January 16, 1989 12:00 PM

Mayor Marion Barry has weathered so many scandals in his 10 years as Mayor of Washington, D.C., that wags in the nation’s capital have taken to calling him Mayor for Life. But Barry’s characteristic cool melted under the television lights at a recent press conference as he struggled to explain why he met repeatedly last month at a D.C. Ramada Inn with a friend who is also a suspected drug dealer. By turns defiant and sorrowful, Barry conceded that his behavior had been embarrassing for the city. Still, he insisted, “I have been tried, convicted, sentenced…by some members of the media and the community.” He pledged, in the future, to be “extra, extra careful” in his very public personal life and vowed to “fight for my integrity.”

It may be an uphill battle. The “Ramada Inn incident,” as it quickly became known, is only the latest in a string of embarrassments—involving alleged drug use, womanizing, corruption and abuse of privilege—that have dogged Barry, 52, for years. The Mayor has never been indicted, and he has handily won reelection twice. Now, though, the onetime civil rights leader may have exhausted the people’s patience. In particular, D.C. residents are furious about Barry’s failure to stem an epidemic of crime. There were a record 372 homicides in Washington last year, most of them traceable to battles over drug turf. “I’m getting a lot of ‘last straw’ reactions from a broad cross-section of people,” says D.C. city council member Betty Ann Kane, who ran against Barry in 1982. “They’ve already been disillusioned, and now they feel this is just too much.”

Barry’s latest trouble began Dec. 22 at the Ramada Inn Central, near a drug-and-prostitution strip on 14th Street. Two vice-squad detectives were responding to a complaint from a hotel maid that a guest, former District of Columbia personnel department employee Charles Lewis, had offered her cocaine. The undercover detectives went to the hotel, apparently hoping to nab Lewis in a buy-and-bust operation.

As they headed toward Room 902, however, the detectives were inexplicably called back to their station house. As it turned out, Mayor Barry was at the hotel at the time visiting Lewis. Police later found traces of cocaine in the room, but could not say how long it had been there. Shortly thereafter, Lewis, who has denied any involvement with drugs and has cooperated with police, checked out. During the following weekend, Barry fueled suspicion that he was trying to influence the internal police investigation into who called the detectives back when he phoned the police department and urged that the case be closed quickly. Barry insists he did not try to meddle in the inquiry.

Lewis, son of a politically prominent family from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was fired last April from his job with the Virgin Islands Public Works Department. He is under investigation by both the Department of the Interior and St. Thomas police for allegedly misusing funds from a $260,000 government personnel study.

Allegations linking Barry to drugs go back as far as 1981, when he attended a Christmas party at a 14th Street strip joint where cocaine use was reported. In 1984 federal investigators inquired whether friends of the Mayor paid hush money to Karen K. Johnson, a convicted drug dealer and former D.C. employee, to keep her from discussing allegations that she had sold drugs to Barry. In any case, Johnson later told prosecutors she had sold Barry cocaine more than 20 times. Barry conceded he had a “personal relationship” with Johnson but denied any drug use. Johnson’s diaries detailing Barry’s performance in bed—she rated him a “C-plus or B-minus”—were published in an irreverent Washington business journal, Regardie’s.

Although still married to his third wife, Effi, Barry has been publicly linked to other women besides Johnson. Two years ago, part-time model Grace Shell complained that the Mayor had persistently phoned her and tried to visit her Capitol Hill apartment.

The son of a sharecropper from Itta Bena, Miss., Barry became chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee while a graduate student in chemistry at Fisk University. He went on to lead SNCC’s 1960 sit-in campaign to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville. In 1971 he won a seat on the D.C. school board, moving up to a city council seat in 1974. Four years later, he defeated D.C.’s first Mayor, Walter Washington, and has dominated the district’s government ever since.

Last week U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens announced a “full investigation” into “all aspects” of the Ramada Inn episode. So begins one more difficult period for Barry, who has already seen 11 top aides convicted on corruption charges. No matter what the legal outcome, the erosion of his reputation continues, raising the possibility that Mayor for Life may not be a title he can take to the bank.

—Montgomery Brower, and Ann Bradley and Tom Nugent in Washington, D.C.

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