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D.C.'s 'Mayor For Life' Ends His Reign: Marion Barry Dies At 78

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Marion Barry is being remembered as one of those rare, big city mayors who defined a city and an era. Most were controversial in their way, as was Barry, who loomed large through a long life in the civil rights movement and electoral politics. He was 78 when he died over the weekend. Joining us on the line now is Kevin Merida, managing editor of The Washington Post, and a journalist who's followed Barry's career for years. Good morning.

KEVIN MERIDA: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, when people outside of D.C. hear Marion Barry's name, I really think they do remember or think of his drug conviction, the city's bankruptcy, mismanagement of various sorts, but Barry was elected mayor four times. Why?

MERIDA: Well, he was just an extraordinary politician, Renee. There was an ease about him, and he was able to connect with people from lots of parts of the city. People would say, you know, remember him as somebody who could be at a meeting with downtown bankers one minute and then in a diner the next minute, or a housing project, one of his friends said, holding court late-night, drinking Kool-Aid from a jar. And he really embodied the spirit of the city - the feistiness of the city - and people really gravitated to him.

MONTAGNE: Well, definitely when he was first elected back in 1978, he had - and beyond the black Washingtonians - he had the support of the city's white, upper-middle-class. That did fade, but his supporters do claim that he did a great deal for Washington, D.C.'s African-American community, in terms of education and jobs. How much of that is perception and how much is reality?

MERIDA: Well, it really is true. I mean, you know, people forget about the very beginnings of D.C. There was a big fight for home rule and for the city to be able to run its own government. And, you know, the summer jobs for youth program was huge...

MONTAGNE: Right.

MERIDA: ...And a lot of people have commented on that. Homebuying assistance for the working class, and it really opened up thousands of middle and upper-level management positions for African-Americans that have previously been almost exclusively for whites. So he really was important in that way.

MONTAGNE: We just have a few seconds here, but if you had a single line to say what his legacy was, what would that be?

MERIDA: You know, he really helped to develop the city. The city that people walk around now with the shops and restaurants and downtown arenas, really, Marion Barry helped to build that city.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

MERIDA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Kevin Merida is managing editor of The Washington Post, speaking to us about Marion Barry. He died at 78 over the weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.