In a city where a lot of people think they are on the move, Vincent B. Orange never leaves the treadmill of District politics.
The D.C. Council member walks briskly through the halls of the John A. Wilson Building. He runs between community meetings and Democratic Party gatherings nightly, hawking what he calls his decade-long record of public service. And at council meetings, Orange rarely slows crafting his legislative portfolio, prompting some colleagues to deem him a “carnival barker” and another to label him the “Newt Gingrich of District politics.”
“Running, running, running, always running,” Orange told a reporter this month as he breezed through the District building.
In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Orange will be competing in his fifth election in less than six years after losing bids for mayor and council chairman but overpowering the city’s Democratic establishment last year to win an at-large special election. Orange also represented Ward 5 on the council from 1999 to 2007 but gave up the seat to unsuccessfully run for mayor in 2006.
“Sure, I’ve had my ups and downs, but that builds character,” Orange said. “One thing I can say, I’ve never been voted out of office.”
But in his bid for an at-large full term, Orange is running into a headwind of political controversy, including a federal investigation, surrounding District political campaigns.
After city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson’s home and office were raided by the FBI and IRS on March 2, Orange acknowledged he had collected $26,000 in “suspicious” campaign donations in money orders and cashier’s checks from Thompson last year.
In his 2011 election, Orange also received campaign help from consultant Vernon E. Hawkins, who allegedly was part of “shadow campaign” for Mayor Vincent C. Gray that is now under federal investigation, according to people familiar with the probe.
Orange denies any wrongdoing, saying he collected donations from a major donor who has also contributed to a range of local and national politicians.
But with signs pointing to a scandal-fatigued electorate, the federal investigation has given some traction to three opponents looking to unseat Orange in Tuesday’s primary.
One challenger, former school board and council member Sekou Biddle, is seeking to reclaim the seat Orange won from him a special election last year. The D.C. Democratic State Committee had appointed Biddle, 40, to fill the seat pending the special election, but he finished third behind Orange and Republican Patrick Mara.
Another candidate, former Prince George’s County Council member Peter Shapiro, is making his inaugural run for District office. E. Gail Anderson Holness, pastor at Christ Our Redeemer AME Church and a Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, is also a candidate in the race.
With the candidates broadly agreeing on most major issues, the race is shaping up as a battle over style and a key test of voter attitudes toward incumbents after 18 months of ethical lapses and federal investigations.
Orange, 54, remains popular east of the Anacostia River and in his home base of vote-rich Ward 5, where he’s built a reputation as an effective legislator.
In other areas the city, his candidacy is testing the patience of some progressives who are eager to seize more control of a city government that they fear is dominated by cozy relationships between elected officials and donors.
Several progressive leaders, including former Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Bryan Weaver and Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), have lined up behind Biddle. Biddle, who lives in Shepherd Park, has also won endorsements from publications with large readerships in Northwest.
Despite relying on Gray and Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) for support in his unsuccessful campaign last year, Biddle is now asking voters to overlook his past ties to city government.
“I’m running because I believe we can do better,” said Biddle, who wants a renewed focus on ethics. “I’m running to restore hard-working, honest leadership.”
Of the candidates in the race, Biddle has been the most supportive of Walmart’s plan to open six stores in the District, saying they would help revitalize long-neglected retail corridors. Biddle, a former teacher at the KIPP DC charter school, vows to keep the focus on education reform.
But Shapiro, who lives in Chevy Chase, is gaining traction in some of the same neighborhoods that Biddle hopes to run up big margins to overcome Orange’s advantage in Wards 5, 7 and 8.
Shapiro, 49, is also running as an outsider who vows to boost the city’s job market while enacting new ethics and campaign finance rules. “I know what it’s means to be an effective legislator in a bit of an ethically challenged environment,” said Shapiro, who grew up in the District but moved to Prince George’s after he got married in 1991 and returned to the city three years ago. “I am not a stranger to D.C, but I am a stranger to the Wilson Building.”
When he was on the Prince George’s County Council from 1998 to 2004, Shapiro helped shape the new arts district along Route 1 in Mount Rainier, Brentwood and Hyattsville. Last year, Shapiro served on panel to explore the county’s ethics rules, but he missed three of seven meetings, county records show.
Though her campaign is poorly funded, Holness’s blunt debating style has been winning supporters. She notes she is the only candidate in the race who has not accepted corporate contributions and has taken the strongest stance against the proposed Walmarts.
“I’m un-bought, un-bossed and will speak the truth,” said Holness, 55.
Since returning to the council, Orange notes he’s pushed for a recently approved bill that requires more oversight of 3- and 4-year-olds to make sure they are prepared for entry into kindergarten and won new restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries and adult entertainment establishments in Northeast.
“I actually have real substance that people can touch and feel and that people can embrace,” said Orange, who has been endorsed by most of the city’s unions and several business groups.
Yet, Orange’s style has cost him friends on the 12-member council, leaving him increasingly isolated as he seeks reelection. Several council members describe Orange as brusque and untrustworthy, saying, for example, the recently elected Orange shouldn’t be taking credit on his literature for helping the District achieve a $242 million surplus last year.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At large), who is supporting Biddle, called Orange the “Newt Gingrich of District politics” because he is “just a bag of gimmicks and tricks.”
Orange said Catania is just “extremely upset” that he is leading the fight to bar council members from working for companies that hold city contracts. In addition to his $125,538 council salary, Catania also earns $240,000 as a vice president for M.C. Dean Inc., which holds a multi-million city contract to operate street lights.
“I believe that is unethical and needs to stop,” Orange said.
During the campaign, Orange has noted that Shapiro failed to vote in last year’s special election and quit his job as chairman of the Prince George’s County Council two years before his term expired. Orange has responded to attacks over ethics from Shapiro and Biddle by noting both accepted contributions from developers and corporations.
Like Shapiro, Orange has also suggested that Biddle lacks the substance needed to be an effective leader.
On Monday, Shapiro campaigned in Bloomingdale, a neighborhood at the epicenter of the city’s recent demographic shifts.
“I do not like Vincent Orange,” Laurel Sheridan, 46, a nine-year resident of the neighborhood, said after Shapiro visited her home. “I’m looking for a progressive politician.”
A few doors away, however, Shapiro got a far different reaction from Marty T. Scott, 79, who has lived in her house for 42 years.
Scott told Shapiro she already voted by absentee ballot for Orange because she thought “he was the only name on the ballot.”
“I’ve just been seeing him and knowing him a long time,” Scott said.
Staff writer Miranda S. Spivack contributed to this report.