Vincent Orange (D), the incumbent running for re-election to an At-Large… (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON…)
In a city where a lot of people think they are on the move, Vincent B. Orange never leaves the treadmill of District politics.
The D.C. Council member walks briskly through the halls of the John A. Wilson Building. He runs between community meetings and Democratic Party gatherings nightly, hawking what he calls his decade-long record of public service. And at council meetings, Orange rarely slows crafting his legislative portfolio, prompting some colleagues to deem him a “carnival barker” and another to label him the “Newt Gingrich of District politics.”
“Running, running, running, always running,” Orange told a reporter this month as he breezed through the District building.
In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Orange will be competing in his fifth election in less than six years after losing bids for mayor and council chairman but overpowering the city’s Democratic establishment last year to win an at-large special election. Orange also represented Ward 5 on the council from 1999 to 2007 but gave up the seat to unsuccessfully run for mayor in 2006.
“Sure, I’ve had my ups and downs, but that builds character,” Orange said. “One thing I can say, I’ve never been voted out of office.”
But in his bid for an at-large full term, Orange is running into a headwind of political controversy, including a federal investigation, surrounding District political campaigns.
After city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson’s home and office were raided by the FBI and IRS on March 2, Orange acknowledged he had collected $26,000 in “suspicious” campaign donations in money orders and cashier’s checks from Thompson last year.
In his 2011 election, Orange also received campaign help from consultant Vernon E. Hawkins, who allegedly was part of “shadow campaign” for Mayor Vincent C. Gray that is now under federal investigation, according to people familiar with the probe.
Orange denies any wrongdoing, saying he collected donations from a major donor who has also contributed to a range of local and national politicians.
But with signs pointing to a scandal-fatigued electorate, the federal investigation has given some traction to three opponents looking to unseat Orange in Tuesday’s primary.
One challenger, former school board and council member Sekou Biddle, is seeking to reclaim the seat Orange won from him a special election last year. The D.C. Democratic State Committee had appointed Biddle, 40, to fill the seat pending the special election, but he finished third behind Orange and Republican Patrick Mara.
Another candidate, former Prince George’s County Council member Peter Shapiro, is making his inaugural run for District office. E. Gail Anderson Holness, pastor at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church and a Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, is also a candidate in the race.
With the candidates broadly agreeing on most major issues, the race is shaping up as a battle over style and a key test of voter attitudes toward incumbents after 18 months of ethical lapses and federal investigations.
Orange, 54, remains popular east of the Anacostia River and in his home base of vote-rich Ward 5, where he’s built a reputation as an effective legislator.
In other areas the city, his candidacy is testing the patience of some progressives who are eager to seize more control of a city government that they fear is dominated by cozy relationships between elected officials and donors.
Several progressive leaders, including former Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Bryan Weaver and Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), have lined up behind Biddle. Biddle, who lives in Shepherd Park, has also won endorsements from publications with large readerships in Northwest.
Despite relying on Gray and Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) for support in his unsuccessful campaign last year, Biddle is now asking voters to overlook his past ties to city government.
“I’m running because I believe we can do better,” said Biddle, who wants a renewed focus on ethics. “I’m running to restore hard-working, honest leadership.”
Of the candidates in the race, Biddle has been the most supportive of Walmart’s plan to open six stores in the District, saying they would help revitalize long-neglected retail corridors. Biddle, a former teacher at the KIPP DC charter school, vows to keep the focus on education reform.
But Shapiro, who lives in Chevy Chase, is gaining traction in some of the same neighborhoods that Biddle hopes to run up big margins to overcome Orange’s advantage in Wards 5, 7 and 8.