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When Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange began his quest to be mayor last December, he treated several hundred guests at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to a 10-minute video presentation about his life. It was a touching tale about a hard-luck kid from Oakland, Calif., who escaped poverty through education and hard work. That kid eventually became a D.C. councilmember.
The film was over-the-top and sentimental, with a booming, respect-demanding NFL Films–caliber voice declaring, “Vincent Bernard Orange Sr.—a man on a mission for a time such as this.”
Call it mission impossible.
The conventional thinking pegs Orange as an also-ran in the mayor’s race behind D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty. Polls by other candidates put Orange in Single Digit Land for the mayoral race, numbers that prompt opponents to dismiss the Ward 5 boss as a bit of a clown.
The more accurate showbiz vocation for Orange would be stuntman. While his rivals are knocking on doors and putting up yard signs, Orange is becoming the king of old-fashioned political capers.
When gasoline prices spiked after Hurricane Katrina, Orange offered a bill during a special Sept. 20 council session to temporarily suspend D.C.’s 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax. He pushed it even though gasoline marketers told him that his bill wouldn’t affect prices at the pump; the idea went nowhere. Then Orange broke out the squeegee.
He sent out a press release inviting residents to take advantage of $1.99-per-gallon gas at a Shell station on Rhode Island Avenue NE, a promotion featuring full service by the Ward 5 councilmember. Motorists who braved the half-mile-long queue were greeted by Orange-for-mayor volunteers wearing bright-orange T-shirts and bearing campaign lit. Orange wielded the nozzle, cleaned windows, and asked for votes. “You pay, I pump,” was his phrase of the day. And potential voters were reminded that he is “doing something about gas prices.”
Well, he’s at least doing something about PR. The gas-station performance earned Orange an interview on Fox 5 Morning News before the promotion. Five television cameras recorded the event itself. An Associated Press story that ran in the Washington Post suggested that Orange helped facilitate the price cut. The Post’s business page also ran a huge shot of Orange at work.
Not bad for a caper that wasn’t even Orange’s idea. The giveaway was the brainchild of station owner Joe Mamo, an Orange fan who worked with local radio stations to promote a “customer-appreciation day.” The promotion cost Mamo “about $10,000,” he says. For Orange it was “a nice coincidence.” He often speaks of destiny to describe his political career, and providence was on his side this time. “The stars just lined up for this,” says Orange.
Other politicians might concede that a couple of hours spent pumping cut-rate gas amounts to self-promotion; not Orange. “The issue of gasoline prices is at the top of the agenda for voters,” Orange says. “I’m the only one trying to actually do something about it.”
The Shell appearance comes straight out of the playbook of the late, legendary Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, who understood that constituents love freebies. Orange has kept the tradition alive with his annual birthday blowouts at the Dream (now Love) nightclub, which have become a highlight of the D.C. political calendar. The huge crowds that gobble up the free food and cheap booze create a buzz fit for a star. Orange eats it up, and he says those crowds prove that the polls and the media are wrong about him.
On a mission to change minds, Orange must use every resource at his disposal:
•The Campaign Caddy: Several councilmembers are running for election in 2006, but only Orange parks a campaign sign in front of the John A. Wilson building every day. His new cream-colored Cadillac SRX has “Orange for Mayor” decals on both the driver- and passenger-side doors. “It’s my campaignmobile, man. Of course I have to drive it to work,” he says.
•Orangeformayor.com: Grinning photos with family and excited supporters are a staple of campaign Web sites. But that’s way too boring for Orange. His home page opens with the candidate fading in above the banner. The head-and-shoulders shot floats in space like an R2-D2 hologram during a 30-second video in which Orange delivers a canned campaign pitch. As the message ends, Orange disappears, his apparition fading into the ether. He calls the site “cutting-edge,” but it comes across as a little creepy. “If people are willing to go to my site, they deserve to hear directly from me,” he says.
•Phrasemaster Vinny B.: When asked about the buzz surrounding Fenty, Orange told a story to highlight his opponent’s light legislative record: “When you don’t have anything in your wagon, it makes a lot of noise,” Orange said after announcing he would run for mayor. “When your wagon is full, like mine, it doesn’t make so much noise.” During a recent council debate over how to relieve the effect of high natural-gas prices, Orange declared that too many city residents “are forced to choose between heating and eating.” Orange has also coined a new political creed to describe why he supports the development of hotels, restaurants, and bars around the Southwest D.C. stadium site where suburban baseball fans can spend money before and after the games. “I subscribe to the shakedown theory,” Orange said at the Oct. 11 council session.
•The “5” Pin: If Orange is wearing a jacket, he’ll have a big “5” stuck to his lapel. He invented the jewelry to draw attention to what he calls “the overlooked ward.” Orange is a virtual U.S. Mint, cranking out a new pin design each year. Over his council career, Orange says, he’s created enough styles and colors to match every suit-and-tie combination in his closet. Now we know the real reason why he decided it’s time to look beyond his safe Ward 5 seat. Orange has a new use for his favorite number: “You’re looking at the fifth mayor of the District of Columbia,” Orange says with a grin while touching the pin. “It all adds up.”
Some of Orange’s own constituents think he’s ignoring an important part of the equation. Several advisory neighborhood commission members say Orange has been an absent councilmember for years, and predict he won’t win Ward 5 in a mayoral race. He’s also known for a Don Quixote streak. Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ legislative chief, Gregory MacCarthy, calls Orange “relentlessly on message and focused” on a small number of issues. “His trademark is tenacity in pushing those issues, whether they get any traction or not.”
On the council dais, Orange has become a provocateur, a virtual one-man sideshow for the D.C. cable-access audiences. At each council session since he announced his candidacy, Orange has thrown a bomb that has forced Cropp into a one-on-one debate. At a recent special council session, Orange essentially ripped up the agenda and lobbied for his gas-tax moratorium; Cropp refused to consider the measure. And on a council that has turned away from its bleeding-heart past, Orange raised eyebrows with a bill to use city funds to assist the indigent with their natural-gas bills. A long debate on the meaning of “poor” ensued.
The stuntmaster has even found a way to hedge his full-on support for the baseball-stadium deal. During the 2004 stadium debate, Orange was at his huckster’s best. At one press conference he arrived with a framed, autographed photo of Rickey Henderson. Now that D.C. has lured a team to town, Orange is convinced he can get more from baseball’s monopolists.
Last week, he sparked a meaningless debate about the stadium deal by pushing a resolution to pry more information from the mayor about a much-discussed private-financing deal with Deutsche Bank. The deal is a high-stakes matter for Cropp, who last year staked her council reputation on private financing for the ballpark. And Orange had a nice quip on hand for his rival’s baby. “I don’t want to pump money into the German economy—I want it to circulate right here in D.C.,” he said, in a rhetorical flourish that bears no relation to the economics of the deal.
Orange leaps to the conclusion that the responses to his council antics demonstrate he is a serious contender. “It’s a race between Orange and Cropp,” he says. “That’s the reason Cropp is trying to cut me off.”
But as long as there’s printing equipment, Orange will be heard. He recently sent a dense, eight-page newsletter to all D.C. voters at a cost of about $15,000, he says. The summer/fall issue of The Orange Report features a picture of Orange with Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. and another with Williams.
The newsletters are a virtual bible for Orange’s mission. He carries them with him everywhere he goes and refers to them often. “The newsletters are a personal presentation of my record,” he says.
Orange’s record can’t be dismissed. He was instrumental in bringing Home Depot and a Giant grocery store to his ward. He’s doggedly kept the city moving forward with the renovation of Ward 5’s McKinley Technology High School. He authored a law that requires D.C. Public Schools to provide textbooks for children by the second week of school.
He uses that record to bash his young rival Fenty. When asked how it feels to see so many Fenty yard signs around town, Orange responds, “The only thing Adrian has to show is a poster.”
Orange knows a lot about posters. In his first citywide contest, in 1990, he took on John A. Wilson in the race for council chairman. Orange was an unknown at the time, but former Wilson loyalists say the poster barrage had the eventual winner nervous right up to Election Day. Wilson beat Orange, 80 percent to 17 percent.
Orange isn’t concerned that while other candidates are blanketing the city with yard signs, he’s playing pitchman. “We are dancing to the Orange beat and nobody else’s,” he says.
That’s a safe bet. Orange is the only councilmember who breaks into song to help explain how baseball will bring opportunities to D.C. residents: “Like James Brown sang,” Orange says, “‘Got to got to got to get a job/What do you say/Got to get an education/Might as well be dead.’” He once performed the “song” during a live radio talk show.
Right now, campaign advisers for his rivals continue to make jokes about Orange’s act. They comment on the lack of field organization and say that clever quotes won’t be enough to make Orange a true contender. Orange agrees. “At the end of the day, it is going to come down to substance,” he says.
Ward 3 D.C. Council candidate Sam Brooks might consider putting in a call to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for some campaign advice. Clinton established residency in New York state about a year before voters handed her a victory in the 2000 election. Brooks lived in Ward 3 for exactly seven days before declaring himself a candidate for the seat that recently declared council-chair candidate Kathy Patterson will vacate next year. That gives him 11 months until primary Election Day 2006. Prior to the move, he was far, far away—in Ward 2—a few blocks south of the Ward 3 boundary.
Another candidate for the Ward 3 seat, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Nancy MacWood, was quick with a quip when she learned Brooks would be running: “Sam Brooks lives in Ward 3?” The residency slam is sure to be leveled frequently at Brooks, 25, who ran for the at-large council seat now occupied by Kwame Brown in 2004. He most recently worked on Fenty’s mayoral campaign staff. However, MacWood says the campaign won’t turn on how long a candidate has lived in the ward. “I think the concern would be about experience working on Ward 3 issues,” she says. “I’ve been doing this a long time with the ANC.”
Brooks says the carpetbagger label is ridiculous, given he grew up within spitting distance of Ward 3. “It’s not like I moved in from Des Moines….Nancy MacWood might not be happy that I moved into Ward 3,” Brooks says, “but there are an awful lot of Ward 3 residents who are excited that I’m going to be their next councilmember.”
From a legal standpoint, Brooks is ahead of schedule. D.C. law requires that a candidate live in the District for a year before filing to run in any ward race. According to D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics regulations, the winner of a ward primary must establish residency in the ward only after being nominated by voters.—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.