D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said yesterday his supporters are free to work for any of the Democrats vying to succeed him, but declined for now to publicly endorse any of the candidates in the party's Sept. 11 primary.
Barry, appearing at a news conference as the third week of testimony in his drug and perjury trial drew to a close, seemed to acknowledge his inability to hold together his political organization in the nine weeks remaining before the crucial primary.
"Those who feel compelled to move on to somebody else, do so," Barry told a crowd of reporters, longtime political field workers and tourists who gathered outside U.S. District Court, where the mayor is on trial.
The breakup of Barry's once-formidable political machine began in the days immediately following his Jan. 18 drug arrest at the Vista Hotel, but has accelerated in recent weeks, especially after the mayor's announcement in mid-June that he will not seek a fourth term.
Barry yesterday reiterated his decision not to run, but also said he was not prepared to state unequivocally that he will not seek the office of mayor again.
"I still stand by my earlier statement of June 13 about not running," Barry said. "On the other hand, I'm not like General Sherman, where you make a Sherman-like statement, or like another person who said: 'If nominated, I won't run. If elected, I won't serve.'
"I'm not going to make that kind of statement. But right now, it doesn't look like I'm going to change my mind," Barry said.
Thursday was the deadline for Barry to have filed voter petitions if he had planned to run in the Democratic Party primary. Under District law, he would have until Aug. 29 to file similar petitions to run as an independent candidate in the November general election -- something the mayor has privately said he would not do and an option that would depend almost entirely on the outcome of his trial.
The mayor's somewhat cryptic remark about not running again, as well as his decision to withhold a public endorsement, were viewed by some D.C. political activists as an attempt to hold center stage as the primary race heats up.
Other Democratic leaders speculated that Barry declined to give an endorsement in the race so he would not alienate any of the major candidates in the field.
"I don't think that kind of thing works very well in Washington -- transferring support just like that," said Ron Richardson, a local labor leader who has been a strong Barry ally over the years. "I think there's a good possibility he may sit it out."
Some have speculated that Barry might throw his support to Ward 4 council member Charlene Drew Jarvis or at-large council member John Ray.
Barry said most of the major candidates -- Del. Walter E. Fauntroy and council members David A. Clarke, Jarvis and Ray -- had solicited his endorsement, but that he had not made up his mind, in part because of the "lackluster" tone of the campaign so far.
Because a Barry endorsement might cut different ways with various voter groups, some of the candidates have put as much or more of their energies into courting the mayor's political lieutenants and fund-raisers than they have the mayor himself.
The mayor indicated yesterday that if he does make an endorsement, it probably will be for Ray or Jarvis, but he did not rule out Fauntroy or Clarke.
Barry said he would not endorse Sharon Pratt Dixon, a lawyer and Democratic National Committee member who has been the only candidate to call on the mayor to resign.
Jarvis, who was alerted by Barry yesterday that no endorsement would be forthcoming, said she did not know why the mayor made no announcement, adding she was grateful that he released his workers to her and the other candidates.
"The mayor is very well liked by many people and disliked by others," Jarvis said, referring to the effect of a Barry endorsement. "There is value in having him say he has looked at the field and saying who would be best for the job. That's what I want all the voters to do."
Barry said any endorsement from him would be a public one, because "we're not going to have people running and hiding behind doors and saying, 'Give me your support in private but not in public.' "
The mayor also said he does not expect to be assured of a job by any candidate he endorses. "We're not looking at a candidate who'll give Marion Bary a job," he said. "I don't need a job. I can get one on my own."