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Washington, D.C. politician's latest blunder could prove to be his last

Former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry attends a news conference on the steps of Washington's city hall Monday, July 6, 2009.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

He has survived a gunshot wound, prison time and a run-in with the tax collector to remain a powerful fixture of local politics in Washington, D.C.

Now, many in the nation's capital are wondering whether the irrepressible Marion Barry, the former Washington mayor famously videotaped smoking crack cocaine in 1990 only to return to power a few years later, has finally done himself in.

Celebrating his whopping win in Tuesday's Democratic primary in the District of Columbia, where has held an on-and-off iron grip on the Ward 8 council seat for almost four decades, Mr. Barry gave perhaps the most impolitic victory speech of his – or any – political career.

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The 76-year-old Mr. Barry – whose ward is the city's poorest, with about half its residents receiving food stamps – railed against the "dirty shops" of newcomers.

"We've got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops," he told supporters. "They ought to go. I'll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too."

The remarks stunned Mr. Barry's former comrades-in-arms in the civil rights movement, who fought with him for the establishment of "home rule" in the District of Columbia in 1974. Until then, the majority-black capital had no democratically-elected council.

Mr. Barry became D.C. mayor in 1979 but his career was temporarily suspended by a 1990 F.B.I. sting operation. He was caught smoking crack and spent six months in jail.

He returned to the mayoralty in 1995 and has sat on city council since 2004.

His primary victory on Tuesday would normally guarantee him re-election to his Ward 8 seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. But his comments on Tuesday have raised questions about whether he can survive his latest blunder.

Ward 8 is 94 per cent black and many of Mr. Barry's constituents featured on local newscasts seemed to agree with his criticism of Asian restaurant owners in the district, complaining that they refuse to hire blacks from the poverty-plagued neighbourhood.

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Mr. Barry initially apologized for his comments on Twitter, but did not back down from his basic gripe. Indeed, meeting with reporters in his office on Thursday he mused that Ethiopian-born business owners would be better for his ward because they are black.

He later put out a statement, saying: "It is a fact, however, that there are a number of the Asian owned, neighborhood stores and carry-outs in Ward 8 that only sell highly caloric food and, that unlike some other Asian businessman in Ward 8, don't reach-out to neighborhood groups, make financial contributions to the neighborhood or, help young people in the neighborhood improve their quality of life."

The incident highlights demographic shifts in Washington. Until as recently as a decade ago, three-quarters of the city's 600,000 residents were black. But gentrification and immigration have dramatically reconfigured the city's population.

Blacks now account for barely a majority of the city's residents. And with more and more middle-class African Americans moving to the Maryland suburbs, the income gap between blacks and other groups in the District has grown.

Mr. Barry was giving voice, albeit inelegantly, to these shifts.

It would be premature to count him out. He was shot in 1977 during a two-day siege of city hall by Muslim terrorists. He rebounded after his prison stint to become mayor again in 1995.

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In 2005, he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana as part of an Internal Revenue Service investigation into his failure to pay federal and local taxes. But that did not stop his re-election to his Ward 8 seat.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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