R.I.P. Marion Barry, Beloved D.C. Figure and Very, Very, Very Bad Mayor
The vast majority of the coverage of the death of former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry offered variations of “he shouldn’t be remembered or judged just by his arrest for smoking crack cocaine in 1990.”
But let’s not forget it, huh? Yes, we are more than the consequences of our worst act at our worst moment. But this was a pretty spectacular failure of judgment, in a life that had plenty of those moments:
Marion Barry Jr., the Mississippi sharecropper’s son and civil rights activist who served three terms as mayor of the District of Columbia, survived a drug arrest and jail sentence, and then came back to win a fourth term as the city’s chief executive, died early on Nov. 23 at United Medical Center in Washington. He was 78.
Mr. Barry, who also served on the D.C. Council for 15 years and had been president of the city’s old Board of Education, was the most influential and savvy local politician of his generation. He dominated the city’s political landscape in the final quarter of the 20th century. There was a time when his critics, in sarcasm but not entirely in jest, called him “Mayor for Life.” Into the first dozen years of the new millennium, he remained a highly visible player on the city’s political stage, but by then on the periphery, no longer at the center.
His personal and public life was fraught with high drama and irony. He struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, relapse and recovery. He was married four times, divorced three times and separated from his fourth wife. His extramarital liaisons and legal trouble over unpaid taxes made news.
Yes they “made news” because they reflected a lifelong assurance that the laws and the rules didn’t apply to him.
I lived in Washington, D.C., during the Barry comeback in the early 1990s. On both of his mayoral watches, life in the city got worse. Here’s how Washingtonian magazine delicately puts it:
“As an elected official, Marion often misconstrued the mission of his government as one to provide reparations to black Americans,” says Jarvis. “Somehow he came to believe the government was the employer of first resort. He hired without much criteria. His greatest failure was in not training city workers for their jobs. It would have helped the government and in their own lives.”
Barry made sure that African-American companies got their share of city contracts, though he did a poor job of holding them accountable. In the process, he enriched many political allies.
But wait, there’s more!
Along the way, his management of the government suffered even more. In the halls of the District Building, aides had to deal with a chief executive who was losing control. In 1986, former city administrator Tom Downs stopped into the office of Herb Reid, then Barry’s political adviser.
“How’s Marion?” Downs asked.
“If it walks, he f***s it,” Reid responded. “If it doesn’t, he ingests it.”
Up in Toronto, Rob Ford’s a mess, but a lot of folks think he’s actually been a good mayor. You have to look far and wide to find any indicators moving in the right direction during the Barry terms.
Reflecting an attitude quite common among those who sing the virtues of government, Marion Barry seemed to think he was exempt from paying for it:
After leaving the mayor’s office, he had quit paying taxes. Federal prosecutors went to court to force him to pay back taxes, and in 2005 he pleaded guilty to not filing federal or DC returns after 1999. A judge gave Barry three years’ probation. When he continued to ignore his tax bills, federal prosecutors asked a judge to give him jail time, but she declined. Prosectors brought Barry back to court in 2009 for failing to file his 2007 return. The federal government garnished his council paychecks to collect nearly $200,000 in taxes, penalties, and interest. The District put him on a voluntary payment plan to pay back about $50,000 in back taxes.
Meanwhile, Barry got caught twice crossing ethical lines as a council member.
In February 2010, he admitted to awarding a $15,000 contract to a girlfriend. “I apologize for my actions and lack of sound judgment and for causing great embarrassment to the city and the city council,” he said. His girlfriend had paid him “several thousand dollars,” he said, which he claimed was repayment of a loan. His council colleagues saw it as a kickback, censured Barry, and stripped him of his chairmanship.
In September 2013, the council censured Barry again, this time for accepting $6,800 in cash from two city contractors.
He was not a nice man:
As his health began to fail, Barry’s prejudices went on display. In April 2012, he lashed out at Chinese merchants in his ward: “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops.” His comments were caught on camera the night he won another Ward 8 council primary. He suggested African-American “businesspeople” take their places.
RIP, Marion Barry – may his family and friends find some peace as they cope with their loss. But let’s not let the sadness of his death alter our perception of the historical record.
Don’t speak ill of the dead… but don’t lie, either.