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D.C.'s mayor runs on empty Governing: Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. occupies an office shorn of power, relying largely on populist support.


WASHINGTON -- Marion S. Barry Jr. waits for his grand introduction and strides to the podium for his weekly news briefing, staring at the crowd with the cool superiority of a man in charge. He opens his mouth to speak.

Just then, his hand accidentally bangs the microphone. The room fills with a metallic scream. "What happened?" he asks, fiddling with the stand, prompting another wave of feedback. He gives a weary look to the crowd of reporters.

"I can see the headline," he says. " 'Can't Even Operate the Microphone.' "

Barry might well worry that nothing in the government seems under his control, not even the equipment on his lectern. After the federal government's removal of most of his powers last year, and amid machinations in Congress to strip him of what little authority he had left, Barry knows his wishes are no longer this city's commands.

As the 61-year-old Barry considers another bid for mayor this year, it is unclear what he can achieve in the post. Opinion is split on whether he will actually run again; Barry vows to announce by next month. But if he does, there is a nagging question:

What exactly would he be mayor of?

Some see Barry, the city's unrivaled king in the 1980s, as the surviving voice of the district. But others view his role coldly, dubbing him the Mayor of Nothing.

Last summer, when control of nine major city agencies were taken from Barry and placed in the hands of a federally appointed control board, Barry was given bit-player status. With his $90,700 salary, he was left in control of parks, recreation, tourism and economic development.

Meanwhile, Barry's remaining responsibilities, such as helping the district choose a new police chief, are also in jeopardy. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a North Carolina Republican who regulates district affairs, is weighing whether to remove those last powers, citing frustration over the city's inability to hire a new police chief.

Yet Barry is not easily intimidated, and indeed no one is prepared to count him out.

"There's only one elected mayor in this town," Barry says one afternoon, his aides backing him up with enthusiastic nods. "There are want-to-be's. Some of them may not ever be."

Barry is not too intimidated by those would-be's. The way his friends see it, he defined the job and the job defined him. And in an odd way, the seizure of power frees him to do more of the things he already excelled at: Appearing in the city as a man of the people.

The one-time civil rights activist remains a skilled anti-establishment fighter. He rages against federal control of his city. He counts the days since the power shift and brandishes the tally regularly since the "rape of democracy" occurred, as he calls it.

Most of all, he deftly presents himself as a powerful person. He plays to the ceremony of the job -- whether he is getting sprinkled with confetti at a parade, traveling with his security detail or going to Israel to discuss democracy.

In an interview in his office -- engulfed in the scent of a burning aromatic candle -- the mayor who has served 16 of the past 20 years refuses to see the stripping of his powers as cataclysmic.

"I'm very popular," he says, resting in a high-backed leather chair in his pinstriped suit and Versace tie, recounting his reception at a recent town meeting. "As far as programs are concerned, I cannot think of anything that I have not been able to get done."

He flashes the pride that has made him such a powerful symbol here, the same confidence that enabled him to plot his political comeback from prison after his 1990 drug arrest.

"I don't get all hung up, you know, cursing the darkness and stick my head in the sand," he says with no hint of bitterness. "I refuse to fail. And I refuse to be a victim."

Some critics believe the mayor is more concerned with how it looks to lose power than what needs to be done to gain it back. Lately, maintenance of his image has become a big part of his agenda. For one thing, he has started holding regular news conferences.

But the problem is, he doesn't always have much of import to announce. At the weekly news briefings -- dubbed the "weakly press briefings" by some -- the audience isn't always listening.

How the mayor is perceived is as important as ever. He talks about his tennis game, suggesting his own vigor. Not long ago, his staff began distributing "ground rules" for interviews. Reporters are told not to consciously try to make the mayor look bad.

Sometimes he sounds tired of all the scrutiny. "Some of my friends say, 'Who needs this grief?' " he said. "They say, 'You've got a good legacy. Why don't you just get out now? This beating's got to stop.' "

Many believe the attacks on Barry's power are personal. With Barry as mayor, they argue, the position will always be weak.

"It's unlikely Congress would give the mayor's office more authority so long as [Barry] is in office," said John W. Hill Jr., the control board's executive director.

Nevertheless, Hill says the mayor has considerable influence, and knows how to exert it -- whether in furthering the control board's agenda or trying to block it.

"A lot of what isn't done is because Barry is in that position and he has influence," says Hill. "He is and always will be a force in this city, and he has a tremendous amount of knowledge about how this city works."

One reason: Barry created thousands of jobs in the 1980s, and put city residents in many of them. He boasts that with a single phone call he can get results. "I can get things done," he says. " I can't direct [city department heads], but that hasn't stopped me."

Barry is powerful not just for his connections, but for his ability to survive. To many, he is a symbol of pride as a black mayor in a majority-black city.

Says longtime friend Sam Jordan, who heads the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness: "There was Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, up to the Thurgood Marshalls and Dr. Martin Luther King. And then you come to Marion Barry. The mayor has the touch. Where he's going now is in the history books. Make no bones about it."

Yet Barry looks different to some associates who remember his glory days.

At the restaurant Georgia Brown's, where the district's political crowd dines together, Barry came in recently and sat alone. The sight surprised an old acquaintance, Arthur Schultz.

"It was strange seeing him alone," Schultz said. "You'd think he'd be in great demand."

During the meal, Schultz said one of Barry's bodyguards summoned him to the mayor's table. Schultz chatted with Barry, suggesting that he be the host of an event to promote African-American youths in the Boy Scouts. Barry, one of the country's first black Eagle Scouts, eagerly agreed.

Such events are an old standby. Barry's story continues to have a powerful effect here.

At a Black History Month luncheon at a senior home last month, Bessie Dorsey, 96, waited an hour for Barry to arrive.

She held onto yellowed newspaper articles from Barry's 1983 inauguration. Barry had employed her son, a fact the mayor did not forget.

Dorsey showed the mayor the clippings. He studied his image, a giant picture above the newspaper's fold. He looked at the date. Jan. 4, 1983. The heyday, when the city was his.

"Let me see these pictures," he said, leaning over the frail woman. "This is 1983, huh?"

The mayor looked awhile, squinting at the page. "You got all the good stuff," he said. Gently putting down the paper, he kissed Bessie Dorsey, and walked away.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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