A black Mercury sedan stopped on a patch of freshly paved asphalt in Fort Stanton. Out popped D.C. Council member Marion Barry, wearing a snow-white track suit, gold wristwatch and a "Free D.C." cap. He immediately attracted a swarm of well-wishers and neighborhood children too young to remember him as mayor.
"Somebody get him a bottle of water," said Linda Greene, chief of staff for Barry (D-Ward 8). Greene's concern was warranted because her boss had been released from the hospital hours earlier after suffering from what he said was dehydration.
The former mayor rewarded the crowd with a little impromptu dance. It was mostly a foot shuffle with a slight knee bend, but the crowd whooped anyway.
The city-funded celebration last month marked the completion of a $1.3 million reconstruction of Elvans Road SE, which residents had requested for years -- including through several Barry administrations. Officials planned the project two years ago and obtained approval last August, three months before Barry was elected to the council.
Nonetheless, Barbara Gaffney, a 20-year Elvans Road resident, gave Barry the credit.
"It's like Marion Barry to always [make] the impossible possible," said Gaffney, 50.
Although Barry has missed a third of the D.C. Council meetings since taking office, community leaders -- perhaps optimistically -- said Barry is using Ward 8 to create a block-by-block legacy in what may be the last chapter of his public life. There, he has used his political skills to reinvent himself as a hyper-local politician tending to new sidewalks, alley sweeping and other provincial matters.
At the celebration, Barry told the audience not to focus on the past.
"I have to admit I didn't do as much as I should have back when I was mayor, but now we're getting it done," said Barry, who led the city from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999. "It's not where you've been but where you're going."
At the John A. Wilson Building, the District's city hall, Barry has sometimes needed a crutch to navigate the halls where he charmed, confounded and ruled a decade ago.
Tall and frail, Barry looks older than his 69 years, and his frame no longer fills out his bespoke suits. His new colleagues said Barry has not been the force some had expected.
While Barry's knowledge of city government is encyclopedic, they said, he has been slow to pick up on political shifts in a city that is richer, more diverse and more demanding of competent city services and fiscal prudence.
The point was driven home a few weeks into his term when Barry proposed one of those creative budgeting maneuvers he was famous for as mayor. The plan found extra money for a low-income housing program, but it would have put a hole in future budgets.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) was having none of it.
Why not? a stunned Barry asked.
"Because we don't do business like that anymore," Cropp said.
Colleagues also have rejected Barry's calls for greater confrontation. When Barry called for council members to boycott the inaugural parade because the Bush administration was sticking the city with its bills, few followed.
Council members said Barry's poor health and frequent absences have reduced his influence on policy decisions.
Records show that Barry, who is paid $92,520 a year as a council member, has missed nearly a third of all meetings of the full council, more than any other member. Some of the 151 votes he has missed include those on raising the minimum wage, establishing a low-income housing tax credit fund and authorizing a $474,260 emergency payment to Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
Barry is also a District appointee to the Metro board, but he hasn't attended a board or committee meeting since February, agency records show.
Barry defended his sporadic attendance by saying his allegiance is to his ward.
"My priority is to be in my district as much as possible -- inspiring, educating, uplifting and doing things such as Elvans Road," Barry said. "Going to committee meetings is not as important."
He said other council members have focused on the legislative process to their political peril, noting that voters tossed out three incumbents last year, including Barry's predecessor, Sandy Allen.
"They lost -- all three of them," Barry said. "I'm not going to get stuck downtown."
The waiter at Cafe MoZU was apologetic when he approached the political icon. The restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, which Barry chose for lunch and an interview, did not serve oysters and had no blender to make him a virgin strawberry daiquiri.
Barry settled for a silver pitcher filled with iced tea. He sipped it with his lemongrass soup and a plate of tempura shrimp and vegetables, which he pointed out was a healthier option than the $24 steak on the menu.
Health is both a high priority and a sore subject for Barry.
A prostate cancer survivor, he said he suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes. He also has been hobbled by a diabetes-related foot problem that required a plastic cast for a time this year. He said he feels good despite at least three hospital visits since January. He acknowledged that his health has become a concern and that people talk about how old he looks, how thin he looks.
"I won't let it become an issue," he said.
During lunch, Barry was energetic and mentally acute, even recalling polling data from his first mayoral race in 1978. The gray beard he sported during his first several months on the council has been shaved. His gray hair has been dyed black.
Barry said that despite the toll of the years and his health problems, he still has what it takes to improve the lives of his constituents.
"It will take more than that to stop me," he said. "My brain is as sharp as ever."
A History With Ward 8
Kimberley Flowers's phone rang, and Marion Barry was on the line.
He suggested that Flowers, acting director of the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department, tour some dilapidated recreation centers in Ward 8.
Sure, Flowers said.
How about right this minute? Barry asked.
Flowers rearranged her schedule and left. "I'm not going to tell the councilman no," she said.
As a result, some recreation centers in his ward were added to a list for renovation and cleanup under the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
Washingtonians who lived through the Barry years -- including the city's chronic inability to pick up garbage and plow city streets -- might be skeptical of Barry's new focus on community streets and facilities. But those who have seen him in action this year said he is committed to his ward.
"It's a real opportunity to leave his fingerprints on the ward in his last term in public office," said James Bunn, a longtime political activist and Ward 8 business owner who has watched Barry for 35 years, not always as a supporter.
In fact, Barry has a history of relying on Ward 8, the poorest in the city, for political salvation. In 1992, just out of prison after serving six months for a misdemeanor drug conviction, Barry moved to the ward and campaigned for its council seat, the first step in his political resurrection. In campaign events, he played on the economic and social frustrations of the ward, calling it the District's "Last Colony." He promised that if elected, "We're going to make Ward 8 a political powerhouse."
The strategy won him a four-year term. Two years later, he was gone. He ran for mayor and won a fourth term.
In last year's council race, Don Carthens, 34, voted for Allen, but he is hopeful that Barry will follow through this time around.
Helping his neighbor on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE with some landscaping, Carthens said, "I need to see more improvement for the young folks."
Barry said he is effective and has found out how to get his way without the powers of the mayor's office.
"He tries to make you feel guilty," City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said. "He'll say, 'You know this should have been done.' And if you come back with, 'Well, where were you?' it doesn't work."
"In the end, though, he's right," Bobb said. "These things should be done not just because he says they are to be done but because they should be done."
In recent months, Barry held an environmental summit in Ward 8 to preach the gospel of clean water and clean streets and won a commitment from city agencies to clean up alleys in the ward. And he has been named chairman of a special council committee to look at jobs and vocation training, things Barry said are vital to the young people in the ward.
Barry managed to wangle $100,000 out of the city budget to reopen the recreation center at the Choice Academy, formerly known as Douglass Junior High School, and $200,000 for other projects in the ward.
T'chaka Sapp is among the converted. A member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Anacostia, he said he has received complaints from residents who got parking tickets because they failed to move their cars on street-sweeping days.
Residents never were ticketed before, he said, because the city never swept.
"They're fixing this stuff up now," Sapp said. He credited Barry, whom he called the "big whipping stick" that moves the city bureaucracy.
Others are skeptical.
The president of the Frederick Douglass Community Improvement Council said Barry has refused to meet with the Southeast civic association to help create a recreation center at an elementary school.
"I don't know what Marion Barry is doing in the rest of the ward, but he's doing nothing here," said Carolyn Johns Gray, president of the association.
"That's a lie," Barry said, referring to the invitation to meet the group.
A Champion for Blacks
Barry said he wants to lift up Ward 8 residents as well as black residents throughout the city. He said he has been disappointed in the reduction of black political clout and economic power since he left office in 1999.
"The neighborhoods have lost power and black folks have lost power, and that creates a new dynamic," he said.
Barry, an activist in the civil rights movement, has long championed increased economic power for blacks. His administration set aside at least 35 percent of city contracts for minorities. His departments hired many who couldn't find other work. And his summer jobs program is still paying political dividends.
Barry said he was astounded by Williams's appointment last month of a white former aide to a Washington Convention Center board that had no mayoral appointees who are women or minorities. Barry voted against the aide, but the council supported the nomination.
"There was a time any mayor of Washington, D.C., would have been run out of town if they did that," Barry said. "The reason [Williams] could get away with that is because the black community has lost power."
"My priority is black people," he added. "I tell that to everybody. Part of what I am doing is empowering those who have lost power."
Williams fumed at Barry's criticism -- "I think that's a ridiculous comment and over the top" -- and said he was proud of his appointments and his attention to Ward 8.
Barry said he wants to have the final word on development plans for the ward, especially along its Anacostia waterfront.
The future, according to Marion S. Barry Jr., is always brighter and always better.
He promised to be more aggressive in obtaining money for ward projects next year and to be the main deal maker in his ward.
"Next year, I will have more influence and more power," Barry said. "But we're doing fine. We're doing fine."