When D.C. Council member Marion Barry strolled into his 76th birthday party this month, he was greeted much as he has been at thousands of events across the District for much of his three-decade political career.
Barry, who is seeking a third consecutive term as the Ward 8 council member, beamed as a few dozen well-wishers reached for him, crushed up against him for a picture and shouted encouraging words.
“I’m popular,” Barry told a reporter as he walked through the crowd at his party at Georgena’s in Southeast Washington, formerly known as the Players Lounge.
But when Barry sits down, after the “Barry, Barry” chants subside, the former mayor is an increasingly lonely politician.
Sure, Barry is often joined by former council member Sandra Allen, his campaign manager, as well as his son, Christopher, and godson Dennis Harvey. But Barry is relying on an increasingly shallow pool of core supporters to help him fend off four other candidates in the Democratic primary.
Only one of Barry’s council colleagues, Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), showed up at his party. Anthony J. Motley, one of Barry’s closest friends and a former campaign manager, now says he is undecided about whether he will vote for him in the April 3 primary.
And Natalie Williams, a former Barry spokeswoman who helped guide him through his most recent, rocky, four-year term, is running against him. Williams said she decided to run because she was convinced that Barry is no longer up to the job.
“I care about his age, his health and his overall well-being,” Williams said. “I said to him: ‘I want you to enjoy the rest of your life. You’ve done enough, and to continue to work when your heart is not in it, it’s a disservice to the community.’ . . . I’ve seen him slow down.”
But there will be no coasting into retirement for the former four-term mayor, who proudly notes that he has won 11 of his past 12 political campaigns, losing only a 1990 at-large council race while he awaited sentencing for a drug conviction.
As Christopher Barry said in a recent interview, politics is in his father’s blood and is “his life,” and it’s “not something he can put on and off like a coat.”
“I’m 76 years of age. I’ve had prostate cancer. I’ve had a kidney transplant. I’ve been a diabetic for 23 years, but the key is my mind,” Marion Barry said in a recent interview. “My mind is as sharp as ever. I’m wiser than ever.”
Indeed, for a good chunk of voters in Ward 8, life without Barry would be like trying to live without the 11th Street bridge.
“The people outside the perimeter don’t have no idea,” said Sandra Lindsay, a Barry supporter. “He’s a man, not infallible, but the ultimate politician.”
Barry is still favored over his opponents in the primary — Williams; former Ward 8 Democratic Party head Jacque D. Patterson; and advisory neighborhood commissioners Sandra Seegars and Darrell Gaston — although few expect him to match the 77 percent showing he had four years ago.
Despite well-chronicled health problems that leave him weak, Barry remains a formidable campaigner and debater, able to woo crowds with his affable personality and his discourses about what he did for African Americans as mayor in the 1980s.
“Councilman Barry is obviously winning,” said Markus Batchelor, vice president of the Ward 8 Democratic Committee. “There are a lot of qualities each candidate can bring to the job, but it’s pretty tough to tell who will come in second.”
Two of the candidates, Patterson and Seegars, are well-known Ward 8 politicians who have run unsuccessful campaigns against Barry in the past.
Patterson, 47, a former program manager at the Federal City Council, an influential group of business and civic leaders, unsuccessfully challenged Barry in 2004. This year, Patterson is receiving support from progressives who hope to reform and professionalize the council. Seegars, who has lost four previous Ward 8 council races, is well known in Southeast for her activism and criticisms of Barry.
“People are waking up,” Seegars said in describing her chances this year.
Gaston, 25, works for the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and is part of a generation of activists looking to take the lead in Ward 8, which has had just five council members since home rule was granted in the 1970s.
Williams, 40, a public relations consultant, previously served as Barry’s communications director. She is a single mother and is trying to mobilize women in her campaign. She said she “can talk the talk and walk the walk” in a ward where three out of four households are headed by unmarried mothers and where nearly half of the children live in poverty.
Barry’s opponents note that only 5,400 of the Ward’s 33,000 registered Democrats voted four years ago. And with 4,000 new residents since redistricting last year, Barry’s opponents remain optimistic. The key to success, they say, is capitalizing on increasing “Barry fatigue,” especially among the growing numbers of college-educate residents in Ward 8.
In 2009, Barry was publicly shamed when the Washington City Paper published details of his sexual relationship with a former girlfriend at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Eight months later, Barry was censured by council colleagues after an independent investigator determined that he had steered city money to several friends and supporters and that he personally had benefited from a city contract that he awarded to a former girlfriend.
Last year, The Washington Post reported that Barry had been driving around for more than six months in a car that had “inactive” tags and was not registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Barry has long benefited politically from suspicions among Ward 8 residents his legal troubles were driven by the media or politically motivated prosecutors. Yet in recent years, Barry’s political skills have been tested by self-inflicted gaffes.
Last year, after a Washington Post reporter noticed Barry driving his car down Pennsylvania with its bumper dragging, Barry responded, “When you live in the ghetto, this happens.” The remark outraged some residents, and Barry redoubled his efforts to reach out, including joining Twitter to connect with younger constituents.
Barry can stray into conversations that most politicians would smartly avoid.
“When the Jews were being herded into ghettos of Poland, nobody minded that term,” Barry said in an interview Thursday, explaining his remark about Ward 8 being a ghetto. “They said, ‘this is a Jewish ghetto. This is a Polish ghetto for Jews.’ . . . If you look at the meaning of the ghetto, it’s both sociological and geographical.”
On the campaign trail, however, Barry sticks to a more disciplined script, arguing that new housing and other development are appearing in Ward 8 under his leadership.
He takes credit for 10,000 new or renovated housing units since 2005, the pending reconstruction of Ballou High School and plans to renovate four recreation centers.
“The other candidates are going to talk about what they’d like to do, will do, plan to do, but Marion Barry is going to talk about what he has done,” Barry said at a recent debate.
Barry’s opponents note that many of the projects he speaks of originated with and were championed by other city leaders, including former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). But Barry, whose influence on the council has grown under Brown, said he has been instrumental in “making the deals” that keep city money flowing into Ward 8.
Barry’s opponents counter that Ward 8 still has more than 300 boarded-up properties, too many liquor stores and not enough retail because national chains do not want to invest in the area while Barry represents the community.
“The basis of my campaign is empowering residents to not live in the past but to move forward,” Gaston said. “If D.C. can build a baseball stadium, there is no reason we can’t have commercial corridors that are a beacon.”
After a recent candidates’ debate, Khadijah Watson said she was undecided on whom to vote for but thinks “Barry is the only person experienced enough to hold to the seat.”
“We want people who understand the ward,” said Watson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner.
But a growing number of D.C. leaders are tired of waiting for Barry to step aside.
Motley, who has been friends with Barry for 30 years, said he has “insisted, going back years, that [Barry] come up with a plan for passing the mantle.”
“He keeps assuring me he’s healthy and good and all, but sometimes I see him slowing down a little bit,” said Motley, who remains undecided about whom he will vote for but speaks fondly of Williams.
Barry says it’s “nonsense” for someone to suggest that he should have stepped aside to make way for new talent.
“They sound like they want a dictatorship,” Barry said. “If the people want me, they should be able to have me.”
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