Mayor Marion Barry was meeting last week with the congressional commissin set up to oversee the improvement of the District government's accounting system. The commission wanted to know how well Barry's plan to cut city government costs was going.
He didn't know, the mayor acknowledged. After months of fighting the budget crisis, he still had no accurate way to measure overspending by city agencies and no way to throttle it.
The District of Columbia's massive budget deficit has created for Barry a political problem that goes far beyond dollars and cents and decimal points -- the perception, becoming more widespread, that he and his administration are not in control of the financial crisis.
The Rev. Raymond B. Kemp, a member of Barry's transition team and an old friend, of the mayor, said he believed Barry's government has become "ineffective," reduced to railing against Congress for refusing to give the District more money.
"Where does that leave Marion? Pointing toward Capitol Hill with his thumb in his mouth, saying the cupboard is bare and we owe rent on the shelves. It's a pitiful scene, is what it is," said Kemp, pastor of St. Paul & Augustine Chruch at 15th and V Streets NW.
"A lot of people feel that they don't know what they're doing," former Democratic National Committee member Lillian Huff said of the Barry administration.
Huff is active in the middle-class areas of Northeast Washington, considered the backbone of the city's black community. Huff backed former mayor Walter E. Washington in the Democratic primary. "You can't put all this on people who didn't support him in the election," she said. "Some of his own people are uptight."
"I think the mayor still has to prove his fiscal credibility, which isn't occurring yet," said R. Robert Linowes, a politically active lawyer and former president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "I frankly think he might have been surprised by the degree and scope of the responsibility of being a mayor."
"The vibes we keep getting are folks just feel he's lost control, if he ever had it," said Joslyn Williams, who heads the political arm of the Greater Washington Central Labor Council. "We're wondering if the mayor is thinking about 1982, or has he just written himself off as a one-term mayor?"
One of the most prominent themes of Barry's successful successful 1978 campaign was that above all, a Barry administration would be competent. It would replace the "bumbling and bungling" administrators of the past with hard-nosed, can-do managers who knew how to count. When the budget crisis surfaced in January, Barry said emphatically that he and his people were on top of the problem and would solve it.
But over the past four months, this image of competence and control has been tarnished -- some say shattered -- by events that seem to outpace the administration's ability to react.
The Barry administration has announced, and then abandoned, a bewildering array of figures on the size of the budget's problem, ranging from $29 million to nearly $300 million -- a situation that a prominent local labor official recently called "a tragicomedy," adding. "We just don't know from day to day what's going on."
Barry disclosed last week that years of overspending had left the District with an accumulated deficit of $284 million as of the end of the 1979 fiscal year. In addition, the administration has said that the city faces a budget gap of up to $172 million for the current fiscal year.
Barry has proposed handling the 1980 deficit through a combination of program cutbacks, increased and new taxes, additional funds from Congress and employe layoffs. The accumulated deficit may have to be solved by long-term borrowing, according to the city's financial advisers.
The city has witnessed the spectacle of more than 200 firefighters converging on the District Building and police officers taking to the streets to pass out leaflets -- all to protest budget cuts and layoffs proposed by Barry.
Perhaps even more troubling for the mayor is that various kinds of citizens -- including activists cut from the same cloth as the dashiki-wearing Marion Barry of the 1960s -- have booed his proposed cuts in city services, saying they are insensitive to the poor. At one point, the mayor was prompted to tell some of his critics at one confrontation to "Go to hell."
A tired, subdued and soft-spoken Marion Barry, his voice barely audible over the hum of the air conditioners in his roomy office in the District Building, conceded last week that the budget crisis has gotten to him.
"I was more hurt than rubbed the wrong way," Barry said of the confrontation at which he cursed at protesters. "I'm human. I've spent the last 24 years of my life trying to help people -- trying to help the poor, trying to help people get some rights they may not have."
When Barry took office on Jan. 2, 1979, he had reached the pinnacle in a lifelong drive to obtain the kind of power that he felt could really change people's lives. But power, he has learned, has its limitations.
"Why cut jobs? I don't want to cut jobs, that's the last thing I want to do. But I'm at the end of the line. What else can I do?" said Barry, whose spending cuts would eliminate 5,000 jobs from the 44,000 positions on the city payroll by Dec. 31.
Barry has tried to stress that much of the city's money problem arose before he took office. On Friday, he quietly acknowledged for the first time that this perception has not yet been accepted by the public and that he does, indeed, have a political problem.
"When I ran for office I expected good times and bad times," Barry said. "There may be some short-term losses, some short-term misunderstanding. sIn the long run, I think people will understand."
But whether or not he created the problem, Barry is being held accountable for solving it.
As is so often the case in Washington politics, the issue of race has intruded.
Barry himself brought the issue up, telling graduates of the University of the District of Columbia two weeks ago that blacks are often too quick to criticize other blacks.
"I am concerned," the embattled mayor said, "that as blacks become leaders in poistions where they weren't before,that other blacks begin immediately to criticize everything that's there and act as though (the problems) started when we got here."
The pronouncement was roundly criticized in the black community by persons who said it appeared Barry was making excuses. "I think he should not have gotten into that, period," said Calvin W. Rolark, publisher of the Washington Informer newspaper and president of the United Black Fund. "Walter Washington didn't come out and say blacks don't criticize other blacks. You've got to watch your words. The mayor has to realize he's mayor 24 hours a day."
The race issue has also surfaced in more subtle ways -- among segments of the black community that were uneasy about Barry in 1978 and have since harbored suspicions that the rough-hewn Barry, less polished and articulate than his opponents, was programmed to fail by the whites who backed him.
Fred D. Matthews, president of Globe Cab Co., said Barry has not realized that a black mayor must remain above even the appearance of incompetence.
"People don't appreciate his walking into trap after trap," Matthews said. "It gives whites the chance to whip on us. That's delightful news for them. They already think a black man can't run anything right."
As an example of the "traps" that Barry has fallen into, Matthews and others mentioned the free trip to Paris Barry planned to take in the midst of the budget crisis and then canceled after newspaper publicity and adverse public reaction.
Critics also say Barry has failed to make symoblic gestures of personal sacrifice in the budget crisis, like eliminating some high-paid jobs on his own staff to make the layoffs of the city's lowest-paid last-hired workers more palatable.
Barry has defended the planned trip to Paris by saying he was tired and needed a rest, and dicided to cancel only when pressing budget matters demanded his attention. He has said that the figures shifted because new information came in, and has maintained that his staff is staying well within its budget.
But the mayor now says there are things he would like to have done differently in his handling of the crisis.
The administration knew the rough outlines of the whole deficit problem as early as last fall, Barry now says. But the figures were dribbled out in a manner that confused the public and even the mayor's own staff. An all-at-once approach would have worked better, Barry said. But a different tack was used.
"You see, people on the inside -- since you know enough about the problem and you're trying to get a handle on it -- people are just more responsive to a have-done situation," Barry said.
Barry acknowledges that the budget crisis has "taken its toll" on the administration's other plans, but says, "The city is still running."
"I should have made it very clear that the budget problem could not be solved by myself alone," Barry said, agreeing that from the outset he concentated too much on what his administration would do instead of taking into account the necessary actions of the City Council and Congress.
"Budget cutting in any city is very tough, and the mayor is the one who catches it," Barry said. "If I were doing it now, I can do. I don't want to make it seem that this administration has failed."