Marion Barry, the scandal-plagued former mayor of Washington, D.C., who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine before making a surprising return to office, died early on Sunday aged 78, hospital officials said.
Before his fall from grace, Barry had been one of the nation’s most promising black politicians. Years later, many Washingtonians would consider him a scoundrel but he remained a hero to many others in impoverished parts of the city, even as his continuing battles with substance abuse went public.
Barry, who was hospitalized briefly last week, died at the United Medical Center in Washington, spokeswoman Natalie Williams said. The cause of death was not immediately available.
Barry served three terms from 1979 until 1991 when he went to prison for six months. He reclaimed the job in the 1995 election.
Barry’s third term was sullied by open talk of womanizing, drinking and drug use and he became a punchline for comedians and a target of disdain for the media. Several top aides were convicted of corruption. Barry responded to criticism with denials and claims that he was the victim of a racist media.
Years later in his autobiography, Barry said he was fueled in those days by a “mix of power, attraction, alcohol, sex and drugs.”
On Jan. 18, 1990, the married Barry met an ex-girlfriend, former model Rasheeda Moore, in Washington’s Vista Hotel. Hidden cameras captured him asking Moore about the possibility of having sex and then taking two hits on a crack pipe. Shortly after, FBI agents and police rushed in to arrest him.
During his six-week trial, which came as Washington was in the midst of a crack epidemic and a rash of drug-related homicides, Moore testified that she and Barry had used cocaine as many as 100 times before.
Barry’s lawyers pursued an entrapment defense and claimed victory when the jury convicted him on only a misdemeanor count of cocaine possession. Jurors acquitted him of another possession charge and were deadlocked on 12 other charges.
In sentencing Barry to six months in prison, the judge said the mayor had “given aid, comfort and encouragement to the drug culture at large and contributed to the anguish that illegal drugs have inflicted on this city in so many ways for so long.”
Prison could have meant the end of politics for the son of a sharecropper from Itta Bena, Mississippi. But the humiliation of six months in prison did not kill his political career.
Upon his release, he moved to Washington’s Ward 8, one of the city’s grittiest areas, and easily won a City Council seat in 1992. His campaign slogan was “I may not be perfect but I am perfect for Washington”.
Two years later Barry shocked the nation by reclaiming the mayor’s job with 56 percent of the vote, although this time very little of his support had come from white voters.
Barry did not seek re-election at the end of his four-year term and went into consulting work.
But he could not stay away politics and in 2004 easily won a seat on the City Council and was re-elected in 2008.
Barry was married four times and had one son. He suffered a string of health problems including diabetes and prostate cancer, and had a kidney transplant in 2009.
(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Alison Williams)