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Marion Barry for Mayor

Washington Post Editorial
August 30, 1978

You will know by now if you have been reading our editorials on the Democratic primary for mayor, that we think someone should replace Walter Washington, and that the choice comes down, as a practical matter, to one between City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker and Council Member Marion Barry. Which should it be?

Our strong belief is that it should be Marion Barry.

At this point in an endorsement, it is traditional to say something agreeable about the candidate one is not recommending, and have no problem with that. Sterling Tucker has a record of long and useful service to this community. He has done many constructive things as council chairman. He has, as it is so often said, "paid his dues." He is familiar with the nuts and bolts of the machinery of city government. He has shown himself, in short, to be a thoughtful technician who professes to see the District’s problems as being primarily managerial in nature and, therefore, susceptible to managerial solutions. To some extent he is right. Certainly the Department of Human Resources under Walter Washington—to take only the most egregious example—has cried out for better management.

But when you have said all that—when you have made what we would consider to be the strongest case for Sterling Tucker—you still haven’t begun to describe what’s been missing from the conduct of the city’s affairs in the past four years, or to measure the magnitude of change that seems to us to be so desperately needed. We are not now talking about campaign promise or programs set forth in position papers, although we will have more to say on that score in the remaining days of the campaign. We are not even talking about issues as such. We do not find all that much fundamental difference between the public pronouncements of Mr. Barry and Mr. Tucker on housing, taxes, unemployment, Metro financing, economic development, the convention center and the rest.

And still less do we see much to choose between them in terms of managerial experience, except this: Though neither can lay legitimate claim to have demonstrated administrative skill, Mr. Tucker does make that claim—while Mr. Barry makes no pretense of it. He would seek out a professional city administrator to be deputy mayor, he says, because he has quite a different perception of the role and the responsibilities and the proper priorities of a mayor. He talks in terms of "setting the tone;" of delegating to trusted competent subordinates; of removing incompetents, swiftly; of setting policy and initiating action; of making himself available—and visible.

What Mr. Barry seems to value, and to be offering, in other words, is precisely what we think the people of this city need, and ought to be looking for. We have in mind the particular qualities of leadership—energy, nerve, initiative, imagination, toughness of mind, an active concern for people in distress, command presence if you will—that have been conspicuously absent from the present administration and also seem to be missing from Mr. Tucker. To put it bluntly, on this matter we do not see that much difference between Sterling Tucker and Walter Washington. Sterling Tucker would bring new faces, surely, and a fresh start; we don’t deny that there would be substantive differences in programs, personnel and policy. That would be true of Mr. Barry, too.

But a genuinely bold, alive commitment to actually making things happen, and a critically important belief that things can be done—we do not see the evidence of that in Mr. Tucker. On the contrary, we see in him a relatively competent, uninspired and unexciting recycling of what the city has had for the last four years. With Mr. Barry, we see the prospect that things will be different and better.

Now, we are well aware that some of the things we would count in favor of Mr. Barry are the very factors that some people see as liabilities. There is lingering concern, we gather, about the firebrand reputation derived from his early days as the prime mover of an organization, Pride, Inc., whose purpose was to find some constructive occupation for street-hardened black youths in this city. He is still remembered, by some, for a supposed excess of militancy, in the 1960s, in a civil-rights movement that could not have prevailed without militants. It is said that Marion Barry hasn’t really changed.

We would argue, on the contrary, that Marion Barry, in his later roles as president of the school board and as city council member, has shown a commendable capacity for growth and a considerable talent for accommodation—an ability to deal with all elements of the community, to oppose responsibly, to reconcile differences, to restore strained relationships. We find it, in fact, very nearly grotesque that his work with disadvantages street youths, at one particularly turbulent time in this city’s history, or his service among the shock-troops of a great national movement for human rights, at a tumultuous moment in our national history, should somehow be counted against him in a campaign for mayor of the District of Columbia in 1978. In our view, it is one of the basic arguments for him. Mr. Barry has been in the right place in the past, when it counted. And he has come to the right place now. What has remained constant in this admirable political journey has been the vitality and dedication and exuberance with which he has addressed various challenges, under various circumstances, at quite different times in his career.

If we are right about all this, Marion Barry would be a different sort of mayor—different from Walter Washington, and different from Sterling Tucker as well. True, he would bring a certain sense of adventure to City Hall—which means that there is a certain risk involved. But it is the sort of risk that accompanies any constructive enterprise. And it is surely much less than the insidious subtle risk of going on as we have been, of more of the same. We think the hard problems—and bright opportunities—now before the District demand exactly the sort of qualities and talent that Marion Barry would bring to the job.

© The Washington Post

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