Marion Barry casts long shadow on DC race

Former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry is not vying for his old position on Tuesday's ballot in the nation's capital, but the polarizing Democrat is playing a role — whether he wants to or not — in the homestretch of this year's mayoral contest.

David Catania, a Republican-turned-independent, has launched a late ad campaign attacking his Democratic opponent, Muriel Bowser, by linking her directly to Barry's controversial image.

In fliers appearing in city mailboxes in recent days, Catania is hammering Bowser as just another in a long list of D.C. politicians enmeshed in a Democratic machine that's often been plagued by corruption charges and other legal troubles.

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No figure personifies those travails more so than Barry, who was arrested by the FBI in 1990 after being videotaped smoking crack cocaine in a D.C. hotel room. Barry was mayor at the time and served a six-month prison term as a result. 

Catania's ad features a picture of Barry in a "Muriel for Mayor" T-shirt, with a cartoon quote bubble replaying Barry's words at a campaign rally late last month.

"We're going to kick David Catania's a**," the ad says, quoting Barry.

"You can stop the machine," the ad continues. "Vote Catania Nov. 4."

The ad is also popping up on the Web, including a current run on The Hill's homepage.

The message is not subtle: Barry’s legal problems and brushes with scandal — both as mayor and more recently as a member of the City Council — have alienated many around the city. 

On the other hand, Barry remains a beloved figure in the eyes of many voters in D.C.’s black community. In an electoral history stretching back to 1971, he has lost only once at the polls, in 1990. The voters gave him a fourth term as mayor after his release from prison. On the City Council, he has represented Ward 8, which includes many of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, since 2005. 

The ad from Catania, a gay City Council member who's vying to become the first non-Democratic D.C. mayor in four decades — and the first white mayor in 138 years — is clearly designed to exacerbate the concerns of the former group, though it could be counter-productive in areas where a residual loyalty to Barry lingers.

The campaign also highlights the rapidly changing demographics in the nation's capital. Indeed, the 2010 Census revealed that the city's population had increased, relative to a decade earlier, for the first time in 50 years — an influx that's made up largely of younger white professionals who vote in high proportions. 

That trend, in 2011, caused Washington's black population to fall below the 50 percent mark for the first time since 1960, when D.C. became the first major city in the country to boast a majority-black population.

How much those dynamics will play to Catania's advantage on Tuesday remain to be seen. Bowser, also a D.C. Council member, still leads in the polls, but only by single digits — a remarkable statistic in a city where roughly three-quarters of registered voters are Democrats.