D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At large) didn’t speak up last year to repudiate former council member Harry Thomas Jr. for stealing from District taxpayers because “it was a personnel issue” and would have violated council protocol, Orange said during a debate Friday on WAMU.
In the final debate before Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Orange was repeatedly put on the defensive over ethical issues involving the 12-member council.
Appearing on the Kojo Nnamdi show along with his three opponents, Orange quickly faced tough questioning about why he didn’t call for Thomas’s resignation. Thomas resigned in January after pleaded guilty to using more than $300,000 in city funds for his personal use.
“It was very clear, there was going to be an internal process,” said Orange, adding he hoped to chair the council committee that was going to investigate the Thomas matter. “Personnel matters are matters that are not discussed in public, under our rules.”
When co-host Tom Sherwood asked Orange if Thomas should go to prison for his crime, the council member responded, “that is up to the judge” but noted he was “personally offended” by Thomas’s actions..
Orange’s opponents pounced on his comments, saying they underscore a tightly-knit culture at the John A. Wilson Building.
“This is a good ole boy network that is not in the interest of residents,” said Peter Shapiro, a former Prince George’s County Council member making his inaugural run for office in the District. “I am not going to speak out about a colleague because I want a seat at the table? That is a terrible style of leadership.”
But as the 60-minute debate progressed, Orange regained his footing and aimed his criticism at former council member and school board member Sekou Biddle, who is seeking to return to the council.
Orange pressed Biddle, who bills himself as the education candidate, to specifically cite his plans for reforming city schools.
“Mr. Biddle didn’t introduce any education bills when he was on the council” from January 2011 through last April, Orange said.
Biddle responded he had “19 years of service” in the field of education. Biddle, who served on the school board from 2007 to 2011, also took credit for the $75 million Race to the Top funds that the city received in 2010 from the federal government.
“That was the done by the mayor,” Orange responded as Biddle tried to speak.
Earlier in the debate, Biddle sidestepped a question from a caller noting that he had received help in his 2011 campaign from Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) and Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry (D), all of who have been embroiled in ethical controversies over the past two years. (Thomas also endorsed Biddle last year.)
“Last year, I was supported by a number of elected officials,” Biddle said. “This year, I am not…I have been running very hard…I am the right and best choice.”
Shapiro, who is competing with Biddle for support in Northwest, did not get a lot of airtime during the debate. But Shapiro was also put on the defensive when Nnamdi referenced a Washington Post story that noted the candidate had missed three of seven meetings when he served on a Prince George’s County ethics reform commission last year.
“I worked very hard on that commission,” Shapiro said.
E. Gail Anderson Holness, a Ward 1 Advisory Neighborhood Commission, was the one candidate who emerged from the debate unscathed. Holness repeatedly tried to stay out of the bickering over ethics, arguing she’s best suited to bring a fresh perspective to the council.
“This is the worst council I have seen in my years being in Washington D.C., since 1978,” Holness said.
Holness also demonstrated her blunt speaking style by arguing the District can have medical marijuana without all the cultivation centers being clustered in Northeast.
“We need to listen to neighbors in communities” but “everybody in America is on some kind of drug,” Holness said.