Mayor Says He Won't Seek Another Term
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 22, 1998; Page A01
Marion Barry announced yesterday that he would not seek a fifth term as mayor, relinquishing his hold on an office he defined and used to dominate politics in the District for most of the past 20 years.
Ending months of speculation, Barry said that he had searched his soul before concluding that he could better fight "the mean-spirited Republican Congress" that had whittled away home rule in the District from "the outside rather than the inside."
"I believe I've been a good mayor," Barry told several hundred assembled supporters. "I also believe I've been a compassionate, sensitive, accountable mayor; a responsible and a sacrificing mayor who served the people with joy."
The mayor could not bring himself to utter any variation of the actual words -- "I will not seek reelection" -- and, indeed, he has until the final filing deadline on Aug. 26 to entertain a change of heart.
But Barry's aides said he was not leaving the door cracked to the possibility he would enter the race, and they distributed a news release titled: "Mayor Barry announces his decision not to run for public office."
Flanked by his wife, Cora Masters Barry, his son, Christopher, 17, and his minister, the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, of Union Temple Baptist Church, Barry delivered a 25-minute tribute to his years in office. He received several standing ovations from the faithful who filled the D.C. Council chamber for his presumptive farewell to elective politics.
Barry said he would continue living and working in Washington "as long as I'm alive," and he remained defiant, denouncing his Capitol Hill foes for seeking "to break the spirit of our people and recolonize our souls."
Beyond his desire to continue battling Congress over home rule, Barry made no specific reference to his plans. In a brief interview afterward, he indicated that he hoped to develop "a professional relationship either with African countries themselves or with business people who want to do business in Africa, or African people who want to do business in America."
Barry has so dominated local politics -- thanks to charisma, history and a solid base of support -- that the nascent mayoral campaigns of three D.C. Council members, Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Harold Brazil (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) virtually were held in limbo awaiting his decision.
"There's been a preoccupation with his decision, and it's been a diversion from what we ought to be talking about," Brazil said.
Brazil paid homage to Barry as a master politician and as a noted figure from the civil rights movement.
"He's got that showman in him," Brazil said. "But he's a person under that -- and being treated as a pariah by Congress and the control board -- that's got to hurt. In the final analysis, that's why he's not going to run. There's nothing more but further downside for him. The others see a brighter side. That just will not happen for Barry, and I think he knows that."
Nonetheless, Barry can say he went out on top: A Washington Post survey conducted this month shows him with a commanding 2 to 1 lead over his rivals and a much more committed base of support.
Marie Drissel, for years a voluble Barry critic, was virtually speechless after listening to his farewell.
"I really thought he was mayor for life," Drissel said.
Not everyone was left so enthralled.
"He has been a terrible mayor," said Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District and the author of legislation stripping nearly all of Barry's remaining power last July. "We can start with the police department, the schools opening six weeks to two months late, streets that are totally in disrepair, Lorton prison. There simply wasn't an accounting system for the city. . . . The social services system was as corrupt as anything could be, and they weren't even using [all of] the money. Millions of dollars were backed up."
Some of the region's business leaders, while not as openly critical, reacted with relief at Barry's decision, saying he had been responsible for a considerable part of Washington's image problems.
"Unfortunately, he was the focus of an enormous amount of media attention around this country and outside of it that wasn't positive," said John R. Tydings, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the region's largest business organization.
In contrast to Faircloth, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called Barry her "friend" and said the city's prospects are improving.
"After a lifetime of public service and devotion to this city, my friend Marion Barry is leaving office with the city on the rebound," Norton said. "I wish him well."
Cora Barry said she did not influence her husband's decision.
"It was a road he had to walk," the mayor's fourth wife said. "I prayed for him. I tried not to influence him. He knew that I didn't want him to run, but I never said, 'Don't run.' "
Barry began his speech with emotional references to his wife and his son. Christopher Barry is a tall, lean teenager who towered over his father as they embraced before a bank of a dozen whirring television cameras.
"He was born during my second year as mayor, and he's lived through all of this," Barry said. "He's had to live through times when I wasn't home and should have been."
Barry was first elected mayor in 1978 and was reelected in 1982 and 1986. He was convicted of one misdemeanor count of drug possession in 1990 after he was videotaped smoking crack cocaine at the Vista Hotel in an FBI sting. But after serving six months in prison, he was reelected mayor in 1994.
His remark about not being home for his son was one of the only references in his speech to the personal problems.
"I've had some dark and difficult days in my life, as you know," Barry said toward the end of his address, the only direct reference to the underside of his tenure in office. "I succumbed to the demons of alcohol and illegal drugs. But then God has been good to me. . . . I stand here 8 1/2 years later clean and sober."
Barry said one of his greatest accomplishments after 16 years as mayor had been empowering minority businesses through a law requiring that 35 percent of all city contracts go to minority firms.
"We have over 1,000 new businesses that wouldn't have been here if we didn't have that law," Barry said.
Along the same lines, Barry said he inherited a bureaucracy in 1979 in which most upper-level management jobs were reserved for whites.
"But look at our government now," he said. "In every agency, African Americans and women and other qualified minorities are making major decisions."
Barry also took credit for the boom in downtown construction, saying 23 million square feet of office space had been built on his watch. And he said he has funded summer jobs over the years for more than 100,000 District teenagers.
"No other city in America has that kind of commitment to our young people," he said.
Betsy Tibbs, a longtime supporter and Ward 4 coordinator, was overcome by it all.
"I'm feeling wonderful because the mayor has lived through it all," she said. "All the harassment, the problems that no other person could have endured. But he endured because the people were behind him and supported him and believed in him. He's still the mayor, forever."
D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), who worked on two Barry campaigns, said that the mayor left office a winner.
"He comes out like a football player who just won a ring and comes out of the game before he gets hurt. This way he comes out without being defeated," Allen said.
Nik Reid, a local real estate broker, said that he has been with Barry for 12 years and doesn't know who "will fill in the gap" for the mayor.
"It's a very noble step down. There were a lot of us just waiting for the signal. We just don't see anybody else who will take up the cause of all the people who live in the District."
Betty King, who has backed Barry's efforts for 25 years, said that the downside is that Barry won't be in office next January.
"It's a sad day," King said. "It's been a time of great happiness, great tragedy and ups and downs and challenge. It's a sad day."
But King said she looks forward to Barry returning to civil rights activism.
"That's what we need. We've all been sitting around on our hands. We need to have people doing civil disobedience and screaming like hell. If he does, I'll be right there with him."
Last night, after giving a speech across town, Barry told reporters that it was "unlikely" that he would ever seek political office again.
"I am moving away from electoral politics," he said.
Staff writers David A. Vise, Hamil R. Harris and Peter Behr contributed to this report.
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