Marion Barry probably didn’t expect that, just one month after complaining to fellow D.C. council members at a budget hearing about the growing number of foreign-born nurses, he’d be holed up in a Las Vegas hospital room under the care of the same immigrants he’d just railed against. “It’s so bad that if you go to the hospital now, you find a number of immigrants who are nurses, particularly from the Philippines,” Barry said in April. “And no offense, but let’s grow our own teachers, let’s grow our own nurses—and so that we don’t have to be scrounging around in our community clinics and other kinds of places—having to hire people from somewhere else.”
Barry’s comments, instantly publicized, sparked such outrage that even Jose L. Cuisia Jr., the Ambassador to the Philippines, called on the former D.C. mayor to apologize. “Council member Barry’s penchant for blaming Asians, who only want to work for their American dream, fuels racism, discrimination and violence,” Cuisa wrote in a statement. “Such rhetoric does nothing but harm relations among community members, when the times call for developing relationships and finding solutions to common challenges.” It wasn’t until Barry found himself hospitalized for a blood clot this week that he was actually motivated to apologize. Being laid up couldn’t keep the 76-year-old politician from Twitter, where he gave his followers constant updates on the status of his blood clot. “I also thank outstanding medical staff, incl. kind professional Filipino staff. I stand corrected; I truly didn’t mean 2 hurt or offend,” he tweeted.
Barry may have learned the error of his ways this week, but his rant against Filipino nurses was the second time he’d made xenophobic comments about Asian immigrants in the last month. Right after winning the Democratic primary for his third consecutive term on the D.C. Council—his fifth total—Barry said, “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops. They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African-American businesspeople to take their places, too.”
That time, though, Barry didn’t give in to public outrage, insisting his comments weren’t meant as racist. “WE can do a better job,” he attempted to clarify on Twitter. “I do NOT disparage the Asian community, but the fact is there r some bizs that can do better!”
As a lifelong politician from southeast D.C., Barry has, in the past, found himself in the middle of tensions between his neighborhood’s historic black and new Asian communities. As mayor he was both responsible for limiting the number of benefits Asian businesses could qualify for under a minority contracting program, and for quelling protests by black residents against a local Chinese takeout restaurant. His outrageous comments, though, are more symptomatic of the outrageous person Barry is. And after many years in the public eye, having proven resilient against any and practically all political flubs, Barry has racked up a number of offensive statements, and several that are just downright crazy.
Despite having advocated for gay rights throughout his career, Barry used his constituency’s values as his reason for opposing D.C.’s gay-marriage law, becoming the sole member of the D.C. Council to vote against recognizing the legality of gay marriages performed outside the U.S. capital. “All hell is going to break lose,” he warned. “We may have a civil war. The black community is just adamant against this.” Later in the year, the former adulterer and drug user appeared at an anti-gay-marriage rally saying, “We have to say ‘no’ to same-sex marriage in D.C. ... I am a politician who is moral.”
Having justified that vote by pointing to the will of his constituents, Barry managed to offend many of them when he referred to his neighborhood as “the ghetto.” After being spotted driving around town in a car whose bumper was dragging on the ground and that appeared to have been keyed, apparently after it was struck in a hit and run, Barry explained at a press conference, "This is what happens when you live in the ghetto.”
Several Ward 8 residents expressed frustration with Barry’s comments, insisting, “This isn’t the ghetto.”
Barry offended immigrants, women, and non-blacks in general with his opposition to the appointment of Ximena Hartsock as full-time director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. Barry argued that Hartsock, a Hispanic woman, was a bad fit for the position because she didn’t “understand our culture,” explaining that the people that the parks department serves are “black and brown…that is who we are,” and insisting that women—using then–D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee as an example—don’t care about sports as much as men do. Also, he questioned why Hartsock, who was born in Chile and had obtained permanent residency, wasn’t a citizen. Hartsock, whose nomination for the permanent position was rejected, said after the hearings, “I was mistreated. Not only me, but my entire heritage … If Marion Barry was a white person and I was a black person, there would be riots in the streets right now.”
In 2006, after he was robbed at gunpoint by two men in his neighborhood who apparently knew who he was, Barry said his feelings were “kind of hurt,” but insisted that he wouldn’t press charges against the thieves. “I have no animosities. I don’t even want you prosecuted, really. I love you,” he told his (not-present) assailants at a press conference urging the men to give themselves up to the police. “There is a sort of unwritten code in Washington, among the underworld and the hustlers and these other guys, that I am their friend.”
Barry’s bulletproof political career has, naturally, become the subject of much fascination, and as such, lore. In the tradition of Yogi Berra—whose had so many screwball quotes attributed to him that he was compelled to explain, “I never said most of the things I said”—some of Barry’s most famous lines may in fact be apocryphal. Among the unverified quotes credited to him: “What right does Congress have to go around making laws just because it deems it necessary?” “The brave men who died in Vietnam, more than 100 percent of which were black, were the ultimate sacrifice.” “I promise you a car on every sidewalk.” And, “I am clearly more popular than Reagan. I am in my third term. Where’s Reagan? Gone after two!”
“There is a sort of unwritten code in Washington, among the underworld and the hustlers and these other guys, that I am their friend.”
In 2006, Barry perpetuated that perception when he was robbed at gunpoint by two young men who apparently knew who he was.
Thirteen years after the end of his fourth term as D.C. mayor, Barry is on a glide path to his third subsequent term on the D.C. Council. And, if the last two months are any indication, he’ll be shocking, outraging, and offending for at least another couple of years.