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As D.C. Bids Farewell, a Look Back at Marion Barry's Battles With Congress

Barry is interviewed about his book at an event in D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was likely the most surprising name in the program at Marion Barry’s funeral service on Dec. 6, considering the former District of Columbia mayor’s tumultuous relationship with Capitol Hill.  

“We will all remember him with affection, with respect, and with an amazing sense that here was an American who made a real difference in our national capital,” Gingrich said in a video tribute. Though Gingrich spoke kindly of Barry, the former mayor's relationship with Gingrich’s Republican caucus was contentious, reaching a boiling point in the late 1990s, and contributing to Barry’s decision not to run for a fifth term as mayor in 1998. “I’m really upset that this mean-spirited Republican Congress has broken too many of our spirits … has taken our self-respect from us, taken our dignity from us,” Barry said when he retired.  

But Barry’s statement in 1998 was just a snapshot of his battles with Congress that spanned nearly five decades.  

The tall, charismatic Barry came to D.C. in 1965 to head the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee office in Washington. At the time, D.C. was governed by a council appointed by the president and was also under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on the District of Columbia.  

“He found a majority-black city that was ruled not by its residents, but by a Congress in which its residents didn’t even have a voting voice,” Mayor Vincent Gray said on Saturday.  

Former Rep. John McMillan, D-S.C., was the chairman of the D.C. committee. Barry clashed with the chairman when he began the “Free D.C.” movement for District autonomy and said residents were “tired of living on the McMillan plantation.”  

In 1973, after Congress passed the Home Rule Act, Barry won a D.C. Council seat, later sparring with Congress over the budget process. Then, in 1978, Barry won his first election for mayor.  

“We weren’t the same old Congress-appointed administration, which would continue to ignore [African-Americans],” Barry wrote in his book, "Mayor for Life."  

Barry developed close relationships with some members of Congress, writing that his son Christopher was conceived while he and his wife Effi vacationed at Sen. Patrick J. Leahy’s home in Vermont. However, Barry’s professional relationship with Congress was not as friendly and took a turn for the worse after he was arrested for cocaine possession in 1990 and sentenced to six months in prison.  

In 1992, Barry made an improbable comeback by winning election to the D.C. Council and in 1994 was elected to a fourth term as mayor, though some on Capitol Hill were wary about his return.  

“I think even the Democrats at that point in his career were pretty skeptical," ex-Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., said in a phone interview. "After his arrest and so forth, I think his influence even as mayor was diminished.”  

“He was elected the same year that I became chairman” of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, Walsh noted. That year, Barry faced a huge deficit in the District's budget and went to Congress for more funds. “The Congress was not going to bail him out,” Walsh said.  

In his book, Barry argued the deficit was incurred from his predecessor, Sharon Pratt Kelly. Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who chaired the D.C. oversight subcommittee in 1994, agreed. “He didn’t cause this whole problem,” Davis said in a phone interview. “A lot of this happened under Sharon Pratt Kelly … it just spiraled out of control under her.”  

With D.C.’s finances in shambles, Congress implemented a financial control board to oversee the District, giving the board power to overrule Barry’s and the D.C. council’s decisions. Barry called the move a “rape of democracy." Though Barry’s fiery rhetoric in public condemned the control board, his personal charisma and intellect allowed for productive negotiations with members of Congress.  

“I found him very cooperative,” said Davis. “Out front you can be a demagogue but we all understood what we had to do. Behind the scenes we could get the job done.”  

Walsh, who controlled the purse strings for D.C., also said he had a cordial relationship with Barry. "I don’t think he really was interested in a relationship with me,” Walsh noted. “I was just sort of a nuisance.”  

In his book, Barry wrote that he should have developed a stronger relationship with Walsh and Davis to develop a more effective management system. “Nevertheless, I realized that the federal government could still execute a relief plan for the District that I could not,” Barry wrote.  

Davis said during that turbulent period, they had straightforward and candid conversations. Barry, Gingrich and Davis also met to discuss the District and Davis noted Gingrich “didn’t want to look like a white, Southern Republican who was trying to run the city.”  

But racial tension still saturated the conflict between Congress and the District, with the plantation metaphor once again being cast at lawmakers.  

“There wasn’t a wit of racism in what Congress did,” said Walsh. But he also said that Barry contributed to the racial tension. “I think he made sure it was always there. He would raise the issue, subtly or otherwise.”  

The tensions boiled over when Barry announced he would not run for a fifth term. He pointed to Capitol Hill and the “mean-spirited Republican Congress,” and said he could fight more effectively for D.C. autonomy outside of government.  

But Barry did not stay out of politics for long. In 2004, he won the Ward 8 Council seat, which he held until his death on Nov. 23.  

Barry’s return was met with mixed reactions on Capitol Hill. Though some lawmakers were skeptical, Barry would once again find allies, particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus. CBC Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, said Barry had a “great relationship” with the caucus.  

According to Davis, the CBC rallied behind Barry in his quest for District autonomy. "It’s a black-majority city so the black caucus was very protective of home rule,” Davis said.  

After his death, the CBC issued a statement emphasizing Barry’s work in the civil rights movement, and the sentiment that his civil rights legacy overshadowed his problems with drugs and alcohol permeated many other statements after his death.  

“I think people try to look at the good side of him ... and most of us never dwell on some of his problems and issues, demons he had to confront,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., told CQ Roll Call. “But he had a good soul.”  

But when other lawmakers look back on Barry’s time as mayor, a different legacy comes to mind. Walsh recalled one memory while riding in a bus from one of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural balls that, for him, epitomized the former mayor.  

Walsh said as an expansive motorcade drove by, “I thought, ‘Wow there goes the president.’ And then I clean the fog off the window and it was his honor, the mayor. ... That is Marion Barry to me: living large at the people’s expense.”  

Since Barry’s death, it is clear many Washingtonians instead revere Barry as a man who protected their best interests and engaged in a constant struggle with Congress for District autonomy.  

“Congress governs D.C. without consent of the governed," Rev. Jesse Jackson said in his eulogy. "But Marion never stopped exposing the contradictions."  

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