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COVER STORYSept. 8, 2006

Promises to save the schools…aging pols cannibalizing the few higher offices in the city…generational clashes on the campaign trail: Must be primary time in the District of Columbia.

By Dave Jamieson

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Primary Color

Gimmickry and blind faith keep Vincent Orange juiced about his mayoral prospects.

On July 21, mayoral candidate Vincent Orange’s supporters received some distressing news. Among 1,350 D.C. adults polled over the telephone by the Washington Post, a mere 6 percent had cast their theoretical ballots for Orange. And when pollsters tried to determine just how strongly that sliver felt about the candidate, they came up with an asterisk in lieu of hard numbers. Poll readers who bothered to search for the symbol’s meaning found that it indicated this: “Base too small to analyze.”

Orange’s die-hard supporters should be glad to learn that the candidate doesn’t place much faith in telephone polls. After all, six weeks after those numbers dropped he’s still rising at 6 a.m. so that he can hand out sacks of oranges to residents as he asks for their votes. On a Thursday morning just 12 days before the primary, he arrives at the Waterfront metro stop in Southwest Washington not long after dawn. He’s wearing a light-blue shirt, navy pants, and his trademark orange-striped tie. Carrying an orange tote bag filled with orange bracelets for the kids—“Tell your parents about me,” he urges them—the candidate grabs a bag of oranges and plants himself near the station entrance.

Between handshakes with bleary-eyed commuters, Orange is asked how he has the energy to stump aggressively when local media have deemed this a two-candidate race between Adrian Fenty and Linda Cropp.

“Once you get into the competitive mode and you’ve got a good message, you just keep moving,” he explains, holding up the fruit. “You just eat some oranges in the morning and get some vitamin C.”

Then Orange grows more serious. “I don’t think the polls are accurate,” he goes on. “In Ward 5”—which Orange represents as councilmember—“I won a straw poll. Everyone says Fenty is so far ahead, but he hasn’t won a straw poll. He won the telephone poll, but a telephone poll is passive. Voters don’t have to actually get out there and vote.”

He looks to D.C. politics of yesteryear to bolster that claim. “D.C. voters will change on you in a minute,” he says. “No front-runner has ever won an open seat. Look at when [Mayor Anthony] Williams won his first time. Everyone thought it was gonna be [former Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin] Chavous. And look at Barry’s first time. He was up against Sterling Tucker and Arrington Dixon. And what happened? Barry came right up the middle.”

But Orange’s electoral analogies don’t exactly hold up against reality. According to an August 1998 Post poll, Williams was leading Chavous by 19 percentage points—hardly making Chavous the front-runner. And when Barry faced Tucker in the 1978 mayoral primary, Dixon was actually making a run at the council chair.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Still, Orange thinks “it’s anybody’s race.” And apparently so do his volunteers, who will hand out roughly 15 large boxes of oranges this morning before they pack up shop. Among them are Sidney Davis, a D.C. bus driver who was recently fired not long after a Post report revealed that he was stumping for Orange as he drove his route, and Keith Covington, who later today will be shouting “Vitamin C for D.C.!” through a bullhorn. The Orange team relies heavily on the color/fruit gimmick; this morning, anyone wearing an orange shirt stands a good chance of being approached by the candidate himself and urged to “join the team—that’s my color!”

Orange barnstorms with the same enthusiasm he launched his campaign with in December 2004, when he treated guests at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to a 10-minute video on his life; Orange, the narrator intoned, was “a man on a mission.” In that spirit, last month he took out a $67,000 loan to finance the final days of his campaign, according to finance reports. His oldest son, Vincent Jr., who’s been rising early with his father and joining him on the hustings, says Orange Sr. never privately discusses the possibility of defeat. “That’s not a consideration at this point,” says Orange Jr.

Later in the afternoon, Orange visits the WRC-TV studios near Tenleytown for a taping of Viewpoint, hosted by Joe Krebs. The episode is meant to be a roundtable of mayoral hopefuls. A cheery station employee greets Orange in the lobby. “Still running the race, huh?” she asks, with a hint of admiration.


Back in the green room, Orange sits with his campaign strategist, Kobi Little, and his treasurer and volunteer coordinator, Ayawna Chase, as they quietly watch Ellen DeGeneres dance on a nearby television. It’s become clear that there won’t be much of a roundtable. Fenty, apparently with more pressing campaign concerns, declined the invitation; so did Cropp. Then Marie Johns took a pass. Michael Brown, a fellow single-digit candidate and the lone competitor who’s agreed to join Orange, shows up at the last minute.

Orange and Brown take their seats across from Krebs in the studio, and the cameras start rolling. For his first question, Krebs basically asks the two men if they’re still viable candidates. Orange plays up the Ward 5 straw poll and faults the media for the perception of a narrowed field. He’s given out about 30,000 oranges, he says, “and the media hasn’t talked about that.”

During a break, Brown asks Krebs about the anemic turnout for the forum. “So, Joe, everybody declined?” he asks, before correcting the slip. “I mean, the other three declined?” Krebs explains that it was a domino effect.

Orange leaves the taping upbeat, and his team heads to their white Cadillac SUV, which is plastered with Orange-for-Mayor signs. In a few hours, Orange will go head-to-head with the candidates who just blew him off at Channel 4. Tonight’s forum will be held at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Anacostia, and Orange’s camp sees it as an opportunity for him to bring a few voters to their feet. His gift for sermonizing and opposition to gay marriage make him a popular man in the pews.

In fact, Orange mentions a note he received a few days prior from a deeply religious D.C. voter. In the e-mail, the woman tells Orange that she hosted a party for the recent televised debate broadcast from George Washington University. “[D]on’t give up, because the race wasn’t given to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to those who can endure unto the end!” the e-mail reads. The crowd at her house, the woman explains, was bowled over by Orange’s performance. “[God] would take the foolish to confound the wise, and vice versa…[S]o many have thought that you were so foolish because they felt you were at the bottom of the polls, they did not take the time to truly investigate who you really were…ALWAYS be reminded of the story of David and the giant.”

Orange says he was moved by the e-mail. “You read that kind of stuff, and it’s inspiring,” he says. He flashes a smile.

“And it’s nice to know she had 50 people at that party,” he adds. CP