When a Cadillac hearse carrying the casket of Marion Barry trundled down Martin Luther King Avenue SE earlier this month, it was meant to be a final farewell to the ward that Barry had represented for 16 years as mayor and nearly 16 more as a lawmaker.
It also marked the beginning of the post-Barry era of Ward 8 politics, a moment that had been long anticipated in the corner of the city whose civic life had been dominated for decades by the “mayor for life.”
And it is off to a rowdy start.
Thirteen candidates, most of whom are Democrats, have already picked up nominating petitions for an April 28 special election to fill Barry’s D.C. Council seat. Several other candidates are expected to enter the race before the petitions are due to the D.C. Board of Elections on Jan. 28. Nearly every political wag in the ward is wondering whether the Barry era is truly over, because his son, Christopher, may be one of the candidates.
Barry, 34, said he is considering a run.
“Right now, I’m just listening to what the people want,” he said at a memorial event Thursday at the Florida Avenue Grill in Northwest, where he signed copies of his father’s memoirs. “God will send me the message.”
Regardless of whether Marion Barry is again on the ballot — his son’s full name is Marion Christopher Barry — the candidates will have to contend not just with representing the city’s most stubbornly underdeveloped and underprivileged corner, but also with stepping into the shoes of the most iconic politician of the District’s modern era.
“They will not get the pass that Marion had, and they’ve got to address some serious issues in the ward,” said Jacque Patterson, a Democratic activist who twice ran for the Ward 8 council seat, losing to Marion Barry in 2004 and 2012.
The thirteen candidates who have already picked up ballot petitions include several advisory neighborhood commissioners — Sandra “S.S.” Seegars, Anthony Muhammad and Darrell Gaston — who have previously sought wardwide offices.
Another, Natalie Williams, is a former Barry aide and chairwoman of the Ward 8 Democrats; she worked recently at United Medical Center, the ward’s only full-service hospital. It was Williams who announced the former mayor’s death at a news conference early on the morning of Nov. 23.
LaRuby May, an activist with close ties to Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D), has also entered the race — bringing with her elements of a Bowser-campaign infrastructure that made a strong showing in Ward 8.
Also running is Nathan Bennett-Fleming, who was elected citywide in 2012 as the District’s “shadow” House representative. Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a veteran voting rights activist, said he would formally enter the race later this week.
Others considering runs are Trayon White, a former State Board of Education member who was close to Barry, and Sheila Bunn, who is the daughter of a longtime Ward 8 business leader and who is deputy chief of staff to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
No one’s decision will be watched as closely as Christopher Barry’s.
His potential future in politics has been the subject of speculation for years, even as he showed no outward sign of interest in entering his father’s line of work.
Barry never anointed a successor for a reason, Patterson said: “Inwardly, it was only Christopher to him. There wasn’t anyone else he was going to groom to take his spot other than his son.”
In 2011, the elder Barry discussed a scenario with associates in which he would secure reelection in 2012, then step down during the term and pave the way for his son to assume his seat. With Barry’s death, that scenario could come to pass — albeit without Barry around to lay his blessing on Christopher Barry.
Several Barry family associates acknowledged that Christopher Barry would be well-positioned to win should he enter the race. But they also wondered whether a council run would be in the best interest of the younger Barry, who has approached several people close to his father to gauge possible support for a run.
Christopher Barry has struggled in and out of the public eye since the death of his mother, Effi Slaughter Barry, from cancer in 2007. He has been arrested several times in the years since, including for offenses related to drug use.
Besides the loss of his mother and father, the younger Barry also spoke in recent weeks about being deeply affected by the death this month of A.J. Cooper III, 34, an aspiring politician and childhood friend. Christopher Barry stood with Cooper’s family at the John A. Wilson Building on Tuesday as the council honored his memory.
“I don’t want him to make an emotional decision,” said one person close to the family who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
On Wednesday, just days after his father was buried, Christopher Barry entered a plea deal to resolve charges related to two separate incidents this year in which he was found to be driving on a revoked license. In one instance, he was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The younger Barry, who owns a small construction company, Efficiency Contractors, named in honor of his mother, was sentenced to nine months of probation for those offenses. Prosecutors declined to pursue charges related to two other arrests this year.
During his father’s funeral events, Christopher Barry hardly cut the figure of a troubled young man struggling with grief and substance abuse.
During the Dec. 5 funeral motorcade, Christopher Barry spent little time inside any of the luxury vehicles driving through the ward on a cold, rainy day — choosing instead to run alongside in his black suit, greeting onlookers and thanking them for their support.
And at the public memorial service the following day, Barry gave well-received remarks remembering a sometimes difficult relationship with his father but also paying tribute to his legacy. He introduced Minister Louis Farrakhan, who in turn gave a blessing to the younger Barry. “What a joy to hear his son speak the way his son spoke,” Farrakhan said.
Later in the service, one of the older Barry’s closest confidants made remarks that could be heard as a call for Christopher Barry to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Between Christopher and I, he was worried that his father wasn’t of the thought that he was ready to assume the mantle,” lawyer David W. Wilmot said. “After hearing Christopher today, I would submit to you that there is no question that he is indeed ready.”
Wilmot, a prominent city lobbyist, said in an interview that he did not intend his remarks to be interpreted as a comment on Christopher’s political future.
“He has an opportunity right now,” he said. “He has to think in terms of what he wants to do with his life that would honor, expand and advance his father’s legacy. That’s doesn’t necessarily mean serving in office.”