D.C. Council chairman's race

Orange devotes a familiar focus to D.C. Council chairman's race

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

At a retail conference in Las Vegas a decade ago, Vincent Bernard Orange Sr. helped plant the seeds with Home Depot representatives that eventually led to the transformation of the District's car impoundment lot, which for years was an eyesore for the Northeast Washington communities he represented on the D.C. Council.

"Vince is very, very focused, very well prepared. He was right up there in making that happen," said former mayor Anthony A. Williams, who remembers the Las Vegas trip with Orange as a "hit line drive, right down the middle."

Former colleagues and observers say that in his two terms on the council, Orange was a bulldog for Ward 5, pressing for the redevelopment projects that created a bustling shopping center on Brentwood Road at a time when major retailers had little interest in locating in the city.

His penchant for promoting his ward, and himself, led to a series of successes on the council. His doggedness ensured the construction of three recreation centers and the restoration of McKinley Technical High School, one of the better-performing high schools in the city, according to standardized test scores. But that same focus at times led to misguided steps in policy and politics, according to former council colleagues and political observers.

He unsuccessfully sued then-D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, for instance, when he disagreed with her decision that the committee he chaired lacked jurisdiction over the baseball stadium project -- which he supported -- a move she dubbed "bizarre behavior." And, fearing that he would be outvoted during debate over a "living wage" bill, Orange put off a vote and then scheduled the meeting for a Saturday, only to cancel it at the last minute.

"If you don't stand up for something, you'll fall for anything," said Orange, paraphrasing an old saying to explain his legislative approach.

Still, Orange was largely viewed as a hard-working, fiscally savvy dealmaker and a reliable vote for business interests -- often allied with Williams and Finance Committee Chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).

"He was one of the votes we could always count on," said Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, whose separate political action committee has endorsed council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) in the race for chairman in part for continuity. "If he was thinking about something, he'd always call us to ask, 'Am I going in the wrong direction?' You don't get as much of that anymore."

Orange on the council

Orange, 53, was first elected to the council in 1998, defeating longtime incumbent Harry Thomas Sr. As a former public official most recently in the private sector, he stresses the importance of quality schools in his self-made story as one of 10 siblings raised in Oakland, Calif., by parents with a sixth-grade education. One of his educational opportunities came in the form of a scholarship to a Colorado boarding school before attending Howard University law school and later entering politics.

However, if endorsements and electability matter in public office, Orange is lagging behind Brown, who has racked up support from labor and business groups as well as all but one of his council colleagues. Such predicaments have not deterred Orange: It took him three tries to win a council seat, and he received 2.9 percent of the vote in his 2006 mayoral bid, coming in behind a retired business executive not well known in political circles.

"You have to persevere," said Orange, who decided to run for chairman after Evans passed on the race. "If you have compassion and believe in something, you stick with it."

On the council, colleagues rarely saw Orange without his No. 5 lapel pin, a reminder of his ward-centric focus. But Orange also used his role as chairman of the Government Operations Committee to tackle issues of wider interest: He probed government contracting practices, strengthened job requirements for the District's inspector general and initiated legislation to create the city's Emancipation Day to commemorate the freeing of 3,000 slaves in the District. (To help balance the books last year, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) tried to eliminate the public holiday to save at least $1.3 million, but the council restored the funding.)

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