A couple of weeks ago, men came on my block to put in new curbs. They took out the old ones, put in the new ones, repaved parts of the street, threw some fresh soil on the strip between the sidewalk and the road and even laid brick on the borders of the street -- just like it used to be. All of the men looked like the mayor to me.
The short guys looked like the mayor and the tall guys looked like the mayor. The black guys looked like the mayor, the white guys, and even the old man who came and spread the fresh soil. Whenever the city does something I like, it looks like the mayor to me.
And I am sure the mayor appreciates this. In fact, the Hon. Marion S. Barry Jr. has proved himself to be a most adept politician. With the primary election just a summer away, the roads are being paved and curbs are being replaced and the bridges over Rock Creek Park, some of them last paved during the Coolidge administration, are getting a facelift. They are being painted.
There is more. The water bills are not only going out, they are accurate. Of course, there are some from time to time that are off, sometimes way off, but mostly the mayor has cleaned up the mess down there. If you go down to pay your bill, as I had to do after the city came one day and shut off my water, you will find the people at Environmental Services courteous and efficient. My water was turned on that night -- in the middle of the night, actually. Pardon me for saying, but the guy who came to turn on the water looked like the mayor.
In fact, if you happen not to live in public housing, the city appears to be working. It has been improved since Barry took office and he ought to be given credit for that. It's true that Washington has a way to go, but it is also true that it in no way lives up to its reputation as Snafu City. Once a week, for instance, my garbage is picked up with a special truck that is able to lift the Supercan the city one day deposited in front of my house. Once I laughed at the mayor and his Supercan, but I laugh no more.
Why, then, is all this wonderfulness not reflected in the political standings? Why is Barry still seen as politically weak and why is it that every other Washington politician is eager to do battle with him? Well, for one thing, it takes time for the perception to catch up to the reality. Barry's opponents will continue to hold him accountable for tardy water bills just because the public still believes there is chaos down at the old city water works.
The larger reason is that as Barry's efficiency rating has zoomed, his personal rating has plummeted. You don't have to be two days in this town to hear what many people think about the mayor. They think he is excessively political, that he does nothing unless there is a political benefit for him.
They think he favors those elements of the city that can reward him either at the polls or through political contributions. They think he favors hotel operators at the expense of neighborhoods, the rich at the expense of the poor, the board of trade at the expense of almost anyone else.
The mayor has done little to combat this perception. In demeanor and speech, in his lifestyle, in his bravado and his willingness to flaunt his political acumen, he shows himself to have somewhat less character than his admirers once thought. Where once he seemed to have a burning ideological commitment in favor of the poor and in behalf of civil rights, he now seems only to want to win reelection -- an understandable enough goal, but far short of what he once stood for.
As a result, lots of people now see Barry as a hack. He is the sort of guy who will rent (for $50,000) the good name of the city to some Saudi sheik and then, a bit later, do the same for a hairdresser-cum-contributor whose lifestyle is anathema to vast numbers of Washingtonians. This sort of thing would be bad enough under any circumstance, but with Barry, a somewhat flamboyant figure himself, it could be politically fatal.
So the city works better than it did. The bridges are being painted and new curbs are being installed and the water bills seem to go out when they should. All these are real accomplishments and they will, in time, change the city's image. Now the mayor needs to change his own.