Marion Barry, Art Johnston, and the Politics of Personality

24 Nov

Sunday brought the news that Marion Barry, the “mayor for life” of Washington, D.C., passed away at the age of 78. He was a living legend by the time I arrived in Washington, serving on the DC City Council long into his old age. Most people know him for his 1990 arrest for smoking crack. It was an especially awkward incident at the height of the inner city drug epidemic, one that epitomized DC’s dysfunctional government and broken culture, a sorry statement on life in the shadow of the Capitol.

Still, Barry was much more than the Rob Ford of his day. His popularity, from his first election to his final days, was genuine, as anyone who actually bothered to talk to people in Southeast DC would have learned. He was a real Civil Rights movement leader in his early days, and he did things to break down glass ceilings for African-Americans in DC. He had charisma, a winning charm that even allowed him to do well in snow-white Northwest in his first election, and his followers were rewarded handsomely.

I am always hesitant to walk on ground where racial questions loom so large, especially as I write on the night of the Ferguson verdict. But the style of politics Barry practiced transcends race, and has been around since the dawn of time. It is a style that substitutes charisma for institutions, and steamrolls any sense of genuine equity beneath a cynical patronage machine. In the end, the man became bigger than his project, and few things he does can outlive him. Perhaps it seemed the only method available in a city that had long before lost its compass; there in the heart of our imperial capital, where so many succumb to the desire to allow ends to justify means. It allowed him to rise above the rest, yes, but in the end, we are left with a distinctive character but little else. He was hardly alone even among DC politicians in harnessing the political machine; witness Jack Evans, of opulent Ward 2, who uses an absurd campaign war chest to bully any potential opposition into submission.

Barry had his moment, but did not know when to let go, and justified his political comeback in brutally honest terms: he needed power to keep himself sane. It had consumed him. By the end he was a dinosaur from a different era, still playing the same old cards as the DC he once led slipped away. The city’s African-American majority has disappeared behind the forces of gentrification, and will not be coming back anytime soon, barring a drastic change. The new DC is not necessarily a better place, but it is in need of a new champion, not someone whose politics revolves around himself.

***

An over-inflated sense of one’s own role is a common affliction in politics, and it is one I have diagnosed at times in Art Johnston, the embattled Duluth school board member. As the thousands of words spilled on this blog have shown, I’ve struggled to make sense of Johnston over the past year and a half. For the past seven years, he has fought a long and often very lonely battle against a school facilities plan and a number of other perceived failings of ISD 709.

The attorney hired by the District to investigate several accusations against Johnston has delivered her report. This past week, the Duluth News Tribune received the redacted version, which tells of Johnston’s alleged transgressions. The ultimate verdict is about what one might have expected. The supposedly racial comment, which always seemed the least plausible of the charges, was not substantiated. In a heat of rage, he did indeed loudly confront Superintendent Bill Gronseth and Board Chair Mike Miernicki at the Duluth East graduation in June, demanding to know why his partner, Jane Bushey, was being shuffled off to a different school. Having seen Johnston’s episodes when particularly incensed by Board proceedings, this is entirely plausible. It is out of line, and makes it easy to understand others’ discomfort in him. Is this bit of discomfort enough to supersede the will of the voters and axe a man from the School Board? That seems extreme.

We’re not done yet, though. The most interesting of the charges coming out of this is the alleged conflict of interest, in which Johnston sat in on many meetings on Bushey’s behalf. It was never entirely clear if he was there a school board member or a spouse, leading to some very understandable discomfort. Harry Welty, Johnston’s erstwhile Board ally, claims it would have been easy for the District to pitch Johnston from these meetings if it so desired; while true, this does not justify Johnston’s actions there.

We don’t have the full account, and may never actually have it. I’ll agree with Welty that the investigating attorney does indeed seem to have her narrative wrapped up awfully tightly. On the flip side, I’m not nearly as skeptical of her professionalism as Johnston’s defenders, whose willingness to believe the worst in people knows no bounds. (It’s been a while since I’ve been accused of having an overly rosy view of humanity.) The self-styled defender of truth in Duluth and his staunch allies remain incapable of getting out of the cave in which their truth exists.

Still, in the end, I’m left exactly where I started when these accusations first came out. I remain sympathetic to Johnston’s willingness to raise serious questions and (based on what I know) would not vote to remove him, but believe he himself has become too toxic to ever be an effective voice for his cause. This is bigger than him, and while the board’s majority may not act justly and should face the consequences at the ballot box, any defender of fiscal sanity or underrepresented voices should also be ready to move on. Johnston’s mediocre accusers may be the ones pulling the trigger, but he handed them the gun all too willingly. I am left only with a few questions for everyone involved, save Johnston, as my experience suggests he is unwilling to listen to somewhat divergent viewpoints, even when carefully qualified. (Nor do I really blame him for lashing out at this point in the saga; what else is he supposed to do?)

To the board majority: is this worth it? Let’s say you do go through and axe Johnston. What comes next? The fight for his cause will go on, you know. Don’t kid yourself; there will be some blowback, no matter what. He has a loyal following and a mouthpiece in a weekly local paper in Loren Martell. Do you really want the next election to be a referendum on this decision? You may find Johnston obnoxious and tiresome, and at times terribly wrong, but is a single voice in the wilderness really a serious threat to your agenda as a board member?

To Harry Welty: well, it’s pretty much up to you to try to get as many answers as you can during the hearing on December 2. Still, let’s say the Board does go through and remove Johnston. Is this really the cross you want to die on? Do you really want to escalate this war, with so many pressing issues at stake in the district? Obviously justice is a worthy ideal, but it also runs the risk of turning into a hopeless circus act. Think Mike Randolph 2.0, since I know you weren’t too fond of some of the perhaps unexpected consequences of that whole affair. Tread carefully.

***

I’m not naive. I know politics is personal, and that it will inevitably lead to results like this. It’s part of the game. But, as I sit here watching things go up in flames in Missouri, it puts things in perspective. For all the madness, for all my acceptance of messy reality…there are situations that just cry for someone to rise above it all. Neither of the men detailed in this post ever did so. I don’t expect it, but the Answer to Everything does allow for it, from time to time. Perchance to dream.

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One Response to “Marion Barry, Art Johnston, and the Politics of Personality”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Duluth News Roundup: March 2015 | A Patient Cycle - March 15, 2015

    […] maybe nothing much has changed. I saw this coming from a thousand miles away back when the School Board launched its shortsighted inquest into its most stubborn member, and […]

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