In June 1989, Marion Barry—then in his third term as DC mayor—sat at a witness table before a Senate committee and took a few verbal punches.
New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman: “You can’t have blood running in the streets like a third-world capital run by a despot.”
Rudman was referring to the homicide rate, fueled by crack cocaine wars, approaching 500 that year. The “despot” was at the witness table.
Missouri senator John Danforth bracketed his critique with this line: “Some governments are corrupt but are known for their competency in running the city; others are incompetent but considered clean.” The tall former minister looked at Barry and said his government was “scandalously corrupt and hopelessly incompetent.”
Danforth had reason for his diatribe. The city’s finances were in disarray. Basic public services were spotty. And Barry was suspected of being addicted to crack. DC police and FBI agents were closing in on the mayor, who would be taken down in the infamous sting at the Vista Hotel in January 1990.
Up to that point, 1990 was the nadir for the Home Rule government that had been running the capital city since 1974. It was a low point for both the city and its relatively young government.
The past year was worse. In my view, 2012 will go down as the lowest year for DC’s brand of limited self-government.
For the first time, a sitting council member pleaded guilty to a felony, resigned, and is now in federal prison. Harry Thomas Jr. admitted to stealing upward of $300,000 in public funds that were supposed to go to athletic programs for poor kids.
For the first time a sitting council chair was forced to resign for violating federal laws. Kwame Brown stepped down after federal investigators nailed him for bank fraud for falsifying documents for bank loans.
At least two more sitting council members are under investigation for potentially violating laws in city contracting.
Then there’s the mayor’s problem. Vince Gray is not suspected of succumbing to the human frailties that brought Barry low in the late 1980s. But federal investigators are combing through the finances of his 2010 mayoral campaign to see if he knew about the corruption laced through his organization.
The misdeeds range from paying off a minor candidate, Sulaimon Brown, to harass incumbent Adrian Fenty to running a “shadow campaign” with more than $600,000 of funds raised and spent off the books. Three of Gray’s close campaign aides have pleaded guilty to federal crimes. Gray professes innocence, but three council members have called for him to resign.
US Attorney Ronald Machen is pressing his investigation into the Gray campaign, the city’s lottery contract, and the campaign finances of council members.
For the city as a whole, there were positive signs in 2012: The homicide rate could dip below 100 for the first time since the 1960s; the population is rising for the first time in decades; and two new council members— Kenyan McDuffie and David Grosso—bring the potential for positive change.
But the elected government is in dire straits.
The one constant is Marion Barry. The former mayor went to jail for six months, won a seat representing Ward 8 on the city council, won another term as mayor, and now represents Ward 8 on the council—again.
As he did in 1990, Barry uses race as a weapon to achieve his political goals. In the past few weeks he badgered colleagues in racial terms for a bill to increase working rights for ex-offenders. They brushed his rhetoric aside and defeated his bill.
That shows the government is maturing, even as it suffers its worst year ever.