Marion Barry – Washington’s Very Colorful Mayor

Having once lived in the nation’s capital, I experienced first-hand the “never a dull moment” mayoral reign of Marion Barry, who, in 1978, was elected mayor of Washington, D.C.  The highlight, or lowlight, of that reign came this week (Jan. 18) in 1990 when Barry was busted in an FBI sting operation while smoking crack cocaine in the hotel room of a female “friend” who set Barry up in return for a reduced sentence for her own drug conviction.  Caught red-handed on videotape, when the FBI burst into the room Barry uttered what became one of the most frequently quoted phrases of 1990. “The (rhymes with rich) set me up!”

At the time, Barry was serving his third consecutive term as mayor, with each term more controversial than the previous one.  His legions of mostly black supporters pointed to his job creation, business development and empathy for Washington’s African-American poor as his signature achievements, while his numerous, mostly white critics noted that, in addition to myriad scandals, his job “creation” was predominantly political patronage, which had resulted in a bloated bureaucracy and oceans of red ink in the city’s budget.

What’s more, rumors of Barry’s freewheeling lifestyle, including late night parties, womanizing and drugs had been rampant for years.

Thus his subsequent criminal trial for perjury and drug possession was a circus. On all but two of the charges — including the January bust — the jurors were so divided they never reached a verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial. Barry was finally convicted on one misdemeanor charge of cocaine possession and acquitted on the other charge. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

And then things got interesting.  Walking out of prison in 1992, Barry proclaimed he had overcome his “personal adversities” and was a new man. He promptly ran for city council, was elected, and set his sights back on the mayor’s job, where his hero status as someone who had survived the white power structure’s attempts to “get him” made him the favorite to win an unprecedented fourth term.  Sure enough, in 1995 an ex-convict was sworn in as the leader of the capital city of “the free world.”

Barry’s fourth mayoral term, while less controversial, followed the same pattern, and in 1997, citing a severe budget crisis, pervasive corruption and incompetence in the Barry administration, Congress stripped the mayor’s office of much of its power, especially over city finances.

Barry subsequently retired as mayor but later was elected to his old seat as Ward 8 representative on the D.C. City Council, where he sits today, and where—surprise, surprise—charges of malfeasance and corruption, including tax evasion, drug use and abuse of office, still plague him.