Marion Barry, Former Washington DC Mayor, Dies At 78 & Leaves A Remarkable Legacy

Considered the most famous local politician in recent Washington DC history, former Mayor Marion Barry has died. He was 78 years old. Barry served as the mayor of the nation's capital for four terms, and even after leaving office, remained an essential part of the city's operations. Barry was first elected to DC's city council in 2005, and was re-elected twice more — the City Council confirmed Barry's death in a statement early Sunday morning, shortly after his death at 1:46 am. Barry was remembered fondly by his colleagues, including Mayor Vincent Gray and Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, who both offered condolences to both Barry's family and the DC community at large.

Mayor Gray's statement "expressed deep sadness" for Barry's passing, and the Washington Post reports that the mayor also sent his thoughts and prayers to Barry's son, Christopher. Gray stated,

Marion was not just a colleague but also was a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about governing the city. He loved the District of Columbia and so many Washingtonians loved him.

Mayor-elect Brown echoed these sentiments, and remembered the former mayor as a man who "gave a voice to those who need it most, "and "lived his life in service to others." Like "all Washingtonians,” Brown noted, Barry had been “a part of my family for decades."

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Early career

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Marion Barry's humble beginnings were key in shaping the political agenda he advanced throughout his long career in politics. Born March 6, 1936 in Mississippi to a family of sharecroppers, Barry held a number of modest jobs as a young man. In addition to being a good student, Barry also maintained two newspaper routes and sold yet another paper on street corners. He worked as a waiter, at a grocery store, and as a soda bottle inspector. Known for his constant drive to excel, it was once noted, "While you are sleeping at night, Marion Barry is up planning his next move."

Barry first came to the mayor's office in 1978, rising through the ranks as a local DC activist and a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. After winning re-election in 1982 and 1986, he became known as the "Mayor For Life." His career was marked by his championship of the poor and disenfranchised. As the Post reports, "Mr. Barry became a national symbol of self-governance and home rule for urban blacks." The former mayor worked not only for racial equality, giving African Americans jobs in middle- and upper-level management that had never before been held by blacks in DC, but also appointed a number of women to high profile roles. Gladys Mack, who became chief of the D.C. budget in 1979 under Barry's first administration, told the Post, Barry "appointed close to a dozen women to positions that were not traditional for women."

The Mayor's Office

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During his first term in office, Barry was instrumental in cleaning up the city's notoriously corrupt budget, placing limits on DC's spending and cutting a "bloated payroll" by 10 percent. This led to the very first successful audit of the city's finances in DC history. He also aided in creating a construction boom, and ensured that many projects included African American contractors. He won his second election with 59 percent of the vote, having become a seasoned and convincing politician. His third campaign was even more successful — voters in DC were convinced of his infallibility and had seen the progress he'd made in the city.

1990 Crack Cocaine Scandal

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But in 1990, Barry came to public attention for a very different reason. While his personal life was widely known to be dramatic and full of twists and turns, the spotlight had previously been focused on his love life, not his more sinister habits. A 1990 FBI sting operation that resulted in a videotape of him smoking crack cocaine sent Barry into infamy, but rather than allowing this seemingly irrecoverable misstep permanently derail his career, Barry instead made a remarkable political comeback, the likes of which Washington has not seen in decades.

Following the very public indictment, Barry left for a seven-week rehabilitation program, telling his supporters,

I’m going to find a way to begin to heal my body, mind and soul. . . . I realize I’m going to have to walk this journey by myself. . . . I have come face to face with my deepest human frailties. I’ve had to look my human weaknesses straight in the eye. . .

The comeback

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While the road to his physical recovery may have been rather accelerated, Barry did not recover his political career nearly as quickly, suffering his first defeat for public office when he received only 20 percent of the vote for a city council seat. But by 1992, he was back in the swing of things, and won the council race in Ward 8, known to be the "poorest, most isolated ward in the city." And that was just the beginning. In 1994, Barry ran for and won the mayorship for the fourth time.

In 1999, late poet Maya Angelou noted, "Marion Barry changed America with his unmitigated gall to stand up in the ashes of where he had fallen and come back to win." The United Medical Center spoke similarly of Barry in a statement following his death, saying,

Mr. Barry has had a long history of social and political engagement in the District and across the nation. His advocacy on behalf of the poor, the less fortunate and others will certainly be missed...Mr. Barry taught us all so much about fighting for justice; fighting for the people; fighting for the poor - it now becomes our responsibility to keep his legacy alive.

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