Like Office, Mayor Not What He Was
By Michael Powell
It seemed painfully apparent yesterday as he stood before a bank of television cameras the likes of which he may not soon see again, talking of his "personal sacrifice" and the effort of "a mean-spirited Republican Congress . . . to break the spirit of our people."
All the commotion, the will-he-or-won't-he speculation of recent months, could not disguise that Barry's energy for governing, as opposed to campaigning, had flagged midway through the decade. Of late, it was hard to know what was more surprising: that the mayor now described himself as a "ceremonial" mayor, or that the very idea of playing the figurehead role no longer seemed to anger him much.
Although rivals still referred to him as the master politician, Barry knew that as a political power broker -- the role he loved best -- he was nearly toothless. For four years, Congress, the financial control board and the chief financial officer had systematically stripped away his powers -- over contracts, over hiring, over the budget and over the city's largest agencies.
And the mayor's core constituency -- poor and working-class African Americans -- seemed less engaged than in the past. Yes, they told a Washington Post poll last week, they were ready once again to give their hearts and votes to Barry. But they also gave high marks to the work of the powerful control board, perhaps because they had the most to gain by the resurrection of dysfunctional city services.
"He's just tired and frustrated with it all," said Robert L. Johnson, chairman and chief executive of Black Entertainment Television and a longtime friend of the mayor. "He's had all the power and perks stripped away from him, and he faced four more years of people, the Congress, the newspapers, trying to dump on him. . . . Why do it?"
When Barry called a town meeting last Saturday to discuss his future with his followers, only a few hundred bothered to show up on a beautiful afternoon. And many familiar faces were missing.
"It was pathetic," said a longtime Barry operative. "That was the last nail in the coffin. There was no one left to get out the crowds."
There also was the emotional and physical wear on the 62-year-old. Barry is still a relentless politicker, forever barnstorming about the city. But his natural hair color is nearly white now, and in this decade alone he's survived prostate cancer, served time in prison, and battled drug and alcohol abuse.
"I have been mayor for 16 years, and it has taken a toll on me," Barry told a group of ministers who gathered at Purity Baptist Church in Northeast Washington on Saturday.
"His lessons from trying to deal with the control board and Congress were wrenching and unmistakable," said Lawrence Guyot, a comrade of Barry's from their days in the civil rights movement. "There was no chance he could negotiate with them."
Looked at in this light, thumbing through his list of personal and political negatives, with the likelihood that a Republican-led Congress would sooner abolish the office than restore power to Barry, the mayor's decision seemed clear and easy. By late March, many of Barry's oldest retainers and advisers privately said the mayor had decided not to run, and they began to cast their lots with other mayoral campaigns.
"He can still light up a hostile house," said Westy Bird, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Georgetown. "But there comes a time that you get real tired of having to win people over. It gets exhausting."
Still, on the cusp of decision, Barry's resolve seemed to waver. It was as though, confronted with his political mortality, the mayor could not bring himself to step into the void.
The languid pace of his weekly news conferences picked up in recent weeks, as did the quality of his repartee. The mayor began to hint, none too subtly, that he could take the field. When his staff pasted together a few news releases and called it a "Spring Initiative" a few weeks back, his press secretary, Linda Boyd, whispered to reporters that the announcement might be played as an election kickoff.
The other candidates treated the mayor's second thoughts seriously, and for good reason. However weak his management style, Barry is a formidable campaigner, with a feel for the vernacular of street politics. And old friends talked of the old magic.
"Marion could have taken Ward 8," Guyot insisted. "There are people all over lying in the woodwork, waiting [to support a mayoral campaign] for him."
Johnson believes Barry considered running again.
"He had to be tempted," Johnson said. "The numbers looked good. Particularly when you are a giant and all the other candidates are pygmies."
Despite the temptation -- and it is a temptation that will linger in the aftermath of yesterday's announcement -- even his wife, Cora, seemed to sense that they had no need to climb another mountain. There seemed little left to prove. She recalled the mayor's conversation with people who stopped him on the street and urged him to run again.
"They say, 'You can show them,' " she said a few weeks ago. "Well, we did that already. We really did."
Staff writer Ashley Halsey contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company