All big-time players in local politics can point to the moment when they made their splash. Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., for example, could cite the time in 1967 when he told that cop, “Fuck you.” At-Large Councilmember David Catania, for his part, made an unforgettable visit to D.C. General Hospital’s ER in 1998.
Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange’s pivotal moment came in the first hour of his Jan. 17 cross-examination of Inspector General Charles C. Maddox over alleged residency-requirement violations. Or perhaps it was the fourth hour. Or the sixth hour. Then again, maybe it was the point when Orange’s carping prompted Catania to flog himself by banging his forehead on the dais.
Whatever the specifics, Orange has wrung some precious political assets from Maddox-bashing—namely publicity, gravitas, and even money. At a Feb. 13 fundraiser for his re-election campaign at Kelly’s Ellis Island restaurant on 12th Street NE, Orange proclaimed, “I’ve put the executive office on notice that I’m going to be the official watchdog.”
Orange told the crowd, which was munching on crab-and-shrimp balls and chicken skewers, that he would vigilantly enforce compliance with District law, including residency requirements. “If you have an agency of 105 employees, and 75 of those have residency waivers, we can’t tax that [salary] at the source—that’s out the window,” he thundered. Indeed, Orange’s persistence could well lead to the inspector general’s ouster.
After three years in office, the councilmember has finally found an issue. Before the Maddox imbroglio, Orange’s oversight hearings on the executive branch attracted considerably less attention than the shiny gold-colored “5” lapel pin always affixed to his suit jacket.
His legislative record appears equally ho-hum, littered with a few consensus bills, a handful of simplistic school-related acts, and ceremonial resolutions such as “Elma E. Pharr’s 90th Birthday Resolution of 2001.” Last summer, Orange introduced emergency legislation to make sure that D.C. public-school students received textbooks within the first few weeks of the school year. “I don’t understand how the school board can request almost $1 billion, and it’s not mandatory to have books,” he harrumphed to his contributors.
Orange owes his arrival to the most coveted prop in legislative politics: a powerful committee. Fellow D.C. Council first-termers such as At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham got saddled this council period with incomprehensible triumvirate subcommittees—Mendelson with the Subcommittee on Labor, Voting Rights, and Redistricting, and Graham with the equally verbose Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs, and Property Management.
Orange landed the chair of the plainly titled Committee on Government Operations.
Orange’s predecessor, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, had revived the largely moribund committee into a powerful corrective to bureaucratic bloat. Among other accomplishments, Patterson ferreted out waste in Department of Employment Services contracting, streamlined the city’s procurement system, and incorporated yearly performance reviews of executive-branch agencies into the budget process.
That legacy hardly juiced Orange—at first.
He initially coveted a sexier committee. “I originally wanted Judiciary,” the Howard University-trained lawyer and CPA admitted to those assembled at Ellis Island last week. “Then I saw that Government Operations oversees contracts and procurement and technology—and the Office of the Mayor!”
For more than a year now, Maddox has been investigating allegations of improper fundraising within the mayor’s office. On Jan. 17, Orange decided that the dillydallying had gone on long enough: He turned the spotlight on Maddox himself, bringing the inspector general before his committee to explain long-rumored allegations about his residency and curriculum vitae.
In the process, Orange happened upon a sweet spot of political intrigue for the local media. For Mayor Anthony A. Williams, scrutiny of the inspector general is a political dilemma. If Williams agrees with the council, which called for Maddox’s resignation, he will appear to be putting the long-awaited report in peril. If he doesn’t take action, and Maddox stalls a few months longer on the findings, Williams will seem to be benefiting from the inspector general’s sluggishness in his bid for re-election.
The timing of the Maddox crusade works well for Orange, who, like Williams, goes before the voters this year. By making hay out of Maddox, the councilmember comes across as a no-nonsense legislator interested in ethical, efficient government.
Ward 5 watchers whisper about another benefit to Orange, as well: If Maddox’s report ends up damaging Williams—damaging enough to severely wound or force him out of the race—Orange might throw his hat in that ring along with the city’s other rejected suitors from the last go-round.
“My work’s not done in Ward 5,” says Orange. “I think people are free to express their opinions.”
If Orange indeed aspires to move beyond the Queens Chapel Road Business Improvement District, he is courting the right crowd these days.
The Ellis Island fundraiser was sponsored by folks such as Shaw Pittman attorney Maureen Dwyer and Holland & Knight attorney Whayne Quin, who represent the city’s development community. Other familiar faces littered the crowd: Former Barry City Administrator Elijah “Baby” Rogers hovered at the end of the bar, as did attorney David Wilmot and businessman Pedro Alfonso.
Orange’s push for big-box retail such as Home Depot also plays well with some of his most vocal constituents. “I want to shop right here in my neighborhood,” says Woodridge Civic Association Vice President Anthony Hood. “We have to go to Beltway Plaza and Prince George’s Plaza to do our shopping.”
Yet others complain that besides brandishing the whip on Maddox, Orange has largely been a legislative follower, much like his predecessor, Harry Thomas Sr. Just without the personality.
Orange will attend any community meeting or public forum, but just don’t ask him to weigh in on the issue. “Vincent is not a complex thinker,” observes one Ward 5 politico.
But the Ward 5 incumbent hardly faces stiff competition in his re-election efforts. Political dynasty hopeful Harry Thomas Jr. says that he’ll restore his late father’s turkey-giveaway approach to politicking.
“I think there’s nothing wrong with glad-handing and shaking their hand and being there for them,” says Thomas. “It’s nice to sponsor meetings, but sometimes you got to meet people where they are.”
As a constituent-services guru, Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty is building his reputation on his word. When a resident complains about a streetlamp or a parking problem, Fenty makes sure to respond quickly to the issue and follow up appropriately.
He takes a different approach on the council dais. Before Feb. 5’s legislative session, Fenty promised Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans that he would back him in an advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) redistricting dispute. Evans wanted to keep a swath of Ward 2 near the Southeast/Southwest Freeway within his ward’s ANCs. Mendelson, chair of the relevant subcommittee, and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose wanted to move the territory into Ward 6’s.
The night before the vote, Fenty called Evans to say that he planned to flip his vote. He explained that Ambrose, who chairs the council’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, threatened to bottle up in her committee his bill banning single sales of beer and malt liquor unless Fenty sided with her on redistricting.
The constituent-obsessed councilmember caved, handing a victory to Mendelson and Ambrose.
Wilson Building wisdom predicts that Fenty’s bill will remain in Ambrose’s grasp for some time to come. The rookie councilmember offered a rookie excuse for his indecision: “Jack came to me first.”
* Each year, Catania meets with the city’s 37 ANCs to review their activities and expenditures. The last time that Shaw’s commission appeared before Catania, in a special meeting almost a year ago, generally fractious neighbors narrowed their public testimonies to one topic: the pathological rantings and various misdeeds of Commissioner “Mahdi” Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr. To LL’s disappointment, Thorpe decided to skip the unconventional political roast in his honor.
Some considered Catania’s scrutiny of the thorny commissioner divine retribution for a 1999 D.C. Council hearing on police performance, during which Thorpe referred to the openly gay councilmember as a “faggot.” The slur provoked an editorial tempest. Thorpe more recently attracted ink in local papers when he informed the Hill that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were simply an example of “chickens coming home to roost.”
Those hoping to hear Thorpe’s unique worldview at the ANC’s public oversight hearing before Catania’s Committee on Public Services last Tuesday evening left disappointed once again. Thorpe, who was elected as the Shaw ANC’s chair last month, had more weighty plans for this week: On Sunday, he left to complete his holy pilgrimage to Mecca. “Hajj is something every Muslim has to do, one of the five pillars,” Thorpe told fellow Commissioner Alexander M. Padro, via Padro’s answering machine. “The Saudi [Arabian] government is paying for everything. So I’m [going to] take advantage of it.”
LL believes that the spiritual retreat might metamorphose Thorpe. “Hopefully, I’ll come back a better person than when I left,” the commissioner concluded in his message to Padro. “So that’s the intent.”
* Last Friday, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Ronnie Few cleared up some misperceptions about his department’s approach to budgeting and resource allocation.
Judiciary Committee Chair Patterson expressed concern about the department’s aging fleet and infrastructure, pointing out that Few spent only $320,000 of his $4.8 million capital-improvement budget in fiscal year 2001. In one exchange with the councilmember, the chief addressed a recent WTTG Fox 5 television news report, which exposed the shabby condition of the city’s firehouses and firetrucks. The report focused on Engine Company 22, at 5760 Georgia Ave. NW, where tape replaced window glass on one vehicle. “I do not like tape on windows in this department,” Few responded. “That appalled me when I saw that, and I’ve never seen that truck.
“I guess they hid it from me,” Few further explained.
Fenty, whose ward houses the truck in question, found the fire department’s game of hide-and-seek hard to believe. “You said that this particular piece of equipment was hidden from you?” he asked a few moments later.
Few quickly backpedaled. “I give no excuse for that—and I’m not trying to cite one,” he said.
Fenty then pursued another line of inquiry, harking back to the television days of his youth—as well as LL’s. “[Engine Company 22] was like the police station on that show Fish,” the 31-year-old legislator commented to a largely puzzled Wilson Building audience.
* In his first significant act after forming his own exploratory committee, prospective Ward 1 council candidate Deairich “Dee” Hunter has filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance about the exploratory committee for incumbent Graham.
Unlike committees for declared candidates, exploratory or draft committees are not subject to the reporting requirements and contribution limits outlined in the D.C. Code. So until someone formally announces a candidacy with the proper paperwork, money can be raised and spent on “exploration” willy-nilly. Once the candidate declares, however, all funds are governed by campaign-finance restrictions.
Since last July, more than 600 D.C. residents have raised $30,000 for Graham’s Ward 1 “exploratory” committee. Or so the People of Ward One for Jim Graham claim in a letter dated Jan. 18.
“It’s disingenuous for an incumbent to explore a seat he already holds,” Hunter opines. “They use this as a way to circumvent campaign-contribution caps and reporting requirements.
“The fundamental issue is that the voters need to know where the money is coming from,” Hunter adds.
D.C. Office of Campaign Finance General Counsel Kathy Williams says she will review Hunter’s complaint. CP
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