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.