Magazine article Insight on the News

D.C. Voters Decide If Barry Will Be the Life of the Party

Magazine article Insight on the News

D.C. Voters Decide If Barry Will Be the Life of the Party

Article excerpt

As the nation's capital gears up for its mayoral primary on Sept. 13, one candidate is standing out among the sea of hopefuls -- former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.

Barry was the glad-handing, fast-living, corruption-shrouded mayor who came to national attention in 1990 when he was caught -- and videotaped -- smoking crack cocaine in a cheap hotel with a former girlfriend. The videotape, broadcast on news programs around the world, led to Barry's arrest, conviction and a six-month stint in jail. But for anyone who assumed that the scandal was the kiss of death for Barry's political career, the real shock was still to come. Out of prison and claiming to be a new man, Barry returned to the District last year, ran for a seat on the D.C. Council -- and won by a landslide.

And Barry isn't letting his political comeback stop there. He's using his council office as a springboard for getting his old job back. And in a city still reeling from the aftershocks of the Barry regime, with memories of the sordid videotape are still vivid, two questions are hotly debated: How has Barry managed to wrest a comeback out of such seemingly resounding defeat? And what will it mean for the District if he wins?

Polls show that as the primary approaches, Barry has a strong chance of unseating incumbent Sharon Pratt Kelly. That's partly the result of Kelly's missteps, and partly because of Barry's hard work. Currently representing Ward 8, one of the city's poorest and most violent neighborhoods, Barry has solidified his electoral base during his 18 months in office. He has mounted voter-registration drives in the city's poor, black areas -- a traditional source of support for him -- and the increased registration could prove crucial. In the past, the largely white, affluent Wards 3 and 4 were highly influential in mayoral elections, particularly during Kelly's 1990 victory. But the increased registration could give the city's poor, black neighborhoods far more influence than they have had in the past.

A Barry victory, however, could mean more than an embarrassment to many District residents and political observers. The city is already saddled with a huge, notoriously incompetent government bureaucracy and a projected budget deficit of $194 million for fiscal 1995, and has been losing its middle-class tax base at an alarming rate as residents move to the suburbs to escape crime, high taxes and the maddening inefficiency of city services. Barry's critics fear that his reelection could demolish the already-strained relationship between the District and Congress, destroy D.C.'s oft-raised appeals for home rule or statehood, and plunge the nation's capital into an insurmountalbe fiscal crisis.

Still, Barry's ability to bounce back is extraordinary. His 12-year reign -- he won his first mayoral election in 1978 and was dubbed "Mayor-for-Life" by a local columnist -- came to an ignominious end in the infamous incident in a Washington hotel room. Barry's former girlfriend, Rasheeda Moore, had lured the mayor there as part of a sting operation put together by then-U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens, who had been targeting Barry for months. Indeed, rumors of dabblings in drugs, extramarital dalliances in D.C.'s red-light establishments and financial finaglings had long shadowed the mayor. But these rumors, circulated among vice cops, inner-city residents and hospital workers (who claimed that Barry paid predawn detoxification visits to their facilities), were never backed up with hard evidence. And they never gathered enough steam to knock Barry from his tight lock on power.

But the videotape showing Barry smoking crack resulted in a conviction that sent him to the Lorton penitentiary for six months. Barry remained defiant to the bitter end, blaming the white establishment and charging that he had been "set up" by Moore. Many agreed, including about 80 of the city's religious leaders who signed a letter of protest questioning the intent of the sting. …

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