Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) is chairman of the D.C. Council, and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) is chairman pro tempore.
That was the outcome of today’s D.C. Council vote to choose new leadership in the wake of Kwame R. Brown’s resignation, and it’s the outcome that’s been expected in internal discussions among council members going back at least to last Friday, if not months before that.
So why, then, did Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) make a rancorous spectacle of today’s meeting, turning what many had hoped to be a show of solidarity and unanimity in a time of political crisis into a testy scorched-earth throwdown — one that, for all the sound and fury, ended in an 11-1 loss for Orange’s bid to be appointed chair pro tem?
That’s the question of the day at the John A. Wilson Building, where council members, staff and observers are all scratching their head at Orange’s bombastic performance, wondering what advantage he gained, or what advantage he thought he gained by the whole thing.
His behavior took bizarre turn after bizarre turn. Orange led off with a demand to be allowed to show a “one-minute clip” on video screens during the debate (which, he later revealed, was a news clip of him and Mendelson working together). Then he moved on to thinly veiled slams on his colleague, where Michael Brown’s name was not mentioned but his tax issues, his 1997 conviction on a campaign finance charge and even his pending divorce seemed to be referenced. Failing that, Orange appealed to party loyalty and tried to guilt his Democratic colleagues into voting for him over Brown, a nominal independent (and the son of a former Democratic national chairman and a Barack Obama surrogate). And when at long last it was clear he was going down, he said he was having a “Pacquiao moment” — comparing himself to boxer Manny Pacquiao, robbed by split decision this weekend.
The performance, egged on and in some cases trumped by the supportive comments of Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), prompted a full-frontal display of legislative id with various members questioning each other’s histories and motives. The rancor escalated to the point that Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) choked up while admonishing her colleagues to knock off the “backbiting and foolishness.”
Far be it from this reporter to criticize anyone or any institution for airing their dirty laundry — the debate was fascinating to watch and aired important concerns about Brown’s fitness for his new role — the political question remains: How exactly did Orange improve his standing?
He certainly did himself no favors among his colleagues, who’d hoped to avoid a messy dais fight. His no-holds-barred-but-no-names-mentioned treatment of Brown mirrored his recent at-large campaigns, where he criticized members — particularly David Catania (I-At Large) — for holding outside jobs in addition to their council roles. In a preliminary vote that would have substituted Orange for Brown as pro tempore, only Evans and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) supported Barry and Orange.
What about voters or campaign donors? What will they think? If Orange indeed pursues the chairman’s seat in the Nov. 6 special election, perhaps he sees opportunity in being “Mr. Eleven-to-One” — the outsider who isn’t afraid to alienate colleagues to make an unpopular point. That said, if Orange is hoping to paint himself as an outsider — well, perhaps it wasn’t the best move to repeatedly mention his long record in city politics and his position as Democratic national committeeman. And note that council chairman is the one elective office in city government that essentially requires that you play well with others; otherwise the council collapses into chaos — kind of like Wednesday’s debate.
But will Orange run? He told Associated Press reporter Ben Nuckols he would on Monday and repeated the claim to TV reporters today. (He declined to confirm his intentions to Post reporters.) But there are reasons he might think twice. His recent at-large Democratic primary race was an unexpected squeak; in a special election, he’ll have to deal with tens of thousands of Republican and independent voters who won’t be particularly inclined to support him against Mendelson. If Orange is counting on his significant financial support in the business community to be a difference-maker, he’ll recall that Mendelson easily swatted away business-friendly A. Scott Bolden in 2006. Also, Orange has indicated he’d run for chairman while simultaneously running to keep his at-large seat, opening him up to attacks that he’s a risk-averse opportunist. And even if he won the chairmanship, he’d face another campaign in 2014; if he holds on to his at-large slot, he’d have a four-year breather.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: Orange has rarely passed up an opportunity to improve his political standing. It hasn’t always worked out: His 2006 mayoral campaign, in which he risked his safe Ward 5 council seat, was a bust; a 2010 chairman’s run sputtered. But he clawed his way back to the council in a 2011 special election, he now sees opportunity, and as the saying goes, if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.
As Orange said while Wednesday’s debate was winding down, “I just want to thank the legislative body for going through this process.”