Congressional lawmakers Sunday mourned the death of Marion Barry, Washington, D.C.,’s powerful, popular, and polarizing former four-term mayor whose political career survived a highly-publicized 1990 drug arrest after he was caught on videotape smoking crack cocaine.
Barry died early Sunday morning at the age of 78 at Washington’s United Medical Center. No cause of death was given, but Barry had suffered from a host of ailments including diabetes, prostate cancer, and kidney problems.
Barry rose from a sharecropper’s son to become a civil rights activist and the longest-serving elected mayor of the nation’s capital. Through his tenure and larger-than-life personality, Barry earned the nickname ‘Mayor for Life.’
He was elected mayor in 1978, 1982, 1986 and finally in 1994, despite being arrested and convicted of a drug offense after being caught smoking crack in a Washington hotel room four earlier. He also served 20 years on the district’s city council.
‘Today, the city of Washington, D.C., mourns the loss of ‘Mayor for Life’ Marion Barry,’ Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said in a statement. ‘A hero of the civil rights movement and a longtime leader in the District of Columbia, Barry’s personal demons could not obscure his deep and abiding love for the city and its people.’
Barry’s legacy is a complicated one. Many credited him with helping to grow African-American affluence and influence in Washington its surrounding area by making sure that they got their share of government jobs and contracts.
In the early days of Barry’s rule, Washington, D.C., became affectionately known to many in the African-American community as ‘Chocolate City.’
‘He transformed D.C. from a jurisdiction run by the federal government into a self-governing city and a mecca for black politicians, government administrators, businessmen and intellectuals,’ Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said in a statement Sunday. ‘He used his influence and power to lay a foundation for the thriving, metropolitan community people flock to today.'
But his detractors said he loaded the district government with closely aligned hacks and cronies. Residents often complained of poor services in the district – from trash pick-up, snow removal to the department of motor vehicles.
They grumbled that Barry too often practiced the politics of race, pitting the district’s largely African-American population against a Congress in which white, often southern committee chairman controlled the federal district’s purse strings.
And Washington, like many other major American cities in the 1980s, struggled to cope with the crack cocaine epidemic. On Jan. 18, 1990 Barry became the poster child of that struggle with his arrest.
The moment made national news. Barry was convicted of misdemeanor cocaine possession and was sentenced to six months in jail.
However, the embarrassing episode didn’t derail his political career. After serving his jail sentence, he won a city council seat. In 1994, Barry defeated incumbent Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly in the Democratic primary and went on to reclaim city hall for a fourth time.
‘Marion Barry was a dynamic leader, a wonderful friend, a strategic master who did all he could to serve the people of the District of Columbia,’ Lewis said. ‘He will be deeply missed.’