WASHINGTON (AP) — A controversial and tireless advocate for the nation’s capital who created jobs for generations of black families, Marion Barry was the ultimate District of Columbia politician, though his arrest for drug use in the midst of a crack cocaine epidemic often overshadows his accomplishments.
The former four-term mayor will long be remembered for one night in 1990 when he was caught on video lighting a crack pipe in an FBI sting operation. In an instant, the then-mayor of the capital city was exposed as a drug user himself.
Barry, 78, died Sunday at the United Medical Center, after having been released from a hospital a day earlier. His spokeswoman, LaToya Foster, said he collapsed outside his home.
Barry died naturally of heart problems caused by high blood pressure, and his kidney disease was a contributing factor, the D.C. medical examiner said. Barry had a kidney transplant several years ago.
Barry first made a name for himself in the South as a leader in the civil rights movement and brought his fierce advocacy to D.C. to support the fight to free the city to manage its own city affairs, not Congress. That legacy was remembered Sunday at the White House upon news of Barry’s death.
“Marion was born a sharecropper’s son, came of age during the Civil Rights movement, and became a fixture in D.C. politics for decades,” President Barack Obama said. “During his decades in elected office in D.C., he put in place historic programs to lift working people out of poverty, expand opportunity and begin to make real the promise of home rule.”
Barry was born March 6, 1936, to Marion and Mattie Barry, in the Mississippi delta and was raised in Memphis, Tennessee, after the death of his father, a sharecropper.
Barry’s work in the civil rights movement brought him to Washington. He was elected to city council in 1974. Four years later, Barry defeated incumbent Mayor Walter Washington in the Democratic primary and went on to easily win the general election.
Barry’s early years in office were marked by improvement in many city services and a dramatic expansion of the government payroll, creating a thriving black middle class in the nation’s capital. He established a summer jobs program that gave many young people their first work experience and earned him political capital.
The city’s drug-fueled decline in the 1980s and 1990s mirrored Barry’s battles with his personal demons, leading to the infamous hotel room arrest on Jan. 19, 1990. A video of the arrest, which showed him smoking crack cocaine, was widely distributed to the media and made him infamous worldwide.
“Bitch set me up,” Barry famously cursed when FBI agents burst in, referring to the woman who helped the FBI set up the sting. Federal authorities had been investigating him for years for his alleged ties to drug suspects.
His arrest and subsequent conviction — a jury deadlocked on most counts, convicting him of a single count of drug possession — was a turning point for Barry.
A six-month term in federal prison was hardly the end of Barry’s political career. But it forever changed how it was perceived. To some, he was a pariah and an embarrassment.
A few months after his arrest, long-time civil rights advocate and educator Roger Wilkins, a past supporter, wrote in The Washington Post: “Marion Barry used the elders and lied to the young. He has manipulated thousands of others with his cynical use of charges of racism to defend his malodorous personal failures.”
But to many residents, particularly lower-income blacks, he was still a hero, someone unfairly persecuted for personal failures.
Barry returned to the D.C. Council in 1992, representing the poorest of the city’s eight wards. Two years later, he won his fourth and final term as mayor. His political triumph was short-lived.
In 1995, with the city flirting with bankruptcy from years of bloated, unaccountable government, much of it under Barry, Congress stripped him of much of his power and installed a financial control board. He decided against seeking a fifth term.
Barry couldn’t stay away from politics, though. In 2004, he returned to the D.C. Council, again representing Ward 8, where he remained beloved. He was re-elected in 2008 and 2012.
Barry suffered numerous health problems over the years. In addition to kidney failure, he survived prostate cancer. In early 2014, he spent several weeks in hospitals battling infections and related complications.
Current Mayor Vincent Gray ordered flags in the city lowered in Barry’s honor.
Barry was married four times and is survived by his wife, Cora, and one son, Marion Christopher Barry.