Censure of Barry shows shift among black political leaders

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, March 4, 2010; B01

The D.C. Council's 12 to 0 vote to punish member Marion Barry contained an important unspoken message, especially from a rising generation of African American leaders based in the predominantly black, eastern half of the city: Step aside, old fellow, and clear the way for a new kind of politics.

Although they won't say it publicly and respect Barry (D-Ward 8) for his achievements, many black political leaders say privately that they've been aggravated for some time by the endless uproars over the former mayor's tax problems, romances and drug allegations. The latest scandal -- which alleges that Barry illicitly used city funds for himself, a girlfriend and other friends -- was one too many.

In addition, many leaders say they want to move beyond Barry's political style, which has often involved stoking racial controversy -- sometimes on behalf of blacks' political and economic advancement, and sometimes to deflect criticism of himself.

The new approach places greater focus on pragmatic politics, citywide unity and good government. It partly reflects the need to appeal to the District's growing white population.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) is pushing that vision, possibly to lay the groundwork to announce this month that he's running for mayor against Adrian M. Fenty (D). It's also embraced by other council members, including two other possible mayoral candidates, Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large).

The trend has been underway for some time in the city. The two mayors who succeeded Barry, Anthony A. Williams and Fenty, emphasized pragmatism rather than racially based populist appeals.

But the core of political support for Williams and Fenty was in the white community. The council vote on Barry shows that the new approach has gained ground even in predominantly black wards.

"This is beginning to be the end of an era in District politics," said Ronald Walters, a longtime D.C. political observer who retired in June as professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Barry, 73, "is the last lingering" example "of the politics of black political empowerment," Walters said. He "is something of an embarrassment to the generation of new young politicians. Many of them would prefer that he be gone. It was silly of him to give them a ticket to his exit, which is what he did," Walters said.

The most important thing about Tuesday's vote was its unanimity. The resolution, which censured Barry, stripped him of two important committee posts and recommended him for criminal investigation, was supported even by black council members who said their constituents adore Barry.

"They love him unconditionally," said council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who had perhaps the toughest vote as the representative of the other ward east of the Anacostia River, in addition to Barry's.

"For the record, I love Marion Barry, too," she said. "But you have to take action when you see something wrong. . . . We have to start really stating who we are and what we stand for," she said.

In addition to punishing Barry, the council adopted several measures to strengthen its ethical practices, including increasing regulation of the system of earmark grants.

"This was an institutional paradigm shift," said Harry Thomas Jr. (D), whose Ward 5 is home to many Barry supporters. "Marion was the most obvious entity in this," he said. "But what we did [Tuesday] really fundamentally shifts how the council does business in the District of Columbia in policing itself."

The changes, although welcome, leave two big questions.

First, will Barry's successors find a way to improve the quality of life in the city's poorer, black wards? Williams and Fenty have been seen as neglecting them. Residents there routinely say Barry is the only politician who has ever done them any good, in part by building housing for the elderly and creating a summer jobs program for young people.

Second, what will the council's new emphasis on improving the city's ethical standards mean for Fenty? Gray said the council wants to step up its investigation into the executive branch's handling of more than $85 million in parks and recreation contracts. By the end of this week, it plans to name a special counsel, on a pro bono basis, to do the same kind of extensive, rigorous inquiry of those contracts that special counsel Robert S. Bennett did of Barry.

"At the end of the day, we ought to be able to feel like we have had as thorough an investigation of the DPR contracts as we did of ourselves," Gray said.

We can only hope that such enthusiasm for accountability and high standards will have real impact and ultimately spread to all parts of the city's government.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company