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Sam Smith: The Return Of Marion Barry


By Editor Sam Smith

The return of former DC mayor Marion Barry to a city council seat that represents the poorest ward in the nation's capital is a reminder - albeit one that will be widely ignored - that not everyone in urban America is a member of the creative class or is thrilled with policies that increasingly favor developers and gentrifiers at the expense of the less fortunate. In two other local races, incumbents lost their seats in what was at least partly a revolt against socio-economic cleansing of capital.

Barry came to power as mayor in the manner of other ethnic urban leaders - full of promises that went far beyond what he was able or willing to deliver. Yet he still produced a substantial improvement in the life and fairness of the city. Those significantly aided by Barry administrations included blacks, women, and gays. And contrary to myth, he handled his budgets pretty well. And I say that as someone who lat voted for him in 1982.

Among his real, if unnoted, sins was that, in the end, he would do nothing politically at odds with the real overlords of the city, the business community. As in other American cities, the black mayor was king but the white business leaders were the de facto parliament. But it was Barry's personal sins - drugs and corruption - combined with the white establishment's dislike - yes, even among liberals - of an uppity blackness that blended seamlessly with simple egotism that brought him down.

He probably abused drugs no more than, say, Clinton or George W Bush. And under Barry you could buy favors, but under his successor you could buy the whole city. Only now it wasn't called corruption: it was called economic development, reform, and strategic vision. As with the drugs, it wasn't really the corruption that mattered anyway, but who was having all the fun.

It was a familiar story in American urban politics. The ethnic leader pushes the traditional establishment too far and it strikes back - always in the name of reform but typically with its own version of corruption known as "progress" - exemplified by the fiscal progress of its own members.

In Washington's case, this progress has also meant the loss of its public hospital, drastic deterioration of its public schools, the disappearance of reasonably priced housing, and a systemic degradation of every service for which the less fortunate have greater need than the wealthy. Meanwhile, far more than under Barry, those who circumvent the political system through money and influence operate with impunity. There is no guarantee, or even likelihood, that a tired and ill Barry will do much about this, but perhaps the sound of the anger that elected him will give courage to others, both in DC and elsewhere.

[The following was written in Spring 2002, when Marion Barry was considering running for city council]

SAM SMITH, 2002 - Now that Marion Barry's back it's worthwhile - although probably futile - to try separate the fact and fiction that he accumulated over the years.

There are plenty of reasons not to vote Barry. For one thing, he betrayed the hopes of DC when it was - and could have remained - one of the most progressive cities in America. There were three main reasons for this: he got lazy, he got addicted, and he got cynical. Entering office with a biracial liberal coalition, he converted his base into one that relied heavily on black votes and white corporate money. The former he attracted by rhetoric, the latter with the real estate at his disposal. The most integrated meetings in town were when the Barry team met with their campaign contributors.

Barry was not the only black mayor to do so, and the end it turned out to be a fool's paradise of black power because within a decade and a half, upper income whites were taking back the cities and the constituents of the black mayors were being evicted in what amounted to socio-economic urban cleansing.

But for awhile, it looked like Washington really was Chocolate City. And, in fact, the Barry administration did much to improve the social, economic and political climate of local blacks, so much so that even Jesse Jackson moved here for a while to take advantage of it. But in the end, Marion was like those Mahalia Jackson warned us against, when she sang that "you can't go to church and shout all day Sunday, come home and get drunk and raise hell on a Monday."

That, metaphorically and literally, is what Marion did and in the process he helped mightily to destroy our dreams of self government and of a city with both soul and integrity. Further, he has yet to apologize to us for it.

Perhaps worst of all, he gave the enemies of a fair and decent city just what they needed to hide their own greed behind a mantle of reform. "Marion Barry" became a code word - for blacks, for home rule, for urban social programs. And "Marion Barry" became the excuse for evictions, for budget cutting, for school forgetting, for hospital closing, for land grabbing, for zone changing, and for the creation of the narcissistic, greedy, gated city that is now Washington.

On the other hand, some years back, I was on a radio show with Marion and he was complaining about how reporters blamed him for all the city's problems. I said I didn't blame him for all the city's problems, but only for 23.7% of them. "I'll take that," Marion replied.

The percentage may have been a bit off but it's true. For example, Barry is blamed for the city's fiscal problems when, as a short term matter, at least half the deficit occurred during the Sharon Pratt Kelly administration and between 1981 and 1991 the city had only two mildly unbalanced budgets at time when the federal budget was out of whack by double digit percentages every year.

One of the best things Barry did when he was a council member was to get a law passed that gave DC residents preference for DC government jobs. By 1987, 60% of the city's employees lived in DC. But that year Congress stripped the city of its residency preferences and by 1995, 70% of DC workers lived in the suburbs. According to Edward Meyers in "Public Opinion and the Future of the Nation's Capital," this meant a $420 million annual reduction in the city's overall economy. Says Meyers, "Congress transformed the District with this one policy revision more than it did with all its other post-1975 actions combined."

Washington was also hit with some of the worst side effects of the misbegotten war on drugs. Between 1985 and 1991 the teenage violent death rate increased six times and teen unemployment doubled. While Barry was in declining shape to deal with such matters, it is nonetheless the case that DC would have been a major victim of the egregious drug war no matter who had been in power, in part because it had no well organized mob to keep the young dealers from fighting with each other.

Barry is also blamed for the overload of DC government workers but once again this is a myth. It was Walter Washington who increased the size of the government significantly, in part because in post-riot DC he wanted to give blacks jobs but not anger whites by laying them off. In 1995 the city had 45,000 employees; in 1974 there had been 48,000.

Further, the economic problems of DC in the 1990s can mostly be traced to decisions that, while fully supported by Barry, were also fully supported by the Board of Trade, the Washington Post and the US Congress: these include a wealth of public works programs that cost billions yet in the end produced a city was fewer residents, fewer jobs, and sales tax revenues that barely kept up with inflation.

In short, give Barry hell for what he did wrong, but leave some epithets for those who so noisily declared how awful he was while they were working every zoning, monetary, and political angle they could. They hurt the city, too.


[Written at the end of the Clinton era]

SAM SMITH - Almost from the start I recognized something familiar about Bill Clinton. The soft southern voice so unwavering in its glib assurance, the excuse for everything, the absence of inquiry, the cynical charm, a cause well used a quarter century ago and then forgotten, the adulterated intelligence, the inconsistency, the willingness to use anything or anyone, the undisciplined egocentrism, the populist rhetoric playing bumper tag with corporatist policies, the drugs, the women, and the whiff of the underworld. It was not new; I had, after all, known Marion Barry for over 25 years.

There were, to be sure, differences. Clinton's youthful cause had been Vietnam, Barry's civil rights. Barry retreated into an ethnic cocoon; Clinton's ambitions became national. Clinton was white and Barry was black. There was another difference. When Barry was caught with women or drugs, the Washington Post played the story with glee; when Gennifer Flowers and stories of Clinton drug use came up, the Post spiked or subordinated them. Two and half weeks after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, including logs showing three dozen visits to the White House, the Post called the relationship "ambivalent." None of Barry's activities had been reported as "ambivalent." In the end a whole city would have to pay for Barry's faults. Not even Clinton has had to pay for his.


SEP 15, 2004

SINCE 1964, Washington's most unofficial source
1312 18th St. NW #502, Washington DC 20036
202-835-0770 Fax: 835-0779

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