The mayor is back. Yesterday, wearing his winning smile and an African olive-green suit and kente hat, Marion Barry won the Washington mayoral Democratic primary. Barring some mishap, he will be voted mayor for the fourth time in November. Barry's main rival, John Ray, a bland middle-class black city council member, trailed 10 points behind Barry's 47 per cent of the vote.

Everyone loves a repentant sinner, but nobody loves them like the Americans. Call it the politics of redemption. Confess and you can come back. But that's not the whole story. Last time around he was a black Democrat machine politician, this time he's a militant campaigner for black empowerment. In the white suburbs of Washington expect 'For Sale' signs.

The comeback is as stunning as the downfall that came late one night in January 1990 when the tall, dapper Barry, his speech slurred from drink, had arrived in a downtown hotel and romped on the bed with a girlfriend who offered him a puff of crack. The FBI's video camera had seen it all, and the second he accepted agents burst out of the bathroom, grabbed him and put him in handcuffs. Arrogant as ever, Barry asked for a 'quick drink' and complained about 'this goddam bitch settin' me up'.

The video confirmed what DC residents had known for years - that Barry was an embarrassment to America and a disaster for the city. Now he was suddenly an international scandal. The mayor was tried for cocaine possession, convicted and jailed for six months. The Vista Hotel quickly became a Washington tourist attraction along with the Watergate and Capitol Hill.

There will be many explanations as to how so many citizens of Washington could have forgiven him. Barry claimed he had reformed. He overcame drug dependency through prayer, psychoanalysis and visits to Alcoholics Anonymous, he told his sympathetic voters. Now, born again to City Hall, he says he is 'strengthened by a God-force within me' and with that force he intends to help young black youths to reclaim the streets of DC from drugs and gang killings.

'My rise from the political dead,' declared the 58-year-old Barry, 'has given people a sense of hope that here's Marion Barry, who was internationally embarrassing, abandoned by his friends, come back to be better than he was before he went down.'

The son of a Mississippi delta sharecropper, a father he says he never knew, Barry grew up in Memphis where he became a civil rights militant. At a local college his fraternity brothers nicknamed him 'Shep', after Dmitri Shepilov, editor of Pravda in the Khrushchev years. Barry adopted the surname as his middle name. In 1965, he moved north to Washington to organise inner-city youth and began making his first contacts with the city's business community and power structure. In 1978, he became mayor with 70 per cent of the vote.

When he took office, people were full of hope that a black man, with help from his civil rights comrades, could run the nation's mostly-black capital. Barry was only the city's second mayor after nearly a century of federal rule. He brought energy and toughness and concentrated on programmes for the city's deprived youth. He was popular enough to be easily re-elected, twice. But in the decade after he took over, nearly a dozen district officials, including Barry's deputy mayors, were convicted of crimes against the District of Columbia government. The year before the cocaine sting, seven out of 10 black residents of DC said corruption was the Barry administration's big problem.

So, too, were drugs and womanising. By day, he launched a campaign to keep drugs off the streets, while by night he mixed with drug pushers. He took to wearing track suits and goofing off from mayoral business in his chauffered limousine to visit girlfriends. After his jail term Barry was considered politically dead, but in a city that understands such yearnings, he is as relentless a politician as Richard Nixon ever was.

After his jail term, Barry moved to south-east Washington, the city's poorest section, and got himself elected as its councillor. He remarried in an elaborate wedding filled with African ritual. His fourth wife is Cora Masters, a political science professor at the University of the District of Columbia. When he was mayor in 1987, Barry fired her from a job as wrestling commissioner after she billed the city twice for dollars 2,000 of her travel expenses.

When he decided to run again for mayor, whites could not believe his cheek. Right up to polling day, the powerful white community could not imagine how he could return to City Hall. But Barry was blessed with a three-way race that diluted his opposition. And he used the basic working tool of black politicians. He registered as many blacks as he could from the south-east district, and his organisation drove them to the polls after work to give him a narrow victory.

He developed a base by encouraging his supporters with a rich mixture of reprimand for their failures as an ethnic group, and identification with his own tribulations, which he implied could, and should, be laid at the door of white power structures. Young blacks needed little encouragement to respond positively to the theme. They listen to black gangsta rappers whipping up rage against whites, and to black demagogues like Louis Farrakhan and his followers in the Nation of Islam speaking of Jewish conspiracies, and to Professor Leonard Jeffries of New York City University speaking about innate differences between 'ice people' (whites) and 'sun people' (blacks). In the midst of all that hatred, it doesn't take much to make a depressed community turn a convict into a hero, especially if he can make it seem he is a victim of white injustice - another Mike Tyson or O J Simpson.

Just like Jesse Jackson, Barry aimed his rhetoric at the moral issues that divide his own people: black-on-black violence, including the relentless killings of young blacks in the inner city and the disintegration of the ghetto family through the loss of old-fashioned religious values. He would stop his car in the street and break up a fist fight, and he would call on a crowd to put up their hands if they've ever been addicted to drugs, like himself. 'They've seen me slip but not fall,' he would say '. . . they've forgiven me. I'm here now to serve.'

To his critics, Barry's campaign was a fraud. He may be able to rouse a ghetto crowd, but he has already demonstrated he is not fit to run a city. He made promises to the city's poor of a better life, but he cannot keep those pledges with the city's budget in deficit and no prospect of new funds. To those critics, Barry is a cheap and potentially nasty version of Jesse Jackson, playing on fears and prejudices but, unlike Jackson and other black leaders, ignoring ways to overcome them; reinforcing the narrow stereotypes of race but deflecting debate on the wider and related problems of economic decline, cultural decay and political lethargy.

Barry dismisses the critics and the big issues with an aplomb that sounds familiar to anyone who has known the mayor in earlier times. 'I am convinced that we can move those mountains, the mountain of fear, the mountain of racial division, the mountains of despair and the destruction of our youth,' he declared in his victory speech on Tuesday night. 'Amazing grace, how sweet it sounds, to save a wretch like me.'

(Photographs omitted)

Comments