Marion Barry: Making of a MayorUpdated Thursday, May 21, 1998 To understand the District of Columbia, one must understand Marion Barry. As a four-term mayor; civil rights activist; hero to the District's poor, black communities; tireless battler for District rights; convicted drug offender; or symbol of home rule, Barry has been at the center of the District's triumphs and troubles since the 1970s. With the help of The Post archives and Barry's own words, let us show you how he has come to where he is, and what kind of man leads our nation's capital.
Marion Barry rose to prominence in the District as a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, fighting racial segregation and discrimination. In the ‘70s, he was elected first to the school board and then to an at-large seat on the City Council.
Barry was a radically new kind of politician. Raised in poverty, he built a political base from Anacostia rather than through the traditional black power-brokers on 16th Street's Gold Coast. He embodied black political aspirations. Milton Coleman, later The Post's assistant managing editor for Metro, traced Barry's emergence from anti-establishment activist to mayor.
One of Barry's most striking moments came in 1977, when the then-councilman was shot attempting to defend the District Building from radical Black Muslim terrorists. Barry took a bullet near his heart during a tense, two-day hostage crisis that was finally defused by the combined efforts of the FBI and ambassadors from Muslim countries. The Post detailed Barry's shooting and the violence in the District Building.
The Post ringingly endorsed Barry in 1978, and both hopes and expectations were high during his first term. A 1979 profile of Barry from The Post Sunday Magazine shows the beginnings of his administration and what people expected of him.
In 1982, The Post again endorsed Barry for reelection. His tasks in his second term included dealing with the District's severe budget problems and the 1982 statehood referendum, which passed in the same election that gave Barry four more years. The Post gave a perspective on the challenges facing him and his austere 1984 budget.
The real estate boom of the mid-to-late 1980s solved the District's money problems for a time. In the 1986 election, The Post endorsed Barry once more, but with "reservations and misgivings." Though Barry had cut back the District's nonfunctioning bureaucracy during his first term, he hired more and more people later in the 1980s. A 1987 profile shows Barry's political savvy - and the flaws developing in his government.
This timeline traces the scandals involving city officials, scandals that crept ever closer to Barry himself.
The '90s: Fall and Return
Barry also was seen with various women who were not his wife, and was accused of repeatedly calling a 23-year-old model, Grace Shell. The culmination of a series of embarrassing incidents was an FBI sting that caught Barry on a videotape smoking crack cocaine at the Vista Hotel with a female acquaintance.
During his 1990 trial, Barry's lawyer, R. Kenneth Mundy, acknowledged the mayor occasionally used cocaine. Barry was convicted of one of the 14 charges pending against him a misdemeanor charge for possessing cocaine in November 1989. Jurors acquitted him of one of the other charges of possessing cocaine in September 1988. On the other 12 charges, jurors were so deeply and passionately divided they could not reach a verdict. "I believe [the government was] out to get Marion Barry," one juror said. U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson declared a mistrial on the 12 deadlocked charges.
The mayor was sentenced to six months in prison in October 1990, while he was in the midst of a campaign for a D.C. Council seat.
But Barry came back. He won back a council seat in 1992 and was reelected mayor in 1994. Barry's supporters still see him as the activist, the champion of the poor. In his 1996 State of the District address, he speaks of enduring and conquering the unconquerable.
Barry fought hard to reclaim his office. But it's not the same office it once was. The D.C. financial control board has stripped the mayor of much of the power he once wielded over city programs and contracts. Surprisingly, in late 1997, Barry seemed accepting of his diminished role.
Meanwhile, new allegations surfaced. The head of Barry's security detail wrote in an internal memo that the mayor may have placed the detail in "unethical or immoral" situations during his lengthy visits to private homes. Barry blamed the report on election-year politics.
Now the mayor has announced he will not seek election to a fifth term. Saying he has "come to the conclusion that there are areas I can better serve outside the government," Barry is taking a step many thought he never would: He is removing himself from the government of the city he has, in many ways, come to define.
Read the most recent Post stories about the District's mayor.
This feature was assembled by Washingtonpost.com staffers Kira Marchenese and Sascha Segan with the assistance of Washingtonpost.com intern Rhonda Henderson.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company