WASHINGTON -- Ending months of speculation about his political future after 16 years as mayor of the District of Columbia, Marion S. Barry Jr. ended the mystery yesterday by announcing what most people in the city had long suspected, that he would not seek another four-year term.
In a 30-minute speech full of spiritual flourishes and self congratulations, Barry told a room packed with friends and supporters that he could better serve the city he loves as an
outsider and, thus, would not enter this year's Democratic primary that polls indicated he could win.
He did not, however, reveal what he would do instead. Leaving the stage quickly and refusing to take questions, he shed no light on reports that he intends to take a position with the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, an advocacy group for 116 historically black colleges and universities.
"As long as I'm alive, I will live in Washington and fight for democracy," he said, striking the single political theme of his rousing speech, the loss of self-rule at the hands of a Republican-led Congress. "I believe I can fight for that subject better from the outside than the inside. As courageous and bold as I am, I am restricted in this job."
For almost 30 years, Barry, 62, has been the city's preeminent politician and lightning rod. He was a chemical research student who left the laboratory in the 1960s to ride the civil rights movement from the South into the nation's capital. He served on the city's first elected school board, then the City Council and, for 16 of the past 20 years, as mayor.
While he presided over boom times as well as busts, his political fate -- and to a large degree, his national profile -- was sealed one night in 1990, near the end of his third term in office, when he HTC was caught smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room with a woman who was not his wife.
After a brief trial, he was convicted on one count of drug possession and served six months in prison.
While he rose again less than four years later to win back his job, a political comeback that ranked as one of most remarkable in U.S. history, he appeared as damaged goods to many lawmakers -- especially Republicans -- and to many voters, including the small but influential white community of Washington that had supported him in previous campaigns. His return was forged almost exclusively by the support of blacks, who hailed him as a hero for overcoming problems of addiction to rise again.
"I've had some dark and difficult times," Barry said yesterday in his speech, tracing career highlights and lowlights, transforming what he called a "southern, sleepy kind of town into a bustling metropolis."
"I succumbed to the demons of alcohol," he added. "But God has been good to me, and I stand here 8 1/2 years later, clean and sober. That shows that people can overcome difficulties. When you're knocked down, you don't have to stay down."
That brought another wave of cheers from the audience. But while he might have defeated drugs and alcohol, regaining his political and psychological spirit, in the end, he could not overcome the Republicans who took control of Congress the same year he returned as mayor.
Back in office, Barry found a city in virtual ruin, with deficits and managerial problems that were born during his final years in office and grew uncontrollably during the single term of his successor, Sharon Pratt Kelly.
Barry plotted a corrective course. But in 1995, Congress beat him to it, creating the kind of financial oversight board that has steered New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland out of similar fiscal problems.
Over the next three years, the board, with congressional backing, shifted most of the mayor's responsibilities to the board, leaving the mayor to preside over little more than the Department of Recreation and the Office of Aging.
Pub Date: 5/22/98