Vincent Orange proved this week that good things can happen to politicians who refuse to go away.
Most people probably would have looked for another line of work after pulling in a dismal 2.9 percent of vote in the 2006 mayoral race. Not Orange; four years later, he challenged Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown in the Council Chairman’s race. Again Orange lost—by a whopping 17 points—despite the fact that the only news the race generated was about Brown’s personal debt problems.
The lopsided loss wasn’t enough to make Orange pack up and go home. After reversing his earlier position that he was not interested in returning to the council as a mere member (he’d spent eight years as the Ward 5 representative prior to his mayoral run), Orange vied for the Democratic State Committee’s temporary appointment to Brown’s open seat.
A longtime party insider, Orange looked like the safe bet for the appointment. But last-minute political maneuvering, led by Brown, won a narrow victory for Sekou Biddle, then a school board member from Ward 4.
Still, none of it—not the rejection by his political peers, not the two solid drubbings in citywide elections—was enough to convince Orange that the District just wasn’t that into him.
“I’ve been knocked down, knocked down, got up. Knocked down, got up,” Orange said at his victory party Tuesday night, after winning (finally!) the special election to fill Brown’s seat. “I never gave up.”
Orange showed the crowd of supporters at the Tex-Mex restaurant in Brookland a six-inch homemade cross he carried around on election day, recalling how when he was in a low moment, he went to church, where his pastor gave a sermon on not giving up. “‘You gotta get up one more time. Just one more time. Get up. One more time.’ And I heard that and [my wife] said, ‘I think he’s talking to you.’ So we tried it one more time.”
While Orange might have drawn strength from his faith to carry on, a somewhat more secular power was probably more helpful: His massive fundraising effort, strong name recognition from having been on District ballots for more than 20 years, and the solid support of the predominately African American wards that helped propel Mayor Vince Gray to victory last September allowed Orange to eke out a victory over Republican Pat Mara, Biddle, and several others in a crowded field.
As a prize for finally winning after a solid year of practically non-stop campaigning for three separate races, Orange gets to turn around and do it all over again. The Democratic primary is scheduled for April 3, 2012, and it won’t be long before we learn whether any of this week’s runners-up or new challengers will try to take a bite out of Orange.
Regardless, many Wilson Building watchers consider it a given that Orange will make another run at the chairman’s seat in 2014. In his victory speech Tuesday, Orange took pains to stress to the largely African American crowd that he won with support from across the city, something he would actually need to win a chairman’s race.
“I walk like and I talk like and I work for the people of Ward 1,” said Orange, referencing a racially charged flier that was passed out in predominately black Ward 8 during the tail end of the campaign that said that Orange “walks like us” and “talks like us.”
“I walk like, I talk like, and I work for the people of Ward 2. I walk like and I talk like and I work for the people in Ward 3,” Orange continued on, to only a smattering of applause.
“I walk like, I talk like, and I work for the people of Ward 5,” Orange said to much louder cheers. (And yes, he finished the cycle, but LL’s running out of ink.)
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, Orange also has to go about the business of legislating. And he might find that being a lawmaker isn’t as fun as he remembers it
During the council chairman’s race last year, Orange repeatedly said he had no interest in being a regular old councilmember again after doing the job for eight years. Now he has to face the fact that he is, indeed, just a regular ol’ councilmember—at the bottom of the totem pole, to boot.
“Vince will be frustrated… he’s lost some seniority,” predicts one council source. It’s not clear what committee Brown will assign to Orange, but it’s clear that all the good ones are already taken. (And that Brown isn’t necessarily inclined to help his former rival improve his assignments.)
And then there’s the touchy matter of Orange’s new digs. Office space, it appears, is very important to Orange. When given an opportunity to ask Biddle a question at a Washington City Paper-sponsored candidate forum, Orange was curious about why Biddle hadn’t complained that his newly created office has a desk for a receptionist in what used to be a hallway at the Wilson Building.
“Now your office is in the hallway, and you have yet to say one thing about that...To me, that represents discrimination to an at-large councilmember,” Orange said. “I don’t even believe you had telephones initially.… You said you are independent, but if you cannot stand up for yourself how can you stand up for me? How can you stand up for 600,000 residents?”
If Orange plans on standing up for himself over things like where his perfectly adequate office space is located, imagine what he could be like for things that actually matter. (Right on cue, Orange told the Examiner Wednesday that if he does wind up with Biddle’s office, “it won’t be quietly.”)
Tuesday’s victory was a chance for Orange to get a little payback already. It had to have hurt Orange something fierce to watch last January when Brown, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry worked the Democratic State Committee against him. Indeed, at candidate forums just before the election, Orange said the council had “robbed” him of the committee’s temporary appointment and Biddle hadn’t won his council seat “fair and square.”
For his part, at his victory party Orange said the right things about working together and moving the city forward. He was all smiles when Thomas showed up, and the pair of Ward 5 politicos posed for pictures with supporters. (And really, what does one gain by being mad at Barry?)
And at least one councilmember is genuinely happy to have Orange back on the dais.
“From my perspective, he’s a welcome addition,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who says he and Orange have similar views on taxation (con) and commercial development (pro). “I’m excited to have him back.”
Still, several Wilson Building insiders think relations between Orange and Brown remain raw.
“He clearly will be an anti-Kwame member in any type of voting bloc,” says one councilmember, who wouldn’t gossip about colleagues on the record.
It’s no secret that Brown and Orange are not close. When Brown’s personal debt problems became public during the chairman’s race last year, Orange wasn’t shy about getting in front of reporters and telling them that Brown was unfit to manage the city’s finances.
And it was Orange’s complaint to the Office of Campaign Finance that led to a blistering audit report that dinged Brown for a number of no-nos. The audit’s potentially most damaging revelation was that Brown’s campaign used a third party to pay $240,000 to his brother’s sales-coaching firm, and there aren’t adequate records to show how that money was spent. Just how big a headache this will be for Brown isn’t yet known—OCF is still deciding whether to punish Brown, and the Post editorial page wants the U.S. Attorney’s office to investigate—but Orange is at least partly responsible for Brown’s current discomfort. (Then again, the Post editorial page wanted Mara to win Tuesday, so they obviously don’t get everything they ask for.)
On top of that, Orange’s victory Tuesday over Brown’s handpicked choice is proof to several political types that Brown’s reputation is damaged beyond repair. “This is another rebuke for Kwame Brown,” said a Wilson Building source.
To others, it’s no big deal. Evans says Biddle’s loss doesn’t reflect poorly on Brown’s political power, or anyone’s for that matter: “No one, no one has coattails in this city.”
Fault or no, in politics perception often times becomes reality. And a weakened Brown will likely mean more emboldened councilmembers who think they have a shot of winning higher office. Last time LL checked, just about every councilmember has ambitions for a bigger and better gig. It also means there’s the potential for havoc, as the council often needs a leader with a strong hand to keep 12 insecure egomaniacs in line.
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander says Orange pledged to her that he was going to “call it a truce” with Brown. “I hope that Kwame is going to be able to do the same, because we all have to work together,” says Alexander.
LL isn’t holding his breath.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery