Monday, November 24, 2014

Redemptive Politics

(Baltimore/Washington) – You know you have become a political icon when you change the language of politics and usher in new ways of practicing the art. Marion Barry the former of Mayor of Washington, DC died on November 23, 2014. The 78 year old politician was already a legend and his passing cements his credentials.

I will suggest if there were a Mount Rushmore for Black Politics it would include Adam Clayton Powell, Shirley Chisholm, Maynard Jackson, Thom Bradley, Doug Wilder, and Marion Barry. I know people will likely disagree (but it’s my list – make up your own).

I had the pleasure of covering Mayor Barry during several of his tumultuous periods – the lead up and the conclusion of his FBI sting on crack cocaine and his return to being Mayor. These were interesting times. For the uninitiated the FBI sting will consume a lot of ink and air time. His famous line “that bitch set me up…” will often be repeated; however, there is more to his story than this short period.

There are several interesting aspects to his political life. A number of these events shaped his career and thinking. The item which dominated his later life is a quote which he enjoyed and embraced “Mayor for Life.” Walking with him anywhere in DC and for that matter anywhere was like being with a “rock star.”

I found this part out while covering the Republican National Convention in San Diego 1988. I got word the Mayor was in Southern California and planned to host a reception at the RNC. We went to this house in the hills of San Diego and in walked the mayor. The GOP big wigs were there including a young Maryland lawyer named Michael Steel. Steel would introduce Barry to conservative insiders who were more than happy to have their picture taken with the Mayor. It was surreal to say the least.

Historical you can go the Washington Post to get the full Bio. I want to point to several salient entrees in this resume. Born on March 6, 1936 into a Mississippi share cropper family, his mother would leave his father and move to Memphis. This simple gesture left an indelible impact on a young man as he struck out in the world. First he attends LeMoyne College in Memphis, majoring in Chemistry. He would earn a Master’s Degree at Fisk University in Nashville, TN (1960). It’s during this time he would also join Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He was headed toward getting his Doctorate except for the tenor of the times. Civil Rights protest was consuming the South including Nashville. There he would join forces with John Lewis and be instrumental in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC –Snick). The push and pull between traditional (older) and these young upstarts were hard to contain. It would lead the Barry to Washington, DC in 1965 working for SNCC.

Many cities on the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest are always suspicious of Southern transplants. Part of it comes from the dialect, mannerism, and cultural disconnect. The irony is most of these folks are from the Deep South. His association with those in the District who had no voice was emblematic of the change in politics. DC had its entrenched political hierarchy but, he sought to usurp their power. He founds an organization called Pride Inc. Its stated goal, help unemployed Black men find jobs. It allows him to have a unique voice in an entrenched city. In 1971, he is elected to the School Board. Three years later he is elected to the DC City Council (1974).

Opportunity and Positioning

On March 10, 1977 Barry arrived at the Wilson Building. A guard suggested there was a commotion upstairs. According to the Washington Post, the 41 year old Councilman blew off the suggestion from the guard and headed to the fifth floor. Unknown to him a group of “Black Muslims” (we know they were a part of the Hanafi Muslim sect) had stormed the building with weapons. When the elevator doors open there were several shots. The councilman is hit. He is taken to a conference room. The siege continues and Barry is lowered out of a window and taken to a hospital. Doctors tell him a small caliper bullet struck near his heart but not penetrating his heart.

For most this would be life altering event; however it provides the perfect platform to launch a Mayoral run. In 1978, Marion Barry becomes the second Mayor of Washington, DC beating the handpicked establishment candidate Walter Washington. It shocks the establishment.

Mayor Barry confounds the political class, and the Black Aristocratic class in Washington. A lot of folks see him as dangerous. How will he wield this new power? Washington is still a southern city with all its quirks.

 The four termed Mayor of the District of Columbia was cunning, a tireless advocate, and will be judge not because of his many faults but rather his ability to connect beyond the superficial. I want lay these intriguing facts about the man who became known as “Mayor for Life.”

Intergenerational Politics

In those early years the federal government was truly a partner with city. The Mayor took advantage of the generosity. He proudly proclaimed any DC youth who wanted a job, could get one. I can’t tell you number of people who now have the wherewithal to make things happen tell me, “Marion Barry gave me my first job.” These people have never forgotten. For those who live in the District they became core constituents. I can only recall one other politician doing this, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Mayor Daley called them patronage jobs and gave them to Block/Precinct Captains to make sure they voted on election. The quid pro quo from Mayor Barry was different.  It was inferred he looked out for you, when no one else did.  Other political heavy weights across the country have tried to mimic this and failed.

Wealth Creation

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson knew the power of Black Politics and decided to wield it in a unique way. He took a sleepy south town and over night “flips its script.” Mayor Jackson got the council to pass a measure called “minority set-a-side.” Twenty percent of all construction contracts would go to minorities. My good friend, Doni Gloverof, who was a student at Morehouse College says, “It wasn’t just Georgians who came to Atlanta but, Black folk from all over the country came to provide services to Atlanta.” They came for major projects like MARTA (the subway system) and the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport.

The Mayor saw what was going on in Atlanta and saw possibilities in the Nation’s Capital. He started with the development community. His first project was the Reeves Office Building at 14 and U. The area had been neglected from the riots and torn up by the construction of the Metro. Today it is a social scene of night clubs, restaurants and posh living spaces in DC.

It was just the beginning; the Mayor lured the NBA Bullets (now the Wizards) franchise from the Maryland suburbs to China Town. Numerous other projects were lured. The infamous song Chocolate City by Parliament was being changed. Those who had benefitted from those early investments saw them grow somehow pushing out low income residents; and pushing middle class residents into wealthier class status.


“We all have our demons, few us ever own up to them.” This often repeated phase applies to Mayor Barry. It was not uncommon for “his honor” to show up at events, night clubs and other places where he might have a few too many drinks. When reporters began to note his late night carousing the Mayor responded “you know I’m a night owl.” Along with these nighttime romps, rumors began to fly he was using drugs.

It doesn’t help when your city is facing bankruptcy, and a former deputy Mayor is indicted and found guilty. A number of other associates are caught in stings. Was he the target of an investigation? We found out on January 18, 1990. In an FBI sting Barry is shown smoking crack cocaine at the Vista Hotel. Barry suggests he was “set-up.” The court of public opinion throws Barry under a bus and suggests his political career is over.

The general public is dismayed over the support he garners in the Black Community. It’s during this period I find myself covering the Mayor for WEAA-FM in Baltimore. I join forces with WHUR-FM in Washington. WHUR and WHMM-TV are the only media outlets who the Mayor will talk with. As I look back on this time, this was heady stuff. How do run a city while under indictment? Going to press briefings with Barry was brutal. Although I was an outsider there was no let up. The charming Barry became combative Barry. Much of his vitriol was for my friend Yolanda Woodlee. Woodlee covered Barry for the Washington Post. He would light into her about anything she wrote, but she never backed down. He would refer to her as “dirt digger.” Sources would call Woodlee whenever they saw the Mayor, especially during his clubbing and later night meanders.

The Barry trial dragged on for weeks with the public thinking he was done in politics. The verdict came on August 10, 1990. He was found guilty of one count, possession of cocaine. Twelve others counts were thrown out. Supporters of Barry circled the federal courthouse and rejoiced, beeping their car horns.  DC became the punch line and the butt of so many jokes. People outside of DC consistently said, “I can’t believe Marion Barry is still Mayor?” Barry received six months in jail and lost his first election following the conviction.

When he finished his stint in Federal prison in 1992 he returns home and decides to run for his old council seat in Ward 8 (one the poorest jurisdictions in the city). His campaign slogan "He may not be perfect, but he's perfect for D.C." He wins.

Barry and his supporters calculated, "who better to represent you than me." His pitch was simple I am someone who has had a drug problem, been through the legal system and survived. He surrounds himself with religious leaders who talk about Redemption. Drugs and murders are rampant in the city. There is no superman to solve these intractable problems. Redemption politics is in full affect and the next mountain to cross is a return to the highest office.

Coalitions and Mobilization

In current politics, we talk about making sure you get your base gets to the polls and also broadening your base. Mayor Barry was active this arena long before it became the nomenclature of politics. You’ve heard how he was able to capture generational African-Americans but he to broaden his appeal to other minorities and those who were on the outside who wanted a place at the political table.  This included foreign nationals i.e. Asians, Latino’s and the Ethiopian/Eritrean communities. Asians saw his desire to recreate China Town as an affirmation they were on the mayor’s radar screen. Latino’s weren’t much of a factor in the early Barry administrations.  Overtime the number of Latino’s from El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and South America began to populate the Columbia Road corridor. They could not be ignored.

The Ethiopian/Eritrean communities however became more important to Barry than any other group. By way of background if you park at any garage in downtown Washington it’s likely owned and operated by Eritreans. If you get in a cab in the District, the driver is likely from Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia). Both groups look to carry favor with the Barry administration. Their adviser provided much need capital to Barry Campaign in later years. Favorable legislation flowed. In several elections challengers tried to unseat the Mayor. Barry’s Election Day ground game was always superior to his opponents. The Barry Campaign called in their favor from Ethiopian/Eritrean communities.  Volunteers armed with voter list will call these people on Election Day and transport people to the polls for free. I have watched this personally and it is a game changer. A majority of media didn’t see this coming and when they discover the ground game it was revelation.

Lastly, Barry is the first modern day politician to openly advocate for the Gay community. He included gay members in his cabinet. He walks in Washington’s Gay Pride Parade. The thing that endears him to this group is his early acknowledgement of the AIDS epidemic. He championed the AIDS quilt in the eighties which drew attention to those who had died from the disease. Few politicians dared to acknowledge this community and let alone embrace them. Barry was there before the world.

Post Script

Generations of Washingtonians will talk about what Marion Barry did for the city, the underserved communities, the empowerment of the African-American business community, and the expansion of voter base.  Political scientist and students will pour over his legacy and point to his accomplishments. In Black Politics, he ends an era where those who were one step from slavery (share cropping) could rise above their circumstances, fail, and find redemption. This is an American Story.

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