Disregard those reports of Marion Barry’s demise. A few weeks ago, friends visiting him in the hospital said the former mayor might not make it through the weekend. The 78-year-old grandfather of DC politics is alive, if not completely well, as he proved when he arrived at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church Wednesday afternoon to endorse Mayor Vincent Gray’s reelection bid full of the bombast, rhetoric, and race-baiting he’s rained on the District for the past 40 years.
The endorsement was Barry’s first significant public appearance since he recovered from a pair of long hospital stays. He’s lost weight. The skin was stretched tight across his unlined face, as if he were wearing a mask. Barry needed a cane and the help of his son, Christopher, to walk the 30 feet from the door to the dais.
“That blood infection knocked me to my knees,” he told the sparse crowd in the church’s basement. “I should be home resting, according to my doctors. But there’s too much at stake for me to be at home.”
He gamely attempted to slip into rabble-rousing form. “Power to the people!” he chanted and gingerly punched his left fist in the air. A few seniors in the crowd echoed the anachronistic chant, but they trailed off as Barry wiped his nose and took his seat.
Barry minced no words during a long presentation and news conference aimed at bolstering Gray’s chances in the April 1 Democratic primary, with Gray is running under a cloud of allegations about campaign-finance violations and council member Muriel Bowser gaining ground.
“Now is not the time to elect a mayor for on-the-job training,” said Barry, contending that Gray’s challengers are not prepared to handle the city’s $10 billion budget. “We don’t need an amateur trying to manage this money.”
Having Barry by his side could be a wash for Gray: Any votes Barry brings the mayor’s way in African-American precincts could be canceled out by votes from white residents turned off by Barry’s divisive rhetoric. But the former mayor, who now represents Ward 8 on the DC Council, seemed unable to resist riling up racial animus.
“This city, as most urban cities, is divided racially and class-wise,” he said. “Washington has become a city of the haves and the have-nots. It’s up to whites to be more open-minded, and blacks are more open-minded than they are.”
African-American voters have been open-minded to Barry’s political pitches since 1978, when they helped elect him to his first of four terms as mayor, and have largely overlooked Barry’s serial criminal and ethical lapses in the decades that followed. After his 1990 cocaine bust and six-month prison sentence, he was elected mayor again in 1994 on the strength of the African-American vote.
In the past decade, as prosecutors brought him to court for failing to pay taxes and council members censured him for a kickback scheme with a girlfriend and taking funds from contractors, Barry remained popular, especially in Ward 8, where residents have twice elected him to the DC Council.
Asked whether embracing Barry represented an appeal to blacks rather than whites, Mayor Gray said, “Marion Barry appeals to people across the District.”
Those gathered to hear Barry yesterday, however, were thinking locally. “We focus on what the mayor has done for the people of Ward 8,” Matthew Hudson Jr., the pastor of Matthews Memorial, told Washingtonian. “We can see.”
Hudson called Ron Machen, the federal prosecutor who has been pursuing alleged violations in Gray’s 2010 campaign funding effort, “a friend” who has been to Matthews Memorial Baptist. But Hudson added that many in his congregation “are bothered that too many people are making the accusations the main thing. The main thing is what this mayor has done for jobs, housing, health care, and education.”
Have the allegations wounded Gray?
“Absolutely not,” Hudson said. “We understand people make bad choices. As a leader, you might have bad people around you. That does not negate the good that he’s done. That’s what our people talk about.”
That echoed Barry, who said, “I know Vince Gray is a man of integrity.”
On April 1, we will see how many believe that.