Why Won’t Marion Barry Retire?

Why Won’t Marion Barry Retire?


Unlike Herman Cain, Marion Barry just made an announcement that he is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Some of us reluctantly appreciate the personal and political redemption song of longtime D.C. pol, once Mayor-for-Life now Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry.  Cain should have studied it. While you may not agree with many of those personal and political choices – which could take up several volumes and gigs of memory if we write about it now – you still can’t deny the man his props.

Barry is by all accounts a master political strategist, a mix of sophisticated political kingmaker and Black Tammany Hall grinded in with the coffee bean of grassroots, asphalt activism.  It, really, gets no better than the Barry campaign model.  Quiet as it’s kept, legions of political consultants have peeped his playbook, a gritty, mature-audiences-only street manual on how to rise in politics, fall hard then revive your brand from the ashes of scandal scratch.   While many of us fawn over the The Wire and that small merry band of hardcore insiders get our inner-pol on with shows like Boss, Barry lives it.

But, everyone else outside of Washington, D.C. – and many living in it – still can’t understand the current deal: how does a 75 year-old “crackhead” keep getting re-elected?

It’s the real of a desperate situation for D.C.’s poorest section.  Which is not the best look for Ward 8, the poverty-ridden landscape east of the Anacostia River that he represents.  For a multitude of complicated reasons, folks in Ward 8 can’t get enough of Barry.  Much of that is more about what he symbolizes rather than what he’s actually getting done for the District of Columbia’s poorest, most destitute Ward.

Ward 8, on both paper and just from a walk or drive thru (done on occasion against the worried warnings of concerned family members), is one ugly ground zero of economic, social and public health disparities.  The Ward’s population has declined from a 1980 high of over 93,000 to now just a little over 70,000.  And with it 94% Black, Ward 8 – graced with the city’s very own Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave – is awash with every chronic disease existing, from diabetes to cardiovascular ailments to infant mortality. The poverty rate is about 40% (perhaps higher if you get the unofficial on-the-corner estimate) and the official unemployment rate is 17% (it was over 20% in 2000) – not taking into account the rate District government does not want to tell you or doesn’t want itself to know about.  Barry will keep it real on this point and tell you it’s actually 35%.

Nearly half the Ward is on food stamps – over 35,000.  Over 16,000 are on TANF.  And there are 20 violent crimes (those reported) for every 1,000 people, in addition to 41 official property crimes per 1,000 people.

Amid all this desperation, Councilman Barry announces his bid for reelection.  In a signal, perhaps, that some would like to see Barry go sit down somewhere, Ward 8 shows faint signs of gradual gentrification … if that.  There are no WalMarts, however.  No new grocery store or a Whole Foods or anything else announcing anything of any real economic uplift for a section of the city in need of it.   Some observers say it’s because certain interests grow tired watching relics of old D.C., like Barry, stick around.

“For the last several years, Ward 8 residents have benefited greatly from my leadership,” the Councilman said in a statement. “Yet the economic gap continues to widen. The average income for a Ward 8 family is $25,000 while in Ward 3 a white family’s income averages $100,000.”

The problem is not so much Barry’s age as much as it is the sense that Ward 8 is still stuck in time – under his leadership.  It’s like the old, stubborn African dictator that refuses to step down, pouting about how much he’s “got this” and how younger folks who could be qualified to take it next level “don’t know a damn thing about how to run it.”  But, Ward 8 needs more than just “running.”  It’s yearning for a radical change in its attitude and direction.  That’s not only Barry’s doing, that’s also the people who feel compelled to keep reelecting him.

That said, challengers to Barry should focus more on something that’s been lacking in Ward 8 for some time: vision.  Perhaps they would find more success in creating a plainspoken and really inspiring vision for Ward 8 that outperforms Barry’s ridiculous popularity with its residents.

It’s complicated, of course.  Sometimes, Ward 8 residents don’t want to hear all that.  They just want Barry.  The Councilman is a strategic genius who spends as much time on the street pushing his reelection as he does in the City Council building.  He knows how to connect, giving the feeling that he truly cares or that he’s been there, too.  His life story illustrates it.  And his plan to run for reelection is just as much about him ending it on his own terms as political royalty, complete with a District-funded funeral.

While it would be unwise to underestimate his intelligence under the breath of his trademark mumbling (the man is considered a city budget genius), it’s his ability to switch from downtown policy wonk to street-ease urban Godfather that solidifies a base.  He is seen as “authentic,” and he instinctively knows better than most in the profession that authenticity is selling well in this rather cynical political climate.  He’s proof of political endurance and the virtue of retail campaigning.  Many Washingtonians, especially those living throughout Southeast D.C., will tell you that Barry was responsible for their first jobs – thus, loyalty runs thick.  And, Black forgiveness of past sins knows no bounds in Ward 8. But, what good is loyalty if half the Ward’s residents are having trouble paying a light bill or most kids are feeding off junk food diets?


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