WASHINGTON -- On the sidewalks of this city, it is common to see street yendors selling framed posters of Jesus in dreadlocks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King alongside African art souvenirs.
In the nation's capital, hope and redemption are still for sale in the black community that provided Marion Barry with his stunning comeback victory in the Democratic primary race for mayor. Given the nine-to-one edge enjoyed by Democrats over Republicans m voter registration, Barry is poised for a triumphant return to office in November.
For Batty, the defeat of incumbent Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and longtime Councilman John Ray marked more than a remarkable political resurrection after quitting office in disgrace in 1990. That was when federal cops videotaped him tooting on crack cocaine in a room at the Vista Hotel and sent him to prison.
Barry's victory also represents a defiant gesture of protest by black voters tired of seeing their city pushed around by Congress and a white power establishment comfortably insulated by wealth.
Barry won because his theme of personal redemption from a life of drugs and crime, his willingness to get back up after being knocked down, won the hearts of a community on the ropes. He offered hope and pride, a renewed sense of dignity in a sea of distress.
By now, the District of Columbia's shortcomings have become national legend. The public schools opened late after a federal judge insisted on massive repairs to take care of fire code violations. The city's housing agency is being mn by a federal court, the jails are overcrowded, and mail service in the city officially the responsibility of the Postal Service was rated the worst in the nation.
The failure to deliver basic services to citizens has not been for lack of money. The city operates a huge bureaucracy on a $3.4 billion budget, which does not include $750 million in annual federal grants and reimbursements for services. The schools spend $7,383 per pupil, tops among the 40 largest systems in the country.
Despite all this, the city has been in a long downward spiral spurred by crime and economic despair that has led to a steady exodus of middle-class families. The latest population estimate is 585,221, about the size of Boston and 19th in size compared with other cities.
While the population includes affluent gays and upper-income professionals, there are only 123,000 families in the city, or slightly less than half of the 250,000 households. Marriedcouple households with incomes over $25,000 total only 53,000.
Barry campaigned in the populist style of a revivalist minister, pledging more private-sector jobs and jobs for city youth. The theme of renewed prosperity harked back to the good old days of the 1980s when he was mayor.
But the 1980s were a boom time of rapid national growth, when real estate construction jobs were plentiful and swelling tax receipts enabled Barry to build up his political constituency by padding city payrolls. Now the city faces a deepening fiscal crisis, and the salad days are over.
Barry successfully tapped a reservoir of good will to get re-elected, but he will have a tough time converting the hopes for revival that he has stirred into reality.