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The Mystique Of Marion Barry Essay, Research Paper

In January of 1990, Washington, DC, the seat of the federal government of the United States was turned upside down by scandal. While the headlines were filled with the efforts of the Bush Administration to crack down on drugs, the District’s Mayor and symbol of black power against a nearly all white backdrop of authority was caught on videotape buying and than smoking crack cocaine with an exotic dancer two days before he was expected to announce an unprecedented fourth campaign for mayor. The sting was setup and carried out by a Federal Bureau of Investigation unit that had been pursing the frequent rumors of the Mayor’s drug dependency.

Five years later, Barry would be successful in obtaining a fourth term. Barry’s defeat of his Republican opponent, Carol Schwartz, a Jewish woman was a remarkable statement of Barry’s uncanny connection with the majority of the District electorate, in the face of scandal and undisputable evidence of drug use. In fact, many regard Barry’s return to the District Mayor’s office as a strong slap in the face to the establishment of Congressional intervention, Federal Control Boards and the such. Barry’s re-election was a result of political savvy voter registration program as well as his uncanny connection with the majority of those that lived in predominantly black and Democratic city. He connected, or at least in a public relations sense, connected with the people, he capitalized on the failures of his predecessor Sharon Pratt Kelly, talked about issues people wanted to hear about, and possessed a character trait about him that made it nearly impossible for some not to be drawn too.

Central to Marion Barry’s success in Washington, DC politics is his long-term association with the region. In 1965, Barry, a graduate of LeMoyne College, came to the nation’s capital as a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Barry immediately, capitalized on his popularity in the city. In 1971, he ran for and won election to the school board. Four years later, Barry also successfully won an at-large seat on the City Council. As WashingtonPost.Com observed in a retrospect, “Barry was a radically new kind of politician. Raised in poverty, he built a political base from Anacostia rather than through the traditional black power brokers on 16th Street’s Gold Coast. He embodied black political aspirations.”

Barry was re-elected to the City Council in 1976, and ran for Mayor in 1978. Given the District’s political demographics, the Democratic Primary Election was the true political battle in the Mayoral race. Whoever won the nomination would surely win the General Election in November. Sterling Tucker was not only Barry’s main foe during the Primary, but served as Chairman of the City Council that Barry served on. Although in later years, the Editorial Page of The Washington Post would become one of Barry’s biggest critics, he did win the city’s largest and most powerful endorsement in 1978. Highlights of the August 30, 1978 endorsement include: “What Mr. Barry seems to value, and to be offering, in other words, is precisely what we think the people of this city need, and ought to be looking for. We have in mind particular qualities of leadership – energy, nerve, initiative, imagination, toughness of mind, an active concern for people in distress, command presence if you will – that have been conspicuously absent from the present administration and also seem to be missing from Mr. Tucker.”

Before there can be further analysis of Barry’s success in District politics; despite an extremely negative public opinion on a national level; it is essential to understand the power of the office Barry sought for two decades. Although Washington, DC is among the largest twenty-five cities in the United States, the mayor of the nation’s capital has a drastically different amount of power than mayors of other large cities.

Washington, DC is a federal territory established by Congress in 1790 as the seat of newly formed Federal Government. Founding Fathers, concerned with State rights and the ability of a young nation of colonies to survive if the power of the government rested in one state sought to eliminate the concerns that originated from Pennsylvania and New York both hoping that Philadelphia and New York City would become the nation’s capital. Maryland and Virginia ceded land to establish the Federal City and the government moved in at the dawn of a new century, in 1800. Because Washington is a city that is not in any state, the residents of the District of Columbia do not vote or have elections or representation on multiple levels of government. District residents do not have representation in the United States Senate, although many Senators from other states have residences in the District. Furthermore, they do not have a Governor, State Attorney General, State Assembly or any state office. In 1971 Congress gave the District a non-voting Representative. This position is currently held by Eleanor Holmes Norton. The District is also allotted 3 votes in the Electoral College, this number is equal to the minimum number that the least populated states such as the Dakotas and Montana have.

The question of who has legal authority over local issues has been wrestled with since the nation was founded. Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution reads: “The Congress shall have power … to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such district … as may by the cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of government.” This clause does not prohibit, the establishment of more localized government, Congress was given the duty to establish any such governments and they have often tinkered with the system. In 1802 Congress originally, established a system that called for a city council elected by the residents and a mayor appointed and approved by Congress. In 1820, Congress gave more power to District residents and allowed them to elect their own mayor. By 1874, Congress reversed earlier arrangements towards local control and established a Presidential appointed three-person commission to run the city. This led to a system of corruption and confusion among both the three-person committee as well as with the various federal agencies and offices in the city. Although the Senate voted in support of local control, the House of Representative’s powerful House District Committee blocked a vote on local rule from coming to a full floor vote till 1973. Barry was a leading advocate, spokesman and lobbyer of Home Rule. Which is why Barry has served as Mayor for all but eight years from the time the office was created till he decided not to run for a fifth term in 1998.

Under the Home Rule Act that took effect in 1974, Congress retained the right review legislation and authorized the city’s budget. However, Congress established a city council and mayor to be determined by the popular election of the residents of the District of Columbia. For the first time in nearly a century, there would be local government, however, Congress still had the strings to the purse.

Washington, DC faced many of the problems that other major American cities faced when Barry was sworn in on January 2, 1979 and continued to face in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As many white’s left for the suburbs, drug use, crime and murder continued to rise, while education scores, and public facilities such as roads were in decline. Where as other large cities could rely on support from the state government and the tax base of the suburbs to support their programs, Washington as it is federal territory is left to fail or succeed with the limited resources of its 168 square mile area. It is essential that this unique circumstance perhaps creates a feeling among those that live in D.C. a feeling of abandonment that might cause them to rebel against the establishment. It would become no secret in later years that many of the VIP’s in the city were embarrassed both by Barry and his enduring appeal to the poor African American residents of the District of Columbia. Members of Congress, White House staff, members of the press or the Fourth Estate as it is often referred to in DC, could not comprehend how a man caught on tape using drugs, and ran a city that continually failed to deliver basic services could be re-elected.

Barry’s first term as mayor was by and large successful. He won very high praise for a summer job program, as well as reorganized city positions, and helped the city sort out a mess of financial discrepancy and poor records. In 1982, more than 16,000 students on summer vacation from school were provided jobs under the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program. The program was a brainchild of the mayor and garnished him respect from the outside world as well as heart felt thanks from the thousands of parents in the city whose children benefited from the program. Many of those children would grow up and remain residents of the District and would become some of Barry’s biggest supporters even during troubled times. Barry’s appointments to job city positions were also successful. Barry, as he had promised to do during the campaign hired a professional city manager as Deputy Mayor. He worked with Elijah Rogers to fill top personnel appointments to deal with problems in the schools, police department and transportation. Meanwhile, the mayor was always out and about. The people saw him all the time, either in person or in the news media. Barry’s charismatic personality earned him kudos with the media. In November 1982, Marion Barry was elected to a second term; he won 80 percent of the vote.

In October of 1984 the Barry Administration scored a major financial victory. A financial review of the city’s records was in fact so successful that for the first time ever the District would be able to raise money outside of Congress by entering the bond market. Things seemed to be moving along perfectly. By nearly everyone’s account the District of Columbia had a mayor that was hard working and charismatic. He was seen as man of the people by those that lived in his city, and trustworthy by Congress and others. Barry even became to be a player in the field of national politics. At the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, Barry had the honor of placing Jesse Jackson’s name in nomination for the Presidency. Behind the scenes, there were some cracks in the picture.

Rumors of the mayor’s drug use never seemed to disappear. Mystery surrounded Barry’s activity at a Christmas party at This Is It, a downtown nightclub, which Barry attended in December 1982. In June of 1984, a month before Barry attended the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, his long time friend and associate Karen Johnson was arrested and pled guilty for a variety of drug charges. Later that month, when a federal grand jury asked Johnson if she had ever sold drugs to the mayor, she refused to answer and was found in contempt of court. After the elections in 1984, the Barry Administration was again rocked by scandal. Barry was forced to handover evidence to a US Attorney’s Office that showed that deputy mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson stole close to $200,000 in city funds. Although Barry was not implicated, this tarnished Barry’s image. Many felt that once Ivanhoe, one of Barry’s closest friends and top aides, was charged, that Barry’s own fall from grace was inevitable.

Carol Schwartz, a Jewish woman that lived in the wealthy, and for the most part white Ward 3 ran on the Republican ticket against the mayor in 1986. Schwartz, a member of the city council, did make Barry work harder for re-election, but Barry still won with a substantial 61 percent. On November 2, 1986, The Washington Post, reluctantly endorsed Barry’s third term. Although the newspaper cited Barry’s “knowledge, experience and accomplishments” as opposed to rumor and innuendo as the deciding reasons. Barry was no longer an ideal candidate for mayor, in the end however he was the better of the two.

Mayor Barry’s third consecutive term, continued right where the second term had stopped. Allegations and questions continued to arise. In mid January 1987, only a few weeks into the new term, another one of Barry’s political allies was caught in scandal. Alphonse Hill, the deputy mayor in charge of finance was charged and would later plead guilty to a total of 11 counts of various criminal acts. They included defrauding the District government, income tax evasion and extortion. In late May of the same year, an FBI investigation showed that Karen Johnson had been paid $25,000 by associates and friends of the mayor for not answering questions about the mayor’s drug use in the 1984 investigation.

Exactly six years to the day after the infamous party at “This Is It”, two District of Columbia police detectives, while investigating Charles Lewis, a friend of the mayor, left a downtown hotel room when they discovered Barry was there. Lewis would later be arrested on cocaine charges. He told investigators he had in fact “smoked crack with the mayor” in December 1988. Barry denied the allegations. To further Barry’s troubles, The Washington Monthly dubbed the DC the “worst city government in America.” Barry was being attacked from all sides.

Growing speculation that the mayor of the most powerful city in the world was smoking crack while in office continued to swirl. In September 1989, a federal grand jury heard testimony from a secretary from the Virgin Islands that she saw the mayor smoking crack while the mayor and other city officials had visited the Islands in March 1988.

Despite the rumors, many of Barry’s supporters, refused to acknowledge the drug use. Barry felt he was being setup. At one point he proclaimed The Washington Post was out to get him. After January 18, 1990, a videotape would prove to the world, that the rumors were true.

Shortly after 8:00 pm on January 18, 1990, a collection of FBI and District police raided a room at the Vista International Hotel. Previous to their entrance, a videotape they had setup recorded Mayor Barry taking two long drags off a crack pipe. Barry was arrested, and brought to FBI headquarters; he was released later in the evening on his own reconnaissance. Needless to say, the local and national media went into a frenzy. In the heart of the Bush Administration utilizing federal resources to fight the war on drugs, an elected official caught on tape smoking crack was an image that no one wanted to be associated with. WRC TV, the local NBC affiliate broke into prime time programming with a special report by the station’s news anchor and friend of the mayor, Jim Vance. This was only the beginning of a nonstop media circus that followed the mayor from arrest to trial, and after.

Two weeks after the arrest, an article in Newsweek Magazine called the arrest “A stunning blow to black elected officials nationwide, and to Barry’s black constituents in the District of Columbia.” The article went on to discuss the impact of the arrest on the efforts of drug czar William Bennett and the Bush Administration. Citing that the arrest had made front page news in Bogot?, Columbia simultaneous to efforts by the Administration to “ . . . persuade Latin American governments to join the attack on the cocaine cartels.”

Barry was forced to relinquish day-to-day duties to city manager Carol Thompson. His trial was covered in detail, by every local media organization and received substantial coverage from the national and international media as well. As more details about the mayor’s drug use became public knowledge, a bitter divide began to occur in the city. Almost entirely divided among racial ethnicity, the jury convicted Barry on only one for the fourteen charges against him. Although many believed the mayor was guilty based on the now infamous videotape and other details brought to light over the trial, many others felt the mayor had been setup by the FBI. On the whole, whites believed he was guilty, and blacks did not.

Immediately after the arrest, black leaders publicly stated the skepticism towards the sting operation. As Barry’s political career was put on hold, Jesse Jackson’s name was rumored to be a possible candidate for mayor. Reverend Ernest R. Gibson of Washington’s First Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church told Newsweek, “All over this country, there are attempts made to discredit our black leadership. Many people here believe the [federal government] wouldn’t have gone through all this trouble for a misdemeanor arrest for anyone except Mayor Barry. They’ve been trying for so long to get him.”

Barry served his six months in federal jail, and quickly returned to District politics. Determine to win back the office he had held for twelve years, Barry would use a seat on the city council to regain attention. Jonetta Rose Barras chronicled Barry’s comeback in her book, “The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders. Barras writes, “Despite Barry’s abysmal mayoral record of delivering services to the poor, he understood that if people in Ward 8 had a choice between him and most anyone else, he would win hands down.” Ward 8 is the poorest of the eight wards in the District and has some of highest rates of crime and drug use. Barry moved into Ward 8 less than two weeks before declaring his candidacy. A court challenge failed to get Barry’s name off the ballot as acquisitions of carpetbagger were implied but never officially discussed. As was the case before, the Democratic Primary was be a tougher campaign than the general election against a Republican. Although other candidates including Mayor Kelly endorsed his opponent Barry won a seat on the city council. After being reelected to a city council seat in 1992, Barry was an all but certain candidate in the 1994 Mayoral election. Barry won election by running in Ward 8, the poorest and most crime-ridden area of the city; it was also the area where he had the most sympathy from his arrest and support. Barry’s opponents in the primary were the current mayor, Democrat Sharon Pratt Kelly and city councilmen John Ray.

Kelly had inherited a flawed, corrupt, unproductive government after she was elected following Barry’s arrest. There was little she could do to turn the city around. Her personality was not as genuinely likeable as Barry. Perhaps an even greater disadvantage, Kelly had a much lighter complexion than Barry, although she was African American, many did not view her as “black.” Kelly has also fumbled in areas Barry had success. Barry had been able to chit chat and rub noses with the big business boys of the region. Barras writes, “Kelly botched efforts to keep the Washington Redskins in the city, and without a group of influential business leaders on her side, she would have fouled out on Abe Pollin’s offer to build a sports arena for his Washington Wizards basketball team and his Capitals hockey team.” Barras goes on to describe another one of Kelly’s negatives, “Evidence of the District government’s rudderlessnes became apparent with Kelly’s revolving-door personnel policy . . . In four years, she went through three housing directors, two city administrators, two chiefs of staff, three deputy mayors for economic development, and two heads of the city’s Department of Finance.” During a portion of Kelly’s Administration from 1990 to 1994, the District like the rest of the country was suffering through a recession and had to endure “declining real estate revenues, escalating unemployment, and diving tax revenues.” In short the Kelly administration was a series of mishaps, perhaps doomed to be unsuccessful by the circumstances it inherited. As the mayoral election approached she received only 14 percent support in a Washington Post poll. Meanwhile, residents from all eight of the city’s wards called Barry’s city council office as many seemed to think he was still mayor or at least mayor in waiting.

Neither Ray or Kelly wanted to run against Barry. His popularity was too hard to overcome. Ray focused his campaign against Kelly’s disasters administration; however he lacked the personnel appeal of Barry. Barras writes how The Washington Post struggled to endorse any of the candidates. The paper concluded that they could not decide, none were without their faults, although Ray seemed to have had success as a city councilman.

Barry, with the financial assistance of boxing promoter Rock Newman started a major voter registration campaign. Newman helped workers register voters in Anacostia and other areas around Ward 8 were Barry was the council representative. Never questioned for his political ability, Barry’s plan for a win the Primary was abundantly clear. Barry would use his newfound financial assistance to “stack the cards in his favor” as far as voter registration was concerned. He developed and followed a clear strategy of what areas in the city he would target and wish he would not and finally he would use his newfound religious feelings to rebuild the bridges he had burned from his embarrassing arrest.

In practical terms, Newman the promoter of Heavyweight Boxing Champion Rid*censored* Bowe, funded voter registration. Of the 19,000 people that registered from May 1, 1994 to August 30, 1994, one third of them lived east of the Anacostia River. As Barry told The Washington Post, “People can think all they want that these kind of voters aren’t going to come out on Election Day. I know they’ll be motivated because they have someone to vote for.”

Barry’s close friends from his original administration had too found themselves recovering from personal struggles and were close allies to the former (and future) mayor. Chief among these was Ivanhoe Donaldson. Realizing the 1978 election plan was successful, the group decided to follow it again in 1994. Barras described the strategy, “He went after Wards 5,6 and 7 disregard Wards 2 and 3, and tried to break even in Wards 1 and 4.” Barry, by being the councilman from Ward 8 and large secure voting bloc he could depend on there.

Although image is not the only thing in American politics, how a candidate acts, dresses and presents himself plays an enormously large role in the success or failure of the campaign. And Barry, a successful politician for decades, through a series of ups and downs was no stranger to that concept. Barras observations of Barry’s behavior are very complete. She writes, “Barry had long understood the psychological bondage in which blacks hold themselves, and he often used it to his political advantage.” He describes in detail his various campaign appearances, “Throughout the summer, the wily Barry alternated wearing African-inspired clothing and tailored, traditional business suits. In poor neighborhoods where black nationalism ran high, he strutted in Dashiki. In middle class communities, where blacks strongly felt themselves to be insiders who were nonetheless victims of racism, he donned a suit. Casting himself as a seasoned professional, he touched a raw nerve about the arrogance of the white power establishment. Once again, Barry understood that religious themes were always powerful magnets in black America.”

It was these strategies that led to Barry’s victory in the primary. And as the media often do, many national newspapers painted Barry’s victory as underdog, people’s favorite that had made a comeback against heavy personal obstacles. According to Barras, both The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times mentioned Barry’s comeback victory in the lead of their national election story.

Although some gave Carol Schwartz a chance to win the general election, Barry’s popularity soared after the primary. As expected, many Democrats that had opposed him, rallied behind him. Barry, aware of the polarizing effects on racial relations his victory might have on the city, focused efforts in Schwartz’s backyard, Ward 3. Barry appeared in Ward 3 numerous times during the general campaign, sometimes hoping to win votes, however it was mainly a public relations maneuver to ease white voters into accepting another Barry administration. Four years after being caught on tape smoking crack cocaine, Marion Barry received 55 percent of the votes to become the next mayor of Washington, DC.

Barry’s political comeback would run into major opposition from the newly elected Republican run Congress. Many would not dispute the fact that Barry, although popular with the electorate was not running the city in the efficient manner he had during the glory days of his first administration a decade and half previously. Congress created a Control Board to watch over the city. Under Barry, the office of the mayor gradually lost more and more power. A five person, Control Board appointed by the President oversaw all major decisions and financial matters. Many saw Congress’s actions as a personal attack on Barry since he had embarrassed the country before.

Despite the pressure from the white establishment Barry was a popular with the people of the city. Barry’s failures and battle with Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress even furthered the feeling many longtime residents of the District. The white establishment, be it Congress, the White House, the media did not trust a group of relatively poor and uneducated African Americans to govern themselves. Tensions between the two groups reached a pinnacle, when Marion Barry, a convicted drug user was reelected as the city’s mayor. Barry’s fourth term was disastrous and unsuccessful by nearly all accounts. His poor performance forced Congress to strip the mayor of his power.

Now, the current mayor Anthony Williams is working hard to overcome what years of poor policy resulted in. At the current time, Williams seems to be more popular with the white establishment than his predecessor. Hopefully, the two governments in Washington the national and the local will be able to look past racial lines and political party alliances and work together to provide services and community to the District and restore the tarnished civil pride of the Federal City.

Barry’ success was in simplest terms a brilliant political use of the so called “race card.” His comeback, based on a three-prong strategy; increase voter registration in Ward 8; campaigning along racial lines as he done successfully in 1978; and portraying himself differently in various areas of the city all the while using religion and redemption carried Barry to win back the Mayor’s office. He had a connection with the residents. They put their trust in him again, this time he failed. He would be no match for the Republican Congress, and could not recover from an infamous January night in 1990. In analyzing Barry’s connection with the majority of the District’s electorate, Barras concludes, “Marion Barry’s recovery became symbolic of large numbers of black communities in recovery – both in the city and throughout the country. Many District voters had experienced falls similar to Barry’s, and while some knew they were not of his socio-economic ilk, the experiences they shared with him created a sense of identification.”

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