Barry’s Imminent Return Sparks Emotions on Hill
Some Cite Redemption, Others Remember ‘Bad Guy’
While the District of Columbia’s most infamous politician is all but guaranteed a return to city government, lawmakers remain divided over the impact of Marion Barry’s political resurrection.
“If he has nine lives, we’re seeing the third one,” said Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D), a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia.
In his latest reincarnation, Barry, 68, knocked down incumbent D.C. City Councilmember Sandy Allen (Ward 8) to win the Democratic primary earlier this month.
In the heavily Democratic city, where the general election is largely a procedural step in the election process, Barry is readily assured the seat representing Ward 8, a largely poor area located south and east of the Anacostia River.
But will the four-term former mayor — dubbed “Mayor for Life” by the Washington City Paper in the mid-1980s while pursuing his second re-election bid — revive his once-contentious relationship with Congress when he takes on his new role?
Durbin declined to discuss whether Barry’s imminent return could strain improved relations between Congress and the city.
But the Senate lawmaker, who also serves as ranking member on the Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight and government management, federal workforce and District of Columbia, noted: “I believe in redemption politically and personally.”
A handful of lawmakers echoed that sentiment, suggesting that perhaps Barry — who took a brief hiatus from D.C. politics when he was sentenced to a six-month jail term in 1990 on a drug conviction — could use his latest position to salvage the reputation of a long and storied political career.
“He began his career trying to make a difference,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), referring to Barry’s early work with the civil rights movement, when he served as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. “I believe very much in the resurrection and the concept of forgiveness.”
But not everyone has such a forgiving view when it comes to Barry’s potential in his new role.
Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook (R), a member of the the Appropriations subcommittee on the District who chaired the panel in 1999 after Barry’s departure, asserts that the mayor’s return is viewed with disdain among his Congressional colleagues.
“His serving on the City Council is not being received positively on the Hill,” Istook said.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), the current chairman of the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, reiterated Istook’s concerns — “Some Members have expressed concerns about the former mayor’s return” — but declined to provide a detailed assessment.
Still, both Republican lawmakers conceded that Barry’s impact will be minimized in his new role as one of 13 councilmembers, stating Mayor Anthony Williams’ (D) office remains the most important point of contact between Congress and the District. “The District’s relationship with Congress has never depended on one person and never should,” Istook said.
Frelinghuysen asserted of Barry’s mayoral successor, who took office in 1999: “I think Mayor Williams is doing a great job and I don’t think the return of a former mayor is going to keep him from pursuing his agenda of economic revitalization.”
House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), whose panel also has oversight of the District, remained tight-lipped about Barry’s political resurrection late last week, but said it should not impact the two bodies’ relationship.
“I’m not sure it will play any [role] at all,” Davis said. “He’s not in control.”
But even relegated to a lower post — Barry earlier served on the City Council in the 1970s and mid-1990s — the former mayor still carries strong name recognition, which can easily draw a spotlight to the District.
A spokeswoman for Williams’ office declined to comment for this article, but did point to a Sept. 15 press conference in which Williams addressed Barry’s primary win.
While Williams praised his predecessor as an “enormously skilled politician,” he also acknowledged Barry’s election would likely require him to defend the former mayor at some point.
“I don’t want to put this as a criticism of him, but yes I expect to have to,” said Williams, who served as the city’s chief financial officer when Congress appointed a Financial Control Board to take over the city’s agencies in 1995, during Barry’s last mayoral term.
Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), a member of the Government Reform panel, also suggested that Barry’s national reputation makes him an obvious target for political foes, unlike lesser-known local politicians.
“If he does make extreme statements, he’s an easy punching bag and has to look out for it,” said Souder. “You have less margin for error when people know who you are.”
But Souder, who recently has gained attention for sponsoring legislation to repeal the city’s gun laws, said Barry could still create a strong relationship with Congress.
“It more depends on how he handles the office,” he said. “It’s more future than it is past.”
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who holds the city’s only Congressional seat, has defended Barry’s primary win, calling recent criticism of the former mayor “unfortunate.”
“I am sure Mr. Barry will do all that he can to help his ward and the city,” Norton said in a Sept. 15 statement. “I do not expect any effort in Congress to use the election of any D.C. official against the city. But I would fight any attempt to do so.”
Still, for some lawmakers, Barry’s history within the city’s government seems only able to prompt sour feelings.
“It’s not a good sign when people are willing to elect a certified bad guy. It’s not something that inspires confidence,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), the sponsor of legislation that would provide Congressional voting rights to District residents via Maryland.
“In the presence of now-Councilman Barry, it’s a reminder of the bad old days, and [suggests] they may not be gone forever,” Rohrabacher said. Barry detractors often list the former mayor’s drug conviction, as well as cronyism within his administration and fiscal difficulties, when recounting his political shortcomings.
Barry is currently on vacation and could not be reached for comment, but spokeswoman Linda Greene said, “We’re expecting a cordial and positive relationship with the Members of Congress.”
Citing a quote by Daniel Webster that adorns the House chamber, Kaptur suggested Barry could add a final “legacy” to his accomplishments.
“The thought has crossed my mind, does he want to now make a contribution worthy to be remembered?” said Kaptur, who served on the Appropriations subcommittee on the District during Barry’s last term as mayor in the late 1990s.
Nonetheless, she acknowledges Barry, even with the support of voters, may have an uphill battle.
“It’s going to take some work,” Kaptur said. “[But] there’s always an opportunity to meet the tests of leadership.”