An Aug. 9 profile of Marion Barry incorrectly described his service on the D.C. Council. Barry served as an at-large member, not a Ward 8 representative, before becoming mayor. He was elected to the council from Ward 8 before his return to the mayor's office. (Published 8/12/04)
First thing in the morning, commuters stepped off their buses and trudged toward the Anacostia Metro station. A thin man in a straw hat intercepted them, a politician angling for votes.
"You live in Ward 8? You 18?"
Some continued to trundle past that July morning, but one woman -- a 64-year-old named C. Kennedy -- saw something familiar in the man's face and gave voice to the double takes happening around her: "It's Marion Barry."
Barry draws a lot of double takes these days. He gets them when he's working on a T-bone steak at Players Lounge in Southeast Washington, or when he's shaking hands outside his campaign headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, or when he's pushing a shopping cart through the Safeway on Alabama Avenue SE. He looks more frail than the last time he was in the public eye, the waistline of his pants cinching under his belt, his swagger slowed by age and circumstance.
Since leaving the mayor's office in 1999, he has been free of the prostate cancer he fought in the '90s, watched a return to politics derail amid allegations of a drug relapse, separated from his fourth wife, battled diabetes, earned an uneven living in investment banking and turned 68.
At the Metro station, Barry carried himself like a local folk hero, and the commuters treated him like one. He was, after all, the man who started as a civil rights pioneer, then won a seat on the D.C. school board in 1971, then served on the D.C. Council representing Ward 8 and then became mayor. Even after falling from grace as mayor in a 1990 drug sting, he engineered a political comeback as mayor that once again thrust him into the national spotlight.
The past five years have amounted to his longest retreat into private life since his twenties, and now he's trying to get back into the public sector, again to represent Ward 8 on the council. The Metro riders he talked to assured him that he had their votes, and he assured them that he has their interests at heart. But this campaign -- against longtime ally and incumbent Sandy Allen -- is unlike any he's waged.
Questions about his health crop up. Whispers of personal financial problems prompt suspicions about his political motives. Some longtime supporters keep their distance, and he bitterly cut ties with a new campaign manager this summer. Endorsements have been few and have not come easily.
"There comes a time when a great fighter thinks that he or she is winning the fight, but the trainer can see what the fighter can't," Dion Jordan wrote to Barry after a brief stint as campaign manager. "You're that fighter and I'm your trainer, and I am throwing in the towel for you, because your pride will not let you." Jordan said he wanted to end the campaign because he believed Barry had become a shadow of his former self. Barry shrugged him off as a disgruntled former employee, just as he's discounted advice of others who counseled against running.
"He makes his mind up, and that's it," said Cora Masters Barry, Barry's fourth wife, who separated from him in 2002.
"He's not going to ask others. If that's what he wants to do, he's going to do it."
Instead, Barry listens to people such as Kennedy, whose eyes locked with his as she told him: "You're the Moses of your people."
Speculation After No-Show
The sun was baking protesters outside the Sudanese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Protest organizers had announced that Barry would be there, and the small crowd that waited for him spoke to the fascination he still can provoke in this city. But he never showed.
He was in his apartment in Ward 8 with thick gauze on his right foot. He explained later that he had pulled at the skin on his toe, causing it to bleed so profusely that he had to go to Greater Southeast Community Hospital for help in stanching the flow. For diabetics, circulatory problems of the feet can turn serious, although this one proved to be relatively harmless.
Even so, the little toe got people again asking a big question about his campaign: Is he fit for the job?
"I'm very concerned about his health," said Leonard "Hanif" Watson Sr., a council legislative assistant for Barry from 1992 to 1994. "I don't know if he has the energy to carry out a campaign, much less four years on the council."
Barry and spokeswoman Linda Mercado Greene acknowledged that he has diabetes and high blood pressure, but they tried to defuse the health issue. They peppered conversations with references to his healthy appetite, his energy, his personal sense of tranquility.
Barry blamed his weight loss on mis-prescribed diabetes medicine that impeded digestion and said he can't guess exactly how much he lost. He conceded that he's dropped "at least 15 pounds," one suit size and two inches from his waist.
"When you lose weight, people think there's one of three things wrong with you," he said last month. "You got cancer, you got AIDS or you're on drugs."
Given his history, speculation about the latter has entered the political discourse with the subtlety of a battering ram. Barry's bid for a seat on the council in 2002, after his having spent six months in prison in 1991-92 after an infamous 1990 drug sting in a downtown hotel, ended when U.S. Park Police searched his illegally parked car. They reported finding small amounts of crack cocaine and marijuana. No charges were filed. Barry said he was set up by police, but suspicions continued.
Recently, some addresses in Ward 8 -- including several businesses -- received an anonymous mailing raising questions, including, "Why does Barry look so frail?" and "Is he on crack?"
Barry answered questions about drugs by saying his recovery is personal, even if critics want to make it part of the campaign. He said that notoriety doesn't help someone trying to overcome dependence and that the benefits of a group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which he joined in 1990, can be compromised if confidentiality is broken.
"Part of my handicap in an AA meeting is I can't talk about what I want to talk about because everybody in that room might not keep it in the room," he said.
The persistence of the issue seems unjust to many voters, and it sometimes engenders support.
"Everyone has an opportunity to mess up," said John Miller, 50, a 15-year resident of Ward 8 who said he planned to vote for Barry. "I messed up in my life, and everyone has a chance to pick themselves up and come back."
Barry's latest comeback, however, seems out of the blue to others. "He hasn't done a hell of a lot," said Ward 8 activist Don Folden. "What's he been doing since he got out of office?"
'Ain't Too Proud to Beg'
When Barry left the mayor's office in 1999, friends and political supporters knew his financial outlook was bleak. They quietly began efforts to land him a visiting professorship with local colleges, but a position never materialized.
An investment and financial advisory firm, M.R. Beal & Co., hired the former mayor, hoping to use his contacts to draw municipal business. With the help of an old friend and businessman, Joe Johnson, Barry set up shop in a Connecticut Avenue office near Dupont Circle.
Barry's financial deals, first reported by the Washington City Paper, included a few transactions involving airports, including a $107 million bond issue with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He helped broker a $3 million housing revenue bond deal for the D.C. Housing Finance Agency.
For two years, M.R. Beal paid Barry $5,000 a month, which, with his $34,000 annual pension, gave him a comfortable nest egg. But business slowed in 2001, and retainer payments to Barry were cut in half, according to financial reports filed by the company. This year, the company reported paying Barry retainer fees of $7,500; Barry said his total retainer is $30,000 a year. The company's spokesman said Barry can get fees in addition to the retainer.
Bernard B. Beal, who hired him, described the former mayor as "an incredible guy. Very smart. Hard-working. Because he has a keen sense of business judgment, he gives me advice on issuers, municipalities and different products."
Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick said that Barry, whom he said he has always respected, introduced him to Beal's firm. "It was because of who [Barry] was he gained access to this office," Kilpatrick said.
"The mayor's job in the firm was to bring in business," he said. "I don't think his job was to be the financial expert but to maximize the resources of his relationships to bring in business."
Not all newer elected officials are so receptive, Barry said. "The hardest thing for me, initially, was to call people, and they wouldn't call me back," he said. "I had to call them probably a half-dozen times. . . . When I was mayor, they'd call me back in three seconds."
Locally, Barry has used his popularity to lobby residents east of the Anacostia River to support some unpopular projects. In 2000, he went to Ward 7's far northeast with a hard sell: a halfway house in a residential community. The residents said no. He was luckier in Anacostia; he worked with a Virginia-based developer to smooth over opposition from residents in Fairlawn against building the Woodmont Crossing apartments.
Barry acknowledged that his income is still less than steady, describing investment banking as iffy. "I still have financial problems," he said, adding that several contracts he had were not renewed. "So I lost $100,000 of income last year, and I ain't too proud to beg."
Over the past year, he has even borrowed money from one of his opponents -- Sandra Seegars, once a strong supporter. On two occasions before he announced his candidacy, Seegars said, she lent Barry $50, which he paid back. He said the first time he had lost his debit card but couldn't recall the circumstances of the second time.
Others have come to his aid. Last year, H.R. Crawford, a developer in Southeast and former council member, established a trust fund to help with Barry's personal expenses.
The trust is just a way for Barry's friends to help him make ends meet, Crawford said. "We're going to make sure he's comfortable," he said. "I don't think any of us want to see him down and out. Somebody should give him a job. He's a brilliant individual, and he needs employment."
The $92,000 for a part-time salary is an attractive incentive to run for council, Crawford said. But Barry said his finances did not influence his decision.
"I've never run for any office for the money," Barry said. "Never have and never will. I think you run for office because you care about the people in Ward 8."
Cora Masters Barry said: "It just makes me sad, all the things going on with his health and the campaign. I want him to have peace in his life, to be able to be comfortable and secure and not worry about his future and finances."
Changes in Ward 8
Although Crawford says somebody should give Barry a job, he doesn't necessarily think it should be on the council. Crawford endorsed Allen, and others -- including the Greater Washington Board of Trade and most D.C. Council members -- have followed suit. The Ward 8 Democrats didn't endorse a candidate because none got two-thirds of the total votes cast; Allen got 91 votes, Barry got 60, and five other candidates split 97 votes.
Even Barry's pastor, the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, endorsed Allen. That bothered Barry, who said he felt betrayed by his longtime friend.
But he has been around politics long enough to know an endorsement doesn't hold a candle to a punched ballot. He is trying to appeal to voters by promising more summer jobs, better housing options and a renewed sense of hope for the poor.
"We're calling it 'the New Ward 8,' " he said.
But one political problem that some analysts see is that the ward already has changed significantly and that the new Ward 8 doesn't bode well for Barry.
"I think the ward has changed since Barry last served," said Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, president of the Ward 8 Democrats. "A large number of public housing units are now gone, replaced by market-rate housing, and I think that could make a difference."
Barry recently drove through several of the new developments and claimed credit for laying the groundwork for many of them when he was mayor. He said people have told him the residents there "aren't conducive to your kind of candidacy," a way of saying that he has little to offer to middle-income residents, especially whites.
But inside those developments, residents suggested that Barry has something they need: visibility. Oxon Creek resident Kirsten Burgard -- a member of the Ward 8 Democrats -- said she has had conversations about the campaign with about 30 neighbors. She said they usually start by praising other candidates, go on to say they feel more closely aligned with the others' views and conclude by admitting they'll probably vote for Barry.
"Barry, just his presence, having beaten the odds, will draw attention to us," said Jose Muse, 36, who lives in Oxon Creek. "People who can't afford homes lose them to primarily non-African Americans. Everyone looks at Barry and says, 'He's gonna be the one to stop this. He's gonna be the one to fight our battles because without him, we can't even get into the fight.' "
Even those who aren't backing Barry believe he's got a chance. Former campaign manager Jordan, who is so mad that he filed a lawsuit for back pay, predicted a Barry victory. Activist Don Folden described the campaign as "pathetic," then added that a Barry win is a "good possibility." Crawford said Barry might try to use a win to regain the mayor's seat.
"They can think anything they want," Barry said defiantly. "I'm talking Ward 8. That's big enough for me."