Having lived in the Washington, D.C., area for a decade, I’ve found following the goings-on of former D.C. Mayor and current city council member Marion Barry both fascinating and confusing. A skilled politician of dubious achievements, Barry oversaw what many consider one of the worst city administrations in American history, yet he remainis highly popular among his constituents.
Appropriately, Matt Labash’s profile of Marion Barry in The Weekly Standard shows a somewhat more complex figure than the now all-too-familiar caricature of Barry as a corrupt demagogue.
Barry-bashing has been a near ubiquitous sport, and approaching him in order to find holes in his stories is about as sporting as taking candy from a quadriplegic preemie. Rather, I was curious to take his measure as a human being, which many forget he still is, despite the caricatures and self-parodies. For 73 years, over 40 of them in public life, Barry has kept rearing up like a plastic varmint in a Whac-a-Mole game. No matter how many times he’s batted about the head with a mallet, he relentlessly reappears.
Labash shows the good:
Barry threw the city open to development the likes of which D.C. hadn’t seen before. He was so proactive that old staffers tell how, early in his mayoral tenure, he used to have weekly brainstorming brown-bag lunches with architects and developers and would fast-track formerly glacial construction-approval processes with Post-it notes saying “Good idea, do it!” When he assumed office in 1979, whole quadrants of the city were ghost towns, and there were streets untouched since they were torched in the ’68 riots.
During Barry’s first term, 70 new buildings were either started or completed, and millions of new square feet of downtown office space were added. Even Republicans, after rolling through their mental rolodex of Chris Rock crack-smoking jokes or using Barry as a handy excuse to deny D.C. statehood, sometimes recall the ’80s-era Barry with fondness. Even if there were accusations of untoward cronyism, he was a mayor you could do business with. “The one thing Barry fundamentally understood is that nobody–not the city, not the private sector–profits off a weed-strewn lot. In that way, he was a supply-sider,” says one.
And the bad.
In other ways, though, he was a raging redistributionist. “Some call it socialistic, some call it democratic,” Barry tells me. “I don’t go by labels, they don’t mean s– to me.” Figuring if the Poles and Italians could feather nests in Chicago and the Irish could dominate Boston, Barry ruthlessly insisted that all of his departments meet minority set-aside contracting quotas, up to 30 percent. At the same time, his knack for creating patronage jobs would’ve left Huey Long gaping in awe. At one point in the late ’80s, the city didn’t even know how many employees it had on its own payroll (an independent commission estimated there was one city worker for every 13 residents). By the end of Barry’s third term, shortly before the Vista bust, the size of the municipal payroll had swelled to 52,000– that’s 14,000 more taxpayer-funded jobs than Los Angeles, a city five times the size of D.C.
Barry, always intent on buffing the scratches out of his legacy, tells me that he didn’t just foster a black middle class in D.C., but also in neighboring Prince George’s County. He’s more right than he’d like to be. For much of the newly created black wealth fled the city, as they had a much better chance of enjoying their spoils without getting shot in the suburbs.
Labash interviewed Barry and people who know him extensively. He succeeds in getting to know Barry on his own terms. A great read; whole thing here.