For all of his obvious indiscretions, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry still has more charm and charisma than all the other candidates for mayor combined. And in a city that feeds on personality more than principle, his legendary "unbossed" black man bravado will make him difficult to forget.
In the aftermath of his announcement last week that he won't seek a fourth term, some of Barry's supporters persist in saying the mayor was "politically lynched" by the white establishment. And they are planning for a mock grand jury to indict the federal government for "stinging" His Innocence with a lure of sex and crack. Some have even asked Barry to get back into the race for mayor.
But it seems to me that the time has come to forget Marion Barry and devote painstaking, not playful, thinking to the future of this city. The fact that so many of our brightest residents continue toying with trivia -- such as the recent meeting of District ministers to ponder the question, "Who will hire Marion now?" -- is an indication of how politically retarded the District is and how far we have to go.
Not only are Barry supporters having a hard time forgetting him, so are those who aspire to replace him as mayor. They all seem to have borrowed pages from the Barry campaign book -- looking at what percentages and dollar signs will be enough for them to win, instead of studying the people and determining what it will take to effectively govern.
When Barry, a onetime civil rights activist, discovered that it was difficult getting poor people to turn out to vote for him, he did the political equivalent of burning his dashiki: He ignored them. To be sure, he occasionally doled out crumbs from his banquet table -- riot-prevention summer jobs, for example -- and folks were truly grateful.
But Barry failed to articulate economic and educational policies that would have truly helped the poor and brought stability to their neighborhoods.
Now the city must choose a mayor from a lackluster field led by five more middle-class liberal Democrats and a curiously conservative Democrat who calls himself Republican.
None of the candidates appears to have any meaningful contact with lower-income blacks, yet all claim that, if elected, they will stop the murders, stop the dope, stop kids from dropping out of school, etc. But how can they, since none of them is doing anything to bring the alienated and disconnected segment of our city's population into the political process?
A good politician would educate and organize those potential voters, to make sure that the next mayor had a broad-based governing consensus to help tackle the immense problems facing the city. But that takes hard work and much time. It is much easier to beg developers for money, give speeches at anti-drug rallies and kiss live babies while scores die in hospitals around town.
The way the stage is now set, the next mayor will have no better idea of how to deal with the competing interests of the District than Barry did. Once again, the have-nots will be trampled in a stampede for the District's pork barrel of patronage jobs and government contracts.
One of the great tragedies of Barry's administration was that he was more inclined to play racial politics than to teach his people the importance of grass-roots organization. As a consequence, the political maturation of the city was stunted and many of the poor remained outside the electoral process.
White activists such as Mitch Snyder have used Barry's own protest techniques to wrest all manner of concessions from the government. Just last week, when the Whitman-Walker Clinic needed relief from rising insurance costs, gay whites organized a full-court press of the media and the political establishment -- and received, within 24 hours, a government promise of $200,000.
Barry began his political career organizing the poor to do these very things. But once off the street and within the corridors of power, he seemed to forget about what it took to get to the top.
There was a time when Barry was perfect for Washington. With his overwhelming personality, he could have cultivated a politically sophisticated home-rule government that by now, 12 years later, would have been poised for statehood.
But he blew it. Now the city must forget about him and begin doing what is necessary to make sure that the next mayor doesn't blow it as well.