Maybe.  But I wouldn’t count on it.  He’s beaten worse raps than this.

What?  You haven’t heard about his latest brush with the law?  Let me update you.

On July 4, Washington’s former mayor, now a 73-year-old member of the City Council, set out for a weekend on the ocean with his former girlfriend, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, 40.  They got as far as Annapolis, forty miles from Washington, where they argued, turned around and returned to Washington.  Barry dropped Watts-Brighthaupt at her house, where her ex-husband was dog-sitting.  Barry left in his car, while his ex and her ex set out in another car.  They encountered each other again soon afterward in a nearby park, where she flagged down a police car, and said that a man was bothering her, whereupon the police arrested Barry and charged him with stalking.

The charge was dismissed a few days later.  But in the meantime, we began to find out more—much more, more than anyone needs to know—about the Barry/Watts-Brighthaupt relationship.  The part we did need to know is that she was a minor aide in Barry’s re-election campaign, and that after he won, he arranged for her to get an employment contract out of his council-member’s staff budget.  Three months later Barry cancelled the contract; then he reinstated it.  And perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that the initiation, cancellation and reinstatement of the contract align fairly closely with the beginning, end and reconciliation of Barry and Watts-Brighthaupt’s relationship.

The City Council has appointed Robert Bennett, the consummate Washington insider lawyer—former clients: Bill Clinton, Paul Wolfowitz, John McCain, and Caspar Weinberger—to look into the case.  But the Watts-Brighthaupt contract appears not to violate DC’s nepotism law, since Barry and Watts-Brighthaupt aren’t related.  And Watts-Brighthaupt appears to have performed the duties specified in her contract.

So Barry may skate on this, the way he has skated on so much else.  Like his conviction for possession of crack cocaine,* for which he served six months in a federal prison—after which he was again elected mayor and, later, to the City Council.  Or his conviction for failure to pay DC and federal taxes:—three years probation.  Or the time he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana—drug counseling.  None of them forced his permanent exile from public office.

Why not?

It hasn’t been for lack of political opposition.  He had serious opposition in his first mayoral re-election race, Patricia Roberts Harris, a well-regarded attorney and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  Barry got 59 percent of the vote.  His crack conviction forced him out of office for a term.  But he ran again after his release, and was re-elected again, defeating the incumbent mayor and a well-known City Council member.  Just last year, a group of Ward 8 residents backed a younger candidate against Barry in the Democratic City Council primary—the only election that counts in overwhelmingly Democratic D.C.**  Barry got 78 percent of the vote.

It would be too much to say that Barry has been maintained in his constituents’ affections by having served their interests while in office.  Washington has a glittering downtown, and residential neighborhoods in which home values of over a million dollars are common.  But far southeast, the area Barry represents on the City Council and always his base of support when he was mayor, is still the city’s poorest sector.  Too many of its streets and highways are potholed and rutted.   Its schools are among the city’s worst, and its families the least able to afford to send their children to one of the city’s excellent private schools.

Barry did start a youth summer employment program that has been continued by his successors for more than twenty years.  And he made an important contribution to building the black middle class that runs the city today by establishing a policy of reserving city jobs for city residents.  Not all the jobs so distributed have resulted in the hiring and retention of highly qualified people, and city services have at times suffered.***  But to have allowed the city, after attaining home rule in the 1970s, to be governed by a corps of Virginians and Marylanders would have been a continuation of the colonial status whose legacy still haunts the city.

On the City Council today, Barry is the last survivor of the movement that won even limited home rule for D.C.  Of his colleagues on the City Council today, only he was of voting age when Washingtonians first got the right to vote for president.  Five of his colleagues were less than ten years old when D.C. got the right to elect its own mayor.

“Marion Barry today reminds me of a marriage that started 20 years ago,” one Washingtonian told the Washington Post.  “He was charming. He was wonderful. He brought you flowers every day. Many, many years pass, and he doesn’t bring you flowers anymore. . . . You keep holding on because you remember when.”

Barry’s continuing popularity, in fact, may be best attributed to his status as a post-colonial figure.  Since its founding more than 200 years ago, D.C. has been under the control of Congress, to which Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives the power “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever…”  We have a city council and mayor.  But their actions can and often are overruled by Congress, even in matters involving DC tax revenues and strictly local issues.  We have a delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.  But she cannot vote on the floor of the House.

Candidates for mayor and city council—the only offices we have;  there is no state senate or assembly to run for, no county board, no elected district attorney or attorney general—talk about economic development when they campaign in low-income southeast and northeast neighborhoods.  But once they’re in office, they all, including Barry when he was mayor, focus almost exclusively on downtown development: hotels, restaurants, luxury apartments and sports facilities.  Partly it’s because while those projects don’t serve low-income people, they do create jobs for some of them.  But it’s more, I believe, because people with money to invest see no future in investing in commercial development for people who don’t have the money to spend in restaurants and upscale groceries. §

My theory, unsupported by surveys or other data, is that the citizens of the eighth ward have heard the promises being made, and they have watched the great expectations go unrealized.  They see that the roads are not smoother than before, the schools are not better than they were before, and the jobs have not materialized.  They no longer think that any of these things will come to pass.

So how do they—those who vote, anyway; turnout in the eighth ward is almost always lower than in the rest of the city—choose among candidates?  Maybe they choose the candidate who at least talks the talk, even if they have given up hope that he will ever walk the walk.  Maybe what the political establishment sees as demagoguery eighth ward voters see as a willingness to stick a rhetorical thumb in the establishment’s eye.  And maybe what looks to much of the rest of the city like a string of disgraces, looks to those who support Barry like an assortment of minor charges—no felonies, and far more acquittals, dismissals, hung juries and failures to prosecute than convictions—that the political, journalistic and social establishments never tire of rehashing.

I want to be clear:  I see Marion Barry, at least after his first term as mayor, as having been pretty much an unmitigated disaster.  In my view he has leveraged his undeserved popularity to deprive his constituents of good and effective representation.  His ceaseless transgressions against good government, respectability and the law add fuel to the fire of those who want to deny D.C. the home rule and congressional representation that everybody else in the country takes for granted. §§

But political value is in the eye of the beholder.  Barry’s constituents won’t—and shouldn’t—reject him because he embarrasses or outrages me and my ilk.  The latest charges against him appear to be serious.  His behavior toward his erstwhile ladyfriend is appalling.  (Click on the link below if you want to read what we’re reading in the Post.)  But we may well not have seen the end of Marion Barry.  Not yet.

Canceled Trip Started Barry’s Bad Day (The Washington Post, July 7, 2009)

The Barry Archives: Voicemails reveal depths of councilmember’s obsession with girlfriend.  (Washington CityPaper, July 7, 2009)

For Barry, a Familiar Script Takes an Unfamiliar Twist  (The Washington Post, July 9, 2009)

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