Marion Barry headed off a confrontation with Washington's Hispanic Community yesterday when he paid an unannounced visit to "the barrio," reaffirmed his commitment to the city's 75,000 Hispanics who helped elect him and managed to squeeze $40,000 from a tight city budget to beef up his Office of Latino Affairs.
What brought Barry to the Hispanic Community Center press conference at Wilson center, 1470 Irving Street NW, was community anger that the mayor's assistants had forgotten his promises, along with uncertainty surrounding the future of acting city personnel director Jose Gutierrez, one of their own.
As overseer of 47,000 city employes Hispanic Gutierrez holds one of the most influential jobs in the major's administration. As the highest ranking Hispanic, he has also come to symbolize not only the spirations of the Hispanic community, but their frustrations at holding down only a handful of city jobs despite the fact they constitute 10 percent of the population.
Barry has defended Gutierrez in recent weeks from criticism by employes who have accused him of unfair hiring, firing and promotion policies.
But the mayor has refused to discuss his future, raising questions about a possible replacement. Privately, Barry aides say -- and Hispanic leaders agree -- that anything less than Gutierrez' permanent appointment as personnel director could cause serious political troubles between Barry and Hispanics.
"The bottom line is that if Jose Butierrez is incompetent, he [Barry] has to prove it," community organizer Silverio Coy, a Spanish Catholic Center official, said yesterday before Barry walked in. "And if he replaces him, he has to replace him with another Hispanic."
For days, even minutes before the press conference, local Hispanic leaders had billed the forum as a Dodge City-style showdown with the mayor.
"There is a Hispanic community in Washington and we are here to stay," said Maria Casauranc, a spokeswoman for the Council of Hispanic Community Agencies. "We will not be rolled over, stepped on, ignored or taken for granted anymore. . . We will not be quiet when we are being attacked by racism and politics."
But Barry had already defused potential political embarrassment when he dropped in, uninvited, Wednesday night, at the home of community leader Pedro Lujan to reassure Hispanic leaders, over beer and potato chips, that he had not forgotten.
The mayor urged Lujan, an ice cream store owner, and other guests who included Gutierrez and other community leaders to give him until the end of the month to work out his "understanding" with Gutierrez, say sources who attended the meeting. Neither the mayor nor Gutierrez, however, would say exactly what that "understanding" was.
But observers say Gutierrez' appointment cannot be made permanent while the future of the director, George R. Harrod, remains in doubt. Harrod is on leave after being indicted on charges that he assaulted a staff aide. The charge awaits trial.
And there are other political considerations that range from potential City Council support for Gutierrez' appointment, to how such an appointment would be received among Barry aides and other black city employes. Barry not only ordered city budget cutters yesterday to come up with $40,000 extra for the Office of Latino Affairs' $100,000 budget, so executive director Aida Berio could hire a personal assistant, but he promised she would get three temporary assistants from other D.C. agencies. He also suggested that the city office be moved into the Adams-Morgan neighborhood.
Until yesterday, said an elated Berio, "my hands were tied. I couldn't develop any mandate with such a crippled staff."
Barry shrugged off yesterday's Hispanic horse-trading as nothing more than "pressure politics at play. That's the way it should be. I love it."
The whole thing, Barry said, "is like a marriage. There's spats. There's differences. There's little arguments. But you make up." CAPTION:
Picture, Mayor Barry answers questions with city administrator Elijah Rodgers and Hispanic leader Pedro Lujan. By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post