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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

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Barry Remembered for Advocacy, Scandal

THE WASHINGTON POST Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who served for four non-consecutive terms from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999, died at the age of 78 early Sunday morning.
Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who served for four non-consecutive terms from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999, died at the age of 78 early Sunday morning.

Former D.C. Mayor and current Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who died at the age of 78 early Sunday morning, left behind an uncertain legacy, as poor administration and scandal undermined his advocacy for economic development and equal rights in Georgetown and throughout the District.

Barry, who was born in Mississippi in 1936, began his political life with the civil rights movement when he was elected the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. It was in this position that Barry moved to Washington, D.C., in 1965, organizing boycotts and joining the Free D.C. movement to support home rule for the District.

After the passage of the District of Columbia Home Rule Act in 1973, which established the D.C. Council, Barry was elected as an at-large member of the council, before defeating incumbent Walter Washington in the 1978 mayoral election. Serving as mayor for four nonconsecutive terms, Barry held the position from 1979 to 1991 and from 1995 to 1999.

As mayor, Barry gained the support of a wide range of interests by pushing policies to promote business and economic development in the District during his first term, according to history professor Maurice Jackson, who is currently working on a social, political and cultural history of blacks in Washington and who spoke at a D.C. Historical Studies Conference roundtable on “The Legacy of Marion Barry” on Nov. 21, two days before Barry’s death.

“When Marion Barry was first elected, he won the majority of white votes; he didn’t win the majority of black votes,” Jackson said. “Over a period of time, when Marion Barry was first elected, one white businessman said to me, ‘I don’t know what the problem is with Marion Barry, because he’s made us a lot of money.’”

According to the Washington Business Journal, Barry’s revitalization projects included the downtown area and development projects in Georgetown, providing strong support for the Georgetown Park shopping complex.

In an interview with the Georgetown Dish before his death, Barry shared some of his thoughts about the neighborhood that resisted Metro expansion plans during his time as mayor.

“I love Georgetown. I love every part of the city. Georgetown residents just don’t want to have anything change,” Barry said.

In addition to his pro-business policies, Barry focused on providing opportunities for the disadvantaged in the District, clashing with Georgetown University in the 1980s about the university’s failure to recognize same-sex student groups.

Georgetown denied access to facilities to LGBT student organizations in the 1980s until it was finally ordered to do so by the United States Court of Appeals in 1987. In response to the university’s obstinacy, Barry withheld nearly $200 million in bonds from the university under the city’s “human rights clause,” forcing Georgetown to search for private funding for its campus construction projects, according to the New York Times.

Barry also aimed to promote the welfare of blacks in the District. Among his efforts was his signature Summer Youth Employment Program, which promised summer jobs to all interested D.C. high school students. However, Jackson explained that for enough jobs to be available for the program to succeed, it needed enthusiasm and participation from the businesses and universities in the District, who were reluctant to embrace both the program and inner-city youth.

“He tried to help young kids get jobs. But to do that, you had to have businesses open up, but you didn’t see universities open up their arms to the inner-city youth. So you can count on both your hands the number of D.C. inner-city kids going to Georgetown, [The George Washington University],” Jackson said.

As he attempted to fight for equality and economic development, Barry’s administration was marred by an increase in crime and drug usage throughout the District. A string of scandals culminated with the mayor’s arrest for possession of crack cocaine in 1990.

Jackson noted that, while Barry could have done more to combat the problems, the rise in crime and drug usage were not directly attributable to the mayor, as it reflected a national trend.

“[The rise in crime] happened under Barry’s watch. But you have to understand what else happened. The devastating budget cuts under Ronald Reagan, especially city budgets. When you cut community programs, people often don’t have a course,” Jackson said. “The other thing was the rise in drug use all over America with the drug called crack. It was much cheaper and easier to manufacture. And the crack epidemic hit the inner cities particularly hard, and it had a big effect on all cities.”

Despite being sentenced to six months in federal jail for the scandal, Barry remained a prominent figure in the District’s politics and claimed he was a victim of addiction and a Federal Bureau of Investigation plot to frame him. After serving a term in the city council upon his release, Barry reclaimed the mayoral seat in 1995.

“After the drug bust, some blacks thought he was set up by the FBI, and they didn’t think white people had the right to tell them who to elect,” Jackson said.

According to The Economist, the Republican Congress that took control at the same time worried about the face of the nation’s capital and seized more control of the District’s operations, heavily monitoring and regulating its finances and policies.

Upon leaving the position for the final time, Barry committed himself to providing a voice for Ward 8, which he continued to represent until his death.

“Ward 8 has 27 to 28 percent poverty rate, the highest in the country. So you have no one really speaking out,” Jackson said. “He had [their] support because he moved there — when he was first mayor, he lived in Ward 7 — because he saw the need for someone to speak up.”

After dominating D.C. politics for two decades, Barry, though no longer central to the current politics of the city, left an enduring mark on the face of the city.

“I have seen Marion take hold and write his signature boldly on his own life and times and on the life of the nation’s capital. Many took his struggle to personify in some way their own, endearing him and making him a bigger-than-life figure as he became a creator of post-home-rule D.C.,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a press release.

Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) expressed her appreciation for Barry’s advocacy for the disadvantaged in the District.

“Mayor Marion Barry gave a voice to those who needed it most,” Bowser said in a statement.

Jackson noted Barry’s complicated legacy.

“I couldn’t say I was the biggest fan or a great supporter of Marion Barry, but I did watch him,” he said. “And I admired him for some of the good things that he did and stood aghast at some of the not-so-good things.”

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