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Smith Special Productions makes giant parade balloons, and lots of them. The Williamsport, Pa., company tends toward cartoon animals like “Tally Ho the Toucan” and “Icee the Shy Little Penguin.” But District taxpayers got gasbags with a little more gravitas from the company on Wednesday, thanks to $15,120 from the D.C. Council.
The balloons, featuring figures like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, floated above the festivities at Wednesday’s Emancipation Day parade. Even though Smith Special made nine balloons, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans joked a week earlier at a Council breakfast that a helium-filled version of one Emancipation Day figure had been overlooked: At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange.
Orange is the closest thing that the District’s nine-year-old holiday has to a founding father. In 2000, Orange, then the councilmember from Ward 5, passed legislation noting April 16, 1862, the day the federal government paid $1 million to buy freedom for slaves in the District.
Four years after that bill, Orange pushed through one that made Emancipation Day a District government holiday, meaning D.C. government employees and public school students had the day off to go to the parade. (Though that didn’t necessarily mean they’d spend the day attending.) In 2006, Orange rode in a horse-drawn carriage with then-Mayor Anthony Williams after the horse meant to pull Orange’s own carriage got too scared to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
When Orange returned to the Council in 2011, his love for Emancipation Day hadn’t diminished. Since then, Orange’s Council staff, along with the Council’s Office of the Secretary, has administered the festivities, while Orange serves as the “presiding officer.” Last year, Orange argued successfully to increase the budget for this year’s events by $100,000, to $350,000.
Emancipation Day loves Orange back. In 2013, the holiday’s budget included $2,500 for a promotional video that featured narration from Orange and—at one moment—fireworks bursting over his illuminated face (the same video company received $5,000 for this week’s events). A related Emancipation Day booklet featured pictures of Orange and his family so prominently that it that called to mind North Korea’s Kim dynasty. The parade’s contractors include former Orange consultants, too: Marketing firm Otim Williams, for example, received $10,750 to promote the parade just a month after it designed Orange’s mayoral campaign website
Despite the budget increase, the crowds at the parade have stayed stubbornly small. Nearly 10 years after the District declared Emancipation Day an official holiday, it’s time to consider how much of the Emancipation Day money is being used to honor freedom, and how much is being used to honor Orange.
The best argument for changing what goes into Emancipation Day may be that Wednesday’s parade almost didn’t happen. Last week, Orange’s office told Mayor Vince Gray’s administration that the Council wouldn’t be able to foot the $161,000 in overtime for D.C. police and other city employees who’d be working the events after all, according to mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. The dispute between Orange and his recent mayoral rival over the nearly spent Emancipation Day budget, first reported by the Washington Post, threatened to hit city agencies’ overtime budgets right before the crime-heavy summer months. The overtime pay was resolved a day before the parade, with Gray’s administration agreeing to spend the additional $161,000 and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson agreeing to give the executive branch control of future Emancipation Day parades.
Orange accused Gray of an “act of sabotage” Tuesday, but improbably still celebrated the loss of his pet project to the mayor’s office. Orange says that he expects a hypothetical administration run by Democratic primary victor Muriel Bowser to be more supportive of Emancipation Day than Gray. Indeed, Bowser supported a budget increase for the parade when it was still under Orange’s control last year and warned fellow councilmembers that their constituents expected to see them at the parade.
While the lame-duck Gray administration won’t have a say in future parades, Ribeiro says they’re still looking into how Orange and the rest of the Council could have spent $350,000 without budgeting for overtime costs.
As it happens, LL knows. According to a budget provided by the Council’s Office of the Secretary, Orange’s office spent $20,000 for a prayer breakfast and $14,000 for a separate brunch. The parade itself cost $100,114, and fireworks scheduled to end the festivities cost $27,500.
Before the fireworks, though, the day’s most expensive event occurred: a $133,822 concert starring musicians like Talib Kweli and Doug E. Fresh. The Council paid $100,000 to Black Entertainment Television spinoff Centric for the entertainment, according to the budget. BET will air the concert footage in July, according to Orange, whose office didn’t respond to requests for comment about attendance figures or whether Orange provided money to be listed as a festival sponsor apart from the rest of the Council. Orange’s constituent service fund doesn’t list donations to the parade this year.
The $100,000 Centric deal wasn’t Emancipation Day’s first pricey concert. Last year, the Council spent $55,000 on a performance by gospel singer Kirk Franklin, then another $23,253.33 for related limos, beverages, and nine hotel rooms at the J.W. Marriott hotel for Franklin and his 15-person entourage. After hearing how much Franklin’s performance cost, Ward 7 councilmember Yvette Alexander offered to do the singing at 2014’s parade herself.
Despite spending $34,295 on advertising this year, though, the parade and related events continued to suffer the kind of low turnout you’d expect when everyone who isn’t a D.C. government employee still has to work. Last year’s Pennsylvania Avenue parade passed block after block of near-empty sidewalks, a fact that even footage from the Orange-centric video of the event can’t avoid showing.
Lack of interest even plagues Emancipation Day events that aren’t held in the middle of the workday. M.C. Hammer and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D may be hip-hop legends, but their appearance Sunday night at the Council-funded “Great Debate” on African-American issues couldn’t fill half of U Street’s Lincoln Theatre. One Orange staffer gamely tried to convince the roughly 300 people there to come to the front so the room would look fuller on TV cameras. The city’s cost for the event: $19,500.
The expenses associated with Emancipation Day have prompted some councilmembers to ask whether the money couldn’t be better spent by reducing the focus on Orange and increasing the focus on the freeing of slaves in the District. Last year, Mendelson questioned the $100,000 budget increase. At last week’s Council breakfast, At-Large Councilmember and mayoral hopeful David Catania asked Orange if some of the money could instead be spent on scholarships at the University of the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, worthwhile but less flashy Emancipation Day events like a wreath-laying at U Street NW’s African-American Civil War Memorial don’t receive any money from the Council’s budget.
The problem for critics of Orange’s use of public money on the holiday is that, at least among elected officials, it’s mostly been white councilmembers protesting. Which can make it look like they’re raising race-based objections to a holiday that celebrates a significant moment in black history in D.C.—as opposed to raising less fraught objections to the fact that much of the celebration seems to dwell on Orange.
When At-Large Councilmember David Grosso complained at last week’s Council breakfast that the budget included $20,000 for the Al Sharpton–headlined prayer breakfast, Alexander warned him to watch what he was saying.
“I think it’s inappropriate to spend that kind of money on a religious activity,” Grosso said.
“I think owning slaves is inappropriate,” Orange shot back.
But concerns about Emancipation Day funding aren’t always divided along racial lines. In 2009, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had voted in 2004 with then-Councilmember Mendelson against making Emancipation Day a municipal holiday, tried to eliminate it entirely to save the roughly $3 million the District pays to keep firefighters and police working when the rest of the city workforce has a vacation.
Orange has defended the parade’s cost, saying that the real reason behind it is to fill hotel rooms and bring more money to the District. He’s pitched Emancipation Day as a potential equivalent to the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which draws around a million people yearly. But judging by the dismal turnout at Emancipation Day events, Orange is no cherry blossom.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery