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.
A few weeks before the campaign kickoff, I happened across Barry in the act of legislating. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The man who led the District for 16 years seems too big for the mundane tasks of a city councilman. It’s like imagining Bill Clinton becoming a House back-bencher in charge of some minor subcommittee.
Barry is holding a hearing on nominees to the city’s Commission on African Affairs, a low-level panel that occasionally gives the mayor advice on matters related to African immigrants. Why appointees to the unpaid, powerless commission would need to be legislatively vetted is not on the agenda. And Barry makes clear that he’d rather be at another hearing. He wants this one wrapped up quickly.
Alas, two things are working against him: The candidates’ tough-to-pronounce African names and the ex-mayor’s tough-to-resist anecdotes about African travels.
The trouble starts when Barry reads aloud the nominees’ names. Tereguebode Goungou gives him trouble, as does Sefanit Befekadu. By the time he gets to Sharon Asongayi, Barry snaps at one of the mayor’s staffers. “In the future, you come brief me before the hearing so we can go over these names and I don’t have to look not too bright,” he says.
On the last nominee’s name, Ify Nwabukwu, Barry comes close—or at least thinks he does. “I got that one pretty good,” he says.
Barry then launches into a history of his visits to Africa, which he says includes journeys to 27 countries. “Usually when I go, I meet with the president of the company, the country, or I don’t go,” he boasts. By the time the travelogue ends, he’s been talking for seven straight minutes.
Not that he wants the witnesses to follow his loquacious example. “Move quickly now,” Barry says as the nominees prepare to testify about why they’d make good commission members. “I have to get back to another hearing.”
Barry starts assigning two-minute time limits to the speakers. But even that seems to frustrate him. After one nominee, Lafayette Barnes, has been speaking for one minute and 20 seconds, Barry cuts him off. “Mr. Barnes, wrap it up now.”
Barnes tries to wrap it up.
“Wait a minute,” says Barry, with finality. “Two minutes.”
“That was a fast two minutes,” says Barnes.
Barry then spends about a minute reminiscing about a trip he and former Mayor Anthony Williams took to South Africa.
The last speaker is George Banks, a Liberian who runs a private detective agency in the District. “I’m originally from Africa,” Banks says. “I love Africa. I always tell people, ‘It doesn’t matter what color you are. We are all Africans.’”
I heard the same touchy-feely boilerplate a thousand times when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in neighboring Guinea. But such niceties are too much for Barry, who puts aside his desire to speed along and instead engages the witness.
“But it does matter what color you are,” Barry says. “You know, if you’re dark-skinned—you know, I don’t want to get into that.”
Then he reconsiders: “It does matter what color you are in America, in terms of your identity with Africa. All right?”
Not long after, I approach Barry to discuss that I’m writing a story about his re-election. I suggest that I’d like it to focus on his legacy as a councilmember in the last eight years. Barry immediately rejects the idea, saying he’ll cooperate only if I look at his whole career.
Perhaps this reasoning reflects the fact that any look at his current stint on the council would be pretty unflattering. Much of the attention Barry’s gotten since returning to the council has involved things like not paying taxes, or failing drug tests, or a stalking charge. His biggest embarrassment was two years ago, when the full council censured him for handing out contracts to cronies.
But one Barry constant is his ability to explain away scandal—inevitably, such things are the work of mean-spirited prosecutors, or mean-spirited rivals, or mean-spirited reporters.
So it could also be that Barry knows any look at his current stint on the council would be pretty thin, too. On the campaign trail, he plays up accomplishments, particularly the 10,000 new housing units that he says have been built in Ward 8 during his tenure and a boost in city money to renovate the ward’s schools. But Barry still spends much of his time on the stump playing up his “31 years of service.”
Community activists say his current incarnation doesn’t make him look like a service dynamo. He rarely makes meetings unless he’s the featured speaker. “He’s lethargic, to put it kindly,” says longtime Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell.
On the dais, Barry is typecast these days as the mumbling, long-winded spokesman for the disenfranchised. He’s often absent on the big issues. In 2006, city officials faced the possibility that the obstetrics unit could close at United Medical Center, as the largest employer in Ward 8 was hemorrhaging huge amounts of cash. Barry’s solution, according to his most vocal critic, At-Large Councilmember David Catania: to use his constituent service fund to buy bandages. “At that point, I knew I was on my own,” says Catania.
Barry’s most recent term included a betrayal of one salutary piece of his record. As mayor, he’d helped make D.C. one of the best places in the country for gay rights. But Barry joined demagogic rallies against gay marriage in front of the Wilson Building in 2009, when the matter was before the D.C. Council.
This year, when Barry made a surprise trip to the Gertrude Stein Democrats group seeking their endorsement, he told members that he’d agonized over the decision. But before the group voted, they watched a YouTube clip of Barry enthusiastically addressing the 2009 rally and leading chants of “Say no to gay marriage in D.C.,” before telling the crowd to go confront the other councilmembers “eye-to-eye, morality against immorality.” Barry only got a handful of votes from the Stein club.
The fact that his side had lost the gay marriage debate, big time, cemented the smallness of Barry’s new role.
Barry’s defenders note that when he’s on, he’s still the smartest guy in the room. And it’s true that Barry has maintained considerable sway. According to council sources, when Council Chairman Kwame Brown stripped Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells of his committee last year, the move was partially orchestrated by Barry as an effort to form an all-African-American voting bloc.
“He doesn’t need have to any legislation,” says one Wilson Building wag. “Most of these motherfuckers do it for him.”
Still, in watching Barry muddle through that list of nominees for a meaningless city board—a spectacle even more excruciating than watching the greatest politician in the history of the District of Columbia extol his greatness in a nearly empty high school gym—it’s pretty clear why he’s holding out for an interviewer who’ll promise to ask him about his civil rights movement years, or his Free D.C. years, or his mayoral suite years. The current stuff just seems too small.
Campaigning on a February Saturday, Barry finds his element. Of course, it doesn’t involve seeking votes for a measly council seat. Today, the city’s Democratic Party activists have gathered at University of the District of Columbia to pick delegates for this summer’s Democratic National Convention.
There are a several dozen people outside the school auditorium when Barry shows up. He immediately becomes the star attraction, slowly making his way through the crowd with his 22-year-old godson Dennis Harvey, who keeps a hand on Barry’s back. His girlfriend, Sandy Bellamy, is also here, and Barry gets snippy when she wonders off. “Now you stay with me,” Barry orders Bellamy, a bankruptcy lawyer in Prince George’s County.
Well-wishers and old friends greet Barry at every turn: “You’re my friend, Mr. Barry!” “I voted for you! You got me my first job and I voted for you!” “Can I introduce my daughter to you?”
I’m shadowing Barry for this article. At this point, he says he’s still undecided about whether he’ll cooperate with me (eventually he’ll say no, saying Washington City Paper has done him wrong too many times.) But when the praise from old friends gets to be a little repetitive and I stop paying attention, Barry notices. “You get that, Alan?”
Other reporters are there this time, too. Some try to provoke a reaction out of Barry by asking about the sordid mess of the last convention, when Barry’s then-girlfriend, according to a recording made by her husband, said he tossed her out of their hotel room after she refused to fellate him.
The Washington Post’s Tim Craig asks Barry if he’ll be taking a “female friend” to the convention in Charlotte if he wins.
“Man, go to hell,” Barry snaps back.
A group of Barry’s supporters cry foul, saying Craig is asking about “personal business.” A supporter, somewhat off-message, jokes that Barry is going to take 15 women. Barry tells Craig to go to hell a few more times before threatening to cut off future access if he “keeps that shit up.”
“Quote me on that,” Barry says.
There’s something about Barry that turns reporters into little boys who poke bears with sticks at the zoo. Later on, I can’t help myself, and join Craig in trying to wave over political consultant Chuck Thies, who has just written a scathing column about what an embarrassment it would be if Barry were a delegate. Barry ignores Thies, then scolds me and Craig for trying to cause trouble. “Are you crazy?” Barry says. “Don’t call him over here, dammit.”
Eventually, Barry makes his way inside the auditorium, where he gives a full-throated defense of his right to be a delegate.
“Many have asked me what do I have to do to convince people to vote for me,” Barry tells the crowd. “You got the wrong question; it’s what have I not done for the people of Washington and the people of this nation.” He easily wins a delegate spot.
As we’re leaving, Barry—who actually finished second to a well-organized young hopeful backed by the gay community—explains his win. “I’m a very brilliant politician,” Barry tells me. “I’m not being egotistical about it. It’s a statement of facts. Like Friday says, ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’ You remember that show? You’re too young for that.”
Barry’s star power isn’t limited to the group of hardcore Democrats who spend their Saturday morning electing convention delegates. Word broke late last year that HBO had bought the rights to Dream City, Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe’s book on Barry’s role in D.C.’s history. Spike Lee is said to be directing, with Eddie Murphy in the title role.
Closer to home, Barry’s fame—or his notoriety—make him a draw in even the most incongruous corners. Consider his reception a few years ago at a party featuring some of the country’s media elites. The event was a party celebrating Matt Labash’s book of profiles, Fly Fishing with Darth Vader, which features a mostly positive turn on Barry circa 2009. The party was held at the Palisades home of Tucker Carlson, the editor of the Daily Caller. Luminaries on hand included conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham and the late Christopher Hitchens. According to Labash, Barry was a hit among the normally jaded crowd.
After showing up 90 minutes late, Barry gave an impromptu speech and later started signing copies of Labash’s book for a grateful crowd, the author recalls. “They were practically speaking in tongues for him,” emails Labash. “To say he was warmly received would be a gross understatement. He immediately became the star attraction. I almost felt bad for crashing his party.”
Barry says what’s interesting about social events involving mostly well-to-do white people is how often the women want to hang out with him and have their picture taken. “If God gave it to you,” Barry says, laughing, “use it.”
Barry the star is clearly more fun than Barry the councilmember.
A few months ago, some of Barry’s supporters held a type of intervention with the councilmember. At issue was Barry’s lack of involvement in Ward 8 politics.
“We felt like he had taken our support for granted,” says the Rev. R. Joyce Scott, president of the Ward 8 Democrats. The group’s message to Barry was, “We love you, but we’re concerned about the way you’ve handled the community the last four years, or the lack thereof,” says Scott. “We felt like there was a disconnect.”
Barry remembers the meeting differently. He says the main topic of concern was whether Barry was going to serve out the rest of his term should he win this next election. Last year, Barry told a few people, including Jacque Patterson, one of his challengers in next month’s primary, that he was only going to serve two years and then cede his seat to his son, Christopher Barry. Once that plan became public, Barry denied it, saying he’d only told the story as “bait” to figure out whom he could trust and who would run to the media.
At the moment, Barry says he intends to serve a full term. “I can’t predict what God will do,” Barry says. “I might not even be around, but I’m going to work as hard as I [can].”
No one ever got rich betting on Barry’s mortality. But this year, his campaign is shadowed anew by questions of just how long he’ll be there. The impolite truth is that it’s amazing that Barry has lived this long. The 76-year-old has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, has had diabetes and hypertension for two decades, and is running on someone else’s kidney. His diet is poor. When lunch was served at one forum, I saw Barry ignore a plate of turkey wraps and grab three cream cookies and a fruit punch juicebox instead. Barry says his diabetes is responsible for a sometimes “insatiable appetite” for sweets.
At his 76th birthday party, he nursed an individual-sized bottle of pink Sutter Home. He regularly drinks wine, despite a history of addiction. Barry says every addict’s recovery is unique, and an occasional glass of wine is good for his heart.
Then again, Barry has proven himself to be a guy who can take a licking—even a self-imposed one—and keep on ticking. A few months ago, on the Tuesday after the Columbus Day long weekend, I got a tip from someone who spotted Barry having trouble negotiating the drive-thru of a McDonald’s on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The witness, who asked to remain anonymous, said Barry pulled into the fast food joint at about 6:30 a.m. The car almost hit the menu board. He backed up and almost hit the car behind him, then almost hit the drive-thru again, the witness said.
A cashier at the store verified the witness’ account. She said she asked Barry, “‘Anyone ever tell you look like Marion Barry?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I am Marion Barry.’” The witness’s description of the make, model, and license plate of the SUV matched that of the vehicle that belongs to Barry’s girlfriend, Bellamy.
After picking up his order, the witness said, Barry pulled into the store’s parking lot. The witness said Barry and the woman he was with switched places, with the woman driving. The witness said the SUV weaved onto Route 50 before pulling over, at which point, the witness continued, Barry vomited on the side of the road. The witness said she called the police. When I called to check, Queen Anne’s County police said they had a record of a call about a reckless driver matching the time when the witness said she called. But the officer I spoke with, Sgt. John Meyers, said the vehicle had left the area by the time authorities responded.
Barry says that story is an “absolute lie.”
Mistaken identity? A subpar McMuffin? A case of a witness and a McDonald’s cashier who don’t know good driving when they see it? Who knows. But the most notable thing is that, later that day, Barry attended a press conference on preventing teen pregnancy and asked pointed questions of witnesses at two different council hearings. So much for being lethargic.
At his 76th birthday party earlier this month, Barry certainly looks fit. The shindig is held at Georgene’s, a former strip club on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE where Barry has been a regular for years. Barry sings karaoke, complains about the “very mean” press, and dances to Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” with two women, including Bellamy. Besides members of Barry’s council and campaign staffs, there isn’t a huge turnout. Council Chairman Kwame Brown is the only elected official to show. Fortunately the rest of the crowd, folks who’d turned out for Tuesday night karaoke, all appear to be big Barry fans.
“I ain’t going to call him councilman, he’s the mayor,” says one karaoker. “He’ll always be the mayor.”
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘How does it feel to be 76?’” Barry tells the crowd. “I said, ‘It feels like it does when I was 50.’ Except I can’t walk as fast, I can’t see as far, but my mind is as sharp as ever. My mind is as sharp as ever. Sharp as ever. My vision is as clear as ever, as big as ever.”
After his speech, Barry introduces Christopher. It feels like a potential endorsement. “He’s a Wilson Tiger, played football. He’s good at everything, he is as good…” Barry stumbles, “…at everything he does.”
“He’ll never be as good as you are,” a woman behind me yells.
Christopher’s looks favor his late mother, Effi Barry, and he seems take after her more low-key personality as well. Last year, after Christopher pled guilty to drug charges related to PCP procession, his grandmother, Polly Harris told the Post that “all of my grandson’s problems are laid right at the feet of his so-called father, Marion Barry...He was never a father. He was never home.”
I ask Christopher if he’s interested in a career in politics. “Perhaps,” he says. I then ask if he ever sees his father retiring. “Nah,” he says. “This is his life.”
Barry is in a hurry. The Ward 8 Democrats straw poll last Saturday is almost over, and he has yet to vote. After filling out a form, Barry goes to pick up a ballot—but there aren’t any. “How are they out of ballots?” Barry snaps at Anita Bonds, his longtime aide who also heads the city’s Democratic Party. More ballots are found. Wearing a green campaign T-shirt inside out because the event’s rules forbid campaign T-shirts in the voting area, Barry heads to the ballot box.
A supporter, Democratic Party activist Daniel Wedderburn, tries to stop Barry to say hello. “Wait a minute,” Barry says, looking annoyed. He’s looked sour most of the afternoon, which involved a debate with challengers Patterson, Sandra Seegars, Natalie Williams, and Darrell Gaston. At one point, Barry got into an argument with the moderator, ABC7’s Sam Ford, over the format. Ford wanted Barry to ask one of his challengers a question. Barry refused. “I’m not going to waste my time,” he said. Instead, he delivered a self-praising soliloquy.
Ballot safely deposited, Barry now has time for Wedderburn, who hands him a check. Next up, a man asks Barry for some money. Barry reaches into his pocket and pulls out a dollar.
“Gimme five,” the man says, over and over.
Barry hands over two more dollar bills before shuffling off. The man yells, “Who voted for you, Marion Barry?”
When I ask the man his name, he yells at me. Barry tells me the man is homeless. He says he gets similar requests for money at least 10 times a day. Sometimes he gives, he says, other times he doesn’t. “Sometimes I think I’m contributing to the problem.”
Even with the man’s help, Barry still doesn’t get the 60 percent needed to win his home ward’s official Democratic endorsement. But his 40 percent or so still make him the winner. It’s hard to glean too much from a tiny-turnout straw poll. Maybe it means Barry won’t be winning the actual race with the high margin he expects.
All the same, Barry’s opponents have gotten little attention. And there’s no glut of money flowing into rival campaigns from local elites. So what if the TV cameras stay away from Barry’s rallies, or the new insiders of city politics wish he’d stay away from national conventions and out-of-state lobbying trips? It doesn’t matter. Like any good politician, Barry still has his base, and he doesn’t need your official endorsement.
Back at his birthday party, Barry was heading home at around 10 p.m. As I followed him out the door, his godson Harvey handed me a note. He told me that a woman told him to give it “to the white reporter.” The note read: “This is the DC ya’ll trying to get rid of. But we ain’t goin nowhere. Barry 2012!”