Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry Dies : The Two-Way The fiery Washington, D.C., politician who was famously re-elected after going to jail for crack cocaine possession, has died after months of battling a number of health issues. He was 78.

Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry Dies

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. The most controversial figure in Washington, D.C. politics has died. Marion Barry was the D.C. mayor who was famously re-elected after going to jail for possessing crack cocaine. Barry died early this morning at the age of 78.

The four-term mayor had been battling a range of health issues and was still serving on the D.C. City Council.

Reporter Allison Keyes looks back on the career of the man nicknamed Mayor for Life.


MARION BARRY: Its morning time.

CROWD: That's right.

BARRY: It's morning time.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: That's Marion Barry in 2004 announcing his run for a seat on the D.C. Council. He began his career as a fiery activist who battled for the city's disenfranchised, had three terms as mayor, then spiraled into decline because of his struggles with drugs and alcohol.

Later Barry won a fourth mayoral race right after getting out of prison. He told the crowd in 2004 the same thing that has always rallied his supporters.


BARRY: I'm going to stand up for you. And everybody knows that I have been given a gift by God, by God himself, to lead, to stand up, to fight, to empower people.

CLARENCE PAGE: As a journalist, you had to love Marion Barry for his candor.

KEYES: Clarence Page is Washington, D.C.-based columnist for the Chicago Tribune who remembers Barry as a civil rights activist.

PAGE: He was there with the freedom writers. He was a neighborhood organizer.

KEYES: Born in Mississippi in 1936, his jobs as a child included picking cotton. During the 1960s, he earned a Master's degree in chemistry at Fisk and was arrested several times for sit-ins.

Barry was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and moved to Washington in 1965 to launch a local chapter. His political career started with the school board, then the City Council. Barry was shot just above the heart in 1977 during the two-day Hanafi Muslim siege in which terrorists held hostages. The next year, he ran for mayor.

IVAN BRANDON: He ran all the chats. He did all the hard work to get to the point where he could run to mayor.

KEYES: Ivan Brandon is a media consultant who's known Barry since 1967. He says Barry's supports were diverse during his first mayoral campaign.

BRANDON: The white community in D.C., the folks who had been here a long time, the people who were the actual power brokers, Marion managed to appeal to those folks. They saw him as an agent of change.

KEYES: In his first two terms, Barry balanced the budget, focused on the District's low-income residents and created a popular summer youth jobs program. By his third term, there were rumors of drug and alcohol abuse. Again, the Tribune's Clarence Page.

PAGE: With him, it was more his own personal problems with drugs, with staying out late and his marriage falling apart; these sort of things that were such a stark contrast to his early years.

KEYES: In 1990, Barry was caught on a now infamous video tape by the FBI when an informant who was his former girlfriend insisted he smoked crack cocaine. During the arrest, a furious Barry kept muttering.


BARRY: ...(Bleep) setting me up like this.

KEYES: The U.S. attorney at the time, Jay Stephens, denied that Barry had been framed.


JAY STEPHENS: He entered on its own volition. He, himself put himself in that situation.

KEYES: But Page says the jurors that Barry's trial didn't buy the charges against him.

PAGE: The jury sympathized with him, seeing his arrest as a set up. And he was only convicted of a misdemeanor and then reelected immediately after he got out. And this has been kind of typical of his career.

KEYES: Barry's 1992 victory as awarded councilmen and his reelection as the District's mayor 1994 stunned the nation. He had already lost most of his white support, which deepened the city's racial divide. Congress stripped Barry of much of his control, and he declined to seek a fifth term in hopes that lawmakers would restore full home rule. Then in 2004, Barry ran again for the D.C. Council in Ward A and won.

BRANDON: The beauty of Marion is that he survived all of this. And he still deeply cares about the city, definitely deeply cares about the poor people and the middle class of the city.

KEYES: Barry's friend, Ivan Brandon, explains that the man one newspaper dubbed Mayor for Life also had a strong personal appeal.

BRANDON: He can grab your arm and grab your hand and talk to you, and you'll walk away thinking you've been chatting with your best friend.

KEYES: Marion Barry himself reflected on his political legacy back in 1998 when he was announcing that he would not seek a fifth term as mayor.


BARRY: Perhaps my most important service and probably the most remembered was my efforts to strengthen minority businesses and minority enterprises in the District of Columbia.


KEYES: The Washington Post once wrote that to understand the District of Columbia, one must understand Marion Barry. Marion Barry was 78 years old.

MARTIN: That report comes from Allison Keyes.

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