The Barry in Winter Marion Barry is running for re-election. Is anyone paying attention?

Page 2 of 5

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.

Our Readers Say

Can you elaborate on this: "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."

How would stripping Wells of his position help to form an all-African-American voting bloc? Why was Barry interested in the move? Or did Barry just help line up votes for Kwame's plan?
Only the grave is stopping MB.

Sorry City Paper, you ain't singing to the crowd and, as Cap City Records Panhandler noted, "only the grave will stop Marion Barry".
@Todd -- Great question, I was wondering that too. Come on, Suderman -- explain!
I am not fooled by the Travon case. Whites don't give a shit about that boy as too many black kids are killed every day by whites. This media coverage of Travon is acting as a distraction as blacks whether good or bad are being pushed out of cities all over by any means necessary.

Barry should leave on his own so the whites can destroy the rest of the black council that did not protect the black residents who were there and who are there now.

Much love Mayor Barry!!!
Iz you iz or iz you ain't the Mayor?
'Cuz if you wuz you ain't the Mayor now.
But ah be very sure.
That you be Mayor once more.
And then you my Mayor always be!

Marion, you be the fo'ever Mayor!
The fact that this fool has been re-elected so many times, and he has 100 year old grannies talking about a summer program in the 80's shows that blacks in DC have no power to think on their own

This joker has done nothing but make black DC look like buffoons for the last 30 years. Get rid of him

Mayor Marion Barry was a civil rights activist,long time serving mayor of D.C. i have a great deal of respect for, right now he's the under dog and thats who i root for each time he has come back despite what the establisment want, the establisment has never given respect to black leaders in this country , Look how clean President Obama is well educated married father and some of the evil racist republicans yell out in meeting and have seen their power fading fast and as long as the tea party who dont have a clue of how goverment work hold the republicans hostage they will never win , Barry has had his faults but he's done it his way he's been knocked down but has gotton back up and won the fight ,May God contiue to bless him and this great country we live in !
These white people thinking that they're are gonna take dc away, but blacks are pretty much aware of whats going on. They arent fooling anyone.
Its because people like marion barry whites hate,simply because he stands up in making sure blacks gets their share of the pie. Now because of that he is a bad person.Poor white people, Sick!!!
I think christopher should consider a career in politics, becase there is a lot he could learn from his father.He could began by taking over ward 8. His father could be his coach.

Leave a Comment

Note: HTML tags are not allowed in comments.
Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.