For many Washingtonians, it’s yet another episode in the long-running drama of former Mayor Marion Barry: there’s the attractive ex-girlfriend, accusations that he stalked her and a matter of questionable use of public funds.
Though the stalking charge was dropped soon after his July 4 arrest, the current D.C. Council member’s latest brush with the law fueled more than deja vu. The incident highlighted divisions among those who still lionize Barry as an enormously successful black politician and residents who say they appreciate his contributions, but it’s time for him to step down.
The 73-year-old Barry is especially revered in predominantly black Ward 8, which he represents. Black residents there laud the son of a sharecropper for empowering D.C.’s long-disenfranchised minority residents by opening the halls of power to them.
But booming development has made the largely black city more diverse. Revitalization is also slowly creeping into Ward 8, and residents both black and white are growing impatient with and embarrassed by Barry’s repeated run-ins with the law. Some wince at the memory of the 1990 FBI sting that produced a notorious videotape of then-Mayor Barry smoking crack cocaine in a D.C. hotel room with a woman.
“His personal demons are eclipsing what we need,” said 32-year-old Nikki Peele, a new homeowner who writes a neighborhood blog. She questions whether Barry is still qualified to lead and worries that her community’s reputation is being tarnished by his actions.
“If he was such a successful mayor and Council member, why the hell are we still the poorest ward in the city?” said 30-year-old Susan Kennedy, an architect who bought a condo there in 2005.
Others vehemently disagree.
“Mr. Barry has really been a yeoman for the citizens of this city, and that’s why we love him,” said Constance Woody, a D.C. resident for 50 years who believes Barry has done more for the city than any other mayor.
Barry became mayor in 1979 and won re-election to two additional four-year terms. During that time, Barry is credited with guaranteeing youths summer jobs, and helping people get city government jobs and contracts.
“Barry was a deliverer,” said 37-year-old Tisa Mitchell, who recalls how Barry gave her a job at 15 in a youth program that inspired her political activism. Mitchell and others continue to speak of his charisma and personal touch with residents.
The crack cocaine arrest came in Barry’s third term. After serving six months in prison, Barry was re-elected to the mayor’s office in 1994 for a fourth term. Then, in 2004, Barry won a seat on the D.C. Council and was re-elected last year.
Barry was drawn into the spotlight anew after being arrested by U.S. Park Police July 4 and charged with stalking Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, a former girlfriend.
Barry’s spokeswoman has said he gave the 40-year-old woman a $60,000 city contract because she was about to lose her home and car. The spokeswoman, Natalie Williams, said the arrangement followed city council procedures and that Watts-Brighthaupt did the work she was paid for.
Park police said in an arrest report that Barry was driving erratically on the wrong side of the road when he was pulled over. But some of his supporters say he was unfairly targeted in the arrest, just as they maintain he was targeted by the FBI in 1990 because he was a successful black mayor.
“That’s really a raw nerve in Washington, D.C., to this day,” said Dana Flor, who grew up in the D.C. area and co-produced the film “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry,” which is scheduled to air Aug. 10 on HBO.
After Barry’s latest run-in, federal prosecutors dropped the misdemeanor stalking charges against him, but the city council last week launched an independent investigation of Barry’s contract with Watts-Brighthaupt.
“I welcome this inquiry,” Barry said. “I have no doubt in my mind that we followed all the procedures.”
Watts-Brighthaupt herself said she got to know Barry because she was fascinated with him as a political phenomenon.
She said that wherever they went, people would approach Barry and ask him to resolve personal or neighborhood issues. They seemed unaware, Watts-Brighthaupt said, that there are city agencies to handle such problems and thought he was the only person they could turn to.
“I was excited to know what keeps Marion Barry getting elected,” she told The Associated Press. People vote for him because of name recognition and “because their grandmother told them to.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.