With No Regrets, the Mayor Says Farewell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 1998; Page A1
A relaxed, smiling and self-confident Marion Barry declared yesterday that after 16 years as mayor of Washington, he will leave office Saturday without regrets and convinced that the city today is better off than when he was first elected.
"I've had a lot of homers, a lot of triples, doubles and singles. More homers, more doubles, more triples than I've had strikeouts. More ups than downs," Barry (D) said in the final news conference of his fourth and presumably last term. "And I have been a good mayor, and I'm proud of the many accomplishments I've been able to do."
The mayor touched on a broad range of topics: his plan to write an autobiography, his continuing frustration with Republicans in Congress, his disappointment with the financial control board, his belief that he has been an honest public servant and the lessons he learned about coming back after reaching a low point in his life.
Barry declined to discuss in detail his arrest in 1990 and later conviction and six-month jail sentence for cocaine possession , saying that the public would have to wait for his book to learn more about the events.
"You can pretend the storm does not exist," Barry said. " . . . You can descend to the gutter and feel sorry for yourself. Or you can ascend. And I have demonstrated that. No matter what the storm is, you can ascend."
In the weeks before the end of Barry's current term, the city's inspector general and the U.S. attorney launched investigations into whether tens of thousands of dollars in city money were diverted to pay for a recent celebration of Barry's tenure and whether city officials tried to cover up the expenditures by shredding documents.
Yesterday, Barry continued to dispute suggestions that he may have improperly directed city employees to spend District money on the celebration in October at MCI Center.
"One reputation I don't have is stealing money from the public. That is what one of even my fiercest critics said," Barry said. "I am an honest manager, an honest mayor in terms of government."
Barry said he remains comfortable with his decision to retire from politics, although he said he "certainly would have won" a fifth term.
Looking back over his years as mayor, Barry said he is particularly proud of the progress in downtown Washington – the 23 million square feet of office and retail space, the sprinkling of new housing and the new MCI Center.
"A whole bunch of good things that happened," he said.
Barry acknowledged that more could have been done to improve the city's neighborhoods but said that he felt comfortable with the limited progress, particularly the several shopping centers the city helped finance in economically depressed parts of the District.
"The room for improvement is always the biggest in the house," he said.
The trouble during much of his tenure, he said, has been in overcoming a reluctance to change, dismissing any suggestion that it was his own leadership that led to the city's financial crisis in recent years or to the decline in city services.
"I did not build this bureaucracy," he said. "I tried to move it." In fact, the number of city employees grew from about 39,000 in 1980 to 48,000 in 1990, at the end of his third term. He returned to the mayor's office in 1995 after a four-year break. There were about 34,600 city employees in 1997, after the control board had assumed power.
The low point of his fourth term, Barry said, was in August 1997, when the financial control board, under the leadership of then-Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer, took over most city agencies, stripping Barry of nearly all of his power. Barry called it a "bloodless coup." The control board's new chairman, Alice M. Rivlin, he said, deserves credit for returning most of those powers to Mayor-elect Anthony A. Williams (D).
"She didn't go as far as I wanted her to go or [Williams] wanted her to go," Barry said, "but she certainly has set the tone and tenor for a different relationship."
Barry said it was city employees – and not the control board – who deserve credit for the turnaround in services in recent years, from the filling of potholes to road construction projects such as the Whitehurst Freeway and North Capitol Street.
He attributed his loss of control over the city to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, suggesting that "if you look throughout the history of our republic, you find that Republicans have never really supported self-government."
After Williams takes over on Saturday, Barry plans to take a short vacation with his wife and son. He declined to say where. But he made a point of noting that he was paying for the trip himself, placing his hand on his heart as he made the remarks.
The mayor said he is confident he has fully recovered from his bout with prostate cancer, although diabetes is still causing him trouble. Regarding his plans once he leaves office, Barry said that other than his intention to write a book, his professional plans are "not firmly in place." Barry said he did not want to provide details for fear that "someone will mess that up."
"I'm not sad, and I'm not anxious. I'm not down. In fact, I'm up. I feel good physically, mentally, in good shape spiritually – and someone said I look pretty good, too!" Barry said, evoking laughter.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company