Former 4-term Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry has died at the age of 78.

Barry is perhaps best known for his January 1990 arrest on drug charges in an FBI sting set up by a former girlfriend. The then-mayor was videotaped smoking crack cocaine in a Washington hotel and, when arrested, saying, “Bitch set me up!” The incident made international headlines, as did his conviction and six month stay in federal prison.

Barry would not run for reelection in 1990 but decided to mount an improbable come back, first in a 1992 city council seat election and then 1994’s mayoral race. Barry campaigned for the Ward 8 seat using the slogan “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect For D.C.,” and would win with more than two-thirds of the vote.

Barry would find himself the subject of national news once again when he somehow made a successful bid for a fourth term as mayor in 1994.

“Who can better help our city recover than someone who himself has gone through recovery?” he asked at the time.

But Marion Barry’s mayoral legacy is notably mixed. At the time of his death, he had been the city council member representing Washington’s Ward 8 for almost ten years. But his tenure as the city’s chief executive was decidedly tumultuous.

“Some governments are corrupt but are known for their competency in running the city,” Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) said to Barry in 1989, according to the Washington Post. “Others are incompetent but considered clean. [Washington’s government tis scandalously corrupt and hopelessly incompetent.”

Barry became mayor in 1978, facing daunting financial challenges. His inability to gain control of the situation led to Congress eventually asserting its own authority over the D.C. budget.

But despite many scandals, both financial and drug-related, over his decades in office, he also had been a figure in the civil rights movement and had a reputation as a charismatic old-school politician.

It was the tension between those two sides that led to critics calling Marion Barry Washington’s “Mayor for Life,” and that will surely color his legacy after his death.

[photo credit: tbridge]