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Ward 8, D.C.'s poorest community, strongly supported Barry in the 1994 election. Click for the full image.

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Loyalists Stand With Barry as the Embodiment of Home Rule

By Vanessa William and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 25 1996; Page B01
The Washington Post

Alverta Howard Munlyn doesn't want to hear it -- the accusations and insinuations that seem to crackle around D.C. Mayor Marion Barry like static.

She has known him since the late 1960s, when they fought side by side to force the federal government to build housing for poor people at First and M streets NW. And just last week, Barry joined her and other neighborhood residents in front of the boarded-up Perry School to snip a red ribbon and signal the start of work -- after nearly 10 years -- to transform it into a community service center.

So don't go bad-mouthing Barry to Munlyn.

"I look at him as the same person I met that first day, when we were sleeping on the ground, trying to save our houses, and this man walked up to me and said, `How can I help you?' " Munlyn said. "This is the Marion I know."

For Munlyn, nothing can change that first impression of Barry: not his recent nasty fight with the D.C. financial control board over its order that he oust one of his top aides; not his acknowledged friendship with a man whose house was raided by a federal-local task force investigating allegations of fraud; not the continuing investigation into renovations on the mayor's house on Raleigh Street SE, where authorities recently seized security equipment from the grounds.

Despite presiding over a city in financial ruin and managerial chaos, Barry continues to enjoy the support of many D.C. residents, who dismiss the most recent political ripples in his fourth mayoral term as little more than a pebble tossed into the ocean.

What matters most to Barry loyalists is that he keeps pushing against what many see as a resistant, even racist, Congress that is determined to take back home rule.

And Barry never lets them forget it.

"It's always about the people," Barry (D) said during his brief remarks at the ribbon-cutting. And he encouraged the residents to applaud themselves for their perseverance. "Give it up for yourselves! Come on now! Let's hear it!"

He told them about how he had made a commitment to the community center several years ago during his third term, pledging $500,000 in city funds if the residents raised $1 million from private sources. Then Barry left office after he was videotaped smoking crack in a downtown hotel.

"As soon as I got back in office last year," Barry said, "Alverta called me up and said, `Where's our money?' "

Munlyn said in an interview after the ceremony: "Even when he's had his problems, he's always there to help the people."

It is the legacy of his early years in office, the ability to do little things for neighborhoods such as Munlyn's, and a sense that Congress has never played fair with the District that compel supporters to defend Barry against all critics.

"People don't want power taken away from him because he is the symbol. . . . That's why people rally around him," said Jim Berry, 45, a community activist from the Shaw section of Northwest Washington. "Marion Barry is not the issue for most people. The issue is self-determination."

The District is nearly broke, Barry's supporters argue, because Congress will not provide enough money to run the government. The mayor's name is frequently linked to some investigation or another, they say, because Congress is out to bring down the city's black elected leadership. And the control board is a sinister plot to divide and conquer by using one set of black people to oppress another.

To many D.C. residents, particularly those in poor and working-class neighborhoods, Barry is the only political figure in the District who has shown a willingness to stand up for them against those forces, even if he has not cleared the snow or filled the potholes or kept bodies from piling up in the city's antiquated morgue.

"They see Marion as David against Goliath," said the Rev. Imagene Stewart, who runs a shelter for the homeless in the city. "People out here now don't care about what he does. He is the only hope for the little man."

One 47-year-old official in the Department of Finance and Revenue said many people support Barry because they don't see anybody else who cares, and when he is under fire, their attitude is: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

The enemy -- a conservative, Republican-controlled Congress -- has pushed even those who might otherwise be critical of Barry to become reluctant defenders.

"There's a certain amount of `circle the wagons' at work," said Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, who did not support Barry's last mayoral bid. "He may not be the very best, but people perceive he's being castrated . . . not by the voters who elected him but by a hostile Congress and, by extension, the control board.

"So people say, `We don't care what he's doing, because look at where the attack is coming from.' It's coming from people who are perceived as not our friends, not people who want to save us but are bent on proving we are incapable of governing ourselves and therefore want to take us over and will use any excuse, including manufacturing issues and charges."

But Williams said Barry risks losing some of his traditional supporters in the budget battles that remain.

City workers are worried about losing their jobs as the administration and the control board try to reduce the size of government, he said. He added that he hopes Barry will fight the control board as hard for the jobs of rank-and-file workers as he has fought for some high-level appointees, including Human Services Director Vernon E. Hawkins, who ultimately lost his Cabinet post anyway.

For now, however, he has their loyalty. Howard Croft, chairman of the urban studies department at the University of the District of Columbia and a Barry nominee to the city zoning commission, said there is no other political figure in the short life of D.C. home rule who has delivered economic opportunity -- jobs and contracts -- to the city's majority-black population.

This month, Barry was on hand to present medals to uniformed city employees at the annual Meritorious Service Awards luncheon.

The event was sponsored by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, and although Barry arrived an hour after the head table was introduced, he still took time to make his way around the ballroom of the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

He greeted by name many of the business owners and city employees who reached out to grasp his hand. He smiled sweetly when two golden-haired girls with shy smiles approached to ask for his autograph.

"What Marion Barry says to ordinary people is [that] he is their champion," Croft said, adding that he won't lose that support unless something happens that makes them stop believing he's their champion or someone "comes on the scene and says, `I'm a damn better champion.' "

© The Washington Post

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