A miracle comeback for Marion Barry?


WASHINGTON -- Marion S. Barry Jr. is clearly in his element as he trolls for votes in the lobby of Marbury Plaza, a well-tended high-rise apartment complex in this city's southeast section.

"Have you signed up for the Barry crusade? Are you a registered voter? Can I count on your support?" the buoyant mayoral candidate asks resident after resident.

Here, in the heart of Mr. Barry's political stronghold, the responses are unanimously positive.

"Glad to see you," says one graying woman, extending a hand of support to the candidate. "Everything will be fine."

The support evidently is widespread. Just two years after his release from prison, polls show that Mr. Barry is the front-runner in the race for his old job.

Meanwhile, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who catapulted into office 3 1/2 years ago largely on her promises to clean up "the mess" left by Mr. Barry's 12 years as mayor, finds herself lagging in third place, far behind Mr. Barry and Councilman John Ray.

The most recent poll, taken by the Washington Post last month, found Mr. Barry supported by 38 percent of respondents, Mr. Ray by 26 percent and Mrs. Kelly by 16 percent. In this heavily Democratic city, a victory in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary would be tantamount to winning the election.

The mayor's prospects were further dimmed last week when the U.S. Senate, convinced that the district was spiraling toward insolvency, ordered the city to reduce spending by $100 million. The federalintrusion increased the possibility that Mr. Barry could be elected mayor again.

Considering his spectacular fall, Mr. Barry's political resurrection widely regarded as miraculous. Four years ago, he was caught smoking crack in an FBI sting operation. The spectacle was captured on videotape and shown around the world.

But now Mr. Barry claims to be a new man. Newly remarried and claiming to be spiritually reborn, he has succeeded in transforming the circumstances of his drug-induced downfall into political asset.

"Traditionally, people who themselves have had a hard time would resonate with someone who has had a hard time and is coming back," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's delegate to Congress, who is neutral in the mayor's race.

While many people in Washington doubt that Mr. Barry is ready to be mayor again, others seem convinced that he has recovered.

"Barry would be good for the city," said Martha Feggins, a retiree who lives in a racially mixed neighborhood. "He did more for people than any of the rest of them. Personal problems? I don't think that should have anything to do with it. He's a good man."

The 58-year-old Mr. Barry, who was elected to a four-year term on the City Council shortly after his release from prison in 1992, has been employing his considerable reservoir of personal charisma and grass-roots organizational skill.

He and his green-and-white T-shirted campaign workers are out early at subway stations to greet voters. He has gone to shopping centers, even venturing into the city's mostly white, affluent upper northwest sections, where polls show that he has virtually no support.

Among black voters, polls show Mr. Barry with strong backing. The Post poll found that 53 percent of the city's black voters support Mr. Barry, while 16 percent back Mr. Ray and 12 percent Mrs. Kelly. Mr. Barry's support is most evident in his political base, the mostly black, working-class neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where green-and-white Barry for Mayor signs seem to be everywhere. Everyone seems to have fliers for his latest campaign events, whether a fund-raising "go-go" party or a family picnic.

The candidate has even taken his campaign to halfway houses and prisons, reaching out to register voters and establish his presence in every corner of the city.

"Here [in Washington], you can vote if you are on probation or parole," Mr. Barry said.

Sharp contrast

In this city of sharp racial and class divisions, Mr. Barry, with his back-slapping, populist style and history as a civil rights organizer, contrasts sharply with the stern Mrs. Kelly, who has been criticized as being unable to connect with her poor and working-class constituents. The other major candidate in the Democratic field, Mr. Ray, is often attacked as being too close to business interests.

That leaves Mr. Barry to cast himself as the man of the people as the Sept. 13 primary approaches. On the stump, Mr. Barry talks plainly about his "recovery" from drug and alcohol addiction and says that his humiliating fall from power taught him lessons that will be invaluable if he is again elected mayor.

"Some people have expressed genuine concern about my recovery," Mr. Barry said in a letter sent to potential voters in working- and middle-class neighborhoods in Northwest Washington. "I can tell you that I have had a remarkable recovery."

Even as Mr. Barry has worked to neutralize his past misconduct as a campaign issue, Mrs. Kelly's government seems to sink deeper into crisis. The budget cut ordered by the Senate followed a House vote to cut $150 million from the district's budget. The differences between the two actions are likely to be ironed out in a congressional conference committee this week.

The congressional cuts marked the most significant federal intrusion into district affairs since limited self-government began the city in 1974. The governmental arrangement, a source of ire for district residents, allows local voters to elect a mayor and City Council but subjects all city legislation, including budgets, to congressional scrutiny.

The pounding Mrs. Kelly's government is taking now is far different from the sweetheart treatment it received in her early years in office, when Congress, happy to be rid of Mr. Barry, gave the district government hundreds of millions of dollars to help balance its budget.

The current budget cuts are being noted by Mr. Barry as vindication of his oft-criticized stewardship of the city. "We never had this problem with Congress cutting our budget," Mr. Barry said in an interview. "Even my harshest critics would say I was a better manager than that."

A lawyer and former power company executive, the 50-year-old Mrs. Kelly says that she has made substantial progress since taking office. She points to improvements in the city's foster care program, its infant mortality rates and its once-inept ambulance service.

She credits Mr. Barry's strong showing in early polls to "some nostalgia for remembering when we had an economic boom in this city." She also says that the focus on Mr. Barry's personal conduct has obscured her contention that his poor management left the government in a shambles.

"I had to start over when I became mayor," she said. "There was absolutely no governmental infrastructure in place when I got into office. There were no reliable personnel records, no funds for fleet management."

Once voters "reflect" on that, she said, they will return to supporting her. But her problem is that for many district voters, government may look worse now than ever. Middle-class flight has accelerated. The housing department is rated the worst among the nation's big cities, and the district's murder rate is among the highest in the nation, far surpassing Baltimore's.

Her other troubles have been more symbolic but equally devastating: She used public money earlier this year to hire a makeup artist for her TV and public appearances. And in 1992, she moved her office into a new building that the city bought and outfitted her suite with $90,000 bulletproof-glass windows.

Ample fodder

That has left ample fodder for her opponents.

"You cannot run cities on blaming everybody," Mr. Barry said. "You have to take responsibility."

The depth of Mrs. Kelly's political fall was evident as she lead a band of supporters into a candidates' forum in racially mixed Adams Morgan, a community that supported her in the last election.

Upon spotting her, dozens of people in the auditorium began to boo. It didn't stop until the large number of supporters who entered with Mrs. Kelly caught on and drowned the boos with applause.

Mr. Barry, by contrast, is the picture of political adroitness as he schmoozes in the lobby of the Marbury apartments. He spots Iris Hughes making her way through the lobby of the building with her two young children.

"You a voter?" Mr. Barry inquires.

"Never voted in my life," she replies curtly.

After a few soft words from Mr. Barry, Ms. Hughes is on her way to filling out a voter registration form.

This delights the erstwhile mayor. Tossing his head back to take a swig from his bottle of fruit punch, he smiles and says: "Never voted in her life. But she's going to vote this trip. For Barry."

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