Marion Barry, Nepotist?

Is Barry scheming to install his son in his city council seat?

By: Harry Jaffe

Marion Barry’s detractors have likened him to a Third World dictator. Once again, he is playing into their hands.

Washington Post columnist Mike Debonis reported Monday that Barry is scheming to install his only child, Christopher, in his city council seat. Barry has held the Ward 8 council seat for two terms and is expected to run for reelection in 2012. According to a politician and two other sources, Barry has floated the idea that he would win a third term, step down midway through the four-year stint, and pass the seat to his 31-year-old son.

Let’s count the ways this notion is delusional.

The Home Rule Charter and city council rules do not permit dynastic succession. The District may be a hybrid system, with the local government sharing power with the federal government, but it is still a democracy.

“There’s nothing in the rules that allows a passing on of a seat,” says Nyasha Smith, secretary of the council.

If a council member resigns or is otherwise unable to serve his or her full term, council rules require a special election within 114 days.

Perhaps Barry, 75, is grooming his son to run in such an election.

“Barry has talked about this for years,” says NBC 4 political reporter Tom Sherwood. “And Christopher, through word and deed, has not—and probably will not—rise to the occasion.”

The last time I laid eyes on Christopher Barry was last summer in Superior Court. Dressed in baggy pants and a black hoodie, the younger Barry was pleading guilty to charges relating to his arrest for possession of PCP and cocaine with intent to distribute. He pleaded to a lesser charge and avoided jail time. It was his second known brush with the legal system; in 2005 he was charged with assaulting a police officer. The charges were dismissed under a plea deal.

Christopher is tall, lean, and handsome, with the chiseled features of his late mother, Effi Barry. He looks the part of a great politician—but he has shown absolutely no interest in following his father’s path. If anything, he has avoided notoriety of any kind and possesses not a scintilla of Marion Barry’s ample political instincts.

I can understand why the elder Barry would want to extend his hold on politics in the nation’s capital. He’s hardly the only politician afflicted with the sense that he’s necessary, if not immortal. Barry has dominated District politics since he arrived in 1965. He organized the poor electorate and established Pride, Inc., a jobs program. He won seats on the school board and the council before winning his first term as mayor in 1978. He served four terms, interrupted by a six-month jail term on a cocaine charge in 1990. He’s the favorite to win another city council term next year.

Moreover, Barry is serving on a council that includes the sons of three men he knew or served with. Chairman Kwame Brown is the son of Marshall, a political operative who worked for Barry. Ward 5 is represented by Harry Thomas Jr., son of Harry Sr., who served many terms on the council. At-large member Michael Brown is the son of legendary Democratic party leader Ronald.

So why not the son of Marion?

What’s sad for me, and for others who have followed Marion Barry’s rise and fall and rise, is that he has always displayed a sharp intellect and uncanny political instincts. His ample addictions to drugs and alcohol might be dimming his mental capacity, finally.

Then again, Barry might be on to something. If he wins and steps down—and Christopher buys into the succession game and runs for office—the son might not be counted out.

Says one of his council colleagues: “In the District of Columbia, when Marion Barry is involved, anything is possible.”