City on a Hill: Marion Barry’s ninth life?

February 18, 2010

It’s time to play “Name That D.C. Councilmember.” If you were told a current councilmember propositioned a colleague for sex 562 times, paid his girlfriend with Council money, and then tried to stop her from talking to investigators, who would you think it was?

If you guessed Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), you’d be right. A report released Tuesday alleges that Barry did all of the above and more. These might be the most serious allegations against Barry since he was caught smoking crack at the Vista Hotel in 1990, and it’s a good time to evaluate the role D.C.’s most famous politician still plays in Washington.

The report was compiled by attorney Robert S. Bennett at the behest of the Council after Barry was arrested for stalking an ex-girlfriend last summer. Further reporting prompted by the scandal revealed that Barry had given the woman, Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, a D.C. Council contract worth $15,000. According to Bennett, much of the work Watts-Brighthaupt produced was copied from a 1997 Department of Education report—and when Watts-Brighthaupt cashed her checks from the city, Barry demanded a portion of the money.

The report also alleges that Barry hit on another woman, non-profit project manager Sharon Wise, “probably 562 times.” Later, he fired her, allegedly using the money from her salary to hire his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor.

If the allegations are true, it’s incredible that Barry thought he could get away with this, despite his reputation for corruption. What’s more incredible, though, is how fast Barry has gone from pitiable to reprehensible. It’s not hard to feel bad for a mayor flop-sweating his way through an anti-drug speech, stumbling towards another fix. It’s much harder to sympathize with a 73-year-old man plying his much younger girlfriend with city money.

If you want to relive the days when Barry was a junkie on the mend and not a man out to grift the whole city, watch The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, a 2009 documentary about Barry’s 2004 run for his Ward 8 council seat. The film features an interview with Barry’s young godson, who extols his godfather’s virtues. Later, the filmmaker cuts to a close-up of the young man’s face when a reporter asks him about his godfather’s drug addiction. It’s clear that Barry had conned his godson like he conned the city.

Since 1990, Barry has been a running joke. It’s time D.C. stopped finding him funny. The D.C. Council should forward the charges to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as Bennett’s report recommends, and the voters of Ward 8 should look for new leadership.

Make a proposition to Will at


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