Two mayors, two crack scandals. One mayor was a civil rights activist and liberal champion who rose up from a humble background. The other? A rich, bloviating hero to conservatives. The two men have little in common apart from being mayors of major North American cities and being caught on video smoking crack cocaine. (That might be a lot in common.)
Today in Scandal! The Biggest Scandals in Politics, we examine the crack cases of Marion Barry and Rob Ford, and you get to vote on which is the more disgraceful affair. As this series goes on and “winners” are chosen by you, we’ll post a voting bracket to discover the greatest political scandal of all time.
Born in Mississippi in 1936, Marion Barry, the third of 10 children, grows up enduring hardship after hardship. Barry is four years old when his father dies and his mother moves the family to Memphis, Tennessee. His civil rights activism starts young: as a teenaged paperboy, he and some of his fellow African American paperboys win a contest for signing up new subscribers. The prize is a trip to New Orleans, but the paper won't pay for a separate bus to take the black paperboys to segregated New Orleans. Barry boycotts his paper route until the paper relents.
Barry’s involvement with the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s deepens while he's in college. He’s arrested multiple times at sit-ins and demonstrations and becomes chairman of the activist group Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He receives his M.S. in organic chemistry and does a year of doctoral studies in chemistry before switching over to law and then finally leaving school to work full time for the SNCC.
Barry moves to Washington D.C. in 1965 to head up the SNCC chapter there. He agitates for equal rights for the city’s large African American population. It’s not until 1971 that he first runs for office, winning a spot on the school board. In 1974 he is elected to city council. And, oh, in 1977 he’s shot in the heart by terrorists.
In March ‘77, three buildings in D.C. and 149 hostages are seized by 12 gunmen from the radical Hanafi sect, a violent splinter group of the Nation of Islam. The Washington equivalent to city hall, the District Building, is one of the buildings taken over and Marion Barry is hit in the chest by a ricocheting shotgun pellet. The authorities are able to remove him through a window and rush him to the hospital. The Hanafi Siege ends in a negotiated surrender, and though a reporter and security guard are killed, Barry makes a full recovery.In 1978 Marion Barry is elected mayor of Washington D.C.
A lauded first term gives way to mini-scandals involving alleged misappropriation of funds and the supposed sexual peccadilloes of the married mayor. None of these issues really disturb his time in office, but by his third term in 1986, Barry has a dark secret which will be his downfall: a burgeoning addiction to drugs and alcohol. Enough rumors are swirling around his cocaine use to draw the attention of law enforcement. When his friend and former lover, Karen K. Johnson, is arrested on drug charges, she’s also cited for contempt of court for refusing to testify whether she sold drugs to Barry.
It’s the arrest of Barry’s friend—and the occasional source of his Colombian marching powder—Charles Lewis that gives the feds what they need. Lewis strikes a plea bargain by confessing he bought crack cocaine for Marion Barry. This gives enough probable cause for the FBI to set up a sting operation. Former girlfriend Hazel Moore is recruited by the Feds, and in January 1990 she invites Barry to a hotel for sex and some smoking of freebase cocaine. The hotel room is rigged with hidden cameras and they capture footage of the mayor hitting the crack pipe.
Stills from the video are published as frontline news around the world, and Barry is charged with three felony counts of perjury, 10 counts of drug possession and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to possess cocaine. With the evidence plain to see, there’s no lie that can save him.
In his defense, Marion Barry argues he was entrapped in a racist conspiracy by the FBI. His argument is mostly successful with the jury; he’s convicted of only one count of possession and serves a six-month term in a federal penitentiary.
In 1994 he’s reelected as mayor of Washington D.C.
Running under the slogan "He May Not Be Perfect, But He's Perfect for D.C.," Barry destroys every political narrative ever constructed and is elected as a councilman in 1992. In 1994 he runs for mayor, winning with 56 percent of the vote. He serves his fourth term as mayor, then leaves politics for a few years to work as a consultant, returning to the D.C. council in 2002—where he still sits to this day.
Rob Ford is born in the Toronto suburban community of Etobicoke in 1969. His father, Doug Ford Sr., is the wealthy owner of a company that produces boxes and labels. Ford has early dreams of playing football professionally and attends special training camps run by the Washington Redskins and the University of Notre Dame. He never plays pro football but stays involved with the game as a coach. Ford attends college for a year studying political science but leaves before getting a degree to work for the family business.
In the ’90s his father is elected to the Ontario legislature on the Conservative Party ticket. Inspired, Ford looks to politics and is elected as a city councilor in 2000. Rob’s brother, Doug Ford Jr., is also a city councilor and one of his biggest supporters. On council, Rob Ford’s a fierce conservative voice in a city with a liberal reputation and he runs for mayor in 2010 as a populist “ordinary Joe” who will cut taxes and waste.
We would need an entire article to go through the controversies of his last 13 years in politics, but some highlights include:
- Removing a number of the new city bike lanes as well as making this statement: “Roads are built for buses, cars and trucks, not for people on bikes. And, you know, my heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”
- During a council debate on spending for HIV/AIDS prevention, Ford states, “Why are we catering to one group with a disease that's preventable? It's very preventable. If you're not doing needles and you're not gay, you won't get AIDS probably.”
- Ford is removed as a volunteer high school football coach after he gets in a fight with a student.
- Ford is briefly removed from office by the Ontario Supreme Court after being found guilty of violating the city’s Conflict of Interest act. He’s quickly reinstated on appeal.
He’s also accused of unsafe driving, sexism, racism and public intoxication…copious amounts of intoxication. From hockey games to a military gala, Ford is spotted acting erratically and some believe it’s due to the bottle.
In May of this year the website Gawker.com says it’s been approached by a source with a cell phone video showing Rob Ford smoking crack with a group of men. A Gawker writer watches the video but the owner of the footage wants $200,000 for it. The Toronto Star is also approached and two of their reporters also view the video. Gawker raises the money with a crowdfunding campaign called Crackstarter, but the seller disappears. Ford and his supporters deny the existence of the video and any suggestions that Rob Ford uses any illegal narcotics.
The story is huge but Ford denies everything and it seems to blow over with no lasting consequences to the Toronto mayor. That is, until the tape falls into the hands of the police after a series of arrests of suspected drug smugglers and sellers. The existence of the video is announced by the chief of police in October 2013 and the entire world flips out.
Rob Ford finally confesses at a press conference offering the greatest excuse in political history: “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine, but no, do I.... Am I an addict? No. Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors.”
It’s okay, folks, it was in a drunken stupor! So it doesn’t count!
Ford also explains that no one asked the right question before, so he was never technically untruthful about smoking crack.
Well, except for when he stated, prior to the video surfacing, that there was no video of him smoking crack cocaine. He also offered the excuse that it was all a left-wing media conspiracy to smear him. Ford’s deputy mayor speculated to reporters that if there were a video it may have been a fake, using special effects to make a CGI image of Ford puffing on a crack pipe.
His popularity goes up five points after his confession.
Rob Ford has repeatedly stated he will not resign and will run again in next year’s election. Meanwhile, every media outlet is obsessed with the case and Ford is a hit in late-night talk show monologues and sketch comedy shows.
The Toronto city council has just passed motions stripping Rob Ford of many of his mayoral powers, but he’s hired a lawyer and is fighting back.
The Rob Ford affair is still ongoing and we’re sure there will be many more twists, turns and Ford gaffes to come out of it, but does he already reign over Marion Barry as the most scandalous crack-smoking mayor? Or is the amazing epic of Barry’s rise and fall and rise the ultimate in political scandal? Vote in the poll below to determine which is the biggest political scandal. Ever.