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Saint Marion: The Political Obituary of Marion Barry, DC’s “Mayor for Life”
Once a great leader, Barry has been a force in DC for 51 years and has changed and shaped the city more than anyone since Pierre L’Enfant. By Harry Jaffe
Artwork by Marc Burckhardt.
Comments () | Published November 1, 2012

The Ward 4 candidate forum at the height of the 2010 mayoral campaign should have been a rousing affirmation of DC mayor Adrian Fenty’s first term.

Fenty lived in the District’s Ward 4 and had begun his rise to the pinnacle of city politics there. Its precincts are home to DC’s African-American elite in Shepherd Park near the Maryland line and spread east to the gentrifying neighborhoods of Petworth and Brightwood along Georgia Avenue. On the evening of August 4, 2010, St. George Church on 16th Street was overflowing. In the parking lot, Fenty supporters traded taunts with campaign workers for challenger Vincent Gray, the DC Council chair.

Inside, Sulaimon Brown berated Fenty. A long-shot candidate, Brown interrupted the mayor, insulted and belittled him. Fenty tried to fend off the verbal blows. Sweat glistened on his brow. He took off his sport coat. He slumped at the table. Brown suggested that Fenty “and his cronies” should serve jail time. The crowd roared with approval.

Vince Gray eased back in his chair and smiled. Here in Fenty’s home base, the challenger came off as relaxed, confident, and in control. He joked with the crowd. He winked at four friends in the front row: Marion Barry, Cora Masters Barry, Rock Newman, and Sharon Pratt Kelly.

An underlying theme in the campaign to unseat Fenty was that Vince Gray would resurrect Marion Barry’s power base, bring back his machine, and redirect the flow of city contracts to Barry’s friends. Fenty had tossed many old-guard Washingtonians from his government and its trough. Encouraged by Barry, they wanted back in. The presence of the foursome in the front row seemed to confirm that narrative.

Barry had no particular business at the Ward 4 forum except to cheer on Gray. The former mayor now represents Ward 8 on the DC Council and lives and works across the Anacostia River.

Cora Masters Barry, his ex-wife, had been his comrade in arms during his fourth and final mayoral term, and she loathed Fenty for declining to renew her contract to run a tennis program in Southeast.

Rock Newman, a successful sports and boxing promoter, had financed and engineered Barry’s return to politics in the early 1990s after Barry served a six-month jail term on cocaine charges. Now Newman had put his money and clout behind Gray.

Sharon Pratt Kelly, who succeeded Barry as mayor in 1990, was a member of Ward 4’s elite. She despised Fenty as an upstart who ignored her.

After the forum, Barry, wearing a Vincent Gray sticker, cruised the crowd. He joshed with Kwame Brown, who was running to replace Gray as council chair. Brown’s father, Marshall, had served as one of Barry’s top lieutenants during his first three mayoral terms.

Barry also huddled with Vernon Hawkins, the most direct, back-channel connection between Barry and Gray. Hawkins had been a Barry stalwart for decades and served as director of Barry’s Department of Human Services until a federal control board forced him out in 1996 for mismanagement. Hawkins had reemerged to convince Gray to run for mayor and had stayed on as a campaign adviser.

When Gray defeated Fenty in September 2010 and prepared to become mayor the following January, Barry was in position to wield citywide power once again. He’d had a hand in Gray’s ascent. He had a direct line to Kwame Brown, the incoming council chair. Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas Jr. idolized Barry, who now had close to a working majority on the 13-member council.

At 74, Marion Barry seemed on the verge of yet another comeback.

It was not to be.

Instead, Gray’s election and the corruption investigations that have followed could mark the beginning of Barry’s end.

Scandal dogged Gray as soon as he took office. His top aides came under fire for stashing friends in plush city jobs. Sulaimon Brown accused Gray and his campaign aides of paying him to hassle Fenty. Federal prosecutors have already pinned felonies on three top Gray aides for the scheme. The ongoing investigation of Gray’s campaign has focused on Vernon Hawkins for allegedly running a “shadow” campaign that poured more than $600,000 into Gray’s coffers, off the books.

Kwame Brown was forced to resign after federal prosecutors charged him with bank fraud. Harry Thomas Jr. was forced to resign for stealing $350,000 in public funds.

Rather than riding the ouster of Fenty and the reassembly of his machine into power, Barry now seems alone and exposed, according to scores of interviews with colleagues, admirers, and critics. The “old guard” revival passed quickly, raising a question: Is Marion Barry finally on the road to irrelevancy?

“There’s a reservoir of good will toward Marion,” says at-large council member David Catania. “But he’s fading in the memory of most people. Since 2004, when he came back to the council, what milestone piece of legislation can you attribute to his singular advocacy?”

Says a local politician who has worked closely with Barry for decades: “His profile is so low, he doesn’t do much harm. He doesn’t raise the level of discourse; he lowers it. Marion of the civil-rights movement had passion. I don’t see the passion in the brother anymore.”

Says John Tydings, a veteran business leader who befriended Barry in the early days and supported his rise: “Marion led us into the environment that violating the public trust is allowable and acceptable. That’s awful. Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas have to be forgiven. There’s no accountability, thanks to Marion.”

When Barry arrived, DC was nearly 70 percent African-American. Thousands of new residents have since moved in, and last year the city was about 50 percent black. To many newcomers, regardless of race or class, Barry is a curiosity rather than a serious politician—more pathetic than heroic.

“Marion thrived when race was a central issue,” says Catania. “Afrocentricity is less omnipresent. That’s not where we are right now. Washington is more of a multicultural city.”

A lot of Washingtonians share that view, though many African-Americans are unwilling to state it publicly.

“The man is tired, and his memory is fading,” says a retired DC cop who remembers the vibrant mayor who helped integrate the department. “It’s sad to see.”

“He further divides a town that’s trying to grow up and become a major metropolitan city,” says a successful African-American businessman. “He’s hanging around too long. I’m not disappointed in Marion; I’m disgusted he’s still around.”

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Posted at 12:15 PM/ET, 11/01/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles