Barry likely will be around for another four years. He won the Democratic primary in April to represent Ward 8 on the city council for a third term. On November 6, he’s all but assured of winning the general election.
“Marion is perhaps the best manifestation of a survivor I have ever seen,” says Catania, who can swing from derision to worship when talking about Barry.
Though Barry can come off as a punch-drunk fighter who mumbles and dribbles coffee on his tie, he can still be larger than life—and virtually ubiquitous. He tweets. He puts holds on city contracts. He gets media attention when he issues the occasional racist remark, most recently about Asians who run “dirty” stores in his ward.
Lost to many of DC’s new arrivals is the fact that Barry was once a great leader. No one since Pierre L’Enfant has changed and shaped DC as Barry has. If he serves another full term, Barry will have been a dominant force in Washington for 52 years. The mark he’ll leave on a major city will eclipse that of legendary mayors such as New York’s Fiorello LaGuardia, Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, Richard J. Daley in Chicago, and Baltimore’s William Donald Schaefer.
Barry has often described himself as a “situationist”—adapting to whatever situation confronts him. How will he handle his current one, which finds him losing power on the council and struggling to make ends meet?
He’s spending much of his time tending to his legacy—and rewriting history along the way. In speeches and newsletters, he’s taking credit for things he was responsible for only when showing up to cut the ribbons. He calls himself the “job czar” in a ward where nearly a quarter of the residents are unemployed. He has adopted the “mayor for life” moniker bestowed as a joke by Washington City Paper columnist Ken Cummins in the 1990s. His summer newsletter, the Liberator, paints Ward 8 as a garden spot.
Barry is so intent on promoting his version of Ward 8 that he has contracted with a film company to make a documentary about it. Barry paid $12,000 in public funds to May 3rd Films for the 30-minute movie. The same company made a pilot for a reality show about Barry called Mayor for Life. No one picked it up.
“Marion’s current pathology is that he wants to resurrect himself as a holy man who brought us to the Promised Land,” says a close adviser. “He’s on a one-man crusade to make himself Saint Marion. It’s sad.”
“Marion is bordering on delusional,” says Phil Pannell, a Ward 8 activist, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, and a DC school-board candidate.
The terrible paradox, in the eyes of many political and policy leaders, is that the residents of Ward 8 who keep electing Barry have suffered the most with him as their political leader.
Says Pannell: “They would elect him from the grave.”
Barry is still confoundingly popular. A recent Washington Post poll found that he had the highest favorability rating—52 percent—of any city politician.
Why do people love him so?
“He gave me my first job—at Pride Inc.” says Benny Barnes, who now works the security desk at a downtown DC office building. Pride Inc. was a nonprofit Barry created in 1967 to put jobless blacks to work as street cleaners. “I was 20. He treated us like the vanguard for people coming behind us. He was an inspirational guy.”
It sometimes seems as if Marion Barry gave more than half of DC residents their first job, if not through his summer youth program, then directly on the city payroll.
I asked Vincent Cohen Jr., now principal assistant to US Attorney Ronald Machen, whether Barry had been an influence in his life. Not really, he responded. Barry was more of his father’s generation.
“He did give me my first job,” says Cohen, 42. “It was a summer-job program. We were baby journalists, writing journals in the Sursum Corda neighborhood, on the back side of Gonzaga High. My dad made sure I took part in it. Great job. My first paycheck.”
Kenyan McDuffie, who won a recent election to fill Harry Thomas Jr.’s Ward 5 council seat, at first says Barry had minimal sway on his early life. He then acknowledges his jobs in Barry’s summer youth programs. And his time in the Mayor’s Youth Leadership program.
Barry bestowed jobs. He also remembered your name. Your mama’s name. Where you went to school. Where you voted. He also, long before Bill Clinton, felt your pain.
“Marion represents the whole black experience for many of us,” says Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer, a weekly based in Congress Heights. “We’re not supposed to make it. But Marion Barry has, in spite of all his troubles and obstacles. Drug problems? Women problems? Problems with your kids? Tax people after you? Tickets on your car? Those are things many of us can personally relate to.
“Plus,” she adds, “Marion takes time with people. He stops. He talks. He listens.”
Benny Barnes listened to the young Barry bark orders to his Pride Inc. street crews in 1967.
“He was rough on you,” Barnes recalls. “He said we had to set good examples. He showed you how to carry yourself so you could achieve things, that we weren’t just hustlers hanging out on street corners. There were other ways to get ahead.”
Barnes carried Barry’s words into the Army and a tour in Vietnam. Don’t hold back your skills! Come out of your shell! Be proud of yourself!
“He gave me self-confidence,” says Barnes.
In a sense, Barry did that for DC’s entire black community through jobs, contracts, and his ability to connect with people.
“African-Americans have seats at the table at the highest level,” says A. Scott Bolden, managing partner of the DC office of Reed Smith, a major law firm. “Marion Barry gets credit for that.”