This morning, DC Councilman Marion Barry was sentenced to three years’ probation for failing to file income tax. He is to serve no jail time and does not face any fines for his actions (or lack thereof).

Barry was given a deal that nobody of normal stature would get under similar circumstances. Face the basic facts:

  • Barry failed to file federal or local taxes from 1999 to 2004.
  • Barry also failed a court-ordered drug test related to previous crimes, testing positive for cocaine in late 2005.

For the average citizen, failing to pay taxes for more than a couple of years would result in an audit, fines and jail time – no questions asked. Most judges – and, in fact, most people of good sense – would’ve taken any thought of leniency in sentencing and thrown it out the window in sentencing the former mayor. Any thought of probation would’ve been nullified by the positive drug test.

But Barry walked with nothing more than a stern talking to – no wrist slap, even.

And therein lies the problem: Barry is a DC celebrity, a political legend who is such a charmer to his Ward 8 constituents that he’s able to screw them over every time. Many look back to the halcyon days of Barry’s first term as mayor, when he put the city perilously into debt to help get teenagers summer jobs. That’s all well and good, but he then ran the city into the ground, while at the same time developed addictions to alcohol and cocaine. It got so bad that the U.S. Congress took over control of the District from Barry.

Yet Barry managed to find friendly faces in Ward 8 when he was released from prison, and was soon elected to the city council, and soon again to the mayor’s seat. Barry was still using drugs, still had no idea of fiscal responsibility, and still managed to pull the wool over DC’s eyes.

(If anything, the only positive thing Barry did in his second turn as mayor was appoint Anthony Williams as Chief Financial Officer. Williams turned around the city’s financial fortunes, and has since served almost three terms as mayor.)

And now Barry is given nothing more than a slap on the wrist for breaking the law. Fisher says that Barry had the judge in his spell, and she basically rolled over for him, convinced that he’d turned a new corner, was sorry, yadda yadda. Yet Barry still feels that he’s serving his Ward 8 constituents.


This all links back a bit from today’s online chat with the Washington Post’s Mark Fisher:

Reston, Va.: “It’s because of people like him — well, mostly just him — that the rest of America does’t take D.C. stateship seriously. Look at the hopelessly corrupt clowns and losers we embrace! ”

Can we PLEASE put sentiments like this to rest? Representation in Congress IS NOT something you’re ‘granted’ for being ‘good’ and voting for the ‘right’ people. It’s something that’s supposed to be your birthright; something we fought a war for. No taxation without representation. I don’t see the people in Texas lamenting because they’ve voted for Tom DeLay, do you?

Marc Fisher: Exactly right. If we start giving people the vote according to how wisely they use it, we’re going to be back in monarchy mode pretty fast.

The person from Reston is on to something: until DC gets its political house in order, DC will never get the respect it needs to get representation in Congress. And Fisher points out that DC should have representation by default – that’s fair enough, and in an ideal world it would be so. There shouldn’t be a limitation of rights simply because voters can’t be seen as responsible – after all, folks like James Traficant, Tom DeLay and Arnold Schwarzenegger were elected by people in the United States, and nobody has taken away the voting rights of Ohio, Texas or California.

However, DC’s representation is at the will of the U.S. Congress, whose members will continue to treat DC as a petri dish for any pet programs (e.g. school vouchers, flat tax) until the voters who put these senators and representatives into office tell them otherwise. And so long as we get the circus parade of folks like Marion Barry, Vincent Orange, “Faith” and others who try and play big-boy, overly dramatic politics running the show (and grabbing all of the press), the world “outside the Beltway” will continue to see DC as a city that doesn’t have its act together and one that shouldn’t have any say in the course of U.S. government. Yes, it’s a sad situation, but it’s a PR battle that must be addressed and won.

If anything, though, the political circles of DC, and many of the voters of DC, have proven myopic and somewhat insane (using the definition of insanity as trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results). The same people rotate through the various offices of District govevrnment as if they were participating in a grand game of musical chairs. Our lone delegate to the House of Representatives has lost voting power while in office, and holds little power in the House’s body. She also makes an annual effort at trying to land full representation for DC, and each year she fails – in Congresses both Democrat-controlled and Republican-controlled. Our elected officials receive more publicity outside the beltway for their failures or quirks than for their positive achievements:

  • Barry’s arrest for smoking crack.
  • Barry’s positive drug test in late 2005.
  • Barry’s failure to pay taxes between 1999 and 2004.
  • The failure of DC’s Democratic delegation to know key bits of U.S. history during their “second Boston Tea Party” at the DNC convention in 2004 (covered by the Boston Globe and syndicated nationally).
  • The DC Council’s on-again, off-again stadium deal for the Nationals (including Linda Cropp’s changing opinion based on the political winds).

There are many more that I’m not repeating here, but you get the idea. To the world outside the Beltway, DC is a political joke. Outsiders don’t see that the lack of representation is a civil rights issue, or they simply don’t care because DC isn’t doing anything to change things. These observers, whether via ignorance or apathy, do not sound out about DC’s situation because, to them, there isn’t one. Sure, they may think of DC as the home of the federal government, or of the Smithsonian, or of the Lincoln Memorial. But they also think of DC as “the city with the crackhead mayor” or the “city with all the gang problems.”

And what is the current group of government officials in DC doing to change this? Nothing – or at least nothing new. Something needs to change. We need new leadership in the mayor’s office (and an election in this race is coming up this fall). We need things to change on the DC Council (at the very least, the Council needs to show Barry the door and let him deal with his personal demons outside of the political arena, which only seems to fuel them). We need a leadership that is more “go” and less “show.”

And most of all, we need to keep in mind that our future representation lies on those who live outside of DC, not on those who are already living here and know what we want and need.