IN REMEMBRANCE: 11-23-2014

MARION BARRY, FORMER MAYOR OF WASHINGTON

 

Marion Barry in His Own Words

The former Washington mayor reflects on his life and his new memoir.

Video by A.J. Chavar on Publish Date July 1, 2014. Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times.

His death was confirmed by his family.

Mr. Barry died at United Medical Center in Southeast Washington just hours after he was released from Howard University Hospital on Saturday. He admitted himself on Thursday, saying that he did not feel well, although no specific medical problems were mentioned. On Sunday night, the medical examiner’s office ruled that he died of heart disease.

Mr. Barry had had various health problems in recent years. He had a kidney transplant in 2009 and was also treated for high blood pressure, diabetes and anemia. He underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1995.

Mr. Barry’s death comes just months after the publication of his autobiography, “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr.”

Elected mayor four times — in 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1994 — Mr. Barry left the mayor’s office for good early in 1999 and then worked as an investment banker. But politics was never far from his mind. In 2004 he was elected to the District of Columbia Council from a hard-pressed section in Southeast Washington, a district he represented until his death.

Mr. Barry was a charismatic yet confounding politician. Admirers saw him as a Robin Hood who gave hope to poor black residents. His detractors saw a shameless rogue who almost ruined the city by stuffing its payroll with cronies and hacks and letting services decay. Indisputably, he was a political Lazarus with a gift for convincing his followers that their hopes and disappointments were his, too.

On Jan. 18, 1990, Mayor Barry was arrested in a Washington hotel room while smoking crack cocaine and fondling a woman who was not his wife. The arrest, videotaped in an undercover operation, caused a sensation, but it was hardly a surprise: The public had known of his womanizing for years, and there had been rumors of drug use. Nor was he a stranger to the bottle.

Convicted of a misdemeanor cocaine possession, Mr. Barry was sentenced to six months in prison. His fall from grace was especially poignant for those old enough to remember the bright promise and idealism of his youth.

He was born on March 6, 1936, in Itta Bena, Miss. His father, also named Marion, died when he was 4, and his mother, Mattie, moved to Memphis, where she remarried. Her new husband, David Cummings, was a butcher and she worked as a domestic to support eight children.

Young Marion picked cotton, waited on tables and delivered newspapers. He became an Eagle Scout and earned a degree in chemistry from LeMoyne College in Memphis in 1958.

His middle initial, S., originally stood for nothing, but in the late 1950s he adopted the middle name Shepilov, after Dmitri T. Shepilov, a purged member of the Soviet Communist Party. As a sophomore, Mr. Barry joined the LeMoyne chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He became chapter president his senior year.

While studying for his master’s degree at Fisk University in Nashville, he organized a campus N.A.A.C.P. chapter. Early in 1960, he helped organize the first lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. That April, he and other student leaders met with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Mr. Barry became its first national chairman.

After a year as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, he began studying for a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Tennessee. He abandoned his studies a few credits short and began working full time for S.N.C.C.

In June 1965 he moved to Washington, where reporters occasionally referred to him as a “dashiki-clad militant.” A powerful speaker and street campaigner, he began pressing for home rule for the District of Columbia. He had found fertile political soil, since residents had only recently won the right to vote in presidential elections and had virtually no say in governing themselves.

In 1967, Mr. Barry started a jobs program for poor blacks, winning federal grants worth several million dollars. He won his first election in February 1970, to a citizens’ board created to smooth relations between police officers and black residents. He was later president of the school board and a member of the City Council.

On March 9, 1977, he was shot during a takeover of a Washington office building by members of the Hanafi Muslim sect. The bullet narrowly missed his heart, but Mr. Barry was back at work by the end of the month.

The next year he ran for mayor and defeated the incumbent, Walter E. Washington, who had become the District of Columbia’s first elected mayor four years earlier, and the City Council president, Sterling Tucker, in the Democratic primary, making his election in November a certainty in that overwhelmingly Democratic city.

“Let this day signal our drive toward greatness,” he told a cheering crowd on Jan. 2, 1979, as he was sworn in for the first time by Justice Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court.

At first, Washington seemed to undergo a renaissance with Mr. Barry as mayor. Downtown boomed as vacant lots and abandoned buildings gave way to smart new offices, hotels and restaurants. But as the political honeymoon faded, Mr. Barry’s critics complained that conditions in the poorest black neighborhoods were deteriorating even as the mayor used the city government as an employment agency for his followers.

His detractors said he held on to power by cynically telling blacks that the only alternative to him was restoration of a quasi-colonial white power. Indeed, he exploited memories of the decades in which congressional chairmen, typically white Southerners, gave short shrift to the Washington beyond the gleaming edifices of the federal government.

Several people close to Mr. Barry were implicated in scandals. A deputy mayor was sent to prison for embezzling city funds. One of Mr. Barry’s former wives (he was married four times) went to prison for embezzling money from the job-training and antipoverty organization he had founded. When she was released, he found her another city job.

His defenders pointed to Washington’s unique situation as a city with no state to look to for financial aid, no heavy industry to tax and many tax-exempt government buildings. Many people who work in Washington commute from Maryland and Virginia and pay no District of Columbia taxes.

Part of Mr. Barry’s tenure coincided with a nationwide crack cocaine epidemic, and Washington’s poorest neighborhoods suffered as much as any in the country. At its nadir, Washington had both the highest infant mortality rate and the highest homicide rate of any city in the United States. Drugs were peddled openly on many corners, and homeless people slept on heating grates within sight of the White House. The Fire Department could handle only a single two-alarm blaze at a time.

Young black men fared badly year after year. One study found that by 1991, 42 percent of the district’s black men ages 18 to 35 were in prison, on probation or on parole, released on bond or sought by the police.

More and more middle-class people, black and white, fled to the suburbs after despairing of getting a good public education for their children, getting their garbage picked up or getting their streets plowed after snowstorms.

But the mayor seemed not to worry about such complaints, just as he seemed not to care about appearing to be hypocritical. In October 1986, for instance, he announced that he would convene a “D.C. drug summit” of experts to discuss the cocaine epidemic at a time when the mayor himself was rumored to be a user.

“I may not be perfect,” he said a month later, after his election to a third term, “but I am perfect for Washington.”

In January 1987, Mr. Barry went to Los Angeles for the Super Bowl game between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos at the Rose Bowl. His detractors noted that while he was watching football and partying afterward in sunny Southern California, his constituents were being buried under a knee-deep snowfall that clogged Washington streets.

The mayor’s Super Bowl vacation was interrupted by a visit to a hospital. Mr. Barry said he had suffered a flare-up of his hiatal hernia. An associate said he had overdosed. There would be other medical crises in which he claimed exhaustion or indigestion and people close to him blamed alcohol or drugs.

But the mayor seemed immune to embarrassment. In early 1988, with the District of Columbia’s government slumping under debt and its payroll bloated, he led a delegation of 17 city officials to the Virgin Islands. The stated purpose of the junket was to help the islands’ officials overhaul their personnel system.

In 1989 Mr. Barry was called before a federal grand jury investigating whether a woman had sold drugs to city officials, including the mayor. He acknowledged having had a relationship with her but denied buying drugs.

He was arrested just as he was about to announce that he was running for mayor again. In 1990, after a two-month trial, he was convicted of one misdemeanor count of drug possession and acquitted of another misdemeanor. The jury could not agree on another 12 counts, including three felony charges that he had lied to the grand jury.

The verdict was a near-victory for Mr. Barry. Had he been convicted of a felony, he could not have sought office again. But in November 1990, Mr. Barry suffered the only electoral defeat of his career. As an independent, he finished third in a race for an at-large City Council seat.

After serving his sentence in a minimum-security prison in Virginia, he was easily elected to the City Council again in 1992.

In the 1994 Democratic primary for mayor, he defeated Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who had been unable in her single term to turn the city around, and several other candidates.

“Amazing grace, how sweet it sounds to save a wretch like me!” he exulted on the night of Sept. 13, 1994. In November, he cruised to victory over his Republican opponent.

But the problems that had dogged the city during his first three terms continued into his fourth. The government sagged under the weight of accumulated debt. The payroll remained heavy, even though the city’s population had been dwindling for years: While Mr. Barry was in office, the city lost 115,000 residents, leaving it with just over 520,000 in January 1999, the fewest since 1933. (By 2013, the district’s population had increased to about 646,000, according to the Census Bureau.)

In April 1995 an exasperated Congress created the District of Columbia Financial Control Board to oversee city spending. In August 1997, Congress stripped Mr. Barry of much of his remaining power, turning over nine major operating departments to the board.

Mr. Barry called the move a “rape of democracy.” Though he was now a figurehead, there was widespread speculation that he would try for still another term. But on May 21, 1998, he announced that he would not.

“For all of you who have supported me, I love you so much,” he said that day. “I love this city.” The control board shined a spotlight on Anthony A. Williams, a bow-tied number cruncher who had been credited with helping the city out of its mess as its chief financial officer. He was elected mayor in 1998 and served two terms marked by a more businesslike, if less colorful, approach to governing.

Although the trial on cocaine charges was Mr. Barry’s most serious encounter with the law, it was but one of many run-ins with the authorities. In July 2000 Mr. Barry was accused of shoving a female janitor in a restroom at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to community service.

In March 2002 he announced that he would run for City Council, but he withdrew after the United States Park Police found traces of crack cocaine and marijuana in his car, which was illegally parked, later that month. No charges were filed, and Mr. Barry said he had been framed.

Despite his clashes with the law, he won a City Council seat in 2004. The next year he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges for failing to file income tax returns for the year 2000. He was placed on probation for three years. Yet he continued to defy the Internal Revenue Service, neglecting for the next several years to file returns. He finally settled with the tax agency in 2009, saying that his failure to file had been the result of health problems.

He had no such excuse in 2010, when the City Council stripped him of a committee chairmanship and censured him for steering a consulting contract to a sometime girlfriend (who had once had him arrested for stalking her). Mr. Barry apologized for his “lack of sound judgment” on the contract.

Mr. Barry also showed lack of sound judgment as a motorist. In August 2014, after he was slightly injured in a crash while driving on the wrong side of the street, it was revealed that he had accumulated some $2,800 in fines for moving violations and parking infractions. He finally paid up.

Various theories have been advanced to explain how Mr. Barry survived scandals that made him a laughingstock for television comedians and would have destroyed lesser politicians. Writing in The New Yorker in 1994 about that year’s mayoral campaign, David Remnick observed that Mr. Barry’s flaws actually helped him, especially among impoverished black people who feared that white businessmen and other elitists were conspiring to take back the power that black Washingtonians had gained.

“No one has a more acute feeling for the divides of the city and their political possibilities than Marion Barry,” Mr. Remnick wrote after spending considerable time with the mayor on the campaign trail.

“What Barry grasps intuitively — and what comes as a shock to most whites — is the political potential of conspiracy thinking,” Mr. Remnick wrote. Indeed, years afterward, Mr. Barry blamed a racist conspiracy for his trial and imprisonment on cocaine charges. “They didn’t want me creating all of these opportunities for black folks,” he wrote in his autobiography, published by Simon & Schuster in June.

Co-written by Omar Tyree, “Mayor for Life” indulged in some revisionist history and selective amnesia. As Marc Fisher pointed out in reviewing the book for The Washington Post, Mr. Barry asserted at one point that news media reports of his womanizing “were all unfounded.” Yet a hundred pages later, Mr. Barry conceded that he “got involved with women who sometimes were not good for me.”

In an interview with The New York Times shortly after the book’s release, Mr. Barry denied that his personal troubles and run-ins with the law had hindered the progress he sought for the poorest Washington residents.

“I serve as an inspiration for those who are going through all kinds of things,” Mr. Barry said. “Whatever storm they’re going through, they can learn from me.”

Mr. Barry is survived by his wife, Cora Masters Barry, and his son, Marion Christopher Barry.

Like many successful politicians, Mr. Barry had a sizable ego. “God gave me this kind of gift,” he said to The Washington Post after his victory in the 2004 City Council election. “How good God is.”

What Mr. Barry bequeathed to Washington, and his motives, are likely to be debated for years.

“One reason he was so good at the political game, some of his friends thought, was because so little of it really meant anything to him,” David Halberstam wrote in “The Children” in 1998, about the early days of the civil rights movement. “He was largely free of causes, save his own. His agenda was always primarily about himself.”

But Mr. Fisher, in his review of Mr. Barry’s book, wrote that “no other mayor has come close to his achievement in providing first jobs for poor young black residents.” Nevertheless, Mr. Fisher added, “black poverty remains deeply entrenched in the District, and his administration had little to show for its efforts to curb crime or improve schools.”

Sam Smith, editor of The Progressive Review, who knew Mr. Barry since 1966, had a subtler perspective in the twilight of his public career:

“It’s like going out into a field and seeing an old rusting-out hulk of a car and trying to imagine what it was like when it was brand-new. What people are seeing now is that corroded shell of what Barry was, and if you don’t remember that, it’s very hard to see.”

Correction: November 23, 2014
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the position Anthony A. Williams held before being elected to succeed Mr. Barry as mayor of Washington in 1998. He had been the city’s chief financial officer — not chairman of the District of Columbia Financial Control Board.

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