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City Hall, and Step On It

"Remember what?"

"Dick Tracy on radio."

"Oh, yes. Way too young," she says.


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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"Dick Tracy had a two-way radio," Barry says. "It wasn't worth a damn."

He leans out the window, nearly singing his words out. "Hey, beautiful, I want your vote. Hey now. Need your vote. Hey now. Awright."

Minutes later, a man approaches the SUV as it slows to round a curve. The man is clearly inebriated. Barry looks at him with sympathy.

"That's what we need! Somebody bring pride back into the city," the inebriated man says, peering inside the SUV.

"That's right," Barry says softly. "Pride."

Barry's cell phone rings -- it's his son Christopher. The brief chat ends. "Christopher is deputy campaign manager," Barry says. A couple of staffers have looks on their faces as if that's news to them. "But he's in school now. Hard to catch up to him. He's in love now. It's the first love of his life. Sister Imani, we gotta hit it. Let's roll."

They come to a stop on Galveston Place. A woman stomps down to the van.

"Where Mr. Barry at?" she demands, looking right at the former mayor.

"Right here," Barry answers.

"Oh. Lord Jesus. You look so different," Veris McNeill, 42, says. It doesn't sound like a compliment.

Barry stays in the SUV, as if frozen by her tone.

She's arched her back and raised her voice. "We are homeowners. Right here. So I want you to represent homeowners! There are drugs on this block! After the election, people won't know nothing about Galveston Place. We got cars right here that have been burned up. Abandoned buildings where people go to have sex. I paid a lot of money to live in this building! And I love you Marion Barry. But I ain't supporting nobody. I been here 11 years and I have to sit in my window to watch and make sure nobody steals my car or bust my tires!"

This is not what Barry had planned on hearing. McNeill stares at him. "Okay, baby," he finally says, almost a whisper. "But don't blame me. I didn't do it." She's getting ready to launch another salvo but gets interrupted by her children.

Barry rolls down the street, smiling and waving. "I want your vote now. I need you."

Soon after, he's riding by a piece of vacant property, pointing. "All that, right over there, it's prime property. I tried to get the city to develop it when I was in office."

Back to Mississippi: "When I was out picking cotton, we'd take two baloney sandwiches to the field. That's all we had. And sometimes you'd have sardines and pork and beans. Let's go. I'm hungry."

They stop at a convenience store and Barry strides inside to buy some lunch. Back in the SUV, he tears open a package of turkey-ham, folding two slices and making himself a turkey-ham and cracker sandwich. The crumbs are flying everywhere. "I gotta send someone back to that store and ask for a campaign contribution," he says. The SUV is back on Martin Luther King. "In the 1960s, white people owned all this," he says, waving a hand with a piece of turkey-ham in it, pointing out the window. Then some apartment buildings come into view. "I got these built 15 to 20 years ago."

The driver's going too slow for Barry's taste. "Let's go." Looking out the window: "Hey now. Need your vote. Need your vote."

Boom and Busted

It's such a staggering political drama, goes back so many years, with so much darkness and moments of brilliant light. It crosses all the potent intersections of race and sex and crime. It's part blaxploitation movie and part civil rights history. It began in the Mississippi Delta and flowered in the nation's capital.

A newcomer to the District might not know the contours of Barry's rise and fall. A gawker on the streets of Southeast might wonder how he gets those children to race alongside him -- "Mar'nbarry, Mar'nbarry" -- and the elderly women to ask him to take a picture.

Maybe it's because of the transit boycott he led back in the '60s to protest an increase in bus fares. Maybe it's because of the Free D.C. movement he founded, when residents were saying the city was being held in a colonial grip by Congress. Maybe it's from his D.C. Council run in 1974 or from being shot by those Hanafi Muslim terrorists who had stormed the District Building in 1977. ("Almost got killed.") Maybe it's from his first term as mayor. Or maybe the second and third terms. Mayor of Chocolate City. The folks out in Phoenix and Brooklyn and San Diego knew Chocolate City, heard of its mayor. Tune the dial to Melvin Lindsay and Quiet Storm and you might not only hear sweet Al Green but Marion Barry also, lauding his city. He wasn't Gold Coast, he wasn't high-sassiety. And when he got busted at what was then the Vista International Hotel in 1990 and went to prison for six months on a federal charge of drug possession -- released in 1991 -- it only added to his aura, to the cult of Marion. It would have deep-sixed many a political career. But not Barry. He was back on the council in 1992 and won a fourth term as mayor in 1994.

'I Came Back Strong'

Days before he took that campaign outing through Southeast, he is sitting in the outdoor cafe of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. He's dining on oysters, wearing a big Panama hat, wide-collared green shirt, gray slacks and lizard shoes.

When he first decided to run for the Ward 8 seat, he says, he phoned two people. His mother, in Memphis, and Greene. He and Greene go back many years, all the way to the '60s.

"She was fine as wine then," says Barry.

"And you were single then," says Greene, sitting at the table. "Very single."

Everyone, he knows, has wondered why he's running. Isn't there a book to write?

"Actually, I had a writer," Barry says. "He got me up to my first administration, then left on me. Anyway, I think I'd be better off with a fiction writer. Fiction writer can bring the dead parts of the story alive." He says this with a straight face.


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