It's time for Marion Barry to go. He needs to resign from the D.C. City Council and retire from the spotlight. Doing so would be best for his own legacy, for the City Council, and for race relations in the District.
Believe me, I hate to see him go. I was born here in Washington, D.C., and when Marion Barry first was elected to the City Council, I was 11 years old. He was our second mayor ever, and as he's alternated between serving as mayor and council member over the last three decades, he's been a marvel to watch: He's the former chemist who turned into a civil rights leader, one of the most powerful figures in our city since home rule began. But there was also the drinking and the drugs, the strip clubs, the women, the corruption, the years of tax evasion, the list goes on. Washingtonians remember some of the quotes from his four terms as mayor: "I'm a night owl," "The b**** set me up!" "You [voters] need to get over it. " And we don't forget the many colorful characters in his drama: his corrupt friend Ivanhoe Donaldson, his crack buddy Rasheeda Moore, his long-suffering wife Effi Barry. He's provided endless material for late-night comedians for decades.
For years, the people of Ward 8 have returned him to office, inspired by his ability to stand up to The Man, to survive his struggles with addiction, to charm his way out of trouble over and over again. The cycle of sin and redemption really has been fascinating. A documentary a few years back called it "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry," and one read of his well-footnoted Wikipedia biography will spell it all out for you. Whether you like Marion Barry or not, there's one thing we can all agree on: what a life.
Earlier this week, in his victory speech after winning the Democratic primary for the third consecutive time in Ward 8, Councilman Barry said this before local TV cameras: "We've got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops ...They ought to go. I'll just say that right now, you know. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too." As the outcry from elected leaders and voters grew louder, Barry tweeted an apology to the Asian American community. But later in the week, he seemed to stand by his comments. Asked by the Washington Post why he singled out Asians in his remarks, he said, "Because that's reality. Who owns these little restaurants? Who owns them? You know, Asians. "
The past president of the Korean-American Grocers Association, Gary Cha, who owns the Yes! organic grocery chain and has a shop in nearby Ward 7, agrees that some of the shops in Ward 8 could stand a clean-up, but not because they're Asian. "He shouldn't have said 'Asians' ... just like saying things about African Americans—not all African Americans do certain things." I'm with Barry's fellow council member Yvette Alexander, who has the right idea: She doesn't patronize the shops that are dirty and have bullet-proof plexiglass to protect the cashier because she says they make the customers feel like criminals. Hitting business owners on the bottom line is much more effective than race-baiting and divisiveness.
Cha says because of Barry's advanced age—he's 76 this year—people should just let the whole thing go. I disagree: Because of his advanced age, we should let Marion Barry go. He needs to retire. Like so many older people eventually do, he's lost his filter. (What little filter he had, that is. ) We need a new tone and younger leadership in Washington.
As much as the voters of Washington, D.C. would benefit, I don't have much faith that Marion Barry will actually step aside. It's not in his DNA. If he manages to hang onto his office once again, at least we'll have one thing to look forward to: Marion Barry was chosen as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in September. It's a Republican dream come true—the Night Owl is heading to Charlotte! Who says conventions are boring?