” I am a great mayor; I am an upstanding Christian man; I am an intelligent man; I am a deeply educated man; I am a humble man." -- M. Barry, Mayor of Washington, DC
Marion Barry is probably the closest thing America had to Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto and in actuality, might have him beaten in spades when it comes to kooky mayors of large cities. I’m tempted to throw former mayor of New York City Ed Koch into the equation as well but his antics pale in comparison to what Mr. Barry managed to achieve during his time in office in Washington, D.C.
Why don’t we start with the factual stuff before we move on to the fun part?
Marion Shepilov Barry was born on March 6, 1936 in someplace called Itta Bena, Mississippi. The family soon pulled up stakes and settled in Memphis, Tennessee. It was there that he got his first taste of racism when he noticed that the black children had to walk to school while the white ones were chauffeured back and forth on busses. He also started to work at an early age and I guess jobs were scarce for a young black man in Tennessee and he found himself picking cotton, bagging groceries and delivering newspapers to raise money in order to support his family.
The newspaper that he worked for sponsored a contest for their delivery boys to win a trip to New Orleans. All they had to do to qualify was to sign up fifteen new subscribers within a certain period of time and they would qualify to make the trip. Sensing an opportunity, Marion did just that but too bad he was black. You see, at the time, New Orleans had some archaic segregation laws and black kids were not allowed to ride on the same bus with white kids. Since the paper couldn’t afford the cost of two busses, guess who got the shaft? After a boycott of the paper, the black kids wound up getting a chance to go to St. Louis. Score one for the little guy!
Barry would later attend LeMoyn College and graduated in 1958. During his time there he got a reputation as a rabble rouser for pointing out many of the racist policies he was exposed to while at the school.
From there he moved on to Fisk University where he earned his Master’s Degree in organic chemistry. It should also be noted that he was arrested multiple times for participating in protests centered around the bourgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
He then moved on to the University of Kansas to continue his doctoral studies but shortly after arriving quit the program. He contemplated going to law school but because of the time frame for admission decided against it. It was also a good way to stay in school in order to avoid the draft and he found himself continuing his studies at the University of Tennessee. Apparently he got fed up with the program when he discovered he was forbidden from tutoring white students and to add insult to injury, he was told his wife wouldn’t be allowed to work at the school.
He would soon take a position with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee where he was charged with leading voter registration drives and organizing boycotts in order to protest both racial and segregation policies in Washington D.C.
He was elected to the DC Board of Education in 1971 and was soon named president. He served in that role until 1974 when he was elected as an at-large member of the city’s first elected city council. He was re-elected in 1976 but things would take a turn for the worst when he was shot in 1977 by members of a radical Muslim group.
He decided to run for mayor in 1978 and after a close runoff amongst his Democratic peers wound up defeating his Republican challenger in a landslide. He was only the second person to serve as the role of Mayor in the nation’s capital. He would also go on to win re-election in 1982 and in 1986. During that time, the crack epidemic had taken hold in the city and the crime and murder rate reached record rates during his time in office.
The fun begins.
"Bitch set me up. I shouldn’t have come up here…goddamn bitch" -- M. Barry, Mayor of Washington, DC
While contemplating a run for a fourth term, Barry was busted in a sting operation coordinated by the FBI and local authorities. He was videotaped smoking crack in a local hotel room and later charged with three felony counts of perjury, ten counts of drug possession and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to possess cocaine. After a contentious trial, Barry was convicted on only one charge for the possession and was sentenced to six months in federal prison.
Note: For a brief transcript of the sting operation, click here.
While serving his time behind bars, he was accused of getting a blow job from a woman in a prison waiting room. It was a charge he denied. He would later be released in April of 1992.
He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect For D.C.
Believe it not, that was his campaign slogan when he decided to run for city council in 1992. Amazingly, it worked and he defeated a four term incumbent with over 70% of the vote. He also stated his intentions that he was “not interested in being mayor” anymore.
That lasted all the way until 1994 when he announced his candidacy for office. He would defeat his Democratic challengers in the primary and defeat his Republican challenger in the general election by a margin of 56% to 44%.
He took office in 1995. At the time, the city was faced with a huge deficit and declining services. One month into his term Barry threw up his hands and declared the city government “unworkable”. He approached Congress for help and was quickly rebuffed. Wall Street quickly reacted to the news by reducing the city’s municipal bond rating to the of “junk status”.
It didn’t surprise anybody when Barry announced that he wouldn’t be seeking a fifth term in 1998. That didn’t mean he was through with politics though. After taking a brief hiatus he decided to run for city council again in 2002 but quickly withdrew his candidacy when traces of marijuana and cocaine were found in his car.
After letting things die down for a few years he would once again run for city council in 2004 and easily won reelection. Despite numerous controversies in both his personal and professional life ranging from failure to file and pay taxes, numerous traffic violations and varying conflicts of interest, he would hold that office until his death on November 23, 2014 when he succumbed to cardiac arrest. He was 78 years old.
In closing, if there’s one thing that the American press likes about politics, that thing is a colorful figure and Marion Barry certainly fit that criteria as evidenced by a smattering of quotes that escaped his lips over his years in the public eye. See for yourself.
"The contagious people of Washington have stood firm against diversity during this long period of increment weather."(My personal favorite)
"I promise you a police car on every sidewalk."
"If you take out the killings, Washington actually has a very, very low crime rate."
"First, it was not a strip bar, it was an erotic club. And second, what can I say? I'm a night owl."
"I am clearly more popular than Reagan. I am in my third term. Where's Reagan? Gone after two! Defeated by George Bush and Michael Dukakis no less."
"The laws in this city are clearly racist. All laws are racist. The law of gravity is racist."
"I am making this trip to Africa because Washington is an international city, just like Tokyo, Nigeria or Israel. As mayor, I am an international symbol. Can you deny that to Africa?"
"People have criticized me because my security detail is larger than the president's. But you must ask yourself: are there more people who want to kill me than who want to kill the president? I can assure you there are."
"The brave men who died in Vietnam, more than 100% of which were black, were the ultimate sacrifice."
"I read a funny story about how the Republicans freed the slaves. The Republicans are the ones who created slavery by law in the 1600's. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and he was not a Republican."
"What right does Congress have to go around making laws just because they deem it necessary?"
Godspeed Marion, it was fun while it lasted.