In 2010, Washington artist Aniekan Udofia was approached by the Murals DC project to create a painting for the west side of Ben’s Chili Bowl, the U Street landmark with a rich history in the community. That history includes visits to Ben’s from both Malcolm X and Barack Obama, and a long relationship with Bill Cosby—which is how the now-disgraced comedian and the nation’s President came to share a prominent wall on one of DC’s most traveled thoroughfares.
Now some are asking whether Cosby, accused of sexually abusing women throughout course of his career, deserves to remain in that place of honor, and whether the mural has become awkward for Obama.
The figures on the mural, which also include Chuck Brown, the godfather of go-go, and longtime WPGC deejay Donnie Simpson, were not Udofia’s choice alone. Murals DC is aimed at changing young people’s thinking about graffiti and pointing them toward more edifying street art, so the artist worked with neighborhood children to design and paint the mural. “The first approach was to have 20 people on there,” Udofia told Washingtonian. “So we had to narrow it down to those four, four being visually sound. I wanted to create something that had rhythm.”
It seemed natural to include Cosby, who has come to Ben’s since he was a fledgling comic and who remained loyal to the restaurant even after he’d become a nationally known. “Bill and [his wife] Camille used to come on dates here,” says Ben’s owner Nizam Ali.
The mural’s origin with the community—and the positive nature of murals as homages to a group—protects Obama from any untoward association with Cosby.
“If you look at the history, it was well thought out,” says Udofia. “The allegations shouldn't change anything about why he’s on the wall.”
Chuck Thies, a political consultant and Mayor Vince Gray’s former campaign manager, agrees. “I could see if the mural were going up, perhaps Obama and some of the others wanting to be kept out, but the fact is it’s been up for over five years now,” he says, adding, “I don’t think it’s that awkward for any of them now, especially Obama.”
Even if it discredited Obama, says Thies, painting Cosby out would not be good public relations for the President. “A rush to judgment is always in poor taste. It’s best for Obama to stay out of this.”
But if the community turns against Cosby, says Thies, Ben’s should consider a new mural. “Ben’s is a leader in this city. If the allegations became criminal, and if he’s found guilty, I could see people saying they don’t want to be on it anymore.”
Last week, 28-year-old Potomac resident Maida Ives progressed to the semifinals in the Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers’ (CLAW) second annual national championship, held at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, Northeast. Ives, who works for a local farm cooperative, wrestled as her alter-ego, the poised yet fiercely aggressive Jackie O’Nasty, wearing a cream suit, pillbox hat, and a neon-pink face mask. Founded six years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, CLAW has leagues in more than 25 cities, drawing competitors like Ives who love the sport for its commitment to women’s empowerment. We spoke to her after her quarterfinal win.
What made you decide to get involved with CLAW?
It seemed really fun and all the elements of the event spoke to me—the playful arm wrestling, the theater element, and, most important, its ability to empower women. All of the wrestlers come from such a range of professions and backgrounds, so it’s a really fun way to meet lots of different people. It’s also nice to get dressed up as a character and plan an entrance and have this whole theatrical element to my life. I’m not involved in theater in any other way.
How does CLAW empower women?
The empowerment comes less from being in costume than from truly celebrating physical strength and a competitive spirit, which are often presented as male characteristics, and just having that not be strange for women to fully embrace and embody. I think that’s how I’ve been my whole life, so it’s nice to be able to celebrate that part of myself. I think it helps defy gender norms.
Explain how this athletic event is more like theater.
You have a character, and a lot of people choose historical figures or celebrities that they can make a pun on their name. You can pick any character out of the sky. And then you figure out what they would look like, what they would say to a rival, what kind of theme song they'd want to come out to, and what their entourage would look like. It’s just fun to imagine a new character.
Why Jackie O’Nasty?
I’m from Massachusetts, so I thought it would be nice to represent the Boston area and its link to the Kennedys. I love her style—and by changing her name to Jackie O’Nasty, all bets are off. She was such a dignified woman, and I would like to preserve that, and then have some accents of wildness with it. Some wrestlers will never wrestle under the same name, but I’ve just kept the same one.
Tell me about your entourage.
One I like to employ is having them dress up as Secret Service. But I’ve also had them dressed up with me as Jackie O. In this last competition, I had them dress up as the [Russian punk band] Pussy Riot.
How is CLAW different from the other sports you've done?
There are rules, but because it’s a theater event and we’re trying to raise money, each chapter has its own ways to bend the rules to raise more money. I think everyone feels really proud regardless of whether you go home with the prize. There's a whole other focus besides being the winner.
By September 1989, Marion Barry was in deep political decline. With the District gripped by a blood-drenched drug epidemic and a faltering economy, Barry had turned the support of the white neighborhoods in Northwest DC that formed key parts of his earlier coalitions into enimity and distrust. And with his third term as mayor drawing to a close, his personal faults were becoming their most visible, with the city scorched by rumors of his own drug abuse.
Barry was planning on seeking a fourth term—his arrest at the Vista International Hotel was four months away—and he tried to scrounge up as much support as possible to derail a potential candidacy by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But he probably should have skipped that year's Adams Morgan Day festival.
Barry strode on stage in the middle of an epic jam by blues guitarist Danny Gatton. But instead of a warm welcome, the track suit-clad mayor was greeted with a sea of lusty jeers. Barry smiled through the whole thing, but in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, stopped pumping his fist to antagonize the crowd right back with an extended middle finger. Television cameras caught the mayoral bird-flipping, which survives today on YouTube.
Here's how the Washington Post first reported the gesture:
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Jesse L. Jackson appeared on the same stage at yesterday's Adams-Morgan Day festival, but the reactions they drew from the crowd were miles apart.
Barry, who is running for another term despite continuing allegations of drug use, was greeted with boos and obscene hand gestures from some members of the audience. Smiling, the mayor responded in kind, raising his middle finger toward them.
Moments later, Jackson strode onto the stage. Jackson, who has not declared himself to be a candidate for mayor but is widely seen as positioning himself to run, was cheered loudly. He waved in response.
The finger did not go away quietly, though. Future mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly said it made Barry "essentially politically impotent." Ward 1 voters took offense, with then-Council member Frank Smith writing an angry letter to his fellow civil-rights veteran. Barry eventually issued a public apology, one of many he would make in the later chapters of his career. "If I offended some people—and I'm sure I did—I want to apologize to those I offended," he said three days after his one-fingered salute.
Still, it's hard not to look at the video again and not come away thinking the sentiments from Barry and the crowd were mutual and genuine—watch Barry, who flips off the audience at the 7:14 mark, and you'll notice he never broke his smile.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Not even death could prevent Marion Barry from thowing a party to celebrate a Marion Barry television appearance, as dozens of the late DC icon's friends, supporters, and former staffers piled into the Democracy Prep Public Charter School on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, Southeast, in Congress Heights on Sunday night to watch a Barry interview broadcasted by the Oprah Winfrey Network. That the event would go on was one of the first things Barry's representatives mentioned early Sunday morning, just hours after the District's "Mayor for Life" expired.
Barry recorded his interview with Oprah Winfrey in June, shortly after the publication of his memoir, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr. That it only aired the day of his death was a morbid coincidence, but that turned what would have been an ordinary scene of a local official congratulating himself into a preview of the public memorials for Barry that are likely to envelop Washington in the coming weeks.
"He lived life by his own terms," said Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, an occasional Barry foe when the two served on the DC Council together, but who became politically aligned during this year's mayoral election. Bowser also recalled what Barry would say in his own eulogies.
"It doesn't matter what you do the day you're born, it doesn't matter what you do the day you die," she said, "it's what you do with the dash in between, and ladies and gentlemen, what a dash!"
Another thing that didn't seem to matter: that the party's planners couldn't actually get a working feed of the Oprah channel on a laptop hooked up to a projector. Stalled video and broken audio did not thin the crowd much; instead, people lingered to trade their own Barry memories. While a few people were still bristling over TMZ's send-off that referred to Barry as the "Crack Mayor" in boldfaced type, the stories told last night described a neighborhood hero.
"We knew him better than anyone else," said former Barry staffer Robin Simpson-Wharton, who stood near the door wearing a T-shirt featuring Barry's face with text reading "In loving memory, mayor for life."
Like many other Washingtonians, Simpson-Wharton, 48, also credits Barry with landing her first job—doing clerical work in Howard University's engineering department in the summer of 1987 when she was 15 years old. Simpson-Wharton, who now works for the Internal Revenue Service, still carries her card from the Summer Youth Employment Program, one of Barry's most visible accomplishments as mayor.
"He had unconditional love for everyone," she said. "He wanted the best for everyone."
Ron Moten, a Ward 8 neighborhood activist and political gadfly, remembered Barry for more than just his political moxie. As a Council member, Barry staked out a role as an advocate for the rights people being released from prison, a position Moten said Barry held "more than most," in part because Moten credits Barry with keeping him out of jail in 1995.
"Who writes a letter for a guy on the streets?" Moten said. "Boy, did he write a letter."
Even with the video faltering and the food running out, the Barry stories continued in the crowd. While Barry's written obituaries remember him as a skilled, but personally burdened politician with lifelong resiliency, his legend in Southeast DC runs far deeper as someone who devoted his life to building up the black community in a divided city.
"There would be no Marion Barry in politics if there was no Marion Barry in the movement," Moten said.
And while details for what will certainly be a large, spectacular funeral are still underway, Barry's community outreach continues even without his presence. His annual turkey giveaway will go on as planned Tuesday at Anacostia's Union Temple Baptist Church, distributing 3,000 birds to people looking to complete their Thanksgiving meals.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
In its heydey in the 1970s and ’80s, radio station WHFS functioned as a barometer for cool: Devotees were too hip for Top 40, too edgy for DC101. HFS promoted local bands while helping launch national acts like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Blondie. For the past year, North Potomac filmmaker Jay Schlossberg has been assembling Feast Your Ears: The Story of WHFS 102.3 FM, interviewing former deejays Cerphe Colwell, Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert, and Josh Brooks, plus musicians who fed—and fed off—the HFS phenomenon: Marshall Crenshaw, members of Little Feat, Bill Payne, and David Bromberg. Here Colwell talks about his time as every Washington teen’s cool big brother.
What was so special about WHFS?
HFS made eye contact with the audience. The deejays were creative. My set list might start with John Coltrane, the Moody Blues, the Beatles, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Joni Mitchell, Sonny Rollins, then bluegrass that segued into Frank Zappa. You had to kind of come along for the ride. Now [at radio stations] the sets are on a hard drive. You go off the list, you get fired. You have a car payment and mortgage, so you play “Free Bird” and go home.
How did you make connections with so many prominent musicians?
In 1976, George Harrison was promoting his album Thirty Three & ⅓at a press junket. I was wearing a tantric-yoga button on my lapel. He looked at it, then headed toward me. The crowd parted. He came up and said, “I’m going to get a cup of tea—would you like one?”
Who did WHFS bring to the Washington market?
Local acts like the Night-hawks but also Springsteen, Zappa, Nils Lofgren. Springsteen was playing the old Childe Harold in Dupont Circle in front of 60 people when we put his first record, Greetings From Asbury Park N.J., into heavy rotation. He was on my show many times.
What do you think is interesting about a WHFS documentary after all these years?
I was on WAVA, DC101, WJFK, Classic Rock 94.7, but the thing everybody wants to talk about is HFS. We were able to get up close and personal with acts, the club scene was powerful, there were beautiful girls, fights in bathrooms, surly managers—that whole thing. It was rock ’n’ roll.
This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
From a distance, it was always hard to understand the appeal, even the tolerance, of Marion Barry. For the rest of the nation, he embodied all that was sick and corrupt about the District of Columbia. He was a walking indictment of the people who live there, a totem that suggested that people in DC would stand for nothing and fall for anything.
I shared that take when I moved to the District in 1995 to edit Washington City Paper just as Barry was elected, yet again, to serve as mayor, for what would be his fourth term. What, I asked, was wrong with these people? How could they pull the lever for someone as self-seeking and uninterested in the actual mechanics of the government?
He was, as it turned out, not a very good mayor, yet again. But he was a very good politician. Among the best.
The handsome son of a sharecropper who bootstrapped his way to a master’s degree in chemistry, he was plenty smart, but deeply flawed. He loved people, loved a party, perhaps too much. He was laid low, not by his opponents as he would like to suggest, but by own his own hand. In 1990—in a city reeling from the effects of an epidemic of crack cocaine—he became one more casualty, captured on film taking a hit on a glass pipe. He said, over and over, that he was set up, but still it was there for all to see. No one had a gun to his head. He saw a chance to get high, one more time, and he took it. He was convicted of a single count of drug possession and served six months in a federal prison.
It slowed him down, but it did not stop him, and he used his intact gifts as a politician to rise again quickly, returning to the city council in 1992. He was back, damaged but unrepentant.
In a town of people who owned a room when they walked, no one could touch the entrance magic of Marion Barry. Chronically late, the tension and anticipation would build. Will he show? When will he show?
And then he would walk in, with a stride that was a combination of pimp-roll and politician, flanked by his familiars. He knew and understood the stardom of political office, its regal components, and comported himself with both ease and majesty that was remarkable to behold. He was more emperor than bureaucrat, a rock star working his fan base in wholesale and then retail ways.
He knew everyone, remembered everyone, and was sincere in his connection with all of them. He may have failed the District time and again, but he looked after the people who lived there, if that makes any sense. There was always room for a daughter or nephew in a public works job, or the cousin who was lost in the corrections vortex. He did not make government work in large and important ways, but on a retail level, he could always fix things, reach in and come to the behalf of his supporters.
I never actually saw him govern. In his fourth term, he walked smack dab into a huge budget deficit approaching $1 billion dollars and the city’s credit in shambles with its efforts to find money reduced to junk bond status. Cornered, he solicited Congress to take over responsibility for vast swaths of city services. They took over the city instead. In what he called “a rape of democracy,” Congress agreed to bail the city out, but in return, they instituted a control board that had authority for every aspect of governance. The mayor for life ended up in charge of not much—parks and recreation, tourism, and the libraries. He no longer had his hands on the levers of government and he could not deliver goodies to his base as he once did.
It was a rebuke to the city, but it was most specifically a rebuke to him. He knew that as long as he was mayor, there would be no return of self-rule and declined to run for a fifth term.
Congress could not take away the trappings of his office or his ability to punch up, to speak on behalf of the forgotten. Never mind that he and his administration were mired in a no man’s land that was mostly of his own making, and that their dispossession was the result of a culture of fecklessness he perpetuated. He was still the people’s champion even though he never came to their behalf as mayor in a meaningful way.
In that way, he became a giant middle finger that would close to a fist of black empowerment when he took the dais. No one, not Al Sharpton, not Jesse Jackson, could articulate grievance as well as Barry. The defiance his fourth term represented meant he spent his term punching up against an opponent who had all the cards.
Everyone who covered Barry will shake their head at his ward heeler ways, his smoke-and-mirror budgeting, his inability to bring any of his employees or departments to account. Those failures, he was always quick to point out, did not belong to the District alone. Even as he stood on two decades of smoking rubble, he would suggest that the answer to all the ailed the District had to do with a chronic disregard from its overseers, a lack of anything approaching independence.
Those same people, including me, would tell you that on a personal level, no one was more fun to talk to. Self-aware, in on every joke, conspiratorial in hilarious ways, his magnetism only amplified the closer you got. His frankness around race was bracing and served as a corrective to the general practice of many others who always chose to walk around the elephant in the room. He was, it should be said, a bit of a racist and an intolerant of difference, going after Asians and, in his late years, campaigning against gay marriage despite having been an early champion of gay rights. But it none of it hurt his appeal to the people of DC's disenfranchised Ward 8.
Whenever we talked, alone or in a small group, he loved to engage, to debate and was adroit in defense of himself and the city he loved, but lacked the tools to govern.
And his personal weaknesses, his brokenness, were part of his appeal, at least to me. In an era of plastic, over-managed political image, he was all too human. We knew who he was, he knew who he was, and yet he was still nascent, still rising. His appeal was less about forgiveness than a gut acknowledgement by many that we all are not always who we would like to be, that temptation and weakness were baked into human existence. To everyone who would point to him as a symbol of the failures of black leadership, of the gullibility of his base, might want to keep in mind two words: Rob Ford.
Barry went on to serve on the DC Council, still getting in jams—taxes, traffic stops, an on-again, off-again relationship with sobriety—but continued to shadow box all who would lay him low.
In a fundamental way, Barry was not wrong about what might happen if there was a change in who actually held power. In the past decade, there has been a huge in-migration of new money, new people, and a new aesthetic. And while the city may be thriving in that sense, many people who lived there in Barry's prime have been pushed out, pushed aside, and dispossessed anew in a rapidly gentrifying city. The conspiracy that his admirers always talked about—The Plan—the one where rich white people would take the city over, turned out to be more real than not.
We are left, in today's made-over, upscaled Washington, with not much of a legacy apart from Barry's statue in the DC version of Madame Tussauds’ wax museum where he stands among other District icons. The statue is regal, with a nice suit and a twinkle in the eye. It’s a good likeness, a reminder that he knew what others did not, that though he was far from perfect, he was perfectly capable of surviving tall waves that would have crushed many others. He was, as it turned out, unstoppable, answering not to overlords or opponents, but only to God and nature. Those forces, to which every man and woman are subject, called him home on Sunday morning.
David Carr writes the Media Equation column for the New York Times and was editor of Washington City Paper from 1995-2000.
Through Washingtonian's 49-year history, few people have had a much written about them as Marion Barry. The District's "Mayor for Life," who died Sunday morning at 78, was a fixture in this magazine's pages and website since he entered the local political scene. Across his four terms as mayor and postscript as the DC Council member for Ward 8, Washingtonian chronicled Barry's ambition, pitfalls, and survival.
In May 1980, John Sansing and Howard Means profiled "Boss Barry" and his unshakable political charm:
In person, the Mayor has presence. He has learned to look you in the eye, is softer and smoother. Up close, he is more a rangy center-fielder than a boxer, more an up-town lawyer than a union boss. Up close , you might mistake him for a banker, a diplomat, cocaine dealer, or the sort of academic that undergraduates find attractive. Up close, he is protean, slick, attractive—the hint of a caged animal wrestling inside him so he bounces into his secretary's office as soon as he shows you out of his own, snaps his fingers time and again, and says, "Okay, what's happening? What's happening!"
By the middle of Barry's second term, in 1984, he was cementing his place in DC history, but also starting to attract the attention of federal prosecutors interested in him and his inner circle. Sansing, Robert Pack, and Debra L. Green teamed up for a lengthy cover story about a mayor at the height of his power:
[Mary] Treadwell was convicted of conspiring to defraud the federal government and making false statements to federal officials about Clifton Terrace. She received three years in prison and a fine of $40,000, a sentence she is now appealing. And Marion Barry emerged untouched—neither indicted by the government nor implicated by testimony. One law-enforcement officer who managed to infiltrate Pride with an undercover informant in hopes of getting the goods on Barry had this to say: "Above all, remember that Barry lands on his feet. He's done it time after time.
By April 1989, with DC gripped by a crack cocaine epidemic and a soaring homicide rate, Barry had become deeply unpopular with the white voters who were a crucial part of his earlier coalition. He was also dogged by questions about his own, then-rumored, drug use. But, as Barbara Matusow wrote, Barry was here to stay:
For most of 1989, the dominant news outlets in Washington have been pounding away at Mayor Barry, who found himself once again having to deny that he uses drugs. At the center of the tale was Charles Lewis, a Virgin Islands resident and friend of the mayor. He was staying at the downtown Ramada Inn in December, and a maid there told the management that he offered her cocaine for sex. Two detectives were on their way to Lewis's room to investigate when the manager called them off. The reason: Marion Barry was up there with Lewis.
In November 2012, Barry, about to win his fourth—and final—term on the DC Council, was starting to fade physically and turning into a semi-regular gaffe machine. (Earlier that year, he made his infamous remarks about "dirty shops" owned by Asian residents.) But, as Harry Jaffe wrote, Barry was also fixated on his legacy, and making sure it was written on his own terms:
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.
While the news industry fills up with remembrances of Barry, it's worth going back to some of the other great profiles written during his life. The New Yorker's David Remnick explained in 1994 why Barry, fresh out of a six-month jail stint following his Vista International Hotel incident, was primed for a political comeback. The Los Angeles Times, profiling Barry just before his January 1990 arrest, captured a mayor who, despite a failing scene, was in peak strutting form. "Jesse don't wanna run nothing but his mouth," Barry said, referring to his sometimes critic, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Many years later, the Weekly Standard—of all magazines—ran the most deeply sympathetic look at Barry when Matt Labash spent a Sunday morning with him in 2009. Washington City Paper was less forgiving in 2012 when it questioned why Barry, by then in poor health and beset by embarrassing personal scandals, would run for his DC Council seat again. Labash, revisiting his profile in a bit of Barry encomia today, remembers the longtime mayor as "more human than the rest of us."
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Five years ago, as a hearing was about to begin on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building, an elevator opened and a figure slowly emerged, walking gingerly with a cane. The pants of his tan suit flapped around his thin legs as he made his way to the heavy wooden DC Council chamber doors. Only as he drew closer did it become obvious that the man was Marion Barry, then a councilman representing Ward 8, still frail in the early stages of recovering from a kidney transplant.
“Mr. Mayor,” a reporter said, holding the door open to the chamber.
Passing through the door, Barry drew his shoulders back, stood upright, and smiled. He took his seat on the dais, and for the next two hours he starred at the budget hearing, asking succinct questions, schooling his colleagues, instructing witnesses—and talking on his cell phone.
“Even on his worst day, he was better than anyone else,” says Barbara Lang, the former DC Chamber of Commerce leader who worked with—and against—Barry for more than a decade.
He once described himself as “a situationist,” by which he meant he did whatever was necessary to adapt to any situation.
During his nearly half century as the central character in DC politics, he kept coming back: from arrests as a civil-rights activist in the 1960s, from being wounded in the chest when the armed Hanafi Muslim sect took over the District Building in 1977, from jail after his 1990 cocaine conviction, from kickback schemes that brought censure from his city-council colleagues, from cancer and diabetes and the kidney transplant.
Barry died early Sunday at age 78 at United Medical Center in the heart of his beloved Ward 8.
Barry's death came hours after he was released Saturday from a two-day stay at Howard University Hospital, where he was admitted Thursday after "not feeling like himself," said his spokeswoman, LaToya Foster. He stopped for a meal after being discharged from Howard early Saturday evening, and collapsed upon arriving home, Foster said. His driver called the paramedics. Barry's son, Christopher, and his wife, Cora Masters Barry, joined him at United Medical Center shortly before 1:45 AM Sunday when doctors pronounced the former mayor dead.
"Marion was not just a colleague but also was a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about governing the city," Mayor Vince Gray said in a press release Sunday morning. "He loved the District of Columbia and so many Washingtonians loved him."
Among Barry's final visitors was Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, for whom he campaigned vigorously in this month's election.
"We are saddened and shocked and we will miss Mayor Marion Barry," Bowser said in a hospital auditorium in front of more than a dozen of the former mayor's aides, family members, and friends, several of whom were in tears. "He lived up until the last minute the way he wanted to live."
In the late winter of 2014, Barry tried to return to office from a series of illnesses and hospital stays, most recently a 23-day stay at Washington Hospital Center in February and March for a blood infection he said "knocked me to my knees." Just a few days after being discharged, he was hitting the campaign trail on behalf of Gray's ultimately unsuccessful re-election bid.
Foster said details of Barry's funeral are still being determined by his family, but added that the public will get ample chance to say farewell.
"It's going to be big, epic, monumental, just the way he would have liked it," she said.
Marion Barry defined politics in the nation’s capital in the modern era. In a literal sense, Barry brought black power to the District. He created the city’s first political machine, rode it to four mayoral terms, and used it to remain in elective office long past his prime.
Even before Congress granted the District limited self-government under the 1974 Home Rule Act, Barry was a leader in DC’s local affairs, first on the streets, then in the suites. He was the city’s longest-serving elected official, acting in various capacities for 40 years, a tenure that certainly rivals any political career in any major city in the nation. Elected school-board president in 1971, he moved up to city council in 1974 and won his first mayoral term in 1978. His last, 1994 to 1998, followed his six-month imprisonment for cocaine possession. Washington City Paper dubbed him “Mayor for Life,” and the term took hold well beyond the alt-weekly's pages.
“He certainly was a voice for the underserved and underrepresented African-Americans in the city,” Lang says. “And he knew how to manage politics better than anyone.”
For much of his career, Barry split the city along racial lines. African-Americans saw him as the unapologetic black leader who broke down the doors of a city government that had been closed to them. In the eyes of many white Washingtonians, he ran a corrupt, ineffective government and succumbed to his weaknesses for alcohol, women, and drugs. Blacks forgave his human frailties; he made his troubles their troubles. Whites judged him and cringed when he became the butt of jokes on late-night television.
“You either loved Marion or hated him,” says retired Metropolitan Police Department lieutenant Lowell Duckett, a native Washingtonian who served under Barry. “There was no middle ground.”
Phillip Pannell is a political activist who campaigned for and against Barry. “Marion Barry had an uncanny ability to draw people into his life,” says Pannell, who served on two city commissions as a Barry appointee. “Everyone in the city became the audience to his dramas, even when they didn’t buy a ticket.”
Says civic activist Marie Drissel: “Marion was brilliant but flawed. He could have walked with the giants.”
What often gets lost in the emotional reactions Barry engendered was the man’s brains, political skills, prodigious memory, and seductive personality.
“Marion was wicked smart,” says Charlene Drew Jarvis, who served on the DC Council for 21 years, many while Barry was mayor.
Barry was born March 6, 1936, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a tiny town in the Delta. When he was four, his mother, Mattie, moved with him and his two sisters to Memphis. His father didn’t accompany them, and Barry never had much to say about him.
Mattie Barry worked as a domestic and took her children to Arkansas to chop cotton. She worked on a meatpacking line, where she met David Cummings, a butcher, whom she married, merging their families and having two daughters with him. Barry grew up in a four-room house with his mother, stepfather, and seven sisters in the Foot Hill public-housing projects of South Memphis.
Eager to escape poverty, Barry sold newspapers, made sandwiches to sell at school with bologna leftover from his stepfather’s butcher shop, and waited tables. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High in 1954 with grades strong enough to get him into the National Honor Society. He became one of the first black Eagle Scouts in Memphis.
At LeMoyne College, in South Memphis, two professors introduced him to the radical route that led him into the civil-rights movement. In 1958, midway through his senior year, Marion Barry took part in the Memphis bus-desegregation case. He rebuked a white city lawyer in public, leading NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins to say to an audience at the Memphis Masonic Temple that Barry had “the heart of a lion.”
LeMoyne president Hollis Price would later say, “Marion started to believe that he was sort of a messiah.”
Barry continued to lead protests and joined with radical young activists to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. He was elected SNCC’s first chairman and wound up testifying before the platform committee at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles.
“For 350 years, the American Negro has been sent to the back door in education, housing, employment, and the rights of citizenship at the polls,” he told the committee. He urged the convention to use the government “to eradicate our national shame, Jim Crow, and second-class citizenship.” He was 24 years old.
And though at the time Barry had little connection to Washington, DC, he urged the Democrats to “provide self-government to the voteless residents of our nation’s capital.”
He left SNCC after five months to return to his studies, first at the University of Kansas and then the University of Tennessee. He was on track to get a doctorate in chemistry but left without the degree to return to SNCC in 1964 as an organizer and fundraiser. His assignment: to run the SNCC operation in Washington.
Barry’s first wife, Blantie Charlesetta Evans, whom he had married in 1962, didn’t make the move with him to DC. In divorce papers filed in 1969, she alleged Barry had “disappeared in June 1964,” and left her “impoverished.”
When he arrived in the nation’s capital in 1965 at age 31, Barry found a Southern city ripe for the kind of tactics he’d learned in the student civil-rights movement.
Congressional committees chaired predominantly by Southern segregationists ruled DC, because the US Constitution had created it as a federal district rather than an independent city. Residents had no right to elect local officials and had been disenfranchised for nearly a century. Three commissioners appointed by the White House managed the government, and white businessmen controlled the commissioners. Poor black neighborhoods suffered from substandard healthcare, bad schools, and high unemployment.
The situation called for a civil-rights militant. Fresh from his leadership role in the South, Barry—sporting a thin Fu Manchu mustache, an Afro, and a bullet worn as an amulet on his neck—filled the bill. He vilified “congressional overlords” and “money-lord merchants,” romanced white liberals, organized poor blacks, and charmed journalists. He organized bus boycotts and founded the Free DC movement. He convinced then Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz to fund a jobs program called Pride Inc., to help find employment for African-American laborers. The SNCC chief’s dashing mixture of style and substance caught the city’s attention. Later, it would propel him to power and keep him there for decades.
To President Lyndon B. Johnson, the District’s lack of voting rights was a civil-rights issue, and Johnson devoted himself to establishing local government in the nation’s capital. After setting up an appointed city council in 1967, the President crusaded for legislation to give DC self-government. His efforts led to the creation of an elected school board in 1969. Congress eventually passed the Home Rule Act of 1974, which established the elected mayor and council.
Barry didn’t have much of a role in forming the city’s elected government, but he took advantage of the new situation as quickly as he could. Running for office in the 1970s, he pivoted, trimming his Afro and ditching the amulet. Donning blue pinstripe suits, he began to harvest campaign contributions from DC’s developers and bankers. He won the presidency of the board of education in 1971. In 1974, he was elected to an at-large city-council seat in the first elected council under the Home Rule Act. Appointed to chair the Finance and Revenue Committee, he used the post to study the District’s budget and build ties to the business community.
In his first mayoral campaign, in 1978, Barry ran as a populist who vowed to make the DC government function for residents. He took on incumbent Walter Washington, the city’s first elected mayor, and council chair Sterling Tucker, stitching together a coalition of liberal whites and working-class blacks. The Washington Post promoted him with six endorsements, which helped secure him votes in predominantly white Ward 3. He won a narrow victory in the three-way race in the Democratic primary, which, like today, all but guaranteed a victory in the general election.
Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall swore Barry into office on January 2, 1979, as the District’s second mayor. Barry’s mother looked on from a few feet away, along with his third wife, Effi.
Barry had run on the promise of racial harmony and integration. Once in office, he abandoned his biracial politics. He knew African-American voters dominated elections, so he built his base on the city’s black community, preaching opportunity rather than racial harmony, and he delivered. He made sure African-Americans got city-government jobs and contracts that had been off-limits to them. He courted black preachers, seniors, and teenagers, many of whom got their first jobs in his summer youth programs.
“Marion gave opportunities to blacks that were not there before,” says Doug Patton, a political activist and lobbyist going back to the early days of elective government in DC. “The police force, the fire department, the entire government was pretty much white. He opened the doors for blacks.”
In his second and third terms, Barry presided over the first major redevelopment of downtown, but increasingly his government became known for overspending, poor services, and corruption. White voters west of Rock Creek Park lost their zeal for Barry, and he became more dependent on his African-American base, which reelected him in 1982 and 1986.
“As an elected official, Marion often misconstrued the mission of his government as one to provide reparations to black Americans,” says Jarvis. “Somehow he came to believe the government was the employer of first resort. He hired without much criteria. His greatest failure was in not training city workers for their jobs. It would have helped the government and in their own lives.”
Barry made sure that African-American companies got their share of city contracts, though he did a poor job of holding them accountable. In the process, he enriched many political allies.
Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, got an early boost thanks to Barry. When DC chose BET to operate its first cable-TV franchise in 1984, Barry lobbied for District Cablevision, Johnson’s group, which won the contract. The deal helped launch Johnson’s career as a media entrepreneur. He would become the first African-American billionaire.
Crack cocaine hit the city in the 1980s, destroying entire communities and driving up the homicide rate to its height of 482 in 1991. The nation’s capital became the murder capital. A defensive Mayor Barry said in 1989: “Washington is not Dodge City.”
But Barry was succumbing to cocaine himself. He had always roamed the streets and clubs after dark, but in his third term he became more brazen. His dalliances with women were legion and legendary. His second marriage in 1973, to Mary Treadwell, an activist who had helped him organize Pride Inc., was strained by his many affairs. They separated in 1976 and divorced the following year.
Effi Barry, whom he married in 1978, endured his wayward ways and called him “a night owl.”
Along the way, his management of the government suffered even more. In the halls of the District Building, aides had to deal with a chief executive who was losing control. In 1986, former city administrator Tom Downs stopped into the office of Herb Reid, then Barry’s political adviser.
“How’s Marion?” Downs asked.
“If it walks, he fucks it,” Reid responded. “If it doesn’t, he ingests it.”
By 1989, Barry had become an addict. When DC police, FBI agents, and federal prosecutors investigated Barry’s drug use, he insinuated that the white establishment wanted to run him out of office. “Marion was a very clever political strategist,” says Jarvis. “Some of his tactics were racially divisive. Confrontation is what he learned in the civil-rights movement, and he used it when he needed.” The tactic worked, insofar as it solidified his support among African-American residents, who stayed with him even as reports kept surfacing that he was taking drugs.
In January 1990, DC police and FBI agents secretly videotaped the mayor smoking crack cocaine in the Vista International Hotel in downtown DC. Supporters accused federal authorities of entrapping Barry by using an old flame to lure him into the hotel. On the video, Barry could he heard saying, “Bitch set me up.” During his trial that summer, supporters took to the federal courthouse lawn, dubbed “Barry Beach,” to rally for the mayor and hawk T-shirts that read “Bitch Set Him Up.”
Charged with 14 counts, Barry was convicted of a single count of possession, a misdemeanor. Federal judge Robert Penfield Jackson handed down a six-month sentence.
Barry served his time, returned to DC, surveyed the political landscape, and looked for the right situation. He saw an opportunity in the race to represent Ward 8, the city’s poorest and most African-American district, east of the Anacostia River. In 1992, he took on Wilhelmina Rolark, a veteran legislator who had been one of his steadfast allies. Barry donned his dashiki and kente cloth, campaigned in the public housing projects and basketball courts, and won.
Barry and Effi filed for divorce in March 1993. Their only child, Christopher, was 12 at the time. He moved in with his father. The following January, Barry married his friend Cora Masters. They would separate in 2012 but remain married.
In 1994, Barry again ran for mayor, taking on the unpopular incumbent, Sharon Pratt Kelly, who had failed to connect with voters, come off as imperial, and run up a massive deficit. Barry won an unprecedented fourth term as mayor, again splitting the vote along racial lines.
Congress was not pleased at Barry’s re-emergence. Under the Home Rule Act, it retained ultimate control over the city’s budget and laws. With the federal city headed toward potential bankruptcy, Congress installed a financial control board to manage the District’s money. Without control over the purse strings. Barry’s power was severely curtailed. He served out his term but said he was retiring from politics to become a consultant.
That “retirement” lasted barely five years. In 2004, he ran again for the Ward 8 council seat, this time beating incumbent Sandy Allen, another friend and ally. He won two more terms and held the Ward 8 seat until the end.
Marion Barry never settled into a comfortable role as senior statesman, either politically or personally. In his last decade in office, he managed to run afoul of the law, ethics, and civil discourse.
After leaving the mayor’s office, he had quit paying taxes. Federal prosecutors went to court to force him to pay back taxes, and in 2005 he pleaded guilty to not filing federal or DC returns after 1999. A judge gave Barry three years’ probation. When he continued to ignore his tax bills, federal prosecutors asked a judge to give him jail time, but she declined. Prosectors brought Barry back to court in 2009 for failing to file his 2007 return. The federal government garnished his council paychecks to collect nearly $200,000 in taxes, penalties, and interest. The District put him on a voluntary payment plan to pay back about $50,000 in back taxes.
Meanwhile, Barry got caught twice crossing ethical lines as a council member.
In February 2010, he admitted to awarding a $15,000 contract to a girlfriend. “I apologize for my actions and lack of sound judgment and for causing great embarrassment to the city and the city council,” he said. His girlfriend had paid him “several thousand dollars,” he said, which he claimed was repayment of a loan. His council colleagues saw it as a kickback, censured Barry, and stripped him of his chairmanship.
In September 2013, the council censured Barry again, this time for accepting $6,800 in cash from two city contractors.
As his health began to fail, Barry’s prejudices went on display. In April 2012, he lashed out at Chinese merchants in his ward: “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops.” His comments were caught on camera the night he won another Ward 8 council primary. He suggested African-American “businesspeople” take their places.
Barry later apologized.
A few weeks later, he complained that a growing number of healthcare workers were “immigrants who are nurses, particularly from the Philippines,” and added, “Let’s grow our own nurses.”
Again, he apologized.
As his health continued to decline, Barry floated the idea that his only child, Christopher, might take his place on the DC Council. In November 2011, when Barry was 75, he discussed with allies his plan to run for a third consecutive term as Ward 8 council member; but he intended to serve only the first of four years with his son filling in the remainder.
Christopher Barry, then 31, never showed any interest in running for office or public service. His arrests for drug possession and his other scrapes with the law have made news, and the plan to succeed his father never materialized. Barry held Ward 8 council seat until he died.
Though ill for months, Barry told friends he would die a happy man, believing that he served his community as long as he could.
His legacy will be mixed.
There’s no question that Barry yanked the District out of its midcentury torpor. Under his watch, DC’s downtown sprouted new buildings. He’ll go down as a dealmaker who encouraged development and used the tax revenues from commercial real estate to fund his government.
Nationally, he’ll always be remembered for the pantheon of human frailties that brought him low. “Womanizing had become an integral part of my lifestyle,” he told the local magazine Sister 2 Sister in 1991. The same year, he went before a national audience on Sally Jessy Raphael’s TV show and acknowledged he was addicted to women and sex. He already had owned up to problems with drugs and alcohol.
But that flawed man can’t be separated from the brash activist and a powerful political boss who so ardently promoted the interests of the city’s African-Americans. They benefited from his largesse, bonded with his success against the white establishment, and rallied to his defense at every turn.
“He provided not only opportunity but hope,” Doug Patten says, “especially for young blacks.”
With his passing, the city’s poor residents lost their champion.
Benjamin Freed contributed reporting.
Forbes, the business magazine and silly ranking farm, says Washington is the fifth-smartest metropolitan area in the United States, when measuring the percentage of the local population with at least a bachelor's degree and the increase in college-educated residents.
According to Forbes's data, 48.7 percent of people in the Washington-Alexandria-Arlington area have at least four years of higher education, a jump of 6.2 percentage points over 2000, or a 45-percent increase in the college-degree-wielding population. While our share of residents with college degrees is higher than the top four metropolitan areas, those regions finished higher in Forbes's rankings thanks to their higher growth rates of college graduates. First-place Boston, where 44.8 percent of people have bachelor's degrees, experienced an 8.8 percent increase from its tally in 2000. Padding out the top five are Pittsburgh; San Jose, California; and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But just why is Washington smarter than 376 of the 380 metropoltian areas Forbes reviewed? Chalk it up to the "boomtown" phenomenon, writes Forbes ranker-bot Joel Kotkin.
"Another big employer of educated people is government, and with Washington in expansion mode over the past decade, it’s no surprise that our nation’s capital features in the top 10—twice," he writes. "The proportion of the population of Washington-Alexandria-Arlington that is college-educated has risen 6.2 points to 48.7%, the highest concentration in the nation, on the back of a 45% increase in the raw numbers."
So when you go home next week and your Fox News talking point-spewing uncle berates you for wallowing in the crapulence of the nation's capital, at least you can tell him you're statistically more intelligent. Unless, you know, he's from Boston, Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley, or central Michigan.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Congressional Republicans on Tuesday picked Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah to take over the House Oversight Committee next January, succeeding term-limited Darrell Issa as the White House's chief inquisitor and—more importantly for Washington residents—the District's overseer on Capitol Hill.
While the House Oversight chairman's primary role is to grill executive-branch officials in loud, boisterous, sometimes inconclusive hearings—think the IRS, Obamacare, or Benghazi, to name a few of Issa's achievements—the committee is also charged with monitoring the the District, which can not spend its own budget without congressional authorization. And, all DC legislation is subject to 30 or 60 days of congressional review before it can take effect, a mostly uneventful inconvenience that becomes a nail-biter on certain hot-button issues, such as this year's marijuana decriminalization law.
The 47-year-old Chaffetz, about to start his fourth term, beat out a couple of members from Ohio, including arch-conservative Jim Jordan (who last year tried to overturn all of DC's gun laws), but Chaffetz doesn't exactly have a spotless record of his own when it comes to the District's affairs. He hasn't chimed in on decriminalization or marijuana-legalizing Initiative 71, which was approved by 69 percent of DC voters, but it's worth looking back on his record of meddling with DC:
Chaffetz tried to block the District from legalizing same-sex marriage.
Back in January 2010, Chaffetz, then a freshman trying to bring his Utah wholesomeness to the nation's capital, introduced an amendement seeking to overturn the District's legalization of same-sex marriages, even though he knew it would be a fruitless effort. "It's going to be exceptionally difficult because Democrats have us outnumbered by large amounts," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. Sure enough, Chaffetz was overwhelmed, and his bill was quashed before it even got to a committee vote. Today, even Utah issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Chaffetz tried to block the District from legalizing medical marijuana.
They never rose to Andy Harris-level theatrics on the issue, but Chaffetz and Jordan teamed up in June 2010 in an attempt to block DC from finally putting into effect the medicinal cannabis law its residents approved in a 1998 ballot referendum. Like his marriage amendment, Chaffetz's strike at medical marijuana did not pick up much energy in a majority-Democrat Congress.
Chaffetz wants DC to become part of Maryland.
Maryland is a fine state, but if Chaffetz's wishes came true, it would also include the swath of land we currently know as the District of Columbia. When the Republicans took control of House in the 2010 elections, Chaffetz was briefly a contender to take over the House Oversight subcommittee that, at the time, oversaw DC affairs. (Issa reorganized the subcommittees to put the District directly under his purview.) In a Washington City Paper profile, Chaffetz floated his belief that not only is the statehood cause a losing one, it's unconstitutional.
"It’s our nation’s capital and the Constitution deals with it in a unique way," he said. "Washington, DC, is not a state. My proposal is stronger than Eleanor Holmes Norton’s proposal, because I’d like to see it retroceded back into a state."
The last time any part of DC was retroceded to a state was 1846, when the southwest corner on the far side of the Potomac was given back to Virginia and became Arlington.
UPDATE, 12:18 PM: In a statement, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton "congratulate[s]" her new potential adversary. "The new chairman has already visited the ranking member’s district, and considering the committee’s jurisdiction over DC matters, I will shortly invite him to visit the District, which is even closer," she says. But that might not bode well for the District, considering the ranking Democrat on House Oversight, Elijah Cummings, hails from Maryland, and we already know how Chaffetz feels about the DC-Maryland border.