The Answers Issue: Would D.C. be better off now if Marion Barry had never been mayor?

Would D.C. be better off now if Marion Barry had never been mayor?

Never been mayor! How ’bout we ponder what life would be like if Barry had never been born? It’s like It’s a Wonderful Life, but with government-contracting set-asides!

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, you myopic little twits: Without Barry taking charge in 1978, the District government would have thrown itself foursquare behind The Plan. Instead of funding a Summer Youth Employment Program, different leadership would have invested in snow-making machines, since summertime snowball fights would help twentysomethings in D.C.’s booming private-equity industry blow off steam. The Frank D. Reeves Center, which Barry’s government erected in 1986, would have been called the William F. Buckley Chateau; instead of social-service agencies, it would have housed the relocated corporate headquarters of J. Crew. From the manicured lawns of Ward 5’s Langston Polo Club (developed by the city after locals lost interest in the plebeian game of golf) to the award-winning arugula fields at Ward 8’s Barry Farms Organic Farm (travel there in carbon-neutral fashion via the dedicated Pennsylvania Avenue rickshaw lane!), today’s District would be a shining example of 1-percenter living. People might even be talking about Mayor Jack Evans’ presidential prospects, right?

Or maybe not. Not to get all Marxist on you—though we are talking about a guy who’s middle name is Shepilov—but it’s hard to make the case that any individual, even one as singular as Barry, is all that crucial to a city’s history. Sure, Barry deserves his share of the blame for the many unsavory aspects of city government that date to his reign: a bloated payroll, a bungling workforce, rising crime, shrinking tax rolls. All the same, those same problems afflicted plenty of Barry-free cities, too. It just happens that the era of Barry’s greatest power came just as years of middle-class flight and the burgeoning crack epidemic were doing their greatest damage to urban America. Even Barry’s more unique legacies look less so in retrospect. Yes, he capitalized on longstanding ethnic grievances in an often divisive way. But so did lots of other mayors, of all races. And although Barry’s videotaped arrest and his shocking restoration were awesome symbols of the District’s various dysfunctions, anyone who followed the career of Providence’s Vincent “Buddy” Cianci knows that humiliating mayoral fall and polarizing political comeback are not exactly D.C.-only phenomena.

Which brings us back to 1978, when either Walter Washington or Sterling Tucker could have won the mayoral election instead of Barry. Surely at least some things would be different today? Indeed. For one, it’s a long shot that either rival would have self-destructed so telegenically in 1990, or had the gumption, much less the political skill, to return. That history both guaranteed the District’s punch-line status and delayed its embrace of now-common government reform. More importantly, the passions that still surround Barry—and, by extension, surround any criticism of his governing style—would not have attached themselves to a lesser mayor. With a more mediocre pol, we’d get over things a lot faster.

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