An already crowded field of District mayoral candidates became even more packed Friday when a fourth D.C. Council member and a prominent restaurateur declared their intentions to run in the Democratic primary.
But with no word from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) on whether he will seek a second term or even when he plans to make a decision, the race remains suffused with uncertainty.
The latest entrants, Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) and Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal, were among those picking up nominating petitions from the D.C. Board of Elections on Friday, the first day they were available for the April 1 primaries.
They join three council members — Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — who announced their plans as far back as March. Reta Jo Lewis, a Democrat and former State Department official who started exploring a race in July, also is in the field. Together, they have raised nearly $2 million for their Democratic primary runs.
Four lesser-known Democratic candidates — Christian Carter, Michael Green, Frank Sewell and Octavia Wells — also picked up petition forms.
Orange was not at the board’s offices Friday, but supporter Gerri Adams-Simmons — carrying an authorization form signed by Orange — was first through the door to pick up petition forms.
Orange, 56, did not return phone calls or text messages seeking comment Friday. James Brown, his council chief of staff, said he was traveling in England after attending the British Business Improvement Districts Conference on Wednesday and is to return next week.
This is Orange’s second time seeking the mayoralty. In 2006, he opted against pursuing a third term representing Ward 5 on the council to seek the Democratic mayoral nomination. But he finished well behind winner Adrian M. Fenty, coming in fourth place with less than 3 percent of the vote.
Orange later mounted a comeback, gaining a citywide council seat in a 2011 special election after falling short in a bid for the chairmanship in 2010. He won reelection to a full term last year after a closely fought Democratic primary.
His tenure has been clouded by his past ties to businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson, who played a big role in bankrolling Orange’s 2011 race and is the subject of an investigation.
A grand jury subpoena in October that was reviewed by The Washington Post sought records pertaining to Orange and his 2011 campaign.
On the council, Orange recently took a turn in the spotlight by leading the high-profile effort to mandate higher wages for the employees of large retail chains. Orange pushed the Large Retailer Accountability Act through his Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee and secured its final passage, but he was unable to garner enough votes to override Gray’s veto. More recently, he has taken a leading role in the council's move toward a broader increase in the minimum wage.
In recent months, Orange has declined to comment on his mayoral ambitions, even amid rumors that he was considering entering the race if Gray decided not to run.
Adams-Simmons, a Brightwood retiree who has long been active in local politics, said she was representing an informal “Draft Committee to Save Our City” that decided to back Orange after community meetings.
Shallal, the Iraqi-born and left-leaning owner of the Busboys and Poets chain, made his intentions clear during an afternoon appearance on “The Politics Hour” on WAMU (88.5 FM), bringing to a close nearly three months of rumination during which he said he would not run if Gray decided to seek a second term.
He acknowledged that he had encountered plenty of skepticism from supporters curious as to why he’d want to enter the world of electoral politics.
“The first thing they said was, ‘Why do you want to be in this messy, filthy business?’ ” he said. “That’s not reassuring.”
Shallal, 58, said he wants to try to bridge the city’s cultural and economic divides.
“I like progress,” he said. “When I hear politicians speaking that we’re on the right track, I’m thinking, ‘Where are we heading?’ ”
On Friday, Gray’s 71st birthday, the mayor gave no indications that he had moved any closer to a decision.
At a reception at the John A. Wilson Building attended by members of his Cabinet, council members and city hall staff, he danced to soul music and helped pass out slices of cake but did not address his political future, clouded by the ongoing federal investigation into his 2010 campaign.
To qualify for the Democratic ballot, candidates must collect the signatures of 2,000 registered Democratic voters by Jan. 2.
“I’m dead serious when I say to folks I think you’re running a campaign every day in this job,” Gray said. “I think we’ve really got a good record and a great team.”