Marion Barry has been sitting in his car for 25 minutes, waiting for people to show up to his campaign kickoff rally.
It’s a warm, sunny February day. The greatest politician in the history of the District of Columbia lingers in his silver Jaguar in the parking lot next to Thurgood Marshall Academy charter school on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. At 2 p.m., the rally’s scheduled start time, there were only a handful of people milling about. By 2:25 p.m., when Barry rolled up, there weren’t enough people there to field a football team.
This could very well be Barry’s last campaign. Over the years, he has won 10 of 11 elections: He won election to the school board in 1972; the D.C. Council in 1974 and 1976; the mayor’s office in 1978, 1982, and 1986. After a celebrated interruption, he won yet another D.C. Council race in 1992, yet another mayoral race in 1994, and still more D.C. Council contests in 2004 and 2008.
You don’t win that many races without knowing a thing or two about stage management.
So Barry waits. He talks on his iPhone. He chats with campaign workers who amble over to talk to him through his car’s open window. He waits some more. Slowly, more people trickle in. If any one demographic is well-represented in the crowd, it’s elderly women. “Ward 8 people, generally speaking, are reluctant to come out on a Saturday,” he explains to me later.
But it’s not just Barry’s constituents who are underrepresented. The media, for whom the ex-mayor has been catnip, are mainly absent. The sole local TV cameraman on hand bolted soon after 2 p.m., before Barry even arrived. There are a few photographers and just one reporter: me. None of the boldface names of D.C. politics are around, either, despite the fact that many of them owe their careers and fortunes to Barry.
Later, Barry tells me that he didn’t want any them of them around, since their attendance might steal some shine from his spotlight.
Just before 3 p.m., after nearly a half hour of waiting in the car, Barry makes his grand entrance into the school’s gymnasium, surrounded by a small entourage who chant, “Barry, Barry…” As Barry makes his way to a seat next to the podium, the rally’s DJ begins playing Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All,” quickly replacing the chants. Attendance isn’t even close to triple digits. In the mostly empty room, the volume seems far too loud.
“I believe that children are the future…”
The festivities begin with a good hour of speeches from campaign workers and other supporters. Some of the elderly women give impromptu testimonials about Barry’s greatness. Mentions of recent legislative accomplishments on the D.C. Council are scant. But the summer youth jobs program he started several decades ago as mayor is mentioned at a rough average of once every three minutes.
Barry, who is diabetic, munches on Hershey’s Kisses as he waits. His girlfriend has brought the treats over to him, unwrapped.
Finally, as far larger crowds used to say: It’s Barry time! And Barry begins by telling the not-quite-a-crowd to ignore the optics. “Don’t be dismayed by the size of the rally,” he says. “The issue is who shows up on April 3. And I maintain that on April 3 a significant number of Ward 8 residents will come to the polls. They’re going to vote for Marion Barry to go back to the council of the District of Columbia.”
Picking up steam, Barry tells the crowd what it already knows: He is a once-in-a lifetime politician, a transcendent figure whose fate hasn’t been to simply govern or legislate, but to “lift the spirits of the people.”
“There’ll probably be another 40, 50, 60 years before anybody in this city could serve four terms as mayor,” he says. “They don’t have what it takes.” He may be right. It’s a truth that at least partly explains the lack of interest in the campaign: Barry’s re-election is seen as a fait accompli.
But there’s another explanation as to why so few are watching Barry, now 76, embark on yet another season of rallies, endorsements, and evocations of the glory days. Outside the gym is a city that passed him by a long time ago. Even Ward 8, long home to the population Barry calls “the last, the least, and the lost,” is different. This year, for perhaps the first time, gentrification has become an issue there.
Memories of Barry’s four mayoral terms are everywhere. But his impact in the last eight years as councilmember has been faint. Even the recent scandals are comparatively puny. The most recent Barry booboo involved an improperly registered car. Campaign events like today’s heighten the dichotomy: Barry the larger-than-life mayor is competing against Barry the not-so-important councilmember. And as much as you might want the legend to win, the councilmember keeps showing up.