Marion Barry goes right to the issue, even to the point of rhyming and smiling as he says it: "I can speak with the PhDs, the D.D.s and the no-Ds (no doctorates)." Then, stealing a line from Jesse Jackson, he adds, "I can talk to the people in the suites as well as the people in the streets."
The issue is class and blackness, to the extent that to be black means being the champion of the poor, deprived and disadvantaged. Barry, busy in his campaign for reelection, is portraying himself as the candidate of the little people, those without power, influence and wealth. Among black people in Washington--where nearly 70 percent of the voters are black--Barry wants to be the black candidate, which to him means the grass-roots candidate. In the process he is painting his chief opponent, Patricia Roberts Harris, as the candidate of the well-to-do, jet-set blacks and whites. In other words, not the "real" kind of black.
"There has always been a black candidate in D.C. elections," said Ivanhoe Donaldson, Barry's campaign manager, "and Marion is that candidate. Mrs. Harris can speak for herself."
At a People's Forum in Southeast, Harris did just that.
"People tell you a lot of things about Pat Harris," she said to listeners in the poorest part of the city. "A young man came up to me outside and said he had been watching me talk to people, and he said, 'Mrs. Harris you aren't so uppity. That's what I'd heard about you.' Let me tell you something about me. I'm black and I'm a proud black woman and I'm married to a proud black man and if black pride makes us uppity maybe we all should be uppity."
Despite such efforts by Harris to counter his claims, Barry has continued to pursue the title of black pride candidate. His supporters have even challenged other candidates for criticizing a black man. That prompted candidate and council member Charlene Drew Jarvis to note that black or not, Barry is the mayor and has "a record that can easily be criticized."
For Barry, the benefits of identifying himself as "The Black Candidate" are clear. In a town where a majority white Congress has dominated local black political life for decades, many blacks still blame Capitol Hill for the problems of the District government. Barry wants to attract all the racial sympathies that a black mayor can get to wipe away the memory of the problems that plagued his administration.
To project the image of The Black Candidate, Donaldson and Barry emphasize Barry's record of making more city contracts available to black businesses, highlight his street activist civil rights record and portray him as an accessible mayor who remembers the names of little people around the city.
Other candidates, however, contend that the brand of black brotherhood Barry has practiced is not the same as he is now preaching. They claim that for the mayor, black brotherhood has mainly meant helping already well-to-do black lawyers and developers, some of whom are his friends, get into major downtown development deals while black public housing tenants complain of deteriorating conditions in city housing.
"He [Barry] is giving the largest portion of his help to big black businessmen who don't need it," said mayoral candidate Morris Harper at a forum sponsored by WHUR radio last Sunday. "That money should be funneled to minority businesses that truly need help to start up."
Barry's effort to demonstrate a difference in social class between Harris and himself shows up in a gossipy, anonymously written political pamphlet called The Torch. Last week, it drew an analogy between the Barry-Harris race and the 1974 primary between Walter Washington and Clifford Alexander, which the Ivy League-educated Alexander lost.
The gossip sheet characterized the '74 race as " . . . the haves versus the have-nots and the blue-blood scholars looking down on the average residents to say nothing about these 'peasants' across the river."
Such campaign propaganda appears aimed at encouraging voters to identify with the image of the heroic, struggling black person living as an oppressed, impoverished underdog as opposed to the more fortunate black who entered the middle class as a doctor or lawyer. Barry is betting that they also might identify with a former street activist rather than a former Cabinet officer.
Sharon Dixon, Harris' campaign manager, says that Barry is painting an inaccurate picture of Harris.
"Harris comes from a working-class family," Dixon said. "She had to have a scholarship to go to college and as a result of her own work she came to the positions of power that she has used to serve her own, black community. We're the only ethnic group I know of who dislike it when our own achieve."