Washington says goodbye to Barry and his chaotic reign

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The Independent Online
WHILE MUCH of America has been smothered in election posters as the national congressional races hot up, Washington DC has been quiet. The reason is that Washington elects no voting members of Congress and for the past 10 days the politicians who teem the city streets when Congress is in session have been campaigning in their constituencies.

But the city is not an entirely election-free zone. Washingtonians today will be electing a new mayor. They may also be marking a turning point in the city's recent history.

Marion Barry, mayor for 16 of the past 20 years, is bowing out. He has been mayor for most of Washington's "self-rule", 24 years of brief euphoria and long disillusion when the city governed itself.

No one disputes the departure of Mayor Barry, 62, is a milestone. The only other point on which all Washingtoniansagree is that he was a divisive figure, singlehandedly sharpening the city's entrenched racial divide.

Loved by blacks, he was rejected by most whites who saw only a decaying city infrastructure, second-rate services and Third World health and education standards. White resentment grew in 1994, when the city's black majority reelected him mayor despite his conviction for crack-cocaine possession three years earlier.

Where whites saw a poor city manager, blacks saw a hero of the civil rights movement, a stirring orator and a charming, if fallible, man whose heart was in the right place. They forgave him much as they have forgiven Bill Clinton for his indiscretions.

By last year, however, there had been no improvement in the city's management, despite the appointment of a financial control board to sort out the city's finances, and many services were brought under direct federal control. The post of mayor was emasculated. By now, middle-class blacks were leaving for suburbs outside the District line as fast as whites had done two decades before.Mayor Barry was persuaded that he could not automatically expect the Democratic nomination this time, and in May he decided not to run again.

The combination of federal financial control, a new city manager - a feisty Texan by the name of Camille Barnett - and the splintering loyalty to Mayor Barry presented a unique opportunity to wrest Washington politics from the grip of race. No fewer than seven candidates put themselves forward for the Democratic nomination.

Hopes of a "colour-blind" mayoral election were enhanced when the "primary" contest in September produced a surprise victor. The expected black winner, Kevin Chavous, and the expected white runner-up, Jack Evans, came second and third respectively to Anthony Williams, 47, the city's financial controller who came to Washington only in 1993 and had never stood for political office in his life.

Mr Williams is black - but hard to categorise from his (deliberately?) grey campaign photographs. He took 50 per cent of votes in the primary. A professional accountant who brought the city its first budget surplus in living memory, he succeeded in drawing the support of blacks and whites in almost equal numbers.

Mr Williams's main opponent today is the Republican Carol Schwartz, 54, a co-opted member of the city council well-liked by Washington blacks even if most will not vote for her. She is a tireless campaigner who goes fearlessly into some of the more benighted parts of the city.

Given Washington's longstanding Democratic leanings and its black majority, Mr Williams is almost certain to be the next mayor. Though it has not been all plain sailing. His political inexperience, fraught relations with local Democratofficials and Ms Schwartz's popular touch make this race more open than it looks.

There is also a perceptible feeling in both main racial groups that - to quote the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping - it matters not whether a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice. This makes this race more open than it looks. The stakes are high, but so - if racial antagonism fades - are the opportunities.