Marion Barry, towering figure of D.C. politics, has discussed bringing his four decades in public life to an end by kindling a family dynasty.
Barry, 75, has long been reluctant to acknowledge a District without himself in power. But in recent conversations with political associates, the former four-term mayor has openly considered his political legacy, pondering whether the Barry brand — tarnished in many corners of the city, but sterling in his home ward — might span another generation.
In those conversations, Barry (D) has outlined plans to run for a third consecutive term as D.C. Council member for Ward 8 but serve only part of that time, backing his only son, Christopher Barry, to fill his seat.
Once hailed as “mayor for life,” Marion Barry has faced struggles with drugs, women and tax returns that might have doomed lesser politicians. But sympathetic voters have returned him to office three times after serving a federal prison term. Now, it appears that he’s counting on those sympathies to benefit his son, who also has grappled with drug problems.
Jacque Patterson, a Democratic activist who intends to challenge Barry in the April 3 primary, said Barry discussed the possibility with him during a meeting Oct. 31. Two other people close to Barry said they had also recently had conversations with him about plans involving his son as successor.
“He told me exactly that he only plans to serve two more years, and then he’s going to resign and promote Christopher,” said Patterson, a former chairman of the Ward 8 Democrats who briefly pursued an at-large council post this year. He added that Barry said he would “install Christopher, like it’s his seat.”
The two others spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their relationship with Barry. They also described an arrangement in which Barry would serve less than a full term, then resign and support his son in a special election.
Barry said Monday that the rumblings are based on “preliminary discussions” and are being circulated by his political opponents to undermine his reelection effort. He denied plans to serve anything less than a full term, at the end of which he would be 80.
“They shouldn’t make up statements, make up things,” he said. “I know one thing: I’m going to run, and I’m going to win. And I will serve the people of Ward 8 well.”
Christopher Barry, 31, did not respond Monday to a request for comment made through his attorney, Frederick D. Cooke Jr., and his father declined to share contact information. “He’s not talking to anybody,” he said.
The younger Barry has been in the news less for politics and more for his run-ins with authorities. He was arrested in May and charged with felony possession of marijuana and PCP with intent to distribute. Under a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to lesser felony charges in July and avoided jail time. He had previously been charged with assaulting a police officer in 2005; he agreed to a plea deal that resulted in the charges being dismissed.
He has generally shied away from the public eye, notably emerging in 2007 to deliver a well-received eulogy for his mother, Effi Slaughter Barry, after she died of leukemia at 63. He also served as treasurer for his father’s 2008 reelection campaign, but he was little seen on the trail. Those active in the ward have considered him to have little interest in politics, his father’s wishes aside.
Polly Harris, mother of Effi Barry, said her grandson has “never mentioned anything about politics” in their frequent conversations.
Harris, of Hampton, Va., questioned whether Marion Barry would have much influence on his son. “If his mother was alive . . . I don’t think she would want that,” she said. “When you live in politics, you live in a glass house. You never have any privacy.”
Patterson and one of the two sources said Barry also has eyed his son as campaign manager for his coming race, but Barry said Monday that was not the case.
“Christopher is getting active and involved in Ward 8 politics” in addition to building a general contracting business, he said. “He doesn’t have any titles or anything because he just wants to support his father, and he also wants to get people into the politics of the ward.”
Barry added: “I don’t want Christopher to do anything because I asked him to. . . . He has to want it. He has to see it as his challenge.”
Talk of who might succeed Barry as council member has long been a hot topic in Ward 8, particularly as he has continued to confront health problems, including a 2009 kidney transplant. Barry has largely avoided grooming successors who might challenge his dominance of ward politics before he sees fit to step down.
“There’s not much room at the top,” he said. “I don’t blame people for getting impatient. I was impatient.”
Ward 8 residents have been willing to forgive his past problems, including his 1990 arrest in a federal drug sting. But there is hope among a new crop of challengers that Barry’s personal dramas during his current council term might provide an opening. In 2009, federal authorities revealed that Barry had filed to file a tax return for the eighth time in nine years, and last year, he was censured by his council colleagues for handing a city contract to a girlfriend and improperly using legislative earmarks.
Barry has yet to file papers for what will be his sixth campaign for a D.C. Council seat but is expected to do so before ballot petitions are made available on Nov. 14. Besides Patterson, who will make his run official next week, Barry is facing 2012 challenges from Anacostia resident Gary R. Feenster, advisory neighborhood commissioner Darrell Gaston and Congress Heights activist Sandra Seegars.
In the 2008 primary, Barry beat four challengers with 77 percent of the vote before cruising to victory in the general election.