Dana Milbank
Opinion writer March 19

Embattled Washington Mayor Vincent Gray called in a notorious predecessor, Marion Barry, to prop up his reelection campaign Wednesday afternoon. Gray got exactly what he deserved.

“Vince Gray,” Barry told a modest crowd in a church basement in Southeast Washington, “is a leader with a solid crack record.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

The self-proclaimed mayor for life caught this Freudian slip. “Track record,” he corrected.

Barry, now a 78-year-old City Council member in failing health, is, famously, the one with the crack record. Gray’s problems are of the campaign-finance variety. His lawyer has said he expects the mayor to be indicted in a federal inquiry involving Gray’s 2010 run.

To save his candidacy in advance of the Democratic primary (appropriately, on April Fools’ Day), Gray has made a lamentable decision to stoke the city’s racial politics. In his State of the District address last week, he said, “To some in our city, I’m just another corrupt politician from the other side of town.” And, at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Anacostia on Wednesday, Gray shared a stage with Barry, who has inflamed racial tensions for decades, memorably telling white people to “get over it” when he won the Democratic primary in 1994 after his drug arrest and downfall.

By coincidence, Barry had appeared in the same church basement two years ago to apologize for derogatory remarks he had made about Asian Americans — only to offend another group at the same event by referring to Polish people as “Polacks.”

After Barry praised Gray (and himself) at length, and after Gray said how pleased and honored he was to be endorsed by a man of such intelligence and acumen, reporter Mark Plotkin asked what had become of the tradition of winning the mayoralty with a biracial coalition.

“The reality is Washington has become a city of the haves and have-nots,” Barry said. Gray nodded and his supporters cheered. “I think it’s up to white people to be more open-minded,” Barry added, “and blacks are more open-minded than they are.”

“You’ve heard from my spokesperson,” Gray quipped.

Does Gray really want this kind of spokesperson? Barry will help him in the Democratic primary with the mostly black voters east of the Anacostia River. But Barry’s embrace may be less helpful if Gray is going into the general election under a federal indictment.

“I know Vince Gray is a man of integrity,” said Barry, who served six months in prison in the early 1990s on drug charges, has had various tax problems and was censured by the D.C. Council last year for taking cash from contractors. “I know Vince Gray is not about breaking the law.”

Barry linked Gray’s legal woes to his own. “You know, I know about how U.S. attorneys work, don’t you?” he said. “You know I know. I know their tactics.” Both men chuckled.

Barry’s son, Christopher, also on the stage, further praised Gray’s “Barry-esque” qualities. “Like a Barry, he can stand up to adversity and display effective leadership in times of controversy.”

It’s implausible for Gray to blame race for his adversity. If he’s indicted, it will be by a black prosecutor appointed by a black president working for a black attorney general. But if Gray survives the primary — a real possibility, given the refusal of the many anti-Gray candidates to drop out of the crowded field — it’s possible that he could lose in November to independent David Catania, giving Washington its first white mayor.

Such a consideration was not in evidence in the church basement Wednesday. Barry, who has battled a blood infection and entered the room with assistance, spoke at length about his own “effective and successful” leadership, his possession of “a lot of charisma and vision,” and his status as “the most popular elected official in this city.”

Barry, who said he talks to the mayor almost daily, also spoke about Gray’s dedication to those “east of the river,” as he put it, keeping “the black middle class” in the city and doing business with minority-owned firms (Barry made a pitch for his son’s construction business).

Gray affirmed his “collaborative relationship” with Barry and his desire to help people, “especially those who are in the east end of the District of Columbia, who have not gotten the kind of benefits that were needed, that were promised.”

Gray bristled when Plotkin asked him about skipping a candidate forum in a mostly white part of town because he was visiting Barry in the hospital. “I want the vote of everybody,” the mayor said, calling accusations of racial politics “absolutely untrue.”

Gray’s denial might be more credible if he hadn’t also asked us to believe that the man sitting next to him — the old race warrior whose endorsement he “heartily” accepted — “appeals to people across the District of Columbia.”

Twitter: @Milbank

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