When Marion Barry Jr. died in 2014, I wrote a column with the headline, “A hero to some; an enigma to others.” Listening to comments and reading columns surrounding the unveiling of his statue on Pennsylvania Avenue last Saturday that clearly hasn’t changed. Partly responsible is the ongoing racial divide in our city. But there is also an age divide between those who knew Marion Barry before he uttered the famous line “the bitch set me up” when he was arrested for doing drugs and those who only learned about him later. Defying all odds he was once again elected mayor after he got out of jail. But many feel after that election he only added to the downhill slide the District’s finances were undergoing under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
Barry was first elected mayor in 1978. Glenn Baker, producer of a documentary for WETA on D.C. in the 1980s, said of Barry, “Whites helped elect him; he embraced the gay community and was very wise about developing that constituency. He had gay members on his staff and in the city government, and as a result, D.C. became known as a gay-friendly city, and grew to be one of the most vibrant gay communities in the country.” That history made it so shocking to the LGBTQ community when he came back onto the Council after his last term as mayor and voted against marriage equality. He publicly supported, in a speech on Freedom Plaza, a bunch of homophobic ministers and never adequately explained himself.
But to the African-American community and many of us who knew Barry from the late ‘70s and ‘80s he was in some ways larger than life. We knew him as a civil rights icon and in many ways a great mayor. He was supportive of me as a member of the LGBT community during the years I was coming out. It turned out even though he voted against marriage equality it was his early efforts and success in amending the city’s Human Rights Act that ensured there could be no referendum on marriage equality in the District and the majority could never vote to curtail the rights of a minority.
I first met Barry just after moving to D.C. prior to the 1978 mayoral election. He asked for my vote but I wasn’t yet a D.C. voter. Like many who came to work for the Carter administration we all thought after a few years we would return home. Forty years later I am proud to say D.C. is my home. I am a policy wonk and my work on disability issues in the Carter administration led to my first appointment to a D.C. commission by Mayor Barry. As the second elected mayor of the city, after Walter Washington, Barry was responsible for turning the District of Columbia from a small sleepy Southern town into a real city. When he was elected in 1978, the city still had visible and invisible vestiges of the 1968 riots. Barry began the building of a vibrant downtown and was responsible for the Reeves Center, the municipal building that began the rebirth of the U Street corridor.
Barry was reelected in 1982 and 1986 without much competition. But the third term was marred by womanizing, drinking and drug use. Several of his top aides were convicted of corruption. The U.S. Attorney at the time tried every way to connect Barry to the corruption but couldn’t. Then, in what some believed to be an outrageous perversion of power, he set up the sting in which Barry was caught smoking crack cocaine. After all that, Barry was convicted of only a misdemeanor charge but received a six-month jail term.
Sharon Pratt Kelly had been elected mayor in 1990 with the support of countless editorials in the Washington Post. Vowing to “sweep the city clean” she instead oversaw the demise of the city’s finances. After getting out of jail, Barry ran for Council in 1992 and won the Ward 8 seat. Then to the surprise of many ran and won his fourth term as mayor in 1994 with nearly 56 percent of the vote. Barry was magnanimous to many like me who didn’t support him in that race and continued to work with us on a host of issues we cared about.
In 2004, Barry ran again in Ward 8 for Council and won. He held the seat until his death. Marion Barry’s statue on Pennsylvania Avenue is appropriate as he and the District of Columbia will forever be linked in history. Barry will be remembered for all the good things he did and for all those families who have a better life because of him.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.