Marion Barry, District Council Member and former mayor, dies at 78
Tom Sherwood, NBC Washington
After he was released from the hospital, Barry visited with his son, Christopher, and then stopped to eat. On his way back into his home from the car, Barry collapsed. His driver brought him inside the home, unresponsive.
Barry was taken to United Medical Center at about 12:15 a.m. Sunday, and was pronounced dead at about 1:45 a.m. The District of Columbia’s medical examiner said Sunday that Barry died of natural causes due to heart problems. A contributing factor was chronic kidney disease that complicated Barry’s diabetes.
Reaction poured in as news of Barry’s death spread early Sunday morning. “He loved the District of Columbia and so many Washingtonians loved him,” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said in a statement that expressed “deep sadness” and promised “official ceremonies worthy of a true statesman of the District of Columbia.”
Gray ordered flags at all D.C. buildings to be flown at half-staff beginning Sunday in Barry’s honor.
In a statement released Sunday, incoming D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said, “Mayor Marion Barry gave a voice to those who need it most.”
Barry had recently taped an interview with Oprah Winfrey for her show, “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” The Barry family statement indicated that the interview — which featured his new book, Mayor For Life: the Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr. — still would air Sunday at 9 p.m.
Barry served four terms as mayor and had a lock on the D.C. Council’s Ward 8 seat. But along with that huge political success, many personal failures marked his turbulent life.
Early on in his career, the Washington City Paper dubbed him “Mayor for Life.” He confounded critics who railed against his melodramatic life, even as he basked in the admiration of forgiving citizens who looked to him as their champion.
The son of a Mississippi sharecropper, Barry emerged from the student and civil rights activism of the 1960s to serve on the elected D.C. School Board and D.C. Council.
In 1979, Barry began serving the first of three consecutive terms as D.C.’s second elected mayor. His pro-business policies helped spur economic development. He built civic programs for youth and senior citizens, and opened the city government to many African-American professionals, who previously had been shut out.
But lackluster city services, like slow snow removal and lost city ambulances, dogged Barry’s administration. He battled a soaring homicide rate among the worst in the nation, and vowed a war on illegal drugs even as rumors about his own drug addiction swirled around Washington.
Barry’s stature crumbled spectacularly in 1990, when an FBI sting videotaped Barry smoking crack cocaine in Washington’s Vista Hotel.
Barry famously complained that he had been set up by former girlfriend Rasheeda Moore, an FBI informant.
Barry’s federal trial turned into a drama of prosecution charges and persecution com-plaints. Out of 14 drug charges, a jury convicted Barry of a single misdemeanor possession charge. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson sentenced him to six months in prison, the maximum punishment.
Many thought the scandal would finish Barry’s political career.
But in 1992, Barry emerged from prison and began his come-back right at the prison gate. Just months later he won the Ward 8 council seat from long-time ally and four-term incumbent Wilhelmina Rolark.
In 1994, he swept back into the mayor’s office for a fourth term, trouncing failed reform Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. Congress reacted sharply to concerns over another term for Barry and Kelly’s massive debt by creating a five-member federal control board to run the city over Barry.
Barry appointed then-obscure Anthony Williams as his chief financial officer. Acerbic and shy compared to Barry, Williams won the mayor’s office in 1998 when Barry chose not to seek reelection.
Barry returned to the political limelight in 2004, winning Ward 8 over another former ally, Sandy Allen. Waving off criticism of disloyalty, Barry said it wasn’t personal — it was politics.
In recent years, Barry easily won re-election in Ward 8. But he suffered from declining health, and received a kidney transplant.
Other controversies endured: failing to file income taxes, being censured for steering a city contract to a girlfriend, and making insensitive remarks about Asian storeowners and Filipina nurses, to whom he later apologized after stinging public criticism.
In August, Barry was involved in a wrong-way accident on Pennsylvania Avenue. Barry blamed low blood sugar that had made him disoriented.
But of the six mayors who’ve served the city since home rule began in the 1970s, it was Barry’s Mayor for Life personality and rollercoaster career that helped define D.C. politics for decades.
Barry first came to D.C. with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He later helped establish and run Pride, an inner-city help group. When Congress granted limited home rule to D.C., Barry won a first seat on the D.C. Council in 1974.
ion Shot in the chest by Hanafi Muslims when they overran at the Wilson Building in 1977, Barry used the publicity to help launch his 1978 campaign for mayor. He was a brash reformer, equally eloquent on the streets and in boardrooms. He narrowly won a three-way battle after The Washington Post editorial page heavily and repeatedly endorsed him.
But his terms in office were marred by investigations into cronyism, those drug abuse allegations and his image as a self-professed night owl.
In Memoriam: Mike Nichols
Despite his faults, Barry is also credited with creating a massive summer jobs program that, while wasteful in many cases, offered a job or paid internship to any city youth who wanted one; and for treating senior citizens as a top priority with homes and programs for those in the twilight of life.
He completed the city’s first convention center on time and on budget. In his last term as mayor, Barry landed the deal to get the MCI Center (now the Verizon Center) built downtown.
Still, his national reputation is one of a promising politician undone or diminished by his personal failings; a politician who rose against seemingly hopeless odds to win and stay in the life of politics, often in spite of himself.