Marion Barry: A Perplexing Feature of DC Politics

One of the most perplexing enigmas of the Washington, DC, city government is—and has been since 1971—City Councilman Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Here’s a quick history of Barry’s political career:

  • Barry was on DC’s first elective school board from 1971 to 1974.
  • Upon establishment of DC home rule in 1974 Barry was elected to the City Council and served from 1975 until 1979. In 1977, during his time on the Council, Barry was shot by Muslim terrorists who had seized City Hall and two other buildings in the District.
  • In 1979, Barry became only the second home-rule Mayor of Washington, DC, and remained Mayor until his arrest and imprisonment in 1990. Barry was charged with three counts of perjury, ten counts of drug possession (crack cocaine), and one count of conspiracy. He was convicted only on one count of drug possession.
  • In 1993, less than two years after his conviction for possession of crack cocaine, Barry took the Ward 8 seat on the City Council. He had won election to the Council with 70 percent of the vote.
  • In 1994, Barry ran for Mayor and was elected the fourth home-rule Mayor of Washington, DC, serving from 1995 until 1999.
  • In 2004, Barry again ran for the Ward 8 seat on the City Council, winning the general election with 95 percent of the vote. Barry took office as City Councilman in 2005 and continues serving today.
  • Less than one year after election to the City Council, Barry was charged with failing to pay federal and local taxes. At the hearing, mandatory drug testing found marijuana and cocaine in Barry’s system. Barry was sentenced to three years’ probation on the tax charges and undergoes drug counseling.
  • In 2006, Barry was charged with driving under the influence and various other vehicular charges. He was acquitted on all counts.

It is worth noting that, for much of this illustrious political [and criminal] career, Washington, DC, was one of the most dangerous, most mis-managed, poorest, and most dysfunctional places in the United States. Ward 8, the part of the District that Barry has represented during his various terms on the City Council, has traditionally been the most dangerous, most mis-managed, poorest, and most dysfunctional area of the District and is more responsible for DC’s bad reputation than any other part of the city.

Under Barry’s mayoral leadership (or lack thereof), the city’s schools and municipal services deteriorated, crime went up, the costs of running the city government skyrocketed, fraud and abuse of power became commonplace, and city government scandals become a common fixture of the local news. By the time that Barry returned to the Mayor’s office in 1995, the Republican-led Congress—charged by the Constitution with responsibility for management of the federal district—finally stepped in. Congress established a federally-appointed ‘District of Columbia Control Board’ and granted the board wide authority over city government spending. The control board was not disbanded until 2001 when, under the leadership of Barry’s successor Mayor Anthony Williams (D), the city government was finally able to balance its own budget.

Needless to say, Barry’s career has been an absolute disgrace—and yet he remains a fixture of DC city politics. The residents of Ward 8, who arguably suffered the most under Barry’s poor leadership, continue to elect him by wide margins as their representative. These same people who inexplicably view Barry as their tireless protector often view the two subsequent mayors—Williams and current Mayor Adrian Fenty (D)—with suspicion. This is especially curious, as Williams and Fenty have successfully reduced crime, improved schools, and brought new commercial development and jobs to Ward 8 through a series of initiatives that Barry either opposed or, at best, had no part in.

But today, Barry’s tone has changed. Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher writes:

The same politician who railed against the evils of gentrification when Williams was replacing old housing projects with hundreds of new homes embraces those developments as the heart of “the new Ward 8.”

Barry is an evangelist for a plan to transform national parkland at Poplar Point into a high-end retail and residential community, a project not unlike those he used to deride during the Williams years as the vanguard of a yuppie takeover of working-class black neighborhoods.

So residents of the District—and especially residents of Ward 8—must ask themselves: what does Marion Barry stand for? After standing firmly against development and improvement in Ward 8 for three decades, throughout which Ward 8 has remained predictably poor and decrepit, his tune finally seems to be changing. Perhaps even the ‘mayor for life’ can’t argue with the success of his successors who are finally slowly pulling the District up out of its poverty, drug-use, and violence.

Perhaps the citizens of Ward 8 should take notice of the seeds of positive change around them, and the fact that they have been planted despite Marion Barry, not because of him, when they vote in their September 9 District primary.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.