Drugs-bust mayor heads for poll win

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - 'I've gotten in touch with God, so spiritually I'm doing a lot better,' says the former mayor of Washington, Marion Barry. He claims six months in prison for cocaine possession makes him 'uniquely qualified' to be chosen as mayor again in today's election, writes Patrick Cockburn.

In prosperous and mostly white north-west Washington, that Mr Barry is a serious candidate at all proves Abraham Lincoln's dictum, that you can fool some of the people all of the time. In the tatty shopping malls of Anacostia, where most people are poor and black, Mr Barry's tale of personal redemption is attractive.

Harolene Blair, an unemployed nurEse, says she will vote for him. 'I think he is a good leader. FTHER write erroror 12 years he gave us jobs and houses. He made a mistake but he knows it.' She believes, as do many of the 400,000 blacks who make up two-thirds of the city's population, that Mr Barry's arrest by the FBI in a hotel in 1990 was entrapment.

Even so, the rebirth of Marion Barry, often clothed these days in African dress, could only have taken place in a power vacuum in the city. Sharon Pratt Kelly, the mayor, is highly unpopular. There is little the mayor of an American inner city can do to stop the flight of tax-paying businesses and middle-class families to the suburbs. But she has been more visibly ineffectual than most.

A former public relations executive in an electric power company, she was elected in 1990. But she spent 100 days of her first year in office out of the city. She paid dollars 143m ( pounds 93m) to buy a luxurious building beside the police headquarters in Judiciary Square to house her office. Other bills Washingtonians would have preferred not to pay include several thousand dollars for a hair stylist who prepared her for television appearances, and a troop of bodyguards.

In south-east Washington, support for Mr Barry is easier to understand. Geraldine Nicholson, a black taxi driver, says he helped the poor. 'From the time he was in college he was part of the struggle,' she says. 'He tried to bring some economic development to the south- east; he gave black contractors an opportunity; he refurbished public housing; he even moved the taxi office into Anacostia so all the cab drivers have to come here.'

An attraction of Mr Barry to black voters is that his election - polls show him to be joint favourite with a dull but worthy member of the city council called John Ray - would annoy the federal government that jailed him. It would be an assertion of African-American identity.

It is his record in office that is Mr Barry's weakest point. In his early years he benefited from a property boom that brought jobs and tax money to the city. Washington still has 46,000 municipal workers, most hired by him. But his administration was corrupt. He housed homeless families, but often in motels run by his friends.

Few people who voted for Sharon Pratt Kelly will do so again. But her share of the vote will determine who wins. Mr Ray, a mild man who has stood for mayor three times, can expect the votes of whites and most middle-class blacks. He has the powerful endorsement of the Washington Post.

Mr Barry can only win if the opposition vote is evenly split and if there is a massive turn-out in poor districts. Personal redemption and opposition to white power make a powerful appeal, but they may not be enough.