Would you recognize Mayor Marion Barry if you somehow encountered him on a sidewalk or in a hotel lobby? Chances are you would. Hizzoner, halfway through his second term, is arguably the most recognizable local political figure in our region.
The top local pols weren't always so well known.
As readers of this newspaper will learn in today's paper and through the coming week, our form of District of Columbia home rule is a decade old. For a few years prior to 1975, we had a single "mayor-commissioner." Before that, the city had a three-member Board of Commissioners, which operated under the shadow of Congress and the White House but had substantial rulemaking and administrative powers.
The top man bore the title of president of the board. He was the closest thing there was to Washington's mayor.
And he was largely anonymous and unrecognized.
For instance: one day in the mid-1960s, I was assigned to cover the District Building. I wandered into the office of Walter N. Tobriner Jr., then president of the board, at least a second-generation Washingtonian and a former president of the school board -- one of the highest-profile local jobs in town at the time. But he was a gentle, undemanding, almost shy man. He was sitting, feet on the desk, reading the early edition of the old Washington Daily News.
No, there was no news that day from his office, Tobriner said. Then he suggested we go to lunch.
First we tried the Willard Hotel coffee shop. No room. The headwaiter didn't recognize the "mayor." Then we tried Bassin's. No room. The headwaiter didn't recognize him. Then we tried Ceres, one of the favorites among District Building regulars, next door to the National Theatre. No room. The headwaiter didn't recognize him. Then we tried O'Donnell's. No room. The headwaiter didn't recognize him. (One notes that all these restaurants are now gone. That's progress?) We circled back to the Washington Hotel coffee shop. We got a table there: one was empty and no recognition was needed.