So tell me: If you were a resident of Ward 8 -- a section inevitably described as the District's poorest despite having its share of tax-paying homeowners -- whom would you want to represent you on the D.C. Council?
Current representative Sandy Allen, who's generally described as a decent, solid public servant? Or Marion Barry, the colorful, charismatic and controversial politico with so much baggage, good and bad, he needs far more cargo space than his shiny white SUV could possibly provide?
Those who felt the answer was a pro-Allen no-brainer got an education Tuesday. Barry, whose storied political career seemed to evaporate in 1990 in a puff of Vista hotel room smoke, overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary for the Ward 8 seat. The victory's decisiveness suggested many things, but proved one without question:
As a politician and sheer force of nature, Sandy Allen is no Marion Barry.
If people outside of Ward 8 were stunned by Barry's handy win, folks in his neighborhood were not. The Rev. Glen A. Staples, senior pastor of Temple of Praise, one of the ward's largest churches, believes that the election sent "a powerful message. . . . You have certain voices speaking in the city who evidently are not speaking for the entire city."
But mostly, he said, Ward 8 voters believe that the former mayor has "a heart for the city."
"Washington, D.C., and Marion Barry are in some ways synonymous -- you can't mention the history of local politics in D.C. without his name coming up," Staples said. "Everyone agrees he has done positive things. . . . Generally speaking, the people who are in need look to him as someone who can help them when others may not be as concerned. They believe he cares for them. . . . The general consensus is that he will raise their issues. He will try to get it done."
Staples is talking about Barry believers, men and women who admire his swagger, chutzpah and defiance and who never stopped believing he had their best interests at heart. But across the District and beyond its borders, Barry nonbelievers and their agnostic kin are less certain about his motives for returning to public office.
Barry is complex. So why should his reasons be simple?
At 68, Barry hardly seems the retiring, reading-in-his- study-at-twilight type. This is a man who savors being at the center of things, who has always sought and then basked in the public's rapt attention. So his late-career comeback returns him to a comfy, familiar place. As someone who lived and breathed politics for four decades, Barry is trained for -- and has the temperament to passionately commit to -- little else.
Some have said he simply needs the money. Then again, he came back simply because he knew he could. And he loves proving the nonbelievers wrong.
Then there's my favorite: the legacy thing. It's hard to imagine anyone -- especially anyone as image-conscious as Marion Barry -- comfortably leaving public life on such a graceless note. Changing, or at least softening, the womanizing, drug-using, street-cavorting reputation that tarnished both his image and the city's seems an obvious -- and worthy -- goal.
Of course, Barry might care little about the opinions of the millions whose image of him is limited mostly to his downfall. But it's hard to believe that a public servant with his talent and vision doesn't care at all.
It's not uncommon for people who've passed retirement age to "make amends, to make things right," said Risa Segal, associate director of Aging Network Services. Although she has no idea of what motivates Barry, she said, "My experience with older people is that they want to make amends . . . to review their lives at the last." She describes how famed psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described the last stage of life as being about "integrity versus despair," about how "those who can determine that their lives were well lived die with integrity; and those who haven't die with despair."
Of course, by geriatric standards, Barry is relatively young, Segal noted. "But he's had a tough life. He may want to undo some of the things he didn't do so well."
Retired clinical social worker Grace Lebow isn't so sure. Lebow, a therapist who has worked with hundreds of post-retirement adults and who was a District resident for 23 years, has always been struck by Barry's unwavering self-confidence.
"Bad publicity is nothing to him -- it doesn't seem to matter," observed Lebow, 75, of Bethesda, who recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Social Workers. "I think he feels he's the star and the hero and wants to continue to be."
When she expressed puzzlement over his victory to one of her clients, the client reminded her of all that he'd accomplished. "She said how he was so wonderful to poor people and children," Lebow recalled, "about the jobs and programs he introduced. And she used that word to describe it -- his legacy."
But the more Lebow thought about it, the more she felt that Barry's prime motivation is even simpler. "I think he wants more than anything else to be loved," she said. "He wants the recognition and the love of the people that he once had. The love of the underdog, the public blanket of love that he seems to need."
According to Staples and other Barry believers, he never lost it. But whatever Barry's motivation, however we feel about him starting this latest chapter, we can be sure of one thing:
It won't be dull.