The Slatest

Marion Barry, Washington, D.C.’s “Mayor for Life,” Dies at Age 78

Former Mayor Marion Barry in 2007.

Photo by Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images

After decades as the brightest light in D.C. politics, former Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry died at the age of 78, the Barry family confirmed early Sunday morning. The Washington Post describes the four-term mayor, who was serving on the D.C. City Council at the time of his death, as “the most influential and savvy local politician of his generation … He dominated the city’s political landscape in the final quarter of the 20th century.” Barry, who mounted an unlikely and successful bid for a fourth term as mayor after doing time in federal prison, was dubbed “Mayor for Life” in the nation’s capital.

Barry was a sharecropper’s son who rose to power in the nation’s capital as a civil rights champion. Descriptions of Barry’s tenure in office, and relationship with the city he governed, however, depended on whom you asked. Here’s more from the Post:

He came to Washington as a champion of the downtrodden and the dispossessed and rose to the pinnacle of power and prestige. As mayor of the District, Mr. Barry became a national symbol of self-governance and home rule for urban blacks. His programs helped provide summer jobs for youths, home-buying assistance for the working-class and food for senior citizens. And he placed African Americans in thousands of middle- and upper-level management positions in the city government that in previous generations had been reserved for whites …

When Mr. Barry took office, so chaotic had the District’s finances been that the city didn’t even know how much money it had in the bank. He instituted budgetary and fiscal accounting procedures to figure that out. But by the end of his last term as mayor, Congress and the courts had stripped him of much of his authority, complaining of graft, corruption and gross mismanagement in his administration.

“Some governments are corrupt but are known for their competency in running the city,” Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.) told Mr. Barry at a 1989 hearing on the D.C. budget. “Others are incompetent but considered clean. [Washington’s] government is scandalously corrupt and hopelessly incompetent.”

In 1990, Mr. Barry was arrested on drug charges in a sting by the FBI and D.C. police after having been lured to a Washington hotel room by a woman with whom he’d previously had an amorous relationship. “Bitch set me up!” he muttered aloud as he was being placed under arrest. The comment was captured on FBI videotapes of the sting and broadcast on television, and it would endure as a signature phrase in Mr. Barry’s vocal legacy. His conviction months later would become front-page news around the world. He completed a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and served six months in a federal prison, then used the experience to his political advantage as a platform in his improbable comeback bid for elected office.