WASHINGTON — As HBO considers making a movie about Marion Barry with Eddie Murphy in the title role, the real Barry is doing something that comes naturally: running for re-election in the nation’s capital.
Barry, the former four-term District of Columbia mayor whose legacy will always be tainted by his 1990 arrest after being caught on video smoking crack cocaine, now plays the role of elder statesman on the D.C. Council, where he represents a poor, predominantly black ward.
At 75, Barry walks stiffly and slowly, having survived prostate cancer, a kidney transplant and a gunshot wound when Hanafi Muslims attacked city hall in 1977. But the man once dubbed the city’s “Mayor for Life” says he has more influence than in more than a decade and fully intends to seek a third straight council term this year, even if the prospect makes some wince.
He goes so far as to predict a winning margin of at least 70 percent in the April Democratic primary in Ward 8, the neighborhood east of the Anacostia River where he remains popular.
“I have more white support than people say I do, but I don’t worry about that,” Barry said, referring to his ward. “That’s what frustrates some of these white people out here. They get frustrated, all worked up. They can’t do a damn thing to me or about me. Isn’t that funny?”
While Barry is quick to dismiss his critics and boast that he’s won 10 of 11 election contests, there is one subject he won’t discuss: the possible Spike Lee film about Barry that could star Murphy.
Barry’s only comment on a project that could largely define his legacy for a younger generation came in the form of a Tweet addressed to Lee: “Please DM me.”
And so it goes with Barry, the former 1960s civil rights activist who is a walking embodiment of Washington’s complicated legacy of self-rule.
He’s the most quotable and least politically correct of the 13 councilmembers, quick to call out his colleagues and unafraid to play the race card. During council hearings, he can seem distracted and disengaged — more interested in reminding people about his four terms as mayor than dealing with the issue at hand.
But he remains a player in district government.
While Barry initially supported former Mayor Adrian Fenty, he quickly turned on him, accusing him of ignoring Ward 8 to pursue projects in wealthier parts of the city. Barry is much closer, though, to Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown, who also hail from east of the Anacostia River, long a dividing line between the city’s haves and have-nots.
Barry and Gray have known each other for three decades and worked together frequently. And Barry said he considers himself a mentor of sorts to Brown.
Asked about his clout, Barry said: “I’ve got more now than I’ve had since 1995, before the control board came in.”
Barry was referring to his fourth and final term as mayor, when Congress seized control of city government following years of poor fiscal stewardship, much of it under Barry. He stepped down after that term ended but staged a comeback in 2004, winning the Ward 8 council seat. He was re-elected in 2008.
Councilmember Jack Evans said Barry “has more opportunity to make his voice heard” with Gray in office. At least so far, that hasn’t translated into notable legislative accomplishments. While Evans considers Barry a friend and agrees with him on some issues, Evans said much of the legislation Barry introduces “is very costly, and as a consequence there’s no way to pay for most of it, and it does not get passed for that reason alone.”
Barry is quick to offer advice to Gray and Brown.
“He’s somebody who’s got a lot of experience,” Gray said. “If he’s going to talk to me about something, I’m going to listen, but at the end of the day, I’m going to make my own decisions.”
Brown is more blunt about the limitations of Barry’s influence. He has occasionally distanced himself from Barry’s public statements and feuded with him on the council dais.
“Everyone wants to automatically — because I’m young and black — assume that I’m just Marion Barry,” Brown said.
Last week, Brown sent Barry a letter warning him that he may have violated the council’s code of conduct by using government resources to issue a news release criticizing Natalie Williams, one of his opponents.
Barry said he understands the political considerations that factor into city leaders’ treatment of him. Barry served six months in prison for cocaine possession following his 1990 arrest, and controversy continues to dog him.
In 2006, he was sentenced to probation for failing to file tax returns for several years, and he still hasn’t paid all the debts and penalties he owes. Last month, the IRS filed a lien against him for $3,200 in unpaid 2010 taxes. Barry makes $125,000 a year as a councilmember, and unlike some of his colleagues, he has no outside income.
In 2009, he was arrested for stalking a former girlfriend. The charges were dropped but drew attention to a $15,000 city contract he had steered to the woman. The following year, the council — then led by Gray — censured Barry and stripped him of his committee assignments. City ethics officials ultimately concluded Barry hadn’t broken any rules.
Barry’s time in exile lasted less than a year. After Brown became council chairman in January 2011, he tapped Barry as chairman of the Committee on Aging and Community Affairs. Barry now sits on five other committees — as many as any councilmember.
Meanwhile, current city leaders have faced ethical questions of their own.
Gray, Brown and Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. are all under federal investigation — Gray and Brown for alleged campaign improprieties and Thomas for allegedly diverting more than $300,000 in city funds for personal use. Barry has cautioned against any rush to judgment and argued that the controversies swirling around district politics are largely media-driven.
“In America, you’re innocent until proven guilty,” Barry said.
Barry has also suggested that black officials are scrutinized more heavily than their white counterparts are, and he blamed three white councilmembers for deepening the racial divide by asking Thomas to resign.
If Barry is viewed as a pariah in some parts of the city, many of his constituents see him differently: as a champion of the underprivileged who used city government to put district residents back to work.
“He empowered African-Americans,” said Vincent Hopkins, 48, an insurance salesman who lives in a gated community in Barry’s district.
Former councilmember Sandy Allen was defeated by Barry in 2004, but worked on his 2008 re-election bid and is now his campaign manager.
“Marion is one of the greatest politicians that I have ever known,” Allen said. Ward 8 voters have forgiven his many foibles, she said, because “they feel that he is one of them. … He has not gotten so far above them that he does not understand their plight.”
There is some discontent with Barry in Ward 8, but it has yet to coalesce around a single candidate. Several are challenging him in the April Democratic primary. Barry’s opponents say the ward needs a councilmember who will bring more energy to the job.
“The same problems people had before he came to the city, they still have … jobs, housing, the same problems,” said Sandra Seegars, a longtime community activist who’s running against Barry. “Ward 8 has not really improved.”
Barry doesn’t seem worried about his chances. And he enjoys needling his critics, including The Washington Post, which endorsed Barry’s first three successful campaigns for mayor but wrote in 1994 that it wished it could have the third one back. The paper has extensively reported on his missteps.
“They can’t touch me politically,” Barry said of his critics. “The more they jump on me, the stronger I get.”