The Marion Barry I knew was larger than life. He was a civil rights icon and in many ways a great mayor of the District of Columbia. He was a supporter of LGBT rights most of his life until it came to a final vote on marriage equality when he spoke out in ways that were both offensive and unfathomable.
His words shocked a community that he once credited with helping him win his first race for mayor in 1978. Barry’s early success in amending the city’s Human Rights Act ensured that there would be no referendum on marriage equality in the District and the majority could never vote to curtail the rights of a minority. Glenn Baker, producer of a documentary for WETA on D.C. in the 1980s, said of Barry, “Whites helped elect him; he embraced the gay community and was very wise about developing that constituency. He had gay members on his staff and in the city government, and as a result, D.C. became known as a gay-friendly city, and grew to be one of the most vibrant gay communities in the country.”
Yet in the national media Barry could never get away from being the mayor arrested in a sting for smoking crack cocaine.
History will remember Barry for all the good things he did and for all those families who have a better life because of him.
I first met Barry after moving to D.C. just prior to the 1978 mayoral election. He asked for my vote but I hadn’t yet switched my registration from New York. Like many who came to work for the Carter administration we all thought after a few years we would return home. Thirty-six years later I am proud to say D.C. is my home.
Being a policy wonk and working on disability issues led to my first appointment to a D.C. commission by Mayor Barry. As the second elected mayor of the city, after Walter Washington, Barry was responsible for changing the District of Columbia from a small sleepy Southern town into a real city. When he was elected in 1978, the city still had visible and invisible vestiges of the 1968 riots. Barry began the building of a vibrant downtown and was responsible for the Reeves Center, the municipal building that began the rebirth of the U Street corridor.
Barry was reelected in 1982 and 1986 without much competition. Unfortunately his third term brought on talk of womanizing, drinking and drug use. Several of his top aides were convicted of corruption. The U.S. Attorney at the time tried every way to connect Barry to the corruption but couldn’t. Then, in what some believed to be an outrageous perversion of power, he set up the sting in which Barry was caught smoking crack cocaine. After all that, Barry was convicted of only a misdemeanor charge but received a six-month jail term.
Sharon Pratt Kelly was elected mayor in 1990 in a surprise win with the support of countless editorials in the Washington Post. She vowed to “sweep the city clean.” Instead, she oversaw the demise of the city’s finances. After getting out of jail, Barry ran for Council in 1992 and won the Ward 8 seat. Then to the surprise of many, he ran and won his fourth term as mayor in 1994 with nearly 56 percent of the vote. Barry was magnanimous to those like me who didn’t support him in that race and willingly continued to work with us.
While the city’s financial picture continued to disintegrate and Congress installed a Financial Control Board to oversee the District, Barry still managed to work with Abe Pollin to build what was first called the MCI Center and is today the Verizon Center. Together with the Shakespeare Theatre and its artistic director Michael Kahn, who led the way by moving to the Lansburgh Theatre in 1992, these two projects are responsible for the rebirth of the 7th Street corridor and a vibrant downtown entertainment district.
Barry ended his fourth term as mayor at noon on Jan. 1, 1999. After a few years of trying to stay out of politics in 2004 he ran again in Ward 8 for Council and won. It was a seat he held until his death. Marion Barry and the District of Columbia will forever be linked in history.