It’s a challenge to come up with one word that describes an hour-long sit down with DC City Council member Marion Barry Jr. in his Wilson Building corner office. Somewhere between an interview and a joust, perhaps. Few interludes with city officials match a back-and-forth with the man who has had a starring, and controversial, role in Washington politics since 1971, when he won election to the school board. My memory of Barry back then is vivid, already a master of swagger in his dashiki and afro.
The memory is vivid, too, of the 1977 siege on Washington by the Hanafi Muslim sect, particularly when news broke that then-first-term city council member Barry had been shot in the chest as the group stormed the District Building. They occupied two other buildings and had the city in a harrowing state of lockdown for two days. When Barry recovered, the city cheered. Voters elected him to office as mayor for four terms, and they span some of the most productive and destructive years in recent DC history. The productive part was revitalizing parts of the city that suffered from neglect or the after-effects of the 1968 race riots. He energized the black community with a vigor and self-respect that hadn’t happened before home rule or with the city’s first elected mayor, Walter Washington. Barry was Washington’s first rock-star, larger-than-life activist leader. The comparison to Bill Clinton has been made many times, and it’s apt.
But there was the destructive part, too. The gossip and factual reports were hard to ignore. A city government that was bloated and mismanaged. A budget that was out of control. Rampant cronyism. Barry couldn’t even get the snow plowed off the streets. Capping all that was the 1990 crack-smoking bust at the Vista Hotel in an FBI sting, a bumptious trial in which some of the jurors thought the evidence was fraudulent and a racist setup, convicting him on only 1 count of 14 (he was acquitted on another, and the others were neutered by a hung jury). A six-month jail term slowed him but didn’t stop him. After his release in 1992, he became mayor again, and when that chapter closed he ran for city council. He began representing Ward 8 in 2004.
Our meeting in Barry’s office yesterday was my third sit-down encounter with him. The first was a small dinner I hosted in Georgetown in 1999, as he wrapped up his last term as mayor. He was interesting, effusive, and charming. Before he departed Nathan’s, where the dinner was held, he asked if he could get some takeout for his son, Christopher. He walked the room, shook customers’ hands, and went into the kitchen to thank the staff. Several years later, as a council member, he returned to Nathan’s to be interviewed by me for The Q&A Cafe. He arrived more than an hour late; he seemed bored; he kept looking at his watch. It was only when I promised him I wouldn’t keep him a second longer than necessary that he let down his guard and gave a provocative and revealing interview, especially the parts where he talked about his drug and alcohol addiction and recovery.
We visited him again now because the city’s political leadership is in disarray. Two council members have resigned, including the chairman, in the wake of federal fraud charges. The mayor is under federal investigation and could be indicted. A few council members already are exploring a run for the mayor’s office, either in a special election, if Gray resigns, or in the scheduled election in 2014. Love him or hate him, whether he’s on a ballot or not, Marion Barry will play a role in who becomes the next mayor of Washington. He has that kind of power in the city, and he knows it.
So, although he glanced repeatedly at the clock, regularly told me I only had five minutes, and got up once and left the office and then returned, we did have a wide-ranging conversation. Here’s how it went:
I’ve been interviewing council members and I ask all of them this same question: What is the state of the city?
If you are talking about growth, economics, projects, business, expansion, construction, and so forth, we are in very good shape. Better shape than we’ve been in for a long, long time. But in other instances it’s not in good shape. The income gap is getting worse between whites and blacks. The average family income in Ward 8 is $25,000. In some parts of 2, 1, and all of Ward 3, it’s about $100,000. It’s gotten worse. When [then-mayor] Tony Williams pushed to get young professional people to come back to the city, that widened the gap.
You don’t think that was a good thing?
No. What we should have been doing was getting middle-income blacks to come back to the city. What happened was more low-income people left. Between 2000 and 2010 we lost 15,000 from Ward 8.
To Prince Georges County?
I don’t know where they went. We lost them. That has to change.
What is the state of Ward 8? What are your constituents saying to you?
In terms of income, that it’s awful. Compared to Cleveland Park, it’s like this [stretching his hands far apart].
You’ve brought development in?
We’ve done very well. We can do better. But when it comes to income, we’re worse off than we were. A low-income family is less prepared when the kids go to school. I use my son, Christopher, as an example. He’s now 32. He grew up with the support I could give him. I had connections. He went to private school. He went to St. Albans when he was in fourth grade—I didn’t want to do it, but Effie and I compromised—and it was a horrible experience. When he was in fifth grade, we decided to send him to Murch [Elementary School, a highly regarded DC public school in Northwest]. We got him into Murch because we could. I had connections. But a lot of low-income people don’t have those connections. They are stuck.
So that’s what they talk to you about. You want me to believe they don’t talk to you about Mayor Gray?
I don’t talk about the mayor, not in terms of his problems and his situation. Philosophically, I believe a person is innocent until proven guilty. I don’t ask for his resignation. The courts and the justice system will take care of this, but I wish they would speed it up.
Why is the investigation taking so long?
That’s the nature of the FBI, the nature of the US Attorney. These kinds of things they put the city through, it’s all pain. Be thorough with the investigation, but don’t string it out. You either get an indictment or you don’t. A lot of lives are being hurt by the innuendoes in the papers. That’s dangerous. And they don’t care, the US Attorney’s office. They used to do this with the mafia—string these things out forever.
Are you comparing Gray’s situation to the mafia?
A recent Washington Post poll showed strong favorability for you and Adrian Fenty. In fact, it hinted at some “buyer’s remorse” among voters who chose Gray over Fenty. Would they take Fenty back? Would that be smart?
I’m not going to talk about that. The polls speak for themselves. They are reliable polls, fair polls.
Are you friends with Fenty?
As such. But I haven’t seen him since the election. I’m not going to talk about him.
Do you believe that whoever becomes mayor—in a special election or a regular election—needs you in his or her corner?
What will you do with that power?
Anyone who has the trust I have in this city, the popularity in this city, has to be talked to. I don’t use it as a weapon. It’s smart politics.
Are you counseling the candidates who have announced a run?
I am talking to all of them. I am not counseling any of them. I am responsible for Jack Evans getting elected. Muriel [Bowser’s] father was my Ward 5 coordinator in ’75 and ’82 and ’86. I’ve known her since she was 14. Tommy Wells came out of Arkansas after the Jackson campaign. Anita Bonds recommended him. Tommy will you tell you he considered himself a mentee of mine.
With all this power and influence, does that make you the godfather of Washington politics?
[laughs] It says that I am a very effective strategist when it comes to elections. I have won 11 of my 12 elections.
Is there anybody outside the city council whom you’d like to see step up and run for mayor?
Not at this time.
There were reports that you’d like Christopher to succeed you as the Ward 8 council member. What’s up with that? Do you talk to him about politics?
Of course I have. He’s talked to me about it. He’s been around me all his life. There’s no way he wouldn’t have an interest in politics.
Does he work with you at all in the ward?
He comes to meetings with me, but he has his own construction company. [long pause] One thing I do know: I’m not going to throw Christopher to the wolves. Anything he wants to do politically, he has to earn it. He can’t ride on my coattails.
How is Christopher doing? How’s his health?
His health is good. He’s had his share of . . . [trails off]
How do you feel when people call you “mayor for life?”
I love it. I earned it. At first I didn’t like it, when it was in the Washington City Paper, because it referred to Idi Amin. But the more I worked hard for the people, the more I earned it.
Conversely, when the first paragraphs of stories begin with references to your drug bust and jail time, how do you react to that?
It’s because the media wants to be sensational. What they don’t point out is that the FBI spent $10 to $15 million to entrap me, and the jurors voted to acquit me on some of the charges.
Three of the possible mayoral contenders are white: Evans, Wells, and Mendelson, who will be acting mayor if Gray resigns. Is DC ready for a white mayor?
It might be. We’re ready for somebody to meet our needs in the black community. In terms of the mayor’s race, it should not be a factor. All over America, race is a factor. It should not be a factor. It’s whether you have a vision to meet the needs of those who have needs. I haven’t heard any of the candidates articulate what their vision is for the city.
Could you be drafted to run?
Absolutely not. I’m 76 years of age.
But what about Reagan?
I’m not Reagan.
Are you watching the presidential election closely?
Sure. I support Obama.
Has President Obama been good to DC?
To some extent, but not enough. The thing the President can do for DC is push for statehood and push for DC residents to get preference for federal jobs. There are 13,000 employees at Bolling Air Force Base [in Ward 8], and only 5 percent are from DC.
Would Mitt Romney be good for DC?
No Republican would be good for DC at the presidential level.
When the shootings happened at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, or any time there is random gun violence like that, does it bring back memories of your own shooting?
I made peace with what happened to me. I wasn’t the target. God blessed me by stopping that bullet in my chest. I was asked by the prosecutor about [one of the Hanafi Muslim convicts] coming [up for parole], and I said, “That’s fine. He’s served his time. He paid his debt to society.” I believe when you’ve paid your debt to society you’ve paid your debt.
Do you think about a legacy? Would you talk about that?
It would take five hours. It’s difficult because I’ve done so much for so many. Take downtown, for instance. I made the effort to remake downtown. My biggest point about Marion Barry is he cares deeply about people. You can count on him. No other politician in this town can enjoy that reputation. One thing about [me] on the city council is I have become the go-to person.
You feel a great responsibility with the power you have?
People entrusted me with it. I don’t abuse it. You look at all my trials and tribulations and they never involved abusing the public trust.