D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D) was on the defensive Thursday night during the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club candidates forum, but turned in a feisty performance that repelled several of his opponents’ attacks.
With a month to go until the April 3 Democratic primary, Orange, former council member Sekou Biddle, former Prince George’s County Council member Peter Shapiro, and the Rev. Gail Holness all appeared before the prominent group of gay, lesbian and transgender District Democrats.
After the debate, the Gertrude Stein Club voted not to endorse any candidate in the at-large race, a setback for Biddle, who won the endorsement last year when he faced Orange in the special election to fill one of four at-large seats. Biddle received 55 percent of the vote, shy of the 60 percent needed for an official endorsement.
“We’ve got a corrupt council and a corrupt government that people don’t have confidence in,” said Biddle, who is campaigning on a platform of restoring ethics and integrity to the government. “The main thing I can do, is lead by example…embracing people and showing people we are all in this together.”
But Orange appeared to come well prepared for the attack.
“I take exception to your statement that the council is corrupt,” Orange shot back. “The subtraction from the council was Mr. Biddle, the addition to the council was Mr. Orange, so it had to be corrupt for you to go.”
Later, Shapiro took aim at Orange’s successful effort to halt a council bill that would have attempted to break up monopolies in the local gas station market. Shapiro cited reports that Orange has accepted $9,000 in bundled donations from Joe Mamo, who controls a large slice of the city’s retail service station market.
“This smells funny,” said Shapiro, who served on the Prince George’s County Council from 1998 to 2004. “Money has a corrupted influence, and we would be a healthier city if we took corporate contributions out of play.”
Orange, who has a huge cash advantage, responded by noting that both Shapiro and Biddle have accepted corporate donations.
“And I can use more,” Shapiro yelled out as Orange spoke.
“And that’s the issue,” Orange responded. “He could use more and that’s what he’s mad about.”
The exchange left an opening for Holness to note she is the only candidate in the race who will not accept corporate donations.
“Un-bought,” Holness told the crowd about 75 activists.
In one of the most direct attacks of the night, Orange also criticized Shapiro’s decision to step down as chairman of the Prince George’s Council because he got another job. Orange also noted Shapiro, who moved back into the District in 2009, didn’t vote in last year’s special election.
“This guy didn’t even complete his term in Prince George’s,” Orange said. “We found out he didn’t vote in the special election and then he says ‘I’m going to replace Orange?’ I don’t think so.”
Despite his clever jabs at his opponents, Orange stumbled at times during the debate.
In trying to reach out to a demographic that has been skeptical of his evolving stance on same-sex marriage, Orange at one point made reference to attending “Fred Carney’s funeral” last year. Orange apparently meant to say “Frank Kameny,” the gay rights pioneer.
Orange also said how happy he was when he “woke up to the news” Thursday that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) had signed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in that state. O’Malley signed the bill at 5 p.m.
Later, Orange said he opposed a council bill that would allow for the creation of permanent prostitution-free zones in the city. Shapiro, Biddle and Holness also announced they oppose the bill.
But Biddle aides quickly pointed out to reporters and activists that Orange co-sponsored the bill along with Council member Yvette D. Alexander (D-Ward 7).
All the candidates endorsed the city’s rent control efforts, and said more needed to be done to address employment and housing discrimination in the city.
Shapiro and Biddle sought to reach out to gay voters by noting they had been longtime supporters of same-sex marriage. Holness appealed to the group by recounting how she’s been discriminated against as an African-American woman.
“Discrimination is discrimination,” said Holness, pastor at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church. “A rose is a rose, and it’s awful, and it’s terrible, but we’ve got to make the change.”
In the end, as usual, the endorsement vote came down to which candidate could best get supporters to the poll. Though Biddle had brought support within the group, Orange also packed the event with supporters, encouraging them to sign up as Stein Club members so they could vote for him.
The club voted twice to see if it could reach the 60 percent threshold needed for an endorsement.
In the first round of voting, Biddle received 45 percent compared to 37 percent for Orange. Shapiro received 19 percent, while Holness received no votes. In the runoff between Biddle and Orange, the incumbent received about 40 percent of the vote while 5 percent of club members voted to make no endorsement, according to Keith Ivey, a local progressive activist.