Former District of Columbia mayor Marion Barry said Mayor Vincent Gray should be re-elected because of his experience and track record, and he brushed off concerns about a federal investigation of Gray's 2010 campaign, saying, "I know about how U.S. attorneys work.''
The 78-year-old Barry, who served six months in prison for a crack cocaine-possession conviction and is now a D.C. councilmember, endorsed Gray on Wednesday afternoon at a church in southeast Washington.
"He's a fighter, like myself,'' Barry said of the mayor.
Gray faces seven challengers in the April 1 Democratic primary, including four of Barry's colleagues on the council. His bid for re-election has been plagued by questions about how he got elected four years ago. Last week, federal prosecutors said for the first time that Gray knew about an illegal, $668,000 slush fund that aided his 2010 campaign and that he personally requested a large chunk of the money.
Five people associated with Gray's previous campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies. The mayor insists he did nothing wrong and has not been charged with a crime.
Barry said he trusts Gray and that he has faith in the mayor's pledge to remain in the race no matter what U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen does.
"I know that Vince Gray is not about breaking the law. I feel comfortable sitting beside him,'' Barry said. "I know about how U.S. attorneys work. ... I know their tactics.''
Barry's comments were a veiled reference to his 1990 arrest after he was videotaped smoking crack cocaine in an FBI sting operation. Following his prison term, he was elected to a fourth term as mayor in 1994.
Gray said he was honored to receive the endorsement, and he stood by recent comments by his attorney, Robert Bennett, who said the mayor would not pursue a plea bargain.
"I have nothing to bargain for,'' Gray said.
Barry walked slowly to the stage, supported by his son, 33-year-old Christopher Barry, the owner of a small construction business. He has made few public appearances in recent months as he has battled a variety of health problems, including a blood infection and complications from diabetes that have limited his mobility.
But the former mayor appeared energized by the opportunity to help Gray, and he spoke expansively about the mayor's accomplishments in stabilizing the city's finances, providing affordable housing and helping those receiving welfare benefits. He also praised Gray's snow-removal efforts and reminisced about his own shortcomings in that area. In 1987, then-Mayor Barry traveled to the Super Bowl ahead of a blizzard and got stuck there while city workers piled up snow on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Barry said Gray's challengers lack critical management experience. Although he didn't mention anyone by name, he singled out Councilmember Muriel Bowser in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, saying she was ill-equipped for the job. Polls have shown Bowser as the mayor's strongest challenger.
"Now is not the time to elect a mayor for on-the-job training,'' Barry said Wednesday.
Barry remains beloved by voters in his home ward, and the endorsement represents an attempt by Gray's campaign to energize his base in poor, primarily African-American neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where Gray defeated Adrian Fenty by huge margins in 2010. But there are questions about the breadth of his support this year.
"There's been some slippage,'' Barry said after the news conference. "I hope that in the next two weeks, we can stop the slippage.''