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City Hall, and Step On It

Stumping for a D.C. Council Seat, Marion Barry Is Covering Familiar Ground. And in the Distance -- Is That His Old Job?

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page D01

The little boys are pedaling as fast as they can, trying desperately to keep up with the whipped-cream-white SUV as it cuts through the sunshine. Marion Barry is in the back seat, wearing sunglasses, grinning.

"Mar'nbarry . . . Mar'nbarry . . . Mar'nbarry."

Former Washington mayor Marion Barry, campaigning in Ward 8 for votes, is running for a D.C. Council seat in Tuesday's Democratic primary. The winner is likely to sail to victory in November. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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The little boys are yelling and shouting as loud as they can, their bicycles swooping through the streets of Southeast.

"Mar'nbarry . . . Mar'nbarry . . . Mar'nbarry."

He squints at them, into the morning. He hears them fine enough, and he's grinning the big country grin that served him so well over so many years as a riveting, polarizing and beguiling politician of the nation's capital.

These are hard and gritty streets, and sometimes it seems as if they're still in a slumber, from the '70s, from the '80s, from Mayor Marion Barry's glory years. Frozen in the amber that is Marion.

He bends out of the GMC Yukon as it comes to a stop. The grin's so wide, so churchy. Screen doors are being pushed open, and stout women and skinny men are coming out to offer greetings.

"Hi, baby." Barry has walked up to a comely woman. "How you doing? What's your name? Where you live? You married? Gimme kiss." Barry has an easy way with the language of the street and uses it to his advantage in a way that other politicians can only envy. He bends down and receives his kiss.

Barry is one of seven candidates running for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat in Tuesday's Democratic primary. The winner is likely to sail to victory in November. Of course, Barry is an old story, a nostalgia act -- like the Dells or the Stylistics singing groups, some say. A 68-year-old man with a mess of a history. Still, those who would author his political obituary have been fooled before. Both Barry and his main opponent, two-term incumbent Sandy Allen, predict the vote will be close.

The perpetual pol is wearing a white-and-blue sweat suit and a billed cap. There is a puppet's looseness to his movements, but sometimes, when he has to bend, a grimace will cross his face. And so here he stands, swallowing the pill that all aging and proud politicians have swallowed for years across the American landscape: time.

On this sunny day -- "Mar'nbarry" ringing in his ears -- it goes down just fine.

This is how he put it a couple of days earlier: "This guy in prison told me, he say, 'Marion, do the time. Don't let the time do you.' "

He started out the morning late -- first it was 30 minutes, then an hour.

But then there he was, at campaign headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

"Where my credit card?" he asks a staffer. Last night the campaign was running low on cash. Money was needed for gas and supplies.

His headquarters sits next door to Capitol Fried Chicken and across the street from ACE Cash Express. It's less than 30 yards from Allen's headquarters. Her forces are out this morning, too, preparing their own campaign caravan.

The first salvo, over the loudspeaker, comes from Barry's people. "Somebody's gonna be lookin for a job in 10 days!" bellows Muhammad Abdullah. He's a volunteer, visiting from Las Vegas, wearing a skull cap and a flowing shirt.

"Salaam alaykum," Barry says to Abdullah. Peace be upon you.

Abdullah's wife, Imani, is busy handing out leaflets. "Praise to Allah," Barry says to Imani.

Linda Greene is there. She once lived with Johnny Carter. He sang with the Dells. They've got a daughter together. Now she's Barry's spokeswoman and political adviser. Actually, she runs the ship. Greene's in a huff at the moment. She claims the Allen camp has been snatching Barry signs from yards and replacing them with Allen signs. She's holding a copy of a certified letter she sent to the Allen camp. "I'm filing a complaint with the board of elections," she hisses.

The sun is shining. She needs a cigarette.

"Okay, come on. Let's go," instructs Barry. "Linda, where you want me to sit? Huh. Just give me some direction. Tell me where to sit."

Barry is folding himself into the SUV's back seat, hooking his right hand beneath his knee, lifting the knee as he bends. The knee hurts. Soon he's talking about growing up in Mississippi and picking cotton. His head's rolling side to side like a balloon a few hours after the birthday party ends. "You could never see the end of the rows of cotton. You know, for a young boy, that's frustrating."

Then the former mayor says -- he'll switch thoughts in mid-sentence like a rabbit changing direction -- "There's no question I'm ahead in the race. The job is easy. Go to the committee meetings. Come out here and talk to the people."

He's waving out the window. "Hey, darling. Love you. Need your vote." He's unwinding, getting started, sipping coffee from a yellow mug.

Then the words come pouring from the loudspeaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, come on out and greet Marion Barry, the man who marched with Martin Luther King, the Muhammad Ali of politics, your champion!"

The SUV and a van roll to a stop, volunteers hop out, exchange quick words with some residents, then proceed to pound Barry signs into yards. Donald Sobokhan is one of those doing the hammering. He's 73 years old. The hammer hangs wobbly in his hand. He's wearing shorts and his socks are pulled up to his kneecaps, tight. The mayor is getting out now, opening the door. A second later he's deep in conversation with a woman, a potential voter. She's twentysomething, cute. She's smiling, he's leaning close.

"Bye, baby," Barry says, turning in his sneakers, having charmed the converted.

Several blocks onward, he's leaning out the window: "Awright now. Vote. Vote. Thank you, brother." The Bald Eagle Recreation Center is coming up on the right. "I built that. You know what I mean. My administration built it."

Around the corner -- with the loudspeaker drawing the curious -- a lady is running down off her front porch. She has a picture of Barry in her hands. Some people have pictures of Martin and Bobby and Jack in their homes. She has Marion. In the picture he's wearing an Afro. The Afro's gone now.

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