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Marion Barry's Return Reveals D.C's Widening Racial Gulf

Blacks talk about second chances, whites joke about selling homes

THE day after Marion Barry captured the Democratic nomination for mayor of the District of Columbia, white homeowners around town could be heard joking about putting their houses on the market. Some, it seemed, were only half-joking.

For some black residents - who turned out in droves Tuesday to put the former mayor, only four years ago convicted on a drug charge, well on his way to recapturing his old job - the joke was on D.C.'s white minority.

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The reasoning went like this: The city's largely white power establishment desperately did not want Mr. Barry back and tried to help someone less controversial win the mayor's seat.

But something happened on the way to the polls. Many middle-class blacks voted for Barry, some partly out of an admitted desire to show whites that they could not stop him, and as payback for the way Barry was brought down in an FBI sting that was videotaped and broadcast all over the world.

Mark Plotkin, a political commentator on WAMU-FM, calls it ``an ingredient of mischief, even some admiration'' that led some middle-class blacks to side with Barry.

``Marion Barry represents a great urban story of a guy who got in trouble with the system and brought himself back,'' says Sam Smith, founder of the D.C. Statehood Party. ``A lot of people in this town know that from personal experience.''

A black Capitol Hill aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, says The Washington Post's endorsement of John Ray epitomized the elitist ``stop Marion Barry'' movement and tipped a crucial swing group toward the former mayor.

Mr. Plotkin surmises that these were votes that did not register in pre-primary opinion polls, which showed Barry and his strongest rival, City Councilman John Ray, at a virtual dead heat on the eve of the primary.

In fact, Barry won the Democratic nomination with 47 percent of the vote, to Mr. Ray's 37 percent. In the November election, he faces a Republican and an independent, but given D.C.'s 10-1 Democratic majority, Barry is the strong favorite.

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But this aide stresses that Barry has not caused the racial divide felt acutely in D.C. this week.

``The polarization has been there all along,'' says the aide. ``Marion Barry just brought it to the surface, just as the O.J. Simpson trial is bringing it to the surface.''

In fact, Barry's early days as mayor were marked by strong support among whites and a good rapport with white business leaders. That has all changed. But in a larger sense, the Marion Barry comeback story simply provides a racial overlay to what Mr. Smith calls ``one of the oldest stories in urban politics,'' following the tradition of ethnic pols who controlled some American cities for decades and would even return after jail terms to rule again.

In D.C., says Smith, the real battle is not black versus white, but between services and efficiency.

East of the Anacostia River, where D.C.'s poorest residents live, people are looking for government help in getting jobs, housing, and other services.

In Ward 3, the wealthiest, whitest part of town, residents don't need much in the way of government services. They're looking for reform to make government more efficient, and therefore less costly.

In the end, says Smith, voters go back to the politician who gives them services.

In Barry's case, the voters have also chosen someone who has been in politics here for decades and knows D.C. well. Top aides to previous Barry administrations say that before he fell into drug and alcohol abuse, he was a master at budget details and had a keen memory for promises to constituents. And even though he tries to come across to his lower-income supporters as one of them, he in fact is very well educated, nearly having earned a doctorate in chemistry.

The question now is whether he can regain that top form. Such political and managerial skill is particularly necessary, as the city heads toward insolvency. Given Congress's unique role as an overseer of D.C.'s budget - and provider of an annual federal payment to the district - the mayor's relations with Capitol Hill are vitally important.

The idea of Barry as mayor again has not filled Congress with great optimism for D.C.'s future. The day after his stunning primary victory, the silence from the Hill was deafening.

Beyond the issue of congressional relations, Barry opponents are already cringing at the flood of late-night jokes. More important is the worry that talented managers will not work for a mayor who left office in disgrace.

For Barry, the election watchword is redemption. His life had fallen apart through drugs, alcohol, and womanizing, and he had pulled himself back.

``It is our culture that if you make a mistake, you get one chance - but no more,'' says the black congressional aide. ``We will not allow him to screw up again.''

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