There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Lately LL has been on an existentialism-themed filmgoing streak.
During the Thanksgiving holiday, LL ventured to the Loews Cineplex Dupont Circle to see The Motorcycle Diaries, which chronicles how a road trip through South America influenced the thinking of revolutionary Che Guevara. A few nights later, LL trekked to the AFI Silver Theatre to see I § Huckabees, director David O. Russell’s playful examination of whether life has meaning and whether it’s even worthwhile to find that out.
Then, on the morning of Dec. 2, LL went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and watched A Man on a Mission. The 10-minute video tackles an existential question that has puzzled LL for years: Who is Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr.?
The short documentary isn’t being previewed for consideration in the Sundance Film Festival. It’s part of an early entry in a more local contest: the 2006 mayor’s race.
It tells of an epic journey: “From the mean streets of West Oakland, California, to the majestic mountain range of the Colorado Rockies to the legislative center of America—Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital,” begins the video, narrated by a this-is-PBS-and-you-need-to-take-it-seriously voice. The montage of still photos features sunset pictures of a bay, an unidentified Indian accountant, various Afro-sporting shots from Orange’s youth, and, at one particularly poignant point, a purple flower.
LL will summarize key plot points here:
•Orange is the ninth of 10 children—though he is considered “the baby”—from a “physically poor but spiritually and morally rich” family. Mother Jannie Orange taught her son the importance of hard work. “This good, common-sense advice was often shared with Vincent under the eaves of the Oakland Bay Bridge, where, with fishing pole in hand, he and his mother would throw in their lines, remaining in that place sometimes the whole night long.”
•When Orange was 14, “this urgent journey took him to the mountainous peaks of the Colorado Rockies.” On a scholarship from the A Better Chance Foundation, Orange attended the Fountain Valley School in Colorado Springs, Colo., where the young man went to school with the children of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn and experienced racially charged “election fraud” that prevented him from becoming student-body president.
•Orange has traveled to Russia, Senegal, and China, where he pedaled a rickshaw. He has worked as a paper boy, a bottle sorter, a weekend security officer at the Washington Post, an accountant at Arthur Andersen, and a lawyer in the city’s Office of the Corporation Counsel. All these experiences add up to: “Vincent Bernard Orange Sr., a man on a mission for such a time as this.”
The mayoral hopeful screened the video at his “2006 Orange for Mayor” exploratory-committee breakfast. The entire two-hour event, including the Voice of God video narration, the “Mandarin Signature” pastries on all 51 tables, and the hundreds of plates of “scrambled eggs on brioche,” came courtesy of the District’s lax campaign-finance law.
The word is out for those running in 2006: If you want to escape accountability, set up a mayoral exploratory committee. That way, you can host lavish meals at the expense of your deep-pocketed donors and you’ll never have to reveal who they are.
Mystery exploratory committees are cropping up everywhere as local politicians set their sights on the mayoral race. Given the mixed signals sent by incumbent Anthony A. Williams on plans for a three-peat, the field is wide open right now. With 21 months to go until the Democratic primary, at least four wannabes have announced that they have formed exploratory committees: Orange, former D.C. Democratic State Committee Chair A. Scott Bolden, lobbyist Michael Brown, and Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty.
According to D.C. law, exploratory committees help prospective candidates with the innocuous work of testing the waters of whether to run for office. “Exploratory, draft, or ‘testing the waters’ committee activities may include polling, travel, and telephone calls to determine whether the individual should become a candidate,” reads Section 3001 of D.C. Municipal Regulations. “Each committee shall not be required to register and file reports; Provided, that its activities are limited to determining whether an individual should become a candidate.”
In short, exploratory committees have no disclosure requirements. Here’s the peril: Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a group of investors who want to bring slots to the nation’s capital would like a certain pol to be mayor. Under current D.C. law, the gambling interests can give unlimited amounts of cash to that person so he or she can “explore” a run for office and no one except the pol will know.
And when does an individual “exploring” a run for office officially become a candidate, according to D.C. law?
Well, when he or she says so.
That’s why Orange repeated this statement several times on Dec. 2: “I am not a candidate.” The mayoral noncandidate says that he has pledges for $200,000 to his exploratory committee and that the Mandarin breakfast cost approximately $22,000.
How did he pay for the event?
Orange won’t say. “I’m operating within the parameters of the law,” he tells LL.
The exploratory-committee loophole essentially vacates the mission of campaign-finance disclosure laws. When politicians have to report who’s giving them money, they are more careful about making unholy alliances with special interests. But under current D.C. law, there’s no such disincentive. “So when I come knocking on your door for money, just think about it—it doesn’t have to be reported,” Orange told the Mandarin crowd.
“There is a role for exploratory committees, but without question there should be reporting requirements and contribution limits,” says Fenty, who says he will disclose his contributors.
Brown agrees. “I have no problem with reporting requirements,” he says.
Bolden has no comment on his exploratory fundraising so far.
In 2002, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham set up a committee to explore his re-election prospects. The Common Denominator subsequently asked Graham to report his exploratory contributors and their contribution amounts. After a few stories, Graham finally handed the newspaper a list but failed to detail contribution amounts.
The shenanigans of Orange and Graham wouldn’t fly if they were running for Congress. Federal law also has a provision for exploratory committees: “Funds raised to test the waters are subject to…contribution limits,” reads a Federal Election Commission guide for candidates. “An individual who tests the waters must be sure to keep financial records. If he or she later becomes a candidate, the money raised and spent to test the waters must be reported by the campaign as contributions and expenditures.”
The hollowness of the D.C. law prompts winks and nods of all sorts on the hustings. At the Mandarin, for instance, Orange read aloud the law regarding exploratory committees. Orange knows he can spend money on expensive breakfasts as long as he propagates the charade of continuing to test the waters.
Toward this end, the two-term councilmember handed out an “Orange Poll” to the crowd at the Mandarin. The questions on the poll, laid out on bright-orange paper, spring from a strange promotional strategy that LL hasn’t seen before. For example, Question No. 6 asks:
Should the Mayor of DC be both a problem identifier and a problem solver?
___ yes ___ no
And Question No. 10:
Should Vincent Bernard Orange Sr. become a candidate for the 2006 DC Mayoral race?
___ yes ___ no
Is Orange’s poll Zogby material or what?
The poll will have to stand as Orange’s documentary evidence that he hasn’t made the leap from exploratory committee to committee to elect. Yet alongside his public proclamations, the evidence falls apart. At various times during his address at the Mandarin, Orange spoke of an Orange administration.
•“Ladies and gentleman, what would an Orange administration bring?” he asked.
•“An Orange administration will provide protection to all the citizens of Washington, D.C.,” he declared.
•“An Orange administration will open the doors of prosperity to all of the District of Columbia,” he predicted.
Orange made other ill-advised overtures that were more in compliance with the spirit of the law. At one point, he declared that James Brown said it best: “Got to got to got to get a job/What do you say/Got to get an education/Might as well be dead,” he sang. Orange also previewed his mayoral theme: PEP, as in protection, education, and prosperity. “Come on, PEP, come on in,” Orange said at one point.
He listed his accomplishments, including delivering to Ward 5 a Home Depot, Dream Nightclub, and two—count ’em, two—National Wholesale Liquidators!
This is what an Orange administration might bring you, Ward 3!
But this seemed the biggest hurdle to the noncandidate: “Can I continue to still wear my 5—for the fifth mayor?” asked Orange, referring to the No. 5 lapel pin that is a fixture on his suit jackets. “I’ve been wearing this six years for something.”
For her meddling in the financing package of a new baseball stadium, Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon labeled D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp a “fraud.”
Cropp’s colleagues see her in a different light. At the Nov. 30 legislative session, when the council gave preliminary approval to the ballpark, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania cited her “amazing leadership.” Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose spoke of her “admirable effort,” and Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson praised her for opposing baseball “at any price.”
LL sides with Wilbon. Cropp, indeed, is a fraud: At the end of the day, she advocates building Major League Baseball’s stadium at any price.
For a couple of weeks in November, Cropp was the bane of male, middle-aged D.C. baseball nostalgists. First, she threatened the agreement with Major League Baseball by proposing to move the planned stadium from South Capitol Street to a site near RFK Memorial Stadium. When that idea collapsed, she came up with a private-financing scheme that sent baseball supporters into extra-inning convulsions.
Cropp repeatedly insisted that she wouldn’t support baseball at any cost and profiled herself as a savior for the beleaguered D.C. taxpayer. “We have a responsibility to see if we can save the taxpayers some money,” said Cropp on Nov. 9.
At the same time, she made a contradictory statement: “I want baseball,” she said moments later.
Cropp seemed in denial about the inconsistency. At some point, the chairman was going to have to choose. Would she bail on an excessively costly stadium? Or would she cling instead to her pledge not to stop baseball?
In the end, the consensus-oriented councilmember decided not to stop baseball even at an exorbitant price. The whole tale is told by the “cost-saving” amendments that Cropp pushed in the council’s legislative session on baseball.
Cropp Amendment No. 1 created a process for examining private-financing proposals.
Savings to taxpayers? Zero right now.
Cropp Amendment No. 2 created a cost-overrun trigger. If stadium costs are projected to exceed $631 million, the city will examine cheaper stadium options.
But the Williams administration estimates stadium costs at $440 million.
Savings to taxpayers? Negative $191 million.
Cropp Amendment No. 3 eliminated the community-benefits package negotiated with the Williams administration.
Savings to taxpayers? Cropp saved D.C. businesses $45 million, which would have gone to the city’s ailing libraries.
Cropp, who spoke with passion for weeks on the stadium-financing issue, voted “present” at the council session. “I cannot vote in favor of the bill today; however, I will not stop the bill today. I think this bill needs to move forward,” she said. “My intent is not to stop baseball from coming.”
Has Cropp set a price for which her “present” vote changes to “no” when the council votes on baseball again?
“Not right now,” the chairman tells LL.
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