On Friday, just past dawn, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry stood in a brisk wind along Good Hope Road in Southeast Washington and stalked pedestrians bound for work. At times he climbed aboard buses and humbly asked, "I hope I can get some of y'all to vote for me for council."
"Can I get your vote for council?" he asked one woman walking by.
"I'll think about it," she replied shortly, not breaking stride.
But Barry pursued her. "What does it take to convince you?" he asked.
"Got to be sure you've cleaned up your act," she said.
"I have," Barry said. "Just give me a chance to prove it."
Shunned by much of the city's Democratic political establishment, a lame-duck mayor scarred by a federal drug conviction and still awaiting his sentence, Barry's attempt to salvage his political career has gone full-throttle in recent weeks. He is running hard for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council -- and perhaps for the first time in 12 years, he's running scared.
"This is not a cakewalk," Barry said during a campaign break last week. "This is a very tough race."
With a hard core of supporters, the mayor entered the crowded council race in August as a presumptive favorite. Since then, buffeted by the Democratic Party he abandoned and smarting from criticism that he is trying to force out a longtime ally, Barry's campaign has begun to show hints of anxiety.
On Thursday, Barry spent an hour courting senior citizens at the Knox Hill Apartments on Alabama Avenue SE. He accepted their cash donations of $5, even $3, and then pleaded: "When I leave, I want you to go call 10 of your relatives and tell them, 'I just saw the mayor, and he really looks good.' "
Over the weekend, Barry's campaign activities included a prayer breakfast with city ministers and a visit to the farmers market near Benning Road NE.
Voter suspicion about his conduct is but one of many obstacles that Barry faces in running as an independent for one of the two at-large council seats on the ballot.
Seven other candidates are in the race, including school board member Linda W. Cropp, the Democratic nominee, and incumbent Hilda H.M. Mason, a Statehood Party member who is seeking her fourth term. The top two vote-getters win the seats.
W. Cardell Shelton, a contractor who lives in Anacostia, is the Republican nominee. And four other independent candidates are competing: Ray Browne, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Georgetown; R. Rochelle Burns, an accountant and lawyer; Jim Harvey, deputy director of the Whitman-Walker health clinic; and Clarene Martin, a labor lawyer and community activist.
Because 70 percent of the city's registered voters are Democrats, most political observers suggest that Cropp is likely to win one of the seats. Mason, whose campaign began slowly, appears more vulnerable to Barry's bid for the second seat.
However, a majority of the D.C. Council members and Jesse L. Jackson endorsed Mason last week, which some politicians said was a serious blow to the mayor. Sharon Pratt Dixon, the Democratic candidate for mayor, and Maurice T. Turner Jr., the Republican nominee, said that Barry should not be running for council. Turner said last month that it's "not the right example." Dixon said, "I think the city has indicated it is time for him to move on."
Barry says he's not troubled by the endorsements of Mason as he presses on with less than three weeks to go before the election. The mayor, who after his trial in August switched his party affiliation from Democrat to independent so that he could qualify to run in the general election, has raised about $70,000 in campaign funds.
His campaign is mailing about 50,000 pamphlets to voters and Barry appears to be campaigning hardest among the elderly and working-class black residents in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, two constituencies among which he has traditionally been strong.
He also has encouraged District employees to work in his campaign and distribute literature, which some of his opponents assert is a violation of the federal Hatch Act prohibiting government workers from engaging in partisan politics. Barry has said the Hatch Act does not apply because he is running as an independent.
Barry had pledged to campaign as a "love and unity" candidate in largely white and affluent Ward 3, where support is scarce, but his stops there have been limited to a few receptions in the homes of allies.
In other parts of the city, though, Barry, 54, is casting himself as a fit, energetic crusader for the downtrodden, and he has been greeted with enthusiasm. The senior citizens of Knox Hill chanted his name before he spoke. On Good Hope Road, many motorists honked and waved from their cars.
Barry has told voters he will be cooperative and not try to undermine the efforts of the next mayor. He also has asked voters to forgive his past "mistakes." At no point, though, does he discuss his continuing recovery from addiction, his conviction on a drug possession charge -- for which he will be sentenced on Friday -- or any of the other allegations of womanizing and drug use presented at his trial.
Browne and Cropp have asked him to quit the race and let the city heal from the racially divisive effects of his trial, but Barry has ignored them. He also ignores their complaints that he uses forums to hog the media spotlight -- as he did Wednesday night, during a League of Women Voters debate, where he announced that he was considering imposing curfews in some neighborhoods and using the National Guard to quell violence in the city.
Barry also has denied that he is trying to stay in city politics because he needs four more years of government service to qualify for full pension benefits. And he has disputed any suggestion that his running is insensitive because he may oust a longtime ally, Mason, from her council position.
Mason, who is 75, advised Barry when he first arrived in Washington as a civil rights organizer. She also took Barry into her home and helped nurse him back to health after he was shot during the Hanafi Muslim takeover of the District Building in 1977.
"The mayor is running for Hilda's seat," said Dave Split, a former Barry Cabinet member who recently assumed command of Mason's campaign. Mason has been reluctant to attack Barry, but it's clear she's angry. "I do feel very disappointed in my grandson Marion Barry," she told an audience at a campaign debate last week.
Mason's campaign is being financed largely by a $62,000 personal loan; she has no paid campaign staff, and she's fighting criticism from her opponents and other community activists that she has lost the energy needed to be an effective council member.
"The more people hear and see Hilda, the more they'll realize she's part of the problem," Harvey said. "Hilda's image is being glossed over. She has been a rubber stamp of the Barry administration."
Other critics say that the council support Mason received last week was simply an attempt to block Barry from winning, not an endorsement of her work.
"The council knows Marion would be trouble," said housing activist Terry Lynch, whom Cropp defeated in the Democratic primary. "But it also knows Hilda is not really doing anything. She's done great work in the past, but not in the last four years. She wants to be grandmother of the world, and that's fine. But being a council member is very different."
Mason, who has been endorsed by the Metropolitan Council of the AFL-CIO, said she remains a progressive voice for education and labor issues. She relishes her grandmother image and uses it at nearly every event she attends.
Split, her campaign chief, is now using it against Barry. "This race is coming down to everyone's grandmother against everyone's boyfriend," he said.
Aside from determining Barry's fate after 12 years as mayor, the at-large races will help to define the council, which will undergo a significant transition.
Council members Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) and Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) and Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D) are leaving, and Ward 2 council member John A. Wilson (D) is virtually assured of being elected council chairman Nov. 6. Wilson has vowed to expand the powers of the council, which serves as the city's legislature and also has oversight responsibilities for various city agencies.
Although Cropp, Barry and Mason are viewed by many political observers as favorites in the race, other candidates are waging aggressive campaigns. Browne has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police; Harvey, who is gay, is expected to draw support from the city's influential gay constituency. And Martin, in her first bid for office, has raised more than $20,000.
All of the candidates are billing their campaigns as progressive alternatives to Barry. He responds to their attacks by detailing his "experience and knowledge" of the city government. But he hasn't returned much fire. That might cost votes -- and in this race, Barry suggests, he needs every one he can get.
"The Democratic nominee usually has a great advantage in a race like this," Barry said. "And I know there's a solid bloc of anti-Barry voters out there now who wouldn't vote for me for dogcatcher."