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City Hall, and Step On It

Financially, Barry is not well off. "I'm a public servant," he says, alluding to his lack of savings. "I don't make no money. And I ain't gonna steal none."

So they launched a campaign on the cheap.

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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"For a normal candidate running a ward race, you'd need about $100,000 to $150,000," says Greene. "For Marion, it only takes about $50,000. He doesn't have to spend money on advertising. The people already know him." Greene goes on: "We gonna win. We were out in the rain a couple weeks ago. Folk came out in the rain, in pajamas. To shake this man's hand."

"Let me tell you a story," Barry begins again, sliding his big hand around an oyster, slurping it off the shell. "People in my neighborhood, when I was growing up, went to jail or to the cemetery. I knew nothing about college. My mother was a domestic. I was finally hoping I'd get a scholarship for college. I got accepted to Morehouse and Fisk. Morehouse wrote me. I finally went to LeMoyne College in Memphis. I was supposed to be commencement speaker at LeMoyne a couple years ago" -- the rabbit's jumping around again -- "somebody dropped the ball. Anyway, Morehouse told me to bring my work boots. Said I'd have to be working in some fields as part of work-study. I said 'Oh, no.' I'd had enough working in the fields. So I went to LeMoyne."

He's been married four times and now lives alone. There are all those physical ailments. Emerging from some hospital stays, he has looked gaunt, wounded. The past couple years have been slow. He was doing some consulting. "Some mornings I'd get up, go over to a school, and read to the kids," he says.

"I had retired in my own mind. Hadn't done much since '98 [when he left the mayor's office]. I was content trying to get through this divorce" from wife No. 4, Cora Masters Barry.

Then it started coming, those tugs at his elbow, whispers in his ear, complaints about the city's woes. Never mind that the city's economic woes and crime problems darkened under Barry's own watch.

"This whole thing started a year ago," Barry says. "I'd go to the Safeway on Alabama and Good Hope -- I approved $10 million when I was in office to build that Safeway. Anyway, I'd go in there, trying to shop. I'm a pretty gregarious person. People would come up to me. I don't hear nothing but complaints about what Sandy's not doing, what the mayor's not doing. So I started looking around and talking to the people about Ward 8. Wasn't no sense of pride. I started praying on it. I do believe in prayer. For real. Instead of just listening to the complaints, I decided to run."

Oysters finished, he starts in on seasoned noodles.

"People are out of work, desperate," he says. "They feel down. God gave me a gift to uplift. I uplifted myself. We the worst ward in town. Dropout rate, cancer rate. Almost every area you name, I can do a thousand times better than Sandy. When I get in there, I'll get a bill going to renovate housing. Ward 8 has always been neglected. Except by me. When I was mayor."

The hurt souls walking around Southeast? ("We call it Soufeast," he instructs.) The problems with crack addiction and alcoholism? "I been there," he says. "I never been hopeless, but I been down. They saw me get up. Not let anybody break my spirit. I came back strong. When people see something like that, they get inspired. When you fall down, land on your back. With your head looking up. If you can see up, you can get up."

He orders dessert: strawberries and chocolate.

The Incumbent

Poor Sandy Allen.

The dutiful public servant, a bee of a government worker -- Department of Public Works, D.C. Public Schools, D.C. Department of Corrections -- for more than three decades. Now she's the two-term Ward 8 council member, and chairman of the Committee on Human Services. And she's fighting for her political life.

She's sitting in her Southeast office, elegantly dressed in a lime green suit, sipping a ginger ale.

Barry called her: "Sandy, let's have lunch." Greetings, hugs, the country grin turned right on her. Then down to business. He was going to run. For her seat. "Surprised was not the word," she says now, steam in her voice. "Four years earlier he had been talking about what a good job I had done."

She whips out an endorsement letter Barry wrote on her behalf in 2000.

When Barry came out of prison and ran for a council seat, she was his campaign manager. Now she feels double-crossed. "It gave me another insight into Marion," she says. "But this is politics." She goes on: "I asked Marion before I took the job as campaign manager if he was going to be truthful to my constituents in Ward 8." Two years later, Barry launched a run for mayor. "I should have learned from then," she says. "He used us to become mayor."

She predicts victory. But everyone in her camp worries about nostalgia, about the cult of Marion. "Mr. Barry had a name. People have been hearing it for 20 years. Like Elvis."

She turns to his personal troubles. "Mr. Barry's alleged drug use -- this last time, well, there was no conviction. Maybe it's hearsay. I don't talk about hearsay."

She's referring to a March 2002 incident at Buzzard's Point, when Barry -- sitting alone in a Jaguar in a no-parking zone -- was questioned by police. Initial reports mentioned a white powdery substance that had allegedly been seen under Barry's nose. Police determined that whatever substance was in the car, there was too little to mount a prosecution. Just then, outside Allen's door, comes a voice from a loudspeaker: "Cast your vote for Marion Barry!"

"He has diabetes and hypertension," she says. "He says it will have no impact on the way he thinks. As lay people, we know those things have an impact on the way you think. Mr. Barry's just not as vigorous or articulate as he used to be. My biggest concern is why would he prey on the people who have the greatest need for counseling, for abuse treatment? My colleagues on the council follow me on these type of issues."

She's riled up. She takes a sip of her ginger ale to clear her throat. "The reason he picked this ward to live in is he thought the people were weak enough to fall for his game."

Smoke Jumper

You ask Marion Barry if he aims to run for mayor if he wins. Silence. Then: "No comment." Then the wide grin, spreading slow like maple syrup on a dinner plate.

Barry has hopped out of the SUV again. He sees smoke. Someone's barbecuing. "I wonder if it's ready," he says of these strangers' barbecue, a family reunion.

A man standing over a grill sees Barry coming, feels his privacy is being invaded. "No pictures," he says. "Yes, we got hamburgers almost ready."

"Okay," says Barry. "You got any bread?"

"Only wheat bread," the cook says. "We don't eat white bread."

The former mayor rips into a hamburger, his third helping of meat in five hours. He hasn't touched a piece of fruit or a vegetable all day.

Five minutes later, Barry's in a parking lot, about to appear in an anti-violence video that some rappers are shooting. An inebriated man comes over, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans.

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