Marion Barry dies at 78: ‘I may not be perfect, but I’m perfect for Washington’

Marion Barry, who died early Sunday at age 78, was for decades a controversial and compelling figure in the local politics of the nation's capital.
(Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images)

At Marion Barry’s turkey giveaway two years ago in southeast Washington, D.C., a holiday controversy came to the forefront. 

Who was paying for the 2,000-plus turkeys Barry was doling out to his constituents in Ward 8? 

“I’m not ever telling,” Barry told the Washington City Paper at the time, before then noting that only “liberal white folks” care about who pays for his turkey giveaway. 

It was typical Barry, who held his elected offices as city councilman and mayor with flair. He was bold, punchy, controversial. Barry died Sunday at United Medical Center due to undisclosed health issues. He was 78. 


Barry first served as city councilman of Ward 8 -- among the most poverty-stricken areas of Washington -- for a brief stint during the 1970s. While representing the area in 1977, he was shot inches from his heart when defectors from the Nation of Islam stormed several city buildings and held dozens of hostages for almost 48 hours. 

The near-death experience won him praise as a hero by some. 

So in 1978, after recovering from the shooting, Barry ran for mayor -- winning a close Democratic primary against the incumbent, Walter Washington, before sailing to victory in the general election. 

In his three terms, Barry dealt with mass unemployment, crime, budget woes and, most memorable because of what came next, a burgeoning crack-cocaine epidemic.


In 1990, near the end of what would be his third term as mayor, Barry was captured on video smoking crack. 

He was arrested by the FBI and served a brief stint in federal prison. Two years after his release, he was elected once more to the Ward 8 council seat.

He said at the time: “I may not be perfect, but I’m perfect for Washington." 

A self-proclaimed champion for the city’s black community, Barry was again elected mayor in 1994. 


After he left office in 1999, Barry was out of the spotlight for several years. But he wasn’t done yet. In 2004, he again ran for, and won, the Ward 8 City Council seat.

But controversy was never far away. In his final decade, Barry faced charges including failure to file tax returns and stalking an ex-girlfriend. In 2012, disparaging comments he made about Asian Americans moving into southeast D.C. caused another dust-up. 

Through his many rises and falls, Barry remained a constant figure in the local politics of the nation’s capital, proving his oft-repeated claim to be “perfect for Washington.”

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