I came to Washington, DC at the end of Marion Barry’s first term as Mayor of DC and left just prior to his regaining his job after his drug conviction, so I feel compelled to make some note about the late Mayor.
A Time of Prosperity and Violence. DC prospered during this time and some longtime residents say it is when the city grew from a town into a legitimate city. Its core downtown regained life as businesses and residents moved back along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. This had a ripple effect and led to improvements in other areas like U Street.
I remember his failed attempt to create a New Year’s countdown to rival New York’s with the dropping of a postage stamp at the remodeled Old Post Office Building. Its funny when you think about it, but it showed his ambition to remake the city.
It was also a very violent time, as gang wars over crack cocaine distribution made DC the “Murder Capitol” of the nation. Ironically, this problem was especially severe in DC, as opposed to other Northeastern cities, not because of any failure on the part of the District but because those cities already had existing drug distribution territories defined by organized crime.
Barry and The Plan. Barry was a divisive figure. The charismatic Barry was revered in the African-American community in part because of his background as a civil rights activist, but also because of his substantive policies to grow the city’s middle class through jobs and housing programs. Barry was one of their own and the fact that the white elite hated him made them like him even more.
There was this incessant talk about “The Plan”, which in the view of white DC residents was a paranoid fear that the white power structure would retake control of the city. (Barry was Washington’s second Mayor, as the city only gained Home Rule in 1973.) “Fortunately”, all that paranoid talk got put to rest when the Republican Congress created a Financial Control Board in 1995 (just as Barry returned as Mayor) that assumed all authority over DC finances through 2001.
Barry, Corruption and Criticism. Like most prolonged mayorships, Barry’s became weighted by corruption – including his own. Barry’s experienced almost parallels that of my hometown mayor, Buddy Cianci of Providence, who also returned to regain his job after being convicted (only to be convicted again).
Barry at times was indifferent to criticism. I recall two incidents of note:
- In January 1997, DC was hit hard by back to back snow storms and city plows failed to get the job done. Barry was in LA for the Super Bowl (which featured the hated Giants not the Sons of Washington) and extended his stay (during which he was admitted to a hospital after a coke overdose). When he returned, he shrugged off the criticism by saying, it wasn’t his fault – he didn’t make it snow. (Leading some to say Barry’s snow removal strategy could be summed up in one word – spring).
- Just before his arrest, Barry flipped off a heckler at the Adams Morgan Day street festival which told many he didn’t care what we thought of him. For that reason, I was thrilled when he was arrested. I actually jumped up and down when I opened my door to see the Washington Post headline.
The Barry Excuse. Barry was often used as an excuse for denying DC voting rights or even statehood. I never saw that as a valid argument. Why should one’s entitlement to a right depend upon how it is exercised?
Alaska elected Sarah Palin, yet they still have two Senators and a Congressman to represent a slightly larger population than Washington, D.C.
Consider that since 1980, the current or former Governors of these states have been convicted:
- Illinois (3)
- North Carolina
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Since 1980, the current or former Mayors of the following major cities have been convicted
- New Orleans
- San Diego
All of these jurisdictions, however, have and continue to have full representation in the House and Senate yet DC has no voting representation. Had Barry been the world’s best mayor, I doubt things would be different, but I do believe he set the cause of DC Voting Rights back or at least gave opponent’s an easy excuse.
Farewell and RIP. I saw Barry at the official DC unofficial inaugural ball in 2009. He kept hitting on the attractive MC, a local radio DJ, who seemed somewhat annoyed by the dirty-old-(former)mayor. He had become a caricature of himself.
Last night his long chaotic journey filled with ups and downs and always interesting came to end when he died at the age of 78. May he, his family and the city he served find peace.