Day after day in the past week, as rumors intensified that Mayor Marion Barry would not seek reelection, his press secretary, Lurma Rackley, was pursued by reporters, pressing her for news she did not have.
When the announcement finally came yesterday, provoking the ravening media mob to a fever pitch, Rackley was there, as she has been increasingly during the past few months as the mayor's legal troubles have intensified. She was with him yesterday when he went over his speech in the morning, when he taped it at noon during a break from jury selection for his trial on drug possession and perjury charges, when he delivered copies of it and spoke to a group of black newspaper editors at 1, while he sat through another afternoon in court, and when he spoke to his cabinet later. And she tried to keep up with the questions, "a thousand questions."
"I was prepared for him to decide either way," she said last night. "My work won't change that much."
You could say the intensity of the journalists pursuing Barry reflects the District's fascination with the fate of its mayor and the host of unsettling questions surrounding him. Even though he settled one yesterday when he announced he would not seek a fourth term, others remain. Will his trial continue or will a plea be bargained? Could he change his mind about running? Increasingly the person to whom these questions are posed is Lurma Rackley, a 41-year-old District government veteran and former reporter whose striking presence has been more visible as the mayor's troubles have worsened. She has emerged as one of his more forceful and dedicated defenders -- at the expense, in the view of some, of her own credibility.
The question about her is generally this: "Why would an intelligent, capable woman like her work for a mayor who's in the dock on drug charges?" Or, more broadly, "Who would want this job?"
Long Days, Intense Scrutiny
Rackley became Barry's press secretary last October, two months before the mayor's now-infamous visit to the Vista Hotel. She had been the deputy to the departing press secretary, John White (now a producer at Channel 7), and had held other positions in the communications and the press offices since 1986. It was not a job she had sought, primarily because of the hours, she said, but one she couldn't refuse.
"For someone else to come in at a time like that would have been very hard for the office," she said. "And also I wasn't sure I wanted to be somebody else's deputy."
At the time, the mayor was under investigation but had not been charged with anything. Scrutiny from the media was -- as it continues to be -- intense, and the job of press secretary had become more sensitive than it was in earlier days. Marion Barry was known as a politician who essentially handled the press himself, usually as brilliantly as Horowitz played the piano.
But that was before his arrest and subsequent hospitalization in two substance abuse programs, his admission of alcoholism, the extensive reports of womanizing, and the prosecution's videotape of him allegedly smoking crack.
For Rackley, who is paid $63,000 a year, that has meant days that begin at 6:30 a.m. -- often with a call from a radio reporter -- and that often end at midnight. The telephone in her office rings about every three minutes, and she wears a beeper wherever she goes. Reporters have called from Japan and from Spain, not to mention all the national and considerable local media outlets. Everyone wants an interview with the mayor, and everyone wants the answers to questions she may not be able to answer. Lately she has spent most days in the courtroom, taking notes on the proceedings and dealing with reporters before and after.
In the view of some, the job has become less that of a press secretary, arranging interviews and working to get out the message of the administration's policy initiatives, than of an advocate engaged in damage control. Reporters complain that as the mayor's troubles have worsened, and the wagons have circled, it has become harder to get routine information from Rackley. "After his arrest they have only grudgingly given out any information at all, like his schedule, despite the fact that the taxpayer is paying for it," said Tom Sherwood, a reporter who covered the mayor for The Washington Post and now for Channel 4. "I don't blame Lurma, though, she works for the mayor. It's his decision."
There are others who say Rackley is one of the Kool Aides, so dubbed because, in this view, their loyalty to the mayor has passed the bounds of common sense and into the realm of personality cult. She doesn't see it that way.
Rackley says her admiration of the mayor has more to do with his political agenda than a personal relationship. She is not a member of his inner circle, she says, not one of those invited to dinner or tennis or strategy sessions. Furthermore, she believes that a politician's personal life should not be examined as closely as his public one, and that when it is, someone else's political agenda may be at work. And she does not avoid the topic of the mayor's problems with alcohol.
"I truly believe he has changed his lifestyle," she said. I do know he used to drink, although all I ever saw was at the end of the day, which was not so strange for someone of his generation. Now he has given up anything he was using as a mind-altering substance. ... Whether or not these allegations are proven to be true, I would be the last person to sit in judgment on a personal weakness. If you deal with your problems, as he has, then I respect you.
"I see a change in him, even though I never had a bad relationship with him. He is more calm, more centered. Sometimes you used to think he was looking through you rather than at you. He has a clearer head."
Rackley is a slim woman with a mass of curly black hair and delicate features, punctuated by a scar -- the result of a tragic car accident when she was 2 -- that joins one eyebrow. She reminds you somehow of an exotic bird, small and quick, talking rapidly, occasionally tucking her hair behind her ear. There is a trace of a Southern accent in her speech, which is exceptionally crisp. She laughs often, and at herself.
As tiny and Southern as she may seem, it is also clear that some part of her core is made of steel. She presents an intriguing combination of nervousness and self-assurance, an attenuated energy that is appealing even as it is evidence of stress.
One day as she walked down Pennsylvania Avenue from the courthouse during the lunch break, a woman who had seen her on television spoke to her as they waited for a light to change. "I think you're doing great," said the woman, who works for the D.C. government. "I can't believe how calm you are."
"Calm!" Rackley said later. "That's the last word I'd use to describe me." She carries a good-luck stone that she holds in her hand in the courtroom, massaging it when she gets upset to rid herself of "negative thoughts."
Civil Rights Roots
To understand something about why this woman feels the way she does about Marion Barry, it is necessary to talk to her mother, Gloria Blackwell, who teaches American literature at Clark College in Atlanta.
Blackwell described a childhood that was middle-class normal and tumultuous. When Lurma was 2, her mother divorced her father, who was an alcoholic. During that period, Blackwell was driving her three daughters on a country road when a man with impaired vision ran into them, forcing the car off the road, killing the oldest daughter, then 5, and injuring everyone else seriously.
A few years later Blackwell married Jack Rackley, a professor of psychology at South Carolina State, a black college in Orangeburg.
When her two remaining daughters were young, Blackwell said, she and Rackley decided to become involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement, working to abolish segregation even though they knew their public school jobs could be jeopardized. They became involved in the local NAACP and helped organize demonstrations in Orangeburg.
"You have to realize that most of us were comfortable; we had nice homes and were accustomed to travel and everything. Lurma went to the lab school at the college, she studied Latin, she was on the honor roll, she took tap and ballet, we went to church. We had everything -- except we lived in a segregated society. But we tried to buffer our children from that."
But the children did not want to be excluded from the civil rights activity, and soon found a role in urging people to boycott segregated businesses. When the demonstrators were arrested and taken to the jail to be booked, the children under 18 were not jailed and went back to replenish the march. Lurma was among them.
"They made it look like we had more people than we really had," said Blackwell. "But the officials caught on and they got annoyed."
Lurma was subsequently arrested and not released, but taken instead to a temporary jail. Since she was barely 13, she was placed in a makeshift solitary confinement for about a week. "I couldn't get in to see her, but I would go every day and take some milk for her and stand outside and cry," her mother said.
Later, on their way to face the juvenile judge, Blackwell and her daughter saw a ladies' restroom in the courthouse and needed to use it. They were promptly arrested for using a segregated bathroom and were jailed. When Lurma's case was called, the elderly white judge sentenced her to seven years in reform school.
Her mother still gets emotional at the memory. "He was livid with rage. It was an affront for us to go to this ladies' room. ... He called me an unfit mother and said she was a juvenile delinquent."
The NAACP lawyer's appeals kept her out of reform school, but Lurma was told that her demonstrating days were over. "But she said she couldn't stop, because people would think she was only committed until it got hard ... so we made a deal," her mother said. "She wouldn't get herself in a position to get arrested if I was already in jail."
Rackley's father lost his job at the college and moved to another one in Florida, where he still lives. Blackwell lost her job, sued the state and won, and moved to Norfolk. (They subsequently divorced and both remarried.) And when Lurma Rackley applied for her first driver's license in Virginia, she was initially rejected because she had "a record."
Barry came into politics through the civil rights movement, and while some feel he has lost touch with those ideals, others, like Rackley, see a continuing quest to "feed the hungry and clothe the naked."
"I could not work for a tobacco company, no matter how much I liked the person I was going to work for," said Rackley, a vehement non-smoker. "The only thing that would disillusion me about the mayor is if I felt he was selling out the people from a public policy perspective."
She also thinks the mayor may have been unfairly targeted because he is black, pointing to white politicians whose private behavior has been less than edifying who have not ended up in courtrooms. Her experience with a judicial system that was prepared to send her to reform school for going to the bathroom may explain why she is jaundiced in her view of whether a conviction would actually prove that the mayor is guilty.
Rackley's former co-workers at the Washington Star remember her as aggressive, opinionated, fun to work with, and unusually attractive. She entered journalism in 1970 through a Ford Foundation program to enlarge minority representation in the news media. She loved the work and, according to former co-workers, was good at it.
She also made her desire to have a child well known, so when she became pregnant -- and uninterested in getting married or in revealing who the father of her child was -- her newsroom colleagues were delighted, not shocked. Her son, Rumal (an anagram of Lurma) has been the focus of her life in the 13 years since.
She left the Star for District government in 1979, because the unpredictable hours she had -- working as a metro editor -- caused too much havoc in her child care arrangements.
She and Rumal, who now attends Sidwell Friends (he completed elementary school at Stevens, a Washington public school), live in Fairfax. (She is exempt from the city government's 1980 residency requirement because she started work there in 1979.) For the first time, at 41, she is planning to be married. She wears a diamond engagement ring but has not set a date.
Her fiance is Gil Scott-Heron, a musician whose work is strongly influenced by his political views. A British music weekly, New Musical Express, reported in its June 2 issue that Scott-Heron pleaded guilty last month to attempting to smuggle cocaine into the country and was fined 500 pounds by a British court.
For all her loyalty to the mayor, Rackley can see a time when she has another job. She thinks about writing novels or magazine articles, or possibly being press secretary to some other Democrat whose views she shares. A job where she might be able to get home a little earlier.