Feb. 3–9, 2006
“He’s Still Marion Barry”
by Jason Cherkis and James Jones
One year into his latest political comeback, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has found that drug use is his most reliable way back into the headlines.
The Washington View apartment complex begins at the corner of Stanton and Douglass Roads SE and ends at the top of a steep hill overlooking downtown’s vast white-marble horizon. It is a majestic vista, one that nevertheless didn’t inspire the complex’s developer to build much more than a chain of humble three-story brick dwellings. Everything at the View—the buildings, the fields, the sidewalks—is ringed by a protective stubble of iron fence.
The kids who live at the View soften the complex’s forbidding architecture. They stream up from the 94 bus and the Anacostia Metro in the afternoon and don’t seem to stop walking once they’re in the familiar concrete grid. They go to and from the corner store nearby, escorting younger siblings from school or just cruising around for a scene to watch.
Stairwells seem prized as their private spaces. Late at night, one boy fiddles with a deck of cards alone on one concrete landing, making it his own card table. A young couple turns its stairs into a private bedroom for pillow talk. One Saturday afternoon, a trio of teenage girls circles the complex at least twice before finally settling into the entrance of 2671 Douglass Road to stare at some old heads tossing neon-green dice.
The skyline seems hardly worth contemplating except when it is streaky with exploding blasts of red and blue on the Fourth of July. Kids call their neighborhood “Drama Hill.” As one teenage girl explains one night, the name came about in response to the outsiders from Wellington Park and Barry Farm who are always coming up to create drama.
When Marion Barry first moved to Washington View after the 2002 Buzzard Point incident (involving a woman, marijuana, and a $5 rock of cocaine) and subsequent separation from his fourth wife, the kids saw him as good drama, the celebrity next door. Barry played the View’s benevolent grandfather, offering advice and still working his standard line from four mayoral terms: Do you need a job?
Kids took turns carrying Barry’s groceries and dry cleaning up to his third-floor apartment. In 2005, Barry became the kids’ councilmember, and ceremonial occasions brought them together. The kids packed Barry’s pool parties last summer and flocked to the Douglass Junior High building in December, when he opened it up as an afternoon rec center. The community had waited eight years for it to reopen. Around Christmas, the councilmember upstaged Santa Claus by giving children stuffed animals and $25 Safeway gift cards.
Herbert Douglas, 22, remembers attending one of Barry’s parties at the View’s swimming pool. While Barry waited his turn at the food tables, Douglas says he approached the former mayor to ask him about the difficulties of college life. He had dropped out of UDC because he needed to work. Barry told him that once he was back at school, he should “ ‘stick to it. And don’t get any real distractions.’ ”
In between the pool parties and gift-giving and advice-offering, kids saw Barry involved in a much less public drama set in the View’s darker corners. Aisha Fullard, 18, says the scene would begin after the councilmember parked his Jaguar at the top of the hill on Douglass Place.
“Sometimes I see him in the afternoon just walking back and forth to his car,” Fullard says. “He’d walk to his car and then walk down the street.”
Fullard says she’d see him walk to where Douglass Place dead-ends, a spot overlooking Suitland Parkway and marked by Jersey barriers sprayed with a tag memorializing another neighborhood. There, Barry would turn left and disappear into the Sayles Place town homes’ parking lot.
Sometimes Barry, 69, would reappear five to 10 minutes later, Fullard says. Only this time he seemed like a different man. She describes the transformed Barry this way: “Like he could barely stand up. His eyes were half-closed.”
The routine would repeat itself when Barry would come back to Douglass Place at night, says Jasmine Johnson, 16. If Barry didn’t go back to the end of the dead-end street, turn left, and vanish, Johnson explains, “he’d go to where the old heads be at—like, the gangsters.”
The councilmember didn’t linger too long among the regulars: “I just know they’d hold conversations,” recalls Johnson. “Short. Hand to hand.”
As Johnson tells this story one night out on Douglass Place, she is matter-of-fact, bored even. This is everyday drama. When asked if seeing Barry this way was a shock, Johnson appears to regard the question as more nonsense from an outsider on Drama Hill. “Normal,” she says. “He’s still Marion Barry.”
Barry’s overwhelming 2004 election victory was fueled by the familiar lofty rhetoric that keeps the faithful believing, even when the candidate made few appearances on the campaign trail. In trouncing incumbent Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen, Barry promised to be a fighter for the community and a constant irritant to Mayor Anthony A. Williams on issues like gentrification, job creation, and the proposed baseball stadium.
He dusted off the old speeches, demanding that every child in the city have a summer job and reminding the grown-ups that, as mayor, he’d done the same for them.
The celebration that spilled into Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE on Sept. 14, 2004, after his primary victory was an explosion of pent-up frustration felt by residents of the city’s poorest ward. Barry was called a savior who promised a new day in Ward 8.
When Barry arrived at the council in 2005, many of his colleagues say they made a special effort to reach out to him. They publicly portrayed him as a valuable asset with great knowledge of how government works. Some made hopeful statements that the frail-looking Barry was really a wily old fox who would be a valuable ally in John A. Wilson Building dustups.
Barry had a familiar way of responding to overtures from colleagues welcoming him onboard. Two councilmembers recall lunch appointments for which Barry arrived more than an hour late.
His lack of interest in council business is explained away by more man-of-the-people rhetoric. Barry claims his most important work takes place in the community, not behind a desk at his Wilson Building office.
It’s one governing strategy that Barry has adhered to.
Since Barry was sworn in, the council has passed 248 pieces of emergency and permanent legislation that are now law. None of them were authored by Barry. He did co-introduce five bills that passed, but those bills were written by other councilmembers.
Barry constituents stand a 1-in-3 chance of being represented on any given piece of council business. He’s missed 35 percent of the recorded council votes during this session, either because of illness or other undisclosed reasons. Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who has had a series of health problems and will retire at the end of the year, has missed just 7 percent of the votes during the same period.
But for a brief moment in December, Barry once again appeared to be at the center of big-city politics.
The Washington Post reported on Dec. 21 that Barry was leading the council troops opposed to the baseball-stadium lease. The story suggested that he was pulling strings and twisting the arms of his colleagues just as he did in the old days.
At the time, a majority of the council was firmly against a proposed lease agreement for a Washington Nationals stadium in Southeast. The prospect of the legislature sending baseball packing seemed very real. Stadium supporters like the mayor and Council Chairman Linda Cropp were struggling to craft a deal that would attract the seven votes needed to pass the lease.
But behind the scenes, according to the Post, Barry had hatched a solution to the deadlock with a possible breakthrough agreement
Barry reportedly told baseball officials that the proposed stadium lease would be blocked by eight councilmembers unless D.C. businessman Jonathan Ledecky was awarded ownership of the Nationals. Barry said Ledecky had met with him and agreed to pay for stadium cost overruns—a key demand of stadium opponents. “To some on the council, Barry seemed to be exhibiting more leadership than Williams or Council Chairman Linda Cropp,” the Post story stated.
And in a written statement, Barry cast himself as a spokesperson for the council majority. “I am standing strong to say whether the vote is tomorrow or whether it is later, there are at least seven of us on the Council who remain strong and will still block this horrible…agreement,” he wrote.
The Post image of a wheeling-and-dealing Barry elicits only chuckles from several of his council colleagues. “It’s just not the way it happened,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. “He hadn’t spoken to me [about the stadium] prior to that.”
Other colleagues were surprised that Barry would publicly claim to speak for them on the most explosive political issue facing the council. “I wasn’t following Barry,” says At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown. “Marion Barry has no hold over Kwame Brown. He didn’t come talk to me and say, ‘Hey man, you need to vote against baseball.’ ”
At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz was so angry that the Post had lumped her into the Barry group that she fired off a letter to the editor. “That is a lie,” Schwartz wrote to the paper. “Mr. Barry called me several times to find out how I was going to vote on the deal. Each time I refused to tell him, and I certainly did not participate with him or anyone else in negotiations with one or any other potential ownership group,” the letter stated.
The Barry plan quickly faded as a news story. He has seldom been mentioned as a key player in the stadium-lease deal since the Post reported on Jan. 11 that Barry had tested positive for cocaine in a court-administered drug test. Barry submitted to the test as part of his plea agreement in a federal tax case; his sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 8.
Graham, a recovering alcoholic and the go-to guy for follow-up stories on the addiction struggle that has followed Barry since his 1990 episode at the Vista Hotel, admits he hasn’t sat down for a heart-to-heart with his colleague. “I’ve talked about it with him only in passing,” he says.
When Barry needs a show of force, the bodies come from his council staff. Two of his senior aides stood at his side, their arms firmly against his back, literally propping him up, when the councilmember met with reporters after his Jan. 15 release from Howard University Hospital following treatment for diabetes and hypertension. It was his first public appearance after the Post reported that he tested positive for cocaine.
Barry and his medical team wouldn’t discuss his positive drug test or whether he was seeking treatment for drug addiction. Barry repeatedly refused to comment on any aspect of his life for this story. When Barry was asked to comment for this story at a Jan. 21 Ward 8 mayoral candidates forum, he replied, “You bug me.”
On three occasions Barry or his staff called the police to prevent Washington City Paper reporters from tailing the councilmember to his daily outings.
When reporters attempted to attend a Jan. 23 meeting at Barry’s constituent-services office on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, a security guard and a Barry staffer barred their entry. The guard, taking directions from the Barry staffer, said the building had closed at 4:45 p.m., even though the meeting started at 6 p.m. When reporters refused to leave, D.C. Protective Services officers were called in and backed up Barry’s order.
“The building is closed,” the head officer kept repeating.
When Barry disappeared at the end of Douglass Place, where the spray-painted Jersey barriers shield the overgrown woods and the beer-bottle graveyard, people in the View knew where he was headed. He would take that left turn toward a tiny parking lot, and then he’d walk up a hill past three or four doors until he reached the stubby white town house at 2806 Douglass Place SE.
That’s the sometime home of Hermione Geniece “Niecey” Lyons and her brother, David Lyons. A lot of people knew about Barry and 2806.
The row of town homes that includes 2806 is the last and smallest piece of development in the Washington View neighborhood. It faces more woods, abandoned picnic furniture, and the remnants of a terraced garden that faces the whoosh of Suitland Parkway. It is a secluded place where visitors are quick to receive a reprimand if they decide to take one of the residents’ parking spaces.
P. Scott, a neighbor, often noticed Barry in his Jaguar, idling out front or parked in the lot. “All last summer, I saw him come around daily,” she recalls. “I would see him in my parking lot daily. Or on the corner around the bend in front of the fire hydrant. He got tickets. His car would stay there for hours, sometimes overnight, sometimes for a week straight.”
In October, Scott, 30, says she decided to avail herself of Barry’s community outreach. She and her husband had started a business called Top Secret Movers in August. She wanted to see if Barry would help her find down-and-out people to fill her rolls.
Scott approached Barry in her parking lot and told him about her business and all the job openings she had. He then promptly changed the subject. “ ‘Let me take you out?’ ” Barry asked Scott, she recalls.
When Scott replied that she was married, she says, “He just walked away.”
Scott says that Barry told her to call his office. When she followed up on the councilmember’s offer, she says that she got the runaround and that none of his staffers ever returned her call.
But Scott knew what Barry had his mind set on: the Lyons’ home. “I always knew where he was going,” she explains. “I’d see him get out of [his] car and go up the hill.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, Niecey’s mother confirmed that her daughter was a friend of Barry’s but said that she hardly ever comes home. During a second visit, Niecey’s son answered to say that Barry once offered to get him a job.
The Lyons’ next-door neighbor, Geraldine Jackson, 43, who also serves as vice president of the neighborhood cooperative, says Barry would stop by on weekends to see Niecey and David. “Sometimes he’d beep the horn and she’d come out,” she recalls. “Sometimes he’d knock on the door. Sometimes they’ll tell Barry she’s not in there.”
Jackson says she knew Barry would sometimes go on outings with Niecey, taking trips to the grocery store. Other times, the two would “just walk up and down the street,” recalls Jasmine Johnson.
Niecey Lyons is 41 years old and has several children. According to police documents, there are currently two warrants for her arrest. In June 2003, Niecey was charged with criminal violations of the Compulsory School Attendance Act. The charges stem from her alleged failure to get two of her children to school. After 15 unexcused absences, schools refer cases to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General. Niecey’s two warrants were issued after she failed to show up for court proceedings.
Niecey’s neighbors say she sticks close to home. Scott’s husband, Tim Scott, says he sometimes sees Niecey in their parking lot bumming for small bills. He estimates she’s asked him 10 times for money since the summer: “ ‘Do you have two dollars? Do you have five?’ ”
David Lyons, 46, claims his sister Niecey is a crack addict, an assessment shared by many of her neighbors and her advisory neighborhood commissioner, Marita Michael. David says he has smoked crack with Niecey two or three times. “It felt funny,” he explains, because he is her older brother. David recalls confronting Niecey about crack use; she replied that she could control it, he says.
Since the early ’80s, David has racked up well over a dozen charges: armed robbery, cocaine and heroin possession and distribution, five stolen autos, domestic violence. He is currently locked up at the D.C. Jail, where he is serving time on a domestic-violence charge and a urine test that came back positive for cocaine. He expects to be out in the spring.
All of his troubles with the law, David says, stem from his coke habit. He has spent most of the last 20 years living the life of an addict, complete with numerous court appearances and occasional confinement.
In between fighting his personal demons, David insists he had only fleeting encounters with Barry. He says he once carried the councilmember’s groceries up to his apartment and occasionally saw him “out on the street.” He recalls one time when Barry “knocked on the door” and asked for Niecey; David told him she wasn’t home.
Scott offers an amplified version of the interactions between David Lyons and Barry. She says that she has seen the two together multiple times, including riding in Barry’s Jaguar and walking around the neighborhood.
Speaking from the third-floor visiting room at the jail, David says that Barry and Niecey were friends and met through one of Barry’s neighbors in his complex last May. What they did together, he didn’t know. “I’m in my room,” he says.
“I know she told me she go to the store with him to buy groceries,” David says during one interview. In another, he says his sister told him that she had been up in Barry’s apartment drinking liquor. Whether Niecey ever smoked crack with Barry, he says, “I don’t know.”
JázMyn Alston, 14, says Niecey was a frequent visitor at Barry’s apartment. “That’s all I see,” she said in an interview on Jan. 28. “I always see her go into his house when it gets dark.”
“I saw [Barry] three weeks ago with Ms. Niecey,” Alston adds.
After several attempts to reach Niecey, Washington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis left a letter at 2806 last Friday afternoon. Within minutes, Niecey called the City Paper offices and began ranting at the receptionist, Sean McArdle. After McArdle said that the “best thing to do” would be to speak with an editor, Niecey responded, according to McArdle, “ ‘The best thing to do would be to shoot Jason Cherkis.’ ”
Hours before publication, Niecey called again, this time to deny being a crack addict. When asked whether she’d ever used crack, she paused and then threatened legal action against Washington City Paper.
On two occasions in the summer of 2003, Barry needed money fast. So he called up an unlikely patron—one-time enemy and tireless community activist Sandra Seegars. The Ward 8 bomb-thrower and former taxicab commissioner had led a petition drive to recall Barry in 1997, during his last mayoral term. And unlike that of Barry’s former inner circle, Seegars’ power lies not in her financial might but in her flair for delivering colorful rants at community meetings.
“I thought he was joking about the money,” Seegars says. But when she met Barry on the first occasion at a breakfast event, the former mayor-for-life was all business, plucking out a crisp $50 from her wad of bills. “He told me not to tell anybody, which I didn’t,” she recalls. “Then he paid it back.”
Barry attached more urgency to the next $50 loan. This time, Barry rang up Seegars while she was in Baltimore visiting a taxicab company. It was around 1 p.m.
Seegars was surprised to hear from him. But Barry got right down to it, Seegars recalls: “Like I did before, I need to borrow some more money,” said Barry.
Seegars tried to dodge Barry’s request. “I don’t have any money on me,” she told him.
But Barry had the perfect comeback ready: “You have a bank, don’t you?”
Seegars started laughing.
“When you coming back?” Barry asked.
Seegars told Barry that she’d be back home around 3 p.m. “He wanted to meet me at the bank,” she says. “He sounded more desperate.”
Seegars relented and agreed to the plan. As the minutes ticked closer to 3 p.m., Barry called again, wondering where his friend was. “He said, ‘Come by Popeyes at Malcolm X [Avenue],’ ” Seegars explains.
When Seegars pulled up outside the Popeyes, Barry met her at her car. “He sounded like he needed the money at that point,” Seegars says. “I didn’t mind loaning it to him.”
Barry told her that whatever company he was with lost a big contract. “He said his check didn’t come,” Seegars says. “He said he’d give me interest. He didn’t lie.” She adds that Barry paid her back shortly after the rendezvous.
Barry’s tapping a community activist for cash signaled a low point for the man who could once count on big-name power brokers to come to his rescue. When he placed his first call to Seegars, Barry had already followed a well-documented pattern: sincere and sometimes tearful promises that the bad old days are over, followed by an inevitable betrayal.
Last month, Barry’s stint as a very public user-in-recovery entered its 17th year, a stretch marked by a steady winnowing of his once-famous inner circle. Every time Barry stumbles from grace, another layer of people sucked in by his latest redemption story peels off.
The Rev. Willie Wilson, for example, led a caravan that picked Barry up from prison in 1992; in 2004, he endorsed Barry’s main primary opponent. Flamboyant boxing promoter Rock Newman once busied himself with Barry’s road to recovery; now he has little contact with the councilmember. In 2003, longtime Barry confidant developer H.R. Crawford held a get-together to raise money to pay some of Barry’s bills. But Crawford counseled Barry against his 2004 council run.
One big name was primed to head up a new Barry crew in 2004. Just as Barry was plotting a political comeback, local radio phenom Joe Madison moved into Ward 8, bagging his comfortable suburban digs. The “Black Eagle,” a star on WOL-AM and XM Satellite Radio, was ready to lend his cred to a Barry campaign.
At an informal Barry outreach event at Madison’s place in early 2004, the talk-show host told the soon-to-be candidate that he was ready to support a comeback bid. All Madison needed was a promise. “The man sat in my living room. I’m looking at all the candidates, and I’ve got this new home over here,” says Madison. “I said ‘Marion, I’m giving you $250 for the first installment. If everything is OK, you’re clean, there is no controversy, and you assure me that all the stuff in the past is behind you, I’ll max out,’ ” says Madison. “[Barry] told me, ‘You can rest assured that is the case, Joe,’ and he gave me his word.”
Kwame Brown, who was then running for his council position, recalls that the room went quiet when Madison pressed his query. “It was classic Marion,” says Brown. “He was very emphatic when he said, ‘I’m through. I’m done.’ ”
With the promise in hand, Madison lent his money to Barry’s comeback bid and even his considerable presence to the hopeful’s 2004 campaign kickoff. After Madison learned that Barry had tested positive for cocaine during a court-ordered drug test, he says, “It felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach.”
Madison’s tale explains in large part why Barry’s world has collapsed. Says a former Barry staffer: “I think [the inner circle] has completely whittled away like a carver would whittle away the stick. People grow up. People really do have other kinds of serious business matters at hand, and they cannot necessarily be dragged down every six months or so with an association [with Barry]. I think people are preserving their self-interest here.”
Into the void has stepped Chenille Spencer, Barry’s 34-year-old girlfriend. In recent weeks, Spencer has accompanied Barry to a Ward 8 forum for mayoral candidates as well as other events around town. “I usually get introduced to everyone,” says Spencer.
Before last June’s Mike Tyson fight at the MCI Center, former Barry confidant Newman ran into the councilmember and Spencer. “He was strutting,” Newman says of Barry. “ ‘I want you to meet my friend,’ ” Barry told him, Newman recalls. “He had that Marion gleam in his eye,” Newman says.
A more routine outing for the couple is sharing a booth at Player’s, the famous Southeast favorite of political junkies and District employees. Spencer sits quietly over her meal while Barry enjoys his favorite, liver and onions. According to bartender Gerald Smith, Barry’s drink of choice on his dates with Spencer was once Hennessy cognac; last week, he had a Sprite, Smith says.
One Player’s regular remembers Spencer sporting a short mink coat, a short denim skirt, and boots. Not the typical work clothes found among the usuals. “She was bunned up,” the regular says of Spencer. “I would say clingy. She never left his side.”
Her toughest assignment as councilmember arm candy, regulars say, was when she would join Barry onstage while he croaked and mumbled his way through karaoke versions of Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass hits. She would just stand at his side, mike in hand, refusing his pleas to get her to join him for a chorus or two. She says she’s sometimes a little shy.
One recent afternoon, Spencer answers Barry’s phone at his Washington View apartment. When asked about her connection to the councilmember, she echoes the words of his four former wives and dozens of former associates: “I’m very supportive of him, and there are people that are supportive of him,” she says. “I’m loyal to him.”
On Jan. 25 at around 5:30 p.m., Barry stopped in at Seton House, a Northeast drug-treatment facility affiliated with Providence Hospital. He arrived in time for Seton House’s thrice-weekly intensive outpatient treatment program. At around 8:30 p.m., Spencer drove Barry back to her apartment in Washington Highlands.
Spencer says she doesn’t “recall” driving Barry back from Seton House and insists that his visits are something Barry does “on his own.” When asked about other aspects of her relationship with Barry, Spencer replies, “If it’s positive, it’s true.”
James Smith lives next door to Barry on the third floor of his Washington View building at 2654 Douglass Road SE. Sometimes, he says, Barry will call and want him to come over and just sit with him. It amounts to a sort of friendship: Smith watching Barry make dinner, Smith admiring the pictures of Barry on the walls, Smith eating Barry’s candy, Smith catching half a movie on HBO with Barry before cutting out.
Last summer, before a public event, Barry asked Smith to come over. He had a problem. He didn’t know what to wear but eventually settled on borrowing a shirt of Smith’s.
Smith helped out in other ways. When Barry’s old Mercedes wouldn’t run right, he got Smith to take a look under the hood. On one occasion, the Mercedes’ engine wouldn’t start. Smith figured out that his friend had left the dome light on overnight and killed the battery.
Smith usually knew when Barry was arriving home. “You ought to hear him climb the three flights of stairs,” he says. The two would talk a lot about pain management and various medicines. Smith’s wife would stop by Barry’s apartment and make sure he was taking his meds on time—that was her job.
When the two men got together, Barry would complain about the meds and say that they weren’t working. “I think the things he was struggling with the most was his medical conditions,” Smith says. Barry wanted to alleviate the pain.
On a recent empty weekday afternoon, Barry rang up Smith’s cell phone. “He just wanted someone to keep him company because of his situation,” Smith explains. “In his hour of loneliness, he needs some relief. I carried that baggage around with me—Vietnam. I carried that baggage around for a long time. I don’t even tell my wife.”
Smith is feeling guilty about not sitting with Barry that afternoon. He had shared with Barry his own crack-addiction story, including how much clean time he had (five years). “I know when I got locked up, nobody gave a damn,” he says. He had pled his case with a court-appointed lawyer and an empty courtroom behind him. He knew what it was like to go through real pain without family.
When asked if Barry had ever shared his thoughts about drug use, Smith declined to respond in detail, saying that he wanted to “stress [Barry’s] anonymity intact about certain things.”
On the afternoon of Jan. 19, movers carted Barry’s belongings out of his apartment at the View. Smith says he never got a chance to say goodbye.
A source close to Barry says the councilmember needed to make a break. “We thought it would be better for him to be in a different environment. We thought it wasn’t a good place for him for a lot of reasons for a long time,” says the source. “He finally caved to the pressure. It didn’t look right, feel right for him to be there.” CP
Additional reporting by Mike DeBonis, Sarah Godfrey, Ryan Grim, Huan Hsu, and Chris PetersonQuestions? Comments? Send us a message. back to the top