News of the death Sunday of Washington, D.C.'s former Mayor Marion Barry revived memories of a downfall and comeback that could be worthy of a political thriller.
Following an internationally watched videotape in 1990 of his arrest by FBI agents after smoking crack cocaine in a Washington hotel, Barry was tried, convicted on one count, and later imprisoned in 1991. A year later, Barry won a seat on the D.C. City Council and, in 1994, won a fourth nonconsecutive term as mayor of the nation's capital.
In recapturing his old job, Barry outdid the other four-term big-city mayor and fellow Democrat he was often likened to, James Michael Curley of Boston. In 1947, Mayor Curley served a brief sentence in federal prison on charges of mail fraud. Upon his release, he resumed his duties at City Hall.
But, in a race that inspired Edwin O'Connor's classic novel "The Last Hurrah," Curley lost his bid for re-election in 1949. He never held office again. Barry was elected mayor after his release from prison and, after retiring from Washington, D.C.'s top office in 1998, he went on to win election to its City Council (where he was serving at the time of his death at age 78).
"Marion was the last of the major civil rights figures who became big-city mayors," former GOP Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who chaired the House Government Reform Subcommittee dealing with the District of Columbia while Barry was mayor, told Newsmax.
"And like a number of them — Coleman Young of Detroit and Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, come to mind — he felt his supporters had been shut out for so long that they could do whatever they wanted with the largess of city government. It was the Jacksonian idea — 'To the victor goes the spoils.'"
"B**ch set me up!" a handcuffed Barry was filmed muttering, referring to FBI informant (and former Barry girlfriend) Hazel "Rasheeda" Moore, with whom he was filmed inhaling cocaine from a pipe at Washington's Vista Hotel in 1990.
Indicted on 10 counts of drug possession, three counts of perjury, and one count of conspiracy, Barry announced he would not seek re-election. Accompanied by then-wife Effie, he was in U.S. District Court for weeks in a trial that kept the nation riveted.
Despite the filmed record, five jurors believed the argument of Barry's defense team that he was "set up" by federal authorities intent on destroying him. He was convicted on only one count — possession of cocaine on another occasion in 1989 — and later served the six-month sentence it carried.
Upon his release, Barry settled in Washington's lower-income Ward 8 and promptly challenged and easily defeated City Councilwoman Wilhelmina Rolark, a former ally. In those days, Barry swapped his trademark pinstripe suits for a dashiki and other African garb. He spoke in churches about his redemption.
Likening the former mayor to Saul becoming Paul on the road to Damascus, Pastor Willie Wilson dubbed Barry "Anwar Amal," ("Bright Hope" in Arabic). His council newsletter was entitled "Anwar Speaks" and there were rumors that Barry would follow the examples of athletes Cassius Clay and Lou Alcindor (now Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and actually change his name to the Muslim Anwar Amal.
"But there was too much political capital that went with the name Marion Barry," recalled Tom Davis, "and after four years of [Mayor] Sharon Pratt Kelly, who was not up to the job, Marion looked pretty good.
"He was smart — one of the brightest people I ever met in politics — and whatever his problems, he had the reputation as someone who got things done."
Washingtonians agreed. In the all-important Democratic primary in '94, Barry rolled up 48 percent of the vote against Dixon and another candidate, and in November, was handily returned to the mayor's office.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!" declared Barry at his victory party, quoting the words of the hymn. Days later, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas wrote: "At least he got the wretch part right!"
Barry's return to power coincided with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994. Republicans on the District of Columbia subcommittee knew early that it would not be easy getting a handle on the city's out-of-control finances and far-flung government agencies with Barry in charge. His toleration of corruption and use of racial rhetoric when it came to federal officials getting involved in district matters preceded him.
As news of the city's $700 million-plus deficit became known, lawmakers moved to transfer fiscal power from the mayor and city council to a special Financial Control Board and an appointed chief financial officer. Barry and other officials were left with control over the Department of Parks and Recreation, the libraries, and the Board of Tourism.
"And Marion cooperated with the Control Board, although he would publicly take a few whacks at me," said Davis, who wrote much of the legislation that neutered Barry's power.
Barry announced he would not seek re-election in part because he felt his home rule would not be restored so long as he was mayor. He was right. Tony Williams, who had been the chief financial officer, was elected mayor and Congress soon restored full authority to the D.C. government.
Whether it was unpaid parking tickets and back taxes or being the lone City Council member to oppose same-sex marriage, Barry continued to generate controversy in his life after the mayoralty. But it never hurt him at the polls.
"Marion was charming and, boy, was he charismatic!" Davis told Newsmax. "He once came to a Christmas party at my home and the conservative Republicans who were there, were all over him. He charmed them all."
I saw the Barry charm firsthand in the summer of 2011 when I arrived at Washington's Occidental restaurant with former Rep. John Napier, R-S.C., and spotted the former D.C. mayor dining with an attractive female companion. Napier introduced himself to Barry, said he was from South Carolina and the congressman who held the seat he went on to hold had been Democrat John McMillan, chairman of the House D.C. Committee.
To Barry and others in the civil rights movement, McMillan was the hated arch-enemy who had kept the District from home rule. In 1974, Barry and his friends registered enough black voters in McMillan's district to defeat him. But rather than boast about it or recall his dislike for McMillan, Barry smiled, shook Napier's hand, and said "Yes, I remember John McMillan well. A pleasure to meet one of his successors."
"He had done what he wanted — gained respect from those he thought would approach him otherwise," Napier recalled. "And having won our respect, he came over to our table after dinner — knowing full well our political proclivities — to offer a respectably earned 'good night' and say what a pleasure it was to meet us.
"That night was a lesson in political discourse that is so infrequent these days."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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