Admiration From the Outer Circle
By Vanessa Williams
At the time, Cooper was director of the D.C. Office of Human Rights, and over the preceding few years had stepped on more than a few feet of political people who ran afoul of the city's anti-discrimination laws. And, Cooper reminded herself, she was not part of his inner circle.
They met over dinner and, Cooper recalled recently, she could barely swallow her food as she waited for the verdict. Instead, Barry asked her to become his chief of staff. "That's when I really did choke on my food," she said, laughing at the memory.
While she was flattered and intrigued by the offer, Cooper hesitated. It was nearly 1989, nearing the end of Barry's third term, and he and his administration were being hammered by allegations of corruption and mismanagement. But Cooper, who had a good reputation in the administration for turning around the human rights office, was urged by her father and her minister to do what she could to help.
She took the job determined to help stabilize the drifting administration. She ordered a cleanup of the first floor of the District Building, fired slacking staff members and tried to organize the mayor's office.
Less than a year later, she remembered sadly, "I had the dubious distinction of having to notify his wife that he had been arrested."
Cooper, a lawyer who now is president of the Greater Washington Urban League, stayed until the last day of the term. She continued to run Barry's office, even traveling to a Florida drug treatment facility with papers for him to sign.
"The last 18 months were pretty painful," she said. "But what he did, he did it to himself. . . . He was never malicious to the people of the District of Columbia. He still wanted black people to succeed, to see folks down and out succeed. . . . He believed he could fix it."
A Mississippi native whose family moved to St. Paul, Minn., in search of a better life, Cooper came to Howard University in 1958. After receiving her law degree, she worked briefly for the Internal Revenue Service and then the National Urban League. She met Barry when she interviewed for the D.C. human rights job in 1983.
The post excited her because it would give her the chance to put her legal training and her commitment to social justice into action. The previous director had been forced out, leaving the office in disarray.
In the next few years, she would get the office back up and running and take on several high profile cases. She held up the issuance of $200 million in tax-exempt bonds for Georgetown University because the school was denying gay student organizations the status afforded other groups. Barry was bombarded with irate calls. He called Cooper to talk about it.
"I said, 'You're the mayor and you can overrule me . . . but that would fly in the face of all you believe in,' " Cooper remembers telling him. He backed her position.
Cooper said she did not support Barry when he ran for a fourth term in 1994, but the two remain good professional friends.
"We were never buddies. I was loyal -- and I'm still loyal to his legacy," Cooper said. Even through his personal and political crises, Cooper said, Barry "tried to put the best foot forward. . . . And he never stopped trying to help people.
"Now that it's over, I hope people will be a lot kinder," Cooper said. "I really believe that he tried."