Brash, ebullient but immensely popular, Mayor Marion Barry has governed Washington, D.C., for more than 11 years with consummate flair—and controversy. He has been accused of marginal financial transactions, extramarital sex and, perhaps most damaging in a city with a runaway drug problem, of using drugs himself. Barry, 53, has repeatedly denied the drug allegations. But at about 8 p.m. last Thursday, just three days before he was scheduled to announce his candidacy for an unprecedented fourth term in November municipal elections, the mayor walked into a downtown hotel room that, unknown to him, had been rented by the FBI. Moments later, said U.S. attorney Jay Stephens, the federal prosecutor from Washington, undercover agents videotaped Barry buying crack cocaine from a female acquaintance, then smoking it. Arraigned the following day in Federal Court, Barry faces a misdemeanor charge of possessing cocaine, a charge that
carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The reports of Barry’s arrest sent shock waves through the capital and across the country. Not only had the FBI’s sting operation apparently snared one of the nation’s bestknown black politicians, but it may have cleared the way for an even better-known black Democrat, two-time presidential contender Jesse Jackson, to run in the Democratic mayoral primary in September. Jackson, 48, who has never held elective office, moved to Washington from Chicago last year and has considered running for mayor. But he has repeatedly said that he would not directly challenge Barry, an ally in the civil-rights movement. As Barry relinquished day-to-day control of the city to administrator Carol Thompson, many analysts pointed to Jackson as his logical successor. Said Julius Hobson, the city’s former chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill and now a senatorial aide: “This may well be the opening that many of
us have speculated Jesse was looking for.”
According to Stephens, the undercover operation was part of “an ongoing public corruption probe.” After agents secretly videotaped him buying and smoking cocaine in the seventh-floor room of the Vista International Hotel, Barry was arrested, dressed in a wig and sunglasses and spirited through a basement exit to a waiting police van that took him to FBI headquarters, investigators said. There, he was given blood and urine tests that, according to the affidavit presented in court, “showed evidence of cocaine ingestion.” The mayor did not enter a plea at the brief arraignment, and he was released until a hearing on Feb. 5 to set a trial date. His lawyer, Kenneth Mundy, said that he would eventually plead not guilty.
For Barry, the cocaine arrest was the latest crisis in his roller-coaster career. A sharecropper’s son from the tiny town of Itta Bena, Miss., he made his mark, often wearing colorful, African-style robes, in the civil-rights movement of the early 1960s as the first national chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which registered black voters in the South. His activism eventually led him to Washington, where he entered local politics and, in 1978, won his first term as mayor. During his three terms, he presided over extensive downtown development and became a hero to many blacks, who make up 70 per cent of the city’s population. But, largely as a result of narcotics, the city has become the U.S. per-capita murder capital—438 people
were killed there in 1989, up from 372 in 1988.
At the same time, Barry was acquiring a reputation as a nightclub frequenter and as a ladies’ man (he has been married to his second wife, Effi, for 12 years, and they have one son). And reports of suspicions of drug use began to surround him as well. In 1984, convicted cocaine dealer Karen Johnson, who said that she was the mayor’s mistress, added that she had sold him cocaine 20 to 30 times. But it was Charles Lewis, a former city employee, who provided the most damning evidence.
Authorities dropped perjury, conspiracy and cocaine-possession charges against Lewis (he was eventually sentenced to 15 months in jail) in exchange for his co-operation. And law enforcement officials got what they wanted:
Lewis testified under oath that he had regularly supplied Barry with cocaine for three years.
Barry’s arrest cast a long shadow over his personal political fortunes, and fuelled speculation about the future of Jackson. Early on the day of Barry’s arrest, Jackson, who finished second to Michael Dukakis in the Democratic presidential nomination,
said that he would face considerable pressure to run for mayor if Barry left the field. Many analysts have said that, although Jackson’s sights remain trained on the presidency, he needs to hold an elective post to strengthen his
political standing in his party and nationally.
But Jackson revels in the widespread attention that he receives as a major national political figure and he might be frustrated by the relative obscurity of managing Washington.
“He is happy to be thought interested in running and have his name on page 1 of The Washington Post,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think-tank. “But concern
about how the garbage is collected in a large metropolis is not his shtick.” Jackson may, in fact, decline to enter the mayoralty race, preferring instead to mount a third campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. With President George Bush’s approval ratings running at a sky-high 76 per cent after one year in office, the Republicans may be almost unbeatable. In turn, many of the potentially strong Democratic contenders, including New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, may not enter the 1992 race, opening the way for Jackson to grab
the nomination. He would be able to
start a campaign war chest with his earnings from a syndicated TV talk show to be aired later this year. That, said Thomas Mann, director of govemmental studies at Brookings, “offers the promise of both visibility and
remuneration and allows him to be the free spirit that he enjoys.” For Barry,
however, even if he runs for mayor again, the next few months promise only replays of the FBI’s telltale videotape.
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