Back in the day, Mayor Marion Barry would have sauntered into a room like this and the place would have gone electric -- a buzz of oohs, a blizzard of shouted encouragements, and then, Barry would smile and point and women would giggle and swoon. The mayor would say what he had to say and then you'd ask people what they thought, and whatever the subject had been, they'd tell you about the time he came to their school cafeteria or the time he shook their hand and told them he was going to make it all work out right.
Yesterday, in the clammy basement meeting room of the Washington Highlands Library on Atlantic Street SW, Marion Barry showed up 46 minutes late for a forum for candidates for the Ward 8 seat on the D.C. Council. He walked in slowly and heavily and had trouble stepping up onto the stage. He sat down and seemed spent.
He is gaunt, his famous face hollowed by some combination of time, disease and abuse. He is 68 and looks older. He says he's fine, that he's lost all that weight because "for three years, I was taking the wrong medicines" for his diabetes. But his voice is thin and soft, barely audible even with amplification, and when the mostly older crowd watched him enter, there was no buzz, no shouts.
These were his people, the voters who had put him into office again and again, when he was the young renegade in a dashiki and when he was the proud new face of black Washington. When he was the Mayor of K Street, he was still theirs. He always found the $5 million that would pull thousands of city kids off the streets and into summer jobs. When young Washingtonians were dying by the hundreds in the crack craze, some soured on the mayor, but still he managed to charm them. And when he was caught smoking crack himself, some finally moved on, but many others came roaring back with him, gleeful at the chance to stick it in the Man's eye: "Barry's Back," the victory night T-shirts said when he returned to the mayor's office after his disgrace. And on the other side of the shirt: "Get Over It."
Now, here in Ward 8, where Barry can still use 30-year-old lines about how there's no supermarket and no sit-down restaurant, many people are finally over him. This latest comeback, his challenge of council member Sandy Allen in Tuesday's primary, is different.
Sure, he's the odds-on favorite to win, but it'd be all on fumes. He doesn't have the money or organization to lay on the buses he always used to carry the old ladies to the polls. His friends, though he denies it, begged him not to run; they say he lacks the stamina to serve. That Barry magic -- the smile, the flash of the eyes, the quick retorts and marvelously mocking smirks -- is mostly gone.
There are glimpses of the old style. His campaign flier includes this classic move in which he at once lashes out at the status quo and assures his followers that the city will remain the velvet-gloved employer of last resort: "He will . . . reverse the fact that our schools are among the worst in the nation even with the best teachers in the nation."
Mayor Barry would joke about his chronic lateness: "I'm not late," he'd say. "It doesn't start 'til I get there." Yesterday, the debate went ahead without him, and when Barry did show up, he apologized and explained that "I have to work; trying to get some bonds sold in Prince George's County." Later, when I asked him about that, he refused any details: "In the private sector, you don't discuss those things."
After the forum, he recognized an old friend, Vera Abbott, and held her hand. Surely, he could count on her vote. She started to move away, then decided to tell it straight:
"I love him dearly," she said.
"She's always supported me," Barry said.
"To be candid," Abbott said, "I would like to see my mayor do other things -- his investments work, teaching at UDC."
All Barry could do was mumble, "You're in the minority."
Maybe she is. But Ward 8, post-Barry, is a changing place, with new developments and lots of residents who never knew Barry's glory days.
A reporter tells Barry she's made a side bet against him. "You're going to lose," Barry said. "I'm good at this. I inspire people. I give them hope."
That he surely did, back in the day.
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