News & Politics

No, Marion Barry Was Not a Great Mayor

Barry had an unprecedented chance to help his poorest and most loyal constituents. His record shows he let the opportunity escape.

Marion Barry sits for an interview about his autobiography, Mayor for Life, last June. Photograph by Tom Williams/Getty Images.

Former DC mayor Marion Barry famously promised to help “the last, the lost, and the least”—a noble mission and one still sorely needed in the District, where nearly a fifth of the population lives in poverty. Now that Barry’s epic funeral observances are over, it’s fair to ask: Did he make good on his promise?

Just the second mayor after home rule was granted in 1973, Barry did much to define the office as we know it. His idea of being mayor included opening the government—and its jobs and contracts—to the region’s long-marginalized African-American community, shifting a share of power to a growing black middle class. His summer-jobs program provided first employment for thousands of DC residents. Not least, he encouraged the redevelopment of downtown DC, spurring a vibrant urban scene that put money into a lot of pockets. He showed a genius for dealmaking and problem-solving.

But it’s questionable whether Barry really benefited the poor. Midway into his first term, the 1980 Census put DC’s poverty rate at 18.6 percent. Two decades later, the percentage of District residents living below the poverty line had increased to 20.2. Barry had been mayor for 16 of those 20 years, accruing power without extending it to the neediest.

It’s only fair to note that the mayors of other big cities battled endemic unemployment during that time without solving it. But Barry enjoyed a unique opportunity in urban America: The capital city’s economy was not Detroit’s. Revenues from a downtown commercial real-estate boom further fattened government coffers. And there was a DC Council that Barry could bend to his will.

Instead, the former civil-rights leader neglected the institutions he inherited. He failed to give the police the tools they needed, and he watched as a crack epidemic drove homicides in the city from 200 in 1980 to 472 in 1990. By that time, he was addicted himself.

In his last ten years, the poor became his sole charge as the councilman for Ward 8. He consoled them and gave them hope, but poverty, homicides, unemployment, and infant mortality in his ward remained the highest in the city.

Anacostia is poised for transformation. In another decade, poverty and joblessness there will drop. Its prospects began to improve only as Mayor Anthony Williams and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton drew federal and local agencies to its blighted areas. Disgusted by the shameful state of DC public schools, Mayor Adrian Fenty took them over and started reform.

Will Barry’s “least and lost” survive gentrification crossing the Anacostia River? It’ll be up to his successors to determine whether those Washingtonians will thrive or be pushed out.

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.