WASHINGTON -- Just over four years ago, Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. was the unwitting star of a grainy FBI videotape, in which he all but groveled for sex, smoked crack cocaine and was arrested before the eyes of the world.
Now, he says he is fit to be mayor again.
Mr. Barry, who served six months in prison on a misdemeanor drug charge, officially kicked off his candidacy yesterday for an unprecedented fourth term as mayor of this troubled city. Some analysts think he has at least an outside shot at winning.
Mr. Barry, 58, has planned three days of political events to launch his campaign. Yesterday, he made his announcement at an old-fashioned rally. Tonight, he is to partake in a "sanctification service," at which several ministers are to bestow their political blessing. Tomorrow, he is scheduled to be the toast of a $25-a-ticket fund raiser.
"The day they arrested me, I was blind, but now I can see," Mr. Barry told cheering supporters in his announcement speech. "I was lost, but now I'm found."
The 300 people who turned out for Mr. Barry's announcement were treated to glowing testimonials of the former mayor and a slick video package that at one point compared the prospect of a Barry victory with the ascension of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa. There also was a videotaped endorsement from poet Maya Angelou.
In his remarks, the former mayor promised to provide the leadership he said has been missing under current Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
"We cannot take another four years of that," he said.
Mr. Barry's decision to run for mayor just two years after his release from prison has angered many people who still ache from the humiliation of his very public downfall.
"I think it's the worst thing on God's earth. It's a disgrace that he would think about running," said Mary Amis, a senior citizen in Northeast Washington. "What are you going to say to the young people if you forgive him so quickly after what he's done?"
But others -- mainly the poor and working-class people who live in the long-neglected sections of this city east of the Anacostia River -- say Mr. Barry has earned another chance.
"I have seen politicians in higher office than him who did worse things," said William Cox, who said he would support Mr. Barry. "The things he did, he did to himself. He did not hurt anyone else."
For their part, Mr. Barry's supporters say their man is now a far different person from the sad figure who lusted after sex, liquor and drugs on the FBI videotape.
"We know that he has hurt and embarrassed many of us," reads a letter from the Rev. Robert Hamilton Jr., head of Mr. Barry's campaign exploratory committee, soliciting support for the erstwhile mayor. "But we also know that he has confessed to these mistakes. He has admitted that he had a spiritual power outage in his life."
Indeed, Mr. Barry has the appearance of a recharged man. He has returned to grass-roots politics, running a spirited, street-level campaign to win a seat on the City Council from the city's poorest ward in 1992. He says he is alcohol- and drug-free. He has remarried (for the third time) and rededicated himself to the church. He even has revamped his wardrobe, eschewing the pin-striped suits he favored as mayor for Afrocentric garb.
"Brother Barry has stepped forward and wrapped himself in the kente," said Joseph McCormick 2nd, an associate professor of political science at Howard University, with a laugh. But he said the new clothes are more than a joke: They've served as an effective symbol for Mr. Barry to convey to voters that he has rediscovered his roots.
Some think this idea of a new Marion Barry is going over well.
"Among many people, especially church-goers, the idea of redemption plays well," said Howard Croft, chairman of Urban Studies at the University of the District of Columbia. "For large numbers of working-class black people, Marion Barry made a mistake. But his flaw was something of a human flaw: women, alcohol, drugs. Somehow, people see that differently than somebody stealing something."
Others are less willing to forget the old Mr. Barry. "A lot of us who supported him when he first ran in 1978 and 1982 had great hopes. We feel let down that he had so many problems," said Peter Schott, chairman of the Democratic Committee in Ward 1, a racially mixed area of working-class and middle-class voters. "I guess I'm a little leery. My question is: Has he really dealt with his problems?"
Whatever the merits of his rebirth, Mr. Barry stands as a towering counterpoint to Mayor Kelly. She was swept into office in 1990 promising to streamline what she described as the district's bloated bureaucracy and provide moral leadership absent during many of Mr. Barry's 12 years as mayor.
But if Mrs. Kelly inherited a city beset by inefficiency, debt, murder and drugs, things may be worse now. That reality, coupled with her failure to connect with the city's poor and
working-class communities, has turned people away from the former power company executive.
Mrs. Kelly has plummeted in public opinion polls and is seen as vulnerable in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary.
In addition to Mr. Barry, the other major Democratic candidate in the race is longtime Councilman John Ray, who has run unsuccessfully for mayor three times and whose own announcement ceremony yesterday was largely overshadowed by that of Mr. Barry.
"I think Sharon Pratt Kelly has single-handedly revived the careers of Marion Barry and John Ray," Mr. Croft said.
Waiting in the wings is Councilman William P. Lightfoot, a popular independent, who has said he would run for mayor in the November general election if Mr. Ray is not the Democratic nominee.
But the wild card in this situation is Mr. Barry, a Mississippi native who since abandoning his doctoral studies in chemistry to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s has shown a knack for grass-roots political organizing.
"I think Barry has a chance, depending on several factors," Mr. Croft said. "One is whether he is going to be able to expand the vote in areas where people are sympathetic to him."
Already, there are signs that Mr. Barry's base is growing. Voter registration has increased sharply in the two wards of the city where Mr. Barry is perceived to be most popular.
While polls indicate that the city's white and black middle-class voters are poised to oppose Mr. Barry, the city's working class and poor may be ready to give him another chance.
"Barry, regardless of what he was or wasn't as mayor, he would stand up for people," said Julius Ware II, a member of the city's Advisory Neighborhood Commission in a working-class area of the city. "People are excited. They are excited that Marion is back."
Howard University's Mr. McCormick predicts that the Barry campaign will turn on whether people believe he is indeed reborn. If they do, he said, they just might give him another chance.
"The whole thing will hinge on whether or not significant numbers of voters can go into the privacy of the voting booth and forgive Marion Barry," he said.