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Former D.C. mayor, described as political ‘force,’ dies at 78

Media Credit: File Photo Zach Montellaro | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Former D.C. mayor Marion Barry watches a tennis match at the Smith Center on July 16. On Saturday, Barry died at the age of 78.

Flags were ordered to fly at half-mast across the city Sunday as D.C. residents reflected on the tumultuous career of political legend and revered former mayor Marion Barry.

Barry died early Sunday morning of hypertensive cardiovascular disease at age 78, and will be remembered, in part, as a two-time mayor who helped transform the District from a crime-riddled city to a thriving metropolitan area.

Over his 16 years as the city’s top leader, he created a surplus in the District’s budget, supervised intermittent real estate booms and improved the city’s sanitation infrastructure and government efficiency.

Since 2005, Barry was serving as a member of the D.C. Council representing Ward 8. He also represented the same ward in the 1990s.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who served as University president when Barry was a Council member and mayor, said Barry was, for most of his career, a “very positive force” for the city.

“While he wasn’t specifically helpful to GW, he helped in a collateral way,” Trachtenberg said. “As he enhanced quality of life in city, he made the University’s situation better.”

But unemployment and crime skyrocketed during Barry’s tenure as he laid off thousands of Metropolitan Police Department officers to foster surpluses. D.C. experienced its peak of 479 homicides in 1991, the Washington Post reported. The city soon became known as America’s “murder capital,” the New York Times reported.

In 1990, Barry was videotaped smoking crack cocaine, and later served six months in a federal prison for possession.

“What you have is man sort of like a character in a Greek tragedy. He had moments of greatness but also times when he fell,” Trachtenberg said. “Was he a perfect saint? No. But he did far more good than what his human flaws took away.”

Barry remained widely popular and, in 1994, he was again elected mayor.

“The things I like to express to people about Marion aren’t his personal issues,” said senior Markus Batchelor, who was recently elected to a spot on a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission. “Marion from day one until his last day cared about people in need, and that’s his legacy.”

Batchelor, who grew up in the historically troubled ward, remembered feeling inspired by Barry’s “unapologetic dedication” to “the last and the lost” of Southeast D.C.

“He was hyper-involved, and wasn’t afraid to stand up and be their spokesperson, their voice box,” Batchelor said. “Down to the end, he was always a fighter.”

The Ward 8 native said Barry’s reforms and policies crafted the D.C. that exists today, which he called the “icing on the cake” for students applying to GW.

Barry was a visible leader in the Civil Rights Movement, and delivered the keynote address for Jesse Jackson at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Even before the end of his mayoral career, he was dubbed “Mayor for Life” by D.C. residents across all eight wards, a nickname that became the title of his memoir.

“Through a storied, at times tumultuous life and career, he earned the love and respect of countless Washingtonians,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.

Mayor Vincent Gray, an alumnus, promised “official ceremonies worthy of a true statesman” for Barry.

A funeral procession will likely be held after the Thanksgiving weekend, which the Post reported may be held at the Verizon Center or the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

“In the years to come, historians will sort his life out in ways that are hard to do,” Trachtenberg said. “Like all of us, Marion Barry was a complex character. There was Marion the guy, and there was Marion the mayor. But he was still a capable man with his multiple responsibilities.”

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