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Marion Barry for Mayor

Washington Post Editorial
November 2, 1986

Eight years ago and again four years later, we endorsed Marion Barry for mayor, a little more optimistically and uncritically the first time than the second, but nevertheless both times with enthusiasm. Today, we do so again— but with far greater reservations and misgivings. We are concerned about the atmosphere inside city hall and the stagnant state of political affairs that can so easily breed executive boredom, casual management—and worse. There have been enough clouds over the District Building to create serious discomfort among many who were Mr. Barry's strongest supporters in past elections. Yet until the challenge conducted by Republican Carol Schwartz, nothing seemed to stand in the way of an automatic, no-questions-asked reelection of Mr. Barry. Mrs. Schwartz did change this: she has stirred Mr. Barry enough for him to shift his campaign for a third term from a cakewalk to a run for it. Still, when it comes down to a serious inventory of each candidate's knowledge, experience and accomplishments, we believe Mr. Barry prevails.

It is not that incumbency automatically confers a claim on reelection. But time-in-grade is one useful standard of measurement; could the challenger do better in the office? On this count, certainly Mrs. Schwartz has done as well as any challenger—this time or in past elections—to answer the question affirmatively. She has seized on shortcomings of the administration and has made some useful suggestions for improvements. She has run a very dignified, responsible campaign and an extremely combative one—attributes that don't usually go together. Mrs. Schwartz has campaigned earnestly and unself-consciously in every section of the city. Her credentials far exceed those of any other challenger on the ballot this year—Brian Moore, Josephine Butler, Garry Davis or Deborah Lazar. She has experience as an elected official, on the school board and on the D.C. Council.

Still, in terms of effectiveness on either of those bodies, Mrs. Shwartz has come up short. Some of this is merely the handicap of being in a Republican Party minority of minuscule proportions and of being a committee-less rookie on the council now. But a mayor has to be able to generate enough support across the city and within its government to make a large bureaucracy move, and to galvanize the political, financial and neighborhood leaders to do their best for the District of Columbia as a whole. In spite of some grave failures and derelictions—including the conviction of a deputy mayor on corruption charges and the departure of other top aides with something less than high honors—Mr. Barry still seems more skilled and capable in this regard than Mrs. Schwartz. His political instincts and his particular feelings for the city's many constituencies remain exceptionally keen.

Neither the city nor its government has gone to hell in a handbasket over the Barry years, despite the extravagant claims to the contrary you often hear made. While there have been a few really bad choices in his cabinet, more often Mr. Barry has been able to attract some first-rate administrators for important positions, including City Administrator Thomas Downs and a series of financial experts who converted a pre-home rule, inherited chaos to a nationally acclaimed financial management system. Again, four years ago, crime prevention was a matter that still cried out for improvement; though the statistics do change from month to month, this city's record now compares favorably with those of other cities around the country. Mr. Barry's longstanding interest in the youth of the city is reflected in impressive summer jobs programs; and while there is always cause for some complaints, most municipal services—roads, trash pickups, tax billings and city hall support for the schools—have improved.

There is still plenty of room for more improvements. The prison system needs new management, new prison space and new commitment to maintain constitutionally humane facilities as ordered by the courts. Housing, too, suffers from poor management, from the condition of public housing to the maintenance of city-owned properties generally. Emergency services—from 911 to ambulance crews—still need attention. Here, as in so many cities, drug programs still aren't making a dent in the problem. The planning and development of areas beyond the city's center need overhaul, to control growth in already jammed neighborhoods while attracting development in those parts of the city where it would be welcomed.

In the past, Mr. Barry has risen to challenges and responded vigorously and effectively to serious criticism of the administration. His political energies, when he is pressed, can make good things happen fast around town. The danger now and into the future is that there is no apparent wave of young political talent—or even seasoned professionals—grooming for public office. Mrs. Schwartz, for one, should continue to keep Mr. Barry's feet to the political fire. Democrats, too, should be considering how inadequate their party has been in encouraging necessary competition within their ranks, in developing the kind of ambitious, talented prospective rivals who can keep officeholders from becoming complacent and replace them when the moment comes. Things are pretty motionless in Washington in this respect. Our city deserves a more vital politics than it has got. It deserves more choice. Marion Barry, Walter Fauntroy, David Clarke and the council members should not be able to rely on name recognition and partisan domination for lifetime tenure. But so far Mr. Barry does remain a man who has made enough of a substantial, constructive difference in this city to continue for another term.

© The Washington Post

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