The Quiet Demise of Marion Barry’s Politics
Hours after Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry was harshly sanctioned by his D.C. Council colleagues yesterday, he retreated to Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, located on a bluff above Suitland Parkway, to deliver his State of the Ward address before hundreds of zealous supporters.
The narrative for such an event would seem rather pat: redemption, loyalty, Christian charity toward one's fellow man. The event, after all, took place in a church, among Barry's favored locales these days, where "judge not lest ye be judged" (an aphorism uttered plenty of times last night) allows Barry a space away from his many judge-worthy failings.
But LL spied a more cynical narrative, one that bodes ill for the councilmember and his ward. The Marion Barry system of retail politics—or put more bluntly, patronage—is dying, if it isn't dead already.
The key moment of the night came well before Barry's remarks, as Pastor C. Matthew Hudson warmed up the crowd. After asking Barry's political allies and staff to take a bow, Hudson had another request:
"Everybody that's ever received anything...if you've received anything—job, reference, promotion—from his service over these five decades, stand."
Up went virtually the entire crowd.
Hudson added: "Truth is, if we did that in Prince Geroge's County, the whole Prince George's County would have to stand. Say amen! How many of those got those houses out there because someone gave 'em a job. Someone gave 'em a chance."
That theme continued with Barry's hand-picked choice to introduce him: Alberto Gomez, owner of Prince Construction Co., a contractor that's benefited from loads of government work over the years. In his remarks, Gomez gave Barry great credit for hiring Hispanics in his four mayoral terms and assisting minority businesses. He mentioned little, if anything, Barry's done since leaving the mayoralty.
And then came Barry to the podium.
"I love serving you. I love fighting for you. I love standing up for you. I love encouraging you. I love uplifting you. I love bringing as many resources to the ward that I can," he said. He continued: "I want to fight for you still. I want to commend you and encourage you still. I want to uplift you still. But. more importantly. I want to do all I can to put some money in your pockets."
The old saying "help you help yourself" doesn't mean much in Ward 8 politics, or at least inside Matthews Memorial last night. To Barry, being one of his constituents is about simply helping yourself.
Problem is, Barry's not in a position to help much of anyone any more, as his speech would prove. He bragged about transforming downtown as mayor, building a convention center and a sports area. He talked about the revitalization of U Street.
When he talked about the present, Barry defaulted to the usual litany about his ward—highest unemployment rate, highest dropout rate, highest illiteracy rate, boarded up buildings, crumbing sidewalks—but failed to mention much that he's done in the past year to do anything about it.
Even his lengthy prepared remarks—which he, thankfully, departed wholesale from—names only a couple of legislative accomplishments for the year prior: he boasts of supporting an unemployment insurance reform bill, legislation that has yet to pass through Barry's committee. And he talks about allotting $4.6 million for job training—0.07 percent of the city budget, that.
Sure, he calls for plenty—a 'Green Job Summit,' more experienced teachers, more affordable housing—but says nothing about what's he done to make it happen. Instead, "the pressure lies at Fenty's feet," as he was prepared to say last night. It's someone else's problem, he tells his constituents—that's why you're feeling "insignificant, misunderstood, underestimated, mistreated."
Truth is, now that Barry has lost his committee, won't be trusted with another earmark, and is at constant odds with a mayor who isn't nearly as forgiving as Pastor Hudson, he doesn't have much anymore to hand out besides empty rhetoric.
Which explains this plea: "When you judge Marion Barry, judge him by the whole book, not just three or four pages....Look at the 31 years I've served this community, the 31 years I've given of myself."
He's counting on no one asking: Marion, what have you done for me lately?