Barry Brought Out Public Passions
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 22, 1998; Page A27
Mayor Marion Barry had just serenaded several thousand senior citizens gathered for lunch at the D.C. Armory yesterday with the song "Stormy Monday Blues." As he wiped sweat from his brow and walked away, a silver-haired woman named Audrey Conyers demonstrated Barry's continued appeal.
"Hey, Mr. Mayor!" she hollered. Then, gleeful as the mayor headed her way, she gushed, "He is my man."
Marion Barry has always brought out passions, from those who love him and those who hate him. His announcement yesterday that he will not seek reelection plucked emotions across the city, among matrons in Southeast Washington and lawyers on Capitol Hill, among would-be District mayors and members of Congress, among fans of Barry's and critics.
In some quarters, tears were shed, reflecting those Barry himself apparently fought off at the end of his speech yesterday. For many, Barry has come to embody the long struggles -- both political and personal -- that have beset the city and its residents through four decades. For them, this last act of a political career was a personal loss.
"I really hate to see him not run," said James Booze, 70, a community activist from Northeast. "I don't see anyone else who is a friend of the youth, the senior citizens and the poorest of the poor."
But others choked on the mayor's 25-minute speech -- his account of what he said were his many accomplishments for the city -- and rejoiced at the exit of the man they feel helped bring down the city he professed to love.
"I'm glad to see him go. He's an embarrassment to the city," said Roland Harris, 67, a retired federal worker who lives in the Fort Davis section of Southeast. "Maybe Congress will lighten up just a little bit, because most of the things they've done was to get at Barry."
"I am delighted that the mayor has put the needs of the city first," said John R. Tydings, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. He called Barry "one of the brightest elected officials I've ever dealt with" but said the mayor has become a liability to the District's image and reputation.
Barry, ever the master of suspense and intrigue, attracted his friends and foes alike to television sets across the city at 4:30 p.m., and they waited to hear whether the mayor's long, glowing account of his years in office would end in a goodbye or a vow to run again.
At the Hecht's store in downtown Washington, customers stood transfixed before the TV screens.
"It's a sad time for the residents of our city," said D. Fleming, an airline employee who lives in the Anacostia section of Southeast.
"I think he did one good job," said Richard Smith, 41, of Northwest, a stockroom employee at Hecht's, who also stopped to watch the announcement. "If by chance he was going to run again, he was going to get my vote."
At Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest, the jukebox was playing an Isley Brothers song. But the music stopped and customers and employees paused to watch Barry's announcement.
John Snipes, a business consultant and longtime Barry supporter, mused that Barry "has provided jobs for a lot of people, provided summer jobs for the kids and looked out for the old people. But he can't do it alone."
"Even though he helped the city in numerous ways, there comes a point when it's time for another person to serve," said Robert Rollins, 33, a Ben's employee. He said the mayor comes to the restaurant for "turkey burgers and herb tea."
For many, Barry was a personal symbol of the long effort to get a measure of home rule in the city, and his announcement brought memories of that struggle.
"I appreciate Marion Barry all the way back to the days when he ran around in a dashiki, but I think we need new blood," said John Lucus, 71, a retired Internal Revenue Service employee and a native Washingtonian.
Aviva Kempner, an independent filmmaker who lives in Ward 3 in Northwest, said she admired Barry's civil rights contributions and his support of the arts, but hated the taunts that came with having a mayor who was videotaped smoking crack in an FBI sting that lead to a misdemeanor conviction for drug possession.
"I won't have to endure any more jokes from my out-of-town friends and visitors," she said. "I ask you, how many 'going up in smoke' jokes can one person hear in a decade?"
Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), who led the congressional effort to strip Barry of most of his power last summer, said the city would be much better off with a new mayor. He said that Barry has been a "terrible" mayor and that new leadership would help the District rebound.
"It is time for him to move on. . . . I think that the Congress would like to see the city run clean and right like a city should be run."
Faircloth said Barry's departure from the mayor's office will improve the chances of local officials regaining the power to run the city, authority that now rests largely with the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board.
Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations D.C. subcommittee, who often has challenged the mayor, said yesterday that Barry deserves credit for devoting nearly his entire adult life to public service.
"We ought to applaud the service he has given," Moran said. "I'm sure that there are a lot of things he would have done differently in hindsight, but the fact is that he tried to do what was in the interest of D.C. as he saw it."
Congressional hostility toward Barry "certainly was a stumbling block" in efforts to help the city's business community, said Pedro Alfonso, founder and chief executive of Dynamic Concepts Inc., a D.C.-based technology services company that is one of the region's largest African American-owned firms.
"The Barry era was a good one for minority-owned and small businesses," he said. But Barry's departure is likely to help the District's economy, he said.
At the senior citizen center in Anacostia a few hours before Barry's announcement, D.C. Council member David Catania (R-At Large) said that maybe now the city can focus on other candidates and "go beyond the politics of personality and into the politics of principles and ideas."
But in a city that has had only three elected mayors since the inception of home rule in 1975, that task will not be easy. The Rev. Graylan Hagler refused to believe Barry was stepping out of the race until he heard the mayor's words.
"It is clearly an end of an era and a very historic moment in the District," said Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast. "Marion Barry is all District residents have known since almost the begining of limited home rule."
Some of the mayor's supporters painted Barry's departure in terms of the racial struggle.
"This takes the sheets off the racists on Capitol Hill who always blame Marion for the city's problems," said boxing promoter Rock Newman, who headed Barry's transition team after the last election. "Now they will have to be more accountable to the people, because they won't have him around anymore."
But Rick Malachi, 32, deputy chairman of the political Umoja Party in the District, said no one will run in the same tradition as Barry.
"There is no grass-roots-style activist running to be mayor. They are all lawyers and too corporate," Malachi said. "Marion was able to touch people at every economic level. I couldn't see any of the present candidates at Ben's Chili Bowl."
Staff writers Yolanda Woodlee, David Montgomery, David A. Vise, Patrice Gaines and Peter Behr contributed to this story.
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