Why is Barry more popular than Fenty?

M.V. Jantzen

One of the larger questions I want to explore on DCentric is, “Why is Marion Barry still so popular?” I know district residents who can rattle off a list of reasons why; I know other residents who are utterly perplexed by the man’s enduring appeal. There are often striking differences between those two groups (here’s one: the former are usually from here or have lived here for quite a long time).

I think it’s an important issue to understand, because the answer to that question involves race, class– and a different way of understanding the district. Don’t believe me? Well, just yesterday some DCers declared that Ward 8 voters’ support for Barry is proof that they aren’t that intelligent. Look at these comments from DCist, under Aaron Morrissey’s “Courtland Milloy vs. The World“:

Marion Barry and his cronies allowed the District to collapse in on itself during his time in office, which saw a skyrocketing crime rate, inept leadership in practically every city agency, and absolutely abysmal public schools. And as a consequence for his putrid leadership, he continues to get elected to the DC Council by the thoughtful residents of Ward 8. [link]

I will actually own up to the fact that I really don’t care that much what happens to the people who keep sending Marion Barry to the city council. [link]

And to provide the full picture, here is the comment they were responding to:

I am a Vince Gray supporter but Fenty did accomplish some positive outcomes for the city.


What angers me is the reaction from Fenty supporters (white DC residents in particular). Bitter. Nasty. Bitter. They claim that the Gray voters do not what is best for the city. “Look at the results we are getting from school reform, lower crime, and higher property values,” scream the Fenty crowd. How could you vote against “progress”?

The implication here is that the black Gray supporters voted without reason or careful analysis: in other words, DC black voters are stupid and white voters are smarter. The Gray supporter voted out of “emotion” or to send a “message” along racial solidarity lines.

White voters know what is in the best interest for black voters but the ungrateful residents in Wards 7 and 8 had different ideas. As usually the case, white people always need to have the LAST word in the conversation…and oh, they are smarter than black people because white voters apply logic and reason in every decision.

You have Gray voters who lived in The District during their entire lifetime. Then you have white transplants who just arrived from some bumf#ck Midwestern state lecturing black voters about how they voted against their own interests. That kills me.

Courtland Milloy is just echoing the frustration of many DC residents who were ignored during this period of “progress”. [link]

We posted about the Milloy column here. Let’s circle back to Marion Barry, and why I opened this WordPress page in the first place– these words from Mike DeBonis at The Washington Post from his piece “Fenty’s Big Green Machine never got into gear during his time as mayor“:

There are plenty of residents, newcomers mostly, who look at Marion Barry, how he is adored in parts of the city to this day, and wonder why — in spite of all his failures — that could be. His charisma is part of it, but it’s also because he kept his ear to the ground and put boots on the ground.

For years, Barry aide Anita Bonds maintained those ties to the community groups, the business organizations, and, yes, the special interests that compose the body politic. “It’s really the kind of role that’s critical to government,” says Bonds, who went on to do community relations work for Mayor Anthony A. Williams and now chairs the city Democratic organization. “Elected officials are just that: They are elected by people that put their faith in you and believe in what you say.”

It’s not just fixing streetlights and filling potholes and making bulk trash pickups, Bonds says. It’s taking meetings. It’s showing up at funerals. It’s sending thank-you notes, distributing free tickets and invitations, and engaging in small-bore patronage that keeps a coalition intact, a base grounded.

And it’s that sort of thing that Fenty had no patience for.

And that’s why certain “thoughtful” voters lost patience with him.

  • http://www.borderstan.com Borderstan

    I agree with a lot of what you say. But the idea that newcomers have NO voice, no right to an opinion is wrong, too. That mindset has been prevalent in DC for quite some time. There is a lot of fear related to change. It's understandable. At the same time, though, fear is usually not a good thing — for longtime residents or newcomers. Fear does not usually lead to intelligent conversations or problem solving. Just my take — and I've been here 18 years (20 total).

  • acbjrpfx

    I wish there were more comments about why Barry is continuously supported. I've never figured that out. I think DC residents should be ashamed that they have re-elected him so many times. Could the appeal be that he's someone who continually operates above/in spite of the law and that's attractive to many of his voters? He's “sticking it to the man” and others find that laudible? I'm stymied.

  • Rlmccants

    To understand black DC's affinity with Marion Barry, you have to actually WANT to understand the full picture, and not just the mistakes. Sadly, too many people only want to dwell on the negative, and not take a balanced approach.

  • thos

    The much overvalued “small-bore patronage” mentioned above has sustained for decades ineffective and often corrupt local governments based on “identity politics,” in which a constituent's identity, emotionally connected to a perceived “relationship” with his leader, far outweighs in importance the leader's actual performance. Richard Daley, Sr. never missed a funeral, and he's only one in a very long line of such leaders. Government and business relationships that are not “arms length” soon become “hands on.”