Photo by tbridge on Flickr.

Have Ward 8 voters grown tired of Marion Barry or is his reelection in 2012 a foregone conclusion? Will a challenger emerge that can mount an effective opposition campaign fueled by an alliance of newer residents and those long disgruntled with Barry’s leadership? A number of Ward 8 leaders agree that under Barry, the ward has languished and there has been little progress toward solving any of the serious problems like unemployment and vacant properties. Despite this, he remains very popular with many residents, as was clear at last weekend’s Ward 8 community summit. "I think people keep voting for him because they don’t know any better. Barry did something for them a long time ago and they won’t let go,” says ANC8E chairperson and treasurer Sandra “S.S.” Seegars. Seegars is the only challenger who has filed thus far. In 2008, Seegars received 498 votes against Barry, or 8.85% of all ballots cast in the Ward 8 Democratic primary. She proposes a moratorium on new housing construction in Ward 8 until all of the ward’s vacant properties are first taken care of. At the weekend’s Ward 8 Community Summit, many residents identified vacant properties as a key concern. Seegars argues that vacant properties are just one of the many issues Barry has failed to address. “People are really just punishing themselves voting for Barry, because the ward never does improve,” she said.

In the citywide primary next April, voters in Ward 8 will presumably have a choice. Some have openly questioned the wherewithal and electability of past challengers, and whether this trend will continue. If Barry is worried, he is not letting on. His inconsequential rhetoric might use different clichés, turns of phrase, and doubletalk, adroitly changing as the day-to-day or week-to-week wind blows, but the crux of his message has not deviated: You know me, I know you. We know each other, so let’s keep this party going. What do you say?

Ward 8 Community Summit reviews problems with the ward

At this weekend’s Ward 8 Community Summit, Barry repeatedly implored the audience to forget about the past while concurrently emphasizing his nearly four decades of public service to the city.

In his closing remarks Saturday, Barry shamelessly said, with the tacit reinforcement of Mayor Gray, “We can’t do anything about the past but learn from it, right? We can’t do anything about yesterday. We can’t do anything about half-a-hour ago. But we can do something about the future. And we’re going to have a brighter future in Ward 8 than we’ve ever had in recent years.” 

Smothered by high rates of unemployment, illiteracy, substance abuse and crime, Ward 8’s dependent population is unlikely to offer their vote to anyone other than Barry, admitted participants at table 8 of the summit.

"I don’t think people know what changes they’re really looking at,” said Ray Watson, a contractor with a small business in the ward. “If the police are going to monitor people on the corner drinking their beers then they won’t like that.” He later said, “People aren’t going to give away their money to move and live over here. The new people won’t be your everyday public assistance clientele.” 

Statistics shared at the summit indicated 40% of the ward’s population lives in some form of public housing.

“Most residents don’t want new development. They are comfortable with the gun shots, people sitting on their porch drinking liquor and being loud as they do, things of that nature,” said John, a rising sophomore at a charter school east of the river, an employee within the Executive Office of the Mayor for the Summer Youth Employment Program and a resident of Highland Addition off Atlantic Street SE. "People will do what they can to resist changes,” said John, who expressed frustration with a stigma that can pervasively label residents of public housing “low class.”

Potential challengers remain on the sidelines

One potential challenger is Jacque Patterson, president of the Ward 8 Democrats. Patterson said, “It’s time for Ward 8 to have new ideas and innovative public policies. To substitute Barry with someone who doesn’t have any new approach to addressing the concerns of Ward 8 residents shouldn’t be the goal.” 

Patterson ran against Barry in 2004 “because I was tired of the ward languishing undeveloped and underserved during the years that Ms. Sandy Allen served as our councilmember.” He recently ran in this past April’s at-large race but was disqualified after failing to collect the required signatures for inclusion on the ballot. 

Patterson argues Barry “has not articulated the reasons why he should receive my vote” and, unlike “council members in other parts of the city,” has not engaged with the Ward 8 Democrats.  With a council that “seems at this point to be self-serving,” Barry’s credibility has been strengthened by his longevity in city politics and “provides a sense of stability” while the public’s trust increasingly wanes, says Patterson.

"Residents want more than just the show or the party,” says Charles Wilson, an ANC, attorney and five-year resident of the ward. In 2008 the Washington Post endorsed Wilson’s novice campaign for the Ward 8 council seat. Wilson finished second in the Democratic primary with 622 votes, 11% of all that were cast.

“Ever since the 2008 campaign, every week somebody is asking me if I am going to run or they tell me I should run again,” says Wilson. “It’s nice people are mentioning my name, but I’m going do this on my time.” In the 2008 Democratic primary, Barry received more than three-quarters of the total ballots cast and claimed more than 90 percent of the total vote in the general election. Barry was first elected as Ward 8 councilmember in 1992 following his release from federal prison on drug charges. He would subsequently defeat incumbent Sharon Pratt (Dixon) Kelly in the Democratic primary en route to his fourth-term as “Mayor 4 Life” defeating Carol Schwartz (R) in 1994. At Saturday’s summit, Barry was referred to as mayor repeatedly by different speakers throughout the day. The septuagenarian thrives off these displays of fawning romanticism and admiration knowing Ward 8 is his perpetual meal ticket while asking for very little in return. It is detrimental to the District for Ward 8 to continue to be Barry’s fiefdom of “the least, the last, and the lost.” Evidenced by citizens’ recent reactions to Barry’s request for Ward 8 to absorb parts of Ward 6 in redistricting, there is a collective malaise outside Ward 8 about Barry. As long as his influence is confined to Ward 8 people seem content to disregard him. When he makes unwanted excursions into other parts of the city, voters promptly and viscerally reply in full. But the livelihood of the city and Ward 8 are not mutually exclusive. Barry is not just Ward 8’s problem; he’s a citywide problem requiring a united citywide solution. A challenger must develop a citywide organization that can outwork Barry at the retail level from door knocks, to steady surrogate presence at community meetings and well-formed and committed coalitions that can raise the money necessary to pay full-time staff, purchase collateral (t-shirts, yard signs, and bumper stickers) and fund an aggressive 72 hour get-out-the-vote effort. Unless this happens, after once being set-up himself Barry will continue to strut, knowing he has Ward 8 sewn up.