-rule D.C.”

Political prominence

In less than a decade, Mr. Barry rose to establishment politics and in 1971 won election to the D.C. Board of Education, where he served as president three times.

In 1974, he was elected as a Democrat to an at-large seat on the D.C. Council, where he served two terms. He was named chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, after which he would publicly describe himself as the city’s “financial wizard.”

In 1976, Mr. Barry was shot in the chest and a WHUR-FM reporter was killed when members of the Hanafi Muslims seized the District Building and two other buildings in the city.

Mr. Barry in 1978 became the District’s second mayor after beating incumbent Walter Washington in the primary and using to his advantage the new strong-mayor form of government granted to the District by Congress in its home rule charter of 1973.

He directed his campaign to blacks in less-affluent sections of the city — a constituency that remained loyal to him throughout his public life.

His first term was plagued with record budget deficits. At times, the city owed more than $100 million in long-term debts — deficits that Mr. Barry contended were covered up by Mr. Washington, the first elected mayor.

Mr. Barry also laid the foundation for his political apparatus. Daily and for hours on end, he could be found canvassing the streets, helping senior citizens shop, playing basketball with youths, attending civic association meetings and speaking at Sunday worship services.

In his second mayoral primary, Mr. Barry raised more than $1 million, the most money that had ever been raised to conduct a D.C. race.

Comparisons soon were evident between Mr. Barry and Gov. Alexander “Boss” Shepherd — the city’s presidentially appointed leader at the turn of the century who single-handedly turned the District, with its messy landscape of dirt roads and open sewers, into a comfortable place to live.

Troubled term

Near the end of his second term, Mr. Barry acknowledged that the problems of government were much more complex than he had envisioned.
Scandals began to take their toll as key Barry administration officials were convicted of financial crimes.

Fundamental flaws of home rule flourished unchecked under Mr. Barry’s free-flowing management and political philosophy. He was allowed, with no interference from the Democrat-led Congress, to create a culture in which the city government existed to assist everybody.

That philosophy, along with the mayor’s skill at building a political machine, put more and more blacks behind desks and counters throughout city government.
Mr. Barry poured millions of dollars into programs for senior citizens and summer jobs for teens.

A common refrain Sunday from local leaders and residents was the acknowledgment that Mr. Barry’s employment programs were responsible for their first jobs.

“Like so many others, I credit Marion Barry with giving me my first job, and he would remind me every time he saw me,” Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said.

Minority contracts and city jobs were supposed to help build a broader black middle class, and they did. By the mid-1980s, a Barry-inspired law required that 35 percent of all city contracts be awarded to minority-owned firms.

But by any measure, the city’s finances and services to residents crumbled on Mr. Barry’s watch. The expensive programs had problems and underlined a recurring theme: He could attract the votes to win elections but couldn’t deliver on big promises.

By the end of his third term in 1990, many essential services had all but collapsed. After neglecting equipment, training and long-term planning, the government sank into severe dysfunction even as the payroll and overall spending ballooned. A staggering debt loomed.

Potholes, some large enough to hold mattresses, scarred the streets and went unfilled. Rude employees made residents wait endlessly for permits and licenses. Public housing and school buildings decayed.

Garbage wasn’t picked up on schedule, and recycling sputtered and disappeared. Four city agencies fell into court-ordered receivership.

The most famous example occurred in 1987, when the District was paralyzed by two storms that dumped 20 inches of snow. Mr. Barry was attending the Super Bowl in Southern California and faced national ridicule when he did not return until five days later.

But overshadowing everything in his administration was the epidemic of drug use and gang fighting that escalated throughout the 1980s and devastated areas of the city already suffering from poverty and disease.

Gang violence of the “crack wars” erupted across the city, especially in Southeast neighborhoods. Homicides jumped from 180 in 1979 to 474 in 1990, and the District became known as “the Murder Capital” of the U.S.

When Mr. Barry himself was videotaped using crack, famously stating that he was set up, the war seemed lost. Mr. Barry — and the District — became a national punch line.

By the time he decided not to seek re-election, relations between the city and Congress had sunk. His arrest, trial on drug and perjury charges and subsequent misdemeanor conviction on one count of cocaine possession only confirmed the darkest suspicions of federal lawmakers, who for years grumbled that he squandered federal funds on a bloated, corrupt government.

A failed fourth term

Mr. Barry returned in 1992 after six months in prison. He separated from his wife, Effi, the District’s former first lady who remained popular until her death in 2007. Mr. Barry married his fourth wife, Cora Masters Barry, in 1994. The couple separated in 2002 but never divorced.

The former mayor began his political rebirth by winning a council seat representing Ward 8, the poorest section of the city.

By 1994, many residents began to believe that the reformer they elected to replace Mr. Barry — Sharon Pratt — was as bad as he was, though she struggled to cope with a sea of debt and an ill-trained, ill-equipped bureaucracy that Mr. Barry’s policies created.

Mr. Barry ran again for mayor and won. Sensing he could not win a conventional campaign, Mr. Barry expanded the voter pool by registering — and getting to the polls — addicts, ex-cons and others who rarely voted. He tapped into their desire for “redemption” and offered himself as a prodigal son to poor blacks.

He came back “redeemed” — but only to see his power stripped away layer by layer by a Congress fed up with pervasive debt, mismanagement and corruption.

Even as the city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in 1995, the mayor’s budget added jobs. He left it to the hated financial control board imposed by Congress to eliminate the new jobs and 10,000 others.

By the end of his term, he was reduced to a largely ceremonial caretaker, with the control board dragging the District back from the brink of bankruptcy, emergency trustees overhauling crumbling public schools and a host of social programs wrested away by federal judges.

The control board wrested the police force from the mayor in February 1997, the first of 10 major agencies it took away.

Return to the council

Mr. Barry’s administration was succeeded by the city’s chief financial officer, Anthony A. Williams, and the District began a precarious recovery.

The former mayor mostly receded from public life. In 2002, he was arrested by a Park Police officer after traces of marijuana and cocaine were found in his parked car at Buzzard Point. No charges were filed, and Mr. Barry said the drugs were planted.

In 2004, he ran for D.C. Council from Ward 8 — a move many observers speculated was a result of his deteriorating finances. He won the seat and returned to City Hall. But his troubles were not over.

Mr. Barry was sentenced to three years’ probation in 2006 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges for failing to file his tax returns from 1999 to 2004. The former mayor also didn’t file his taxes on time in 2005 or 2007, and a judge extended his probation by two years.

His council tenure also was the subject of scandal when reports emerged that Mr. Barry awarded a city contract to a former girlfriend and arranged for D.C. grant money to go to nonprofit organizations controlled by people close to him.

A Department of Justice investigation into the contract led to revelations that Mr. Barry had arranged for as much as $1 million in grant money to go to Ward 8 nonprofit organizations that appeared to be run by people who worked for him or who had worked on his campaigns.

Mr. Barry was not criminally charged in the matter, but his council colleagues voted to censure him and stripped him of his position as chairman of a council committee.

Last year, the city’s ethics commission fined Mr. Barry $13,600 for accepting $6,800 in gifts from two city contractors.

Without a council committee to oversee, Mr. Barry made his priorities known during often contentious exchanges on the council dais, stubbornly refusing to adhere to time limits as he voiced his opinions. He remained a fierce community advocate, fighting unsuccessfully to delay a cut in welfare payments to city residents and later supporting social justice reforms including the decriminalization of marijuana and legislation to ban employers from asking about the criminal records of applicants.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of his actions since returning to the council was the stand he took in 2009 against the legalization of same-sex marriage in the District, holding out as the lone vote against the proposal in a reflection of the socially conservative faith communities in his ward.

Mr. Barry regained clout during the 2010 campaign, serving as an ardent supporter of Mr. Gray, whose “One City” mantra mirrored Mr. Barry’s own pledges to serve the underserved.

In recent years, Mr. Barry showed signs of failing health. He underwent a kidney transplant in 2009 and was hospitalized with complications from the procedure. Recent years were frequently marked with hospital stays. Mr. Barry spent several weeks in the hospital and a rehabilitation center this year after a blood infection.

Nevertheless, he remained active during the successful mayoral campaign in support of Democrat Muriel Bowser. Mr. Barry’s support bolstered Ms. Bowser in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

“He has been an inspiration to so many people, and a fighter for people, and a champion for the people of Ward 8,” Ms. Bowser said. “Mr. Barry, I can say this, lived up until the minute, the way he wanted to live.”

⦁ Andrea Noble contributed to this report, which also featured the work of former Washington Times reporter Vincent McCraw.

• Matthew Cella can be reached at mcella@washingtontimes.com.

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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