Washington's once and future mayor, Marion Barry Jr., has blunt advice for the nervous nabobs of the Democratic Establishment who fear that a convicted drug user is the wrong leader for the capital: "Get over it."
Not likely. Barry's backers may see his Sept. 13 Democratic primary upset as a populist declaration of independence from the city's affluent white minority. But it has troubling portents for national Democrats: Barry's resurrection reinforces the view that Washington is the capital of corruption. Worse, the lack of party support for Barry may further inflame black Democrats disenchanted by Bill Clinton's drift to the center. And that certainly won't curb the falloff in black voter turnout that's hurting Democratic prospects in the fall elections.
Many voters outside the Beltway--already disgusted with capital goings-on--can't fathom how Barry, who served six months in prison on a cocaine conviction, now has a virtual lock on the general election. "It makes Washington look like it's totally out of touch with the rest of America," says William Kristol, chairman of the Project for the Republican Future.
"NEGATIVE IMAGE." Barry's comeback plays directly into the hands of chief House GOP campaign strategist Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who will become House Republican leader fext year. Gingrich is portraying Democrats as venal hacks. Now he can add Barry to his list of indicted Democrats: House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.) and two Congressional Black Caucus members, Walter R. Tucker III (Calif.) and Mel Reynolds (Ill.). "It all enhances the negative image of the Democratic Party," says a GOP leadership aide.
Democrats say it's silly to think that Barry-bashing could help elect a Republican in, say, Dubuque any more than Virginia's GOP Senate hopeful, Oliver L. North--whose Iran-Contra conviction was overturned on appeal--will benefit Democrats in other states. "Americans don't believe that the average Democrat is a convicted crack user," scoffs Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
But Barry gives Clinton headaches. When reporters asked Al Gore if he backs Barry, the Veep hemmed and hawed: "Not being a voter in the District of Columbia, I don't think it's up to me to question their decision." Yet the candidate who inhaled won't take the hint. Barry has asked Clinton to campaign with him. The White House demurred: "Scheduling conflicts."
That's not the only conflict Barry faces with the feds. D.C.'s congressional overseers--more concerned about the city's unbalanced budget than their own--have told the locals to pare $140 million in spending. Now, they fear a return of the man whose profligacy created the nation's most bloated city bureaucracy. "If he tries to fatten up the payroll, he's going to have a war on his hands," warns Representative James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), top Republican on the D.C. Appropriations panel. Congress would then chip away faster at the District's limited home-rule powers.
That would further antogonize the city's black majority, with spillover to Democrats' most loyal constituency nationwide. Angry African Americans believe black politicians are being singled out--most recently, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who is under attack for financial improprieties. With black turnout in this year's primaries the lowest since the civil-rights struggles of the '60s, stay-at-homes could mean Democratic defeats in several close races. "It could have mind-boggling consequences," frets a Democratic consultant.
With Republicans set to use any weapon they can, Barry is ammunition. Democrats can only hope voters get over it.