Is it possible that Marion Barry is still the mayor of Washington? What other explanation can there be for the string of terrible mishaps that have struck the nation's capital this year, culminating in the Easter Monday shooting at the National Zoo that left an 11-year-old boy in critical condition and five other children wounded? Or for the debacle that allowed telecommunications companies to turn downtown Washington into a no-drive zone by digging axle-rattling fiber-optic-cable trenches on major streets while local authorities stood by twiddling their thumbs? Or the bathtub-size potholes that, until some of them were finally patched last week, made driving my daughter to school an exercise in automotive risk aversion?
These are the sorts of problems that were supposed to disappear, or at least not get any worse, after Washingtonians like me caved in to the city's conservative congressional overlords 18 months ago and propelled Barry into a second involuntary retirement. (His first involuntary retirement came in 1990, after he was videotaped smoking crack in a D.C. hotel.) In his place, we elected the city's former chief financial officer, Anthony Williams, a bow tie-wearing technocrat whose main qualification seemed to be that he was not Barry. Or was he?
The evidence so far is inconclusive. The man in city hall has at times displayed a brand of competence unlike any we saw from Barry. The city is on the verge of a third straight budget surplus. The new police chief, Charles Ramsey, is remaking our laughingstock of a police department into an impressive law-enforcement agency; it not only handled the recent protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund with aplomb but also arrested a teenage suspect in the zoo shooting only 24 hours after it happened. A burst of new charter schools is providing students with educational choices undreamed of a few years ago. "You get the sense that the city is really trying to meet its fundamental obligations," says Hugh Price, a native Washingtonian who heads the National Urban League.
True enough. But before you dismiss my suspicion that Barry has secretly taken possession of Williams' soul, look at all the evidence. There was the new mayor's Barry-like acceptance of a white official's resignation after he came under fire for using the word niggardly. There's the mess those telecommunications companies have made of our downtown streets with the city, in classic Barry mode, not even charging them a reasonable fee to repair the damage. And there's the unsettling fact that after a decade of declines in the homicide rate, we've had 86 killings in the first 116 days of this year. At that accelerated pace, we could slip back to the Barry-like days when D.C. was known as the murder capital of the nation. The word is that Barry is plotting a return to city hall, perhaps by running for an at-large position on the city council in the next election. Why does he need a comeback? I'm not sure he was ever gone.