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Former Washington, DC, Mayor Marion Barry dies at 78

Washington Councilman and former Mayor Marion Barry attends the HBO documentary Screening of 'Nine Lives of Marion Barry' at the HBO Theater on August 6, 2009 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO)
Washington Councilman and former Mayor Marion Barry attends the HBO documentary Screening of 'Nine Lives of Marion Barry' at the HBO Theater on August 6, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO)
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Washington DC Councilmember Marion Barry, Jr., who also served four terms as mayor of the nation's capital, died at 78 early Sunday morning.

Barry was admitted to Washington's United Medical Center on at 12:30 am Sunday and died at 1:46 am, as reported by the Washington Post. No cause of death was given, but he had been ill earlier in the week — Barry had been admitted to and released from Howard University Hospital earlier this week for a urinary tract infection. As the Post also writes, he had suffered other ailments in recent years, including prostate cancer and kidney problems.

Barry was perhaps the best-known Washington politician of his time, having served in local DC politics for four decades. He started as a member of a citizen's board in 1970, then was elected as a school board member in 1971, became a councilmember in 1975, and then served as mayor from 1979 through 1991, then again from 1995 through 1999. In addition, he served a combined total of around 15 years on the city council — he had, most recently, been serving DC's 8th ward since 2005. His staying power in politics earned him the moniker "mayor for life" — a phrase that he used as the title for his recent autobiography.

Barry was known for championing civil rights and working to defend the district's poor and minority communities — even before he was elected to public office, he had started a jobs program aimed at the city's poor blacks, the New York Times reports. As mayor, he pushed for economic development and also worked to appoint more blacks to city government positions.

But alongside his accomplishments, Barry also committed some serious missteps. Perhaps most famously, in 1990 he was arrested for cocaine possession after he was videotaped smoking crack with a former girlfriend (at his arrest, he said, "Bitch set me up." — a remark that would be a punchline that would follow him for years).

Barry served six months in federal prison, but he came back even from that spectacular fall. After completing drug rehabilitation, he was elected again to city council in 1992 and then again reelected as mayor in 1994. Still, he never fully escaped scandal. In 2002 he was again arrested for possession of marijuana. In addition, the city council censured him in 2010 for giving a city contract to a former girlfriend and diverting funds to his own nonprofit groups, the Post reported, then again in 2013 for accepting cash from contractors.

Current DC mayor Vincent Gray remembered Barry Sunday morning as a politician beloved by many city residents.

"Marion was not just a colleague, but was also a friend with whom I shared many fond moments about the governing the city. He loved the District of Columbia, and so many Washingtonians loved him," he said in a statement, as reported by the Times.