Washington's restless, omnipresent mayor is irked by party leaders
Marion S. Barry, mayor of Washington, D.C., is a politician who believes in mobility. Here, he seems omnipresent. Throw a block party, open a disco, give an award: The mayor will likely be there, looking large and restless. In the middle of his second term, Mr. Barry is now applying his peripatetic style to national politics. At the 1984 Democratic convention he rented rooms in five San Francisco hotels and shuttled between ``A'' level parties; a key Jesse Jackson supporter, he later campaigned for presidential nominee Walter Mondale throughout the South.
The Barry administration has been touched by scandal. But the mayor remains a prominent black official -- a Democrat who is more than a little annoyed with party leaders.
``You have to constantly reassess your [political] position. Otherwise, people take you for granted,'' Barry says. ``That's what has happened too long. The Democrats have taken us for granted, and the Republicans have ignored us.''
Some of Barry's frustration stems from the February Democratic National Committee (DNC) elections, in which the party's Black Caucus proved less than powerful. Traditionally, the vice-chairman is black. This year, Black Caucus members voted to recommend Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Ind., for the post. In the past such an endorsement has been tantamount to election, but this year the full DNC voted in Roland Burris, Illinois state comptroller, who is also black.
``For some reason the labor people do not like Dick Hatcher,'' says Barry. And labor pulls the party strings, the D.C. mayor asserts, even though blacks are far more loyal.
Barry figures it like this: Only 40 percent of the union vote went for Walter Mondale. (Unions say the figure was closer to 60 percent.) On the other hand, 90 percent of blacks who voted cast their ballots for the Democratic standard bearer.
``Politicians ought to be able to count, and count where the voters are who may be their allies,'' grumbles Mayor Barry.
And while many prominent white Democrats distanced themselves from Mondale, says Barry, their black counterparts did not run and hide.
``I was in Mississippi campaigning for Mondale after the convention. I couldn't find one elected official who was white who even mentioned Mondale's name,'' says Barry. ``Black people were saying `I'm for Mondale. Even though I worked for Jackson, I'll work for Mondale.' ''
Barry is far from the only dissatisfied black Democrat. Jesse Jackson has said recently that blacks should ``reassess'' their relationship with the party; Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, has warned that blacks may turn away from the Democratic Party if their concerns do not receive enough attention.
The key question, of course, is where else blacks voters would turn. They could coalesce into an independent movement behind such leaders as Jackson, as some have suggested.
But would such a group have any real political influence, if there were not a chance it would occasionally swing to the Republican side of the ledger?
The GOP is trying hard to attract more black votes. Black GOP appointees have stepped up their rhetoric. President Reagan met with a group of more conservative black leaders last month, on the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
``The Republicans are trying to figure out how to reassess their position in relation to blacks,'' says Barry.
The mayor says it will not be easy for the Republicans to reap large numbers of black votes. But in certain races, he hints, it can be done. Seven years ago in Mississippi, he says, Republican Thad Cochran won his first Senate term in part because of significant black support.
``A lady who used to work in City Hall, before I became mayor, got a law degree and went down to Texas,'' says Barry. ``She's black, and she's in Dallas County, and she's a Republican. She says, `We're all going to be Republicans down here. The Republicans offer us something.' She's out recruiting Republicans in the black community.''
Barry continues that he really doesn't think many blacks will leave the Democratic Party. ``But it's one thing to leave and another to be less enthusiastic. And in order to win elections, you have to be enthusiastic.''
In this past election, of course, many blacks were quite enthusiastic -- about the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson.
Marion Barry was one of Jackson's first and strongest supporters. He helped arrange a steady flow of money and workers from the D.C. area to Jackson's Rainbow Coalition campaign, and in San Francisco he delivered the speech that placed Jackson in nomination.
Even though it was Mondale who walked away with the Democratic prize, Jackson's race was ``absolutely successful,'' Barry says.
``It was successful in registering hundreds of thousands of new voters,'' he says, ``successful in creating a new feeling. It's one thing to vote against someone, and it's another to vote for someone. Jesse Jackson gave us a chance to vote for someone.''
Jackson's race energized black candidates at lower levels, says Barry. As a result, one of its legacies will be more black political muscle in cities, he hints.
``We're going to get some more black mayors,'' says Barry. ``I suspect that Baltimore will have a black mayor next election.''
The Jackson campaign gave Barry a chance to raise his own national profile. But as he was appearing on prime-time TV and stumping the country, trouble was developing at home. One high Barry administration official was convicted of stealing $23,000 from the city. The mayor himself admitted having a ``personal relationship'' with Karen Johnson, a city employee convicted of selling cocaine.
And now there are reports that Ivanhoe Donaldson, former deputy mayor and a close associate of Barry, is being investigated by a federal grand jury for misuse of city funds.
Still, in a recent Washington Post poll, taken before Mr. Donaldson's troubles were reported, 65 percent of D.C. residents contacted said Barry was doing a good or excellent job.