He once campaigned on a Segway handing out oranges.
Now, D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) is playing it mellow in a reelection campaign facing challengers who were barely tying their shoes when he was making his first run for office in 1990.
Opponents in Tuesday’s Democratic primary — Robert White, a former aide to Attorney General Karl A. Racine, and David Garber, a former neighborhood commissioner — blast Orange as an ethically challenged career politician with outlandish ideas.
For his 11th run for public office in the District, Orange, 59, is presenting himself as someone with a record of creating worker-friendly laws, instead of relying on fruit pun slogans.
“In his earlier campaigns, it was always orange this, orange that. Now he’s much more mature and a seasoned presence,” said former mayor Anthony A. Williams, who was elected mayor in 1998, the same year Orange won his first council seat. “He doesn’t need to rely on the gimmicks anymore.”
But Orange’s opponents are playing up some of his more eccentric ideas in his 12 years on the council. He has proposed a water park at the RFK Stadium site, metal detectors in Metro stations and building 1,000 tiny houses for low-income workers and millennials to address D.C.’s housing crunch.
Orange acknowledges many of his proposals won’t advance but says even the Nationals’ Bryce Harper does not hit every time he swings.
“Why can’t I have a lot of ideas?” Orange asked. “You cannot be afraid to dream, to put ideas out on the table and help get the greatest good for the greater number of people based on sound reasoning.”
And he claims some of his ideas have prompted real change. For example, he credits his proposal about tiny houses as an inspiration for the city’s decision to replace the D.C. General Hospital mega-shelter for homeless families with smaller buildings across the city — although smaller shelters were discussed more than a year before Orange pitched his plan for tiny houses.
White compares such braggadocio to Donald Trump and posted a photo of Orange posing with Trump to his Twitter feed and campaign Facebook page. “They have so much ego, hubris and self interest,” said White, who finished behind Elissa Silverman as an independent in a 2014 at-large race. “They are both people who are not looking out for the people, but themselves.”
Orange jokes that he can’t be Trump on a public servant’s salary.
Persistence has been a mainstay of Orange’s political career.
The native of Oakland, Calif., got his start in D.C. politics as a staffer in the city’s financial department in the late 1980s, and he made several unsuccessful runs for the council before winning a Ward 5 seat. He gave up that position for a failed run for mayor in 2006, mounted an unsuccessful bid for council chairman in 2010 and then secured his at-large seat in a 2011 special election. He squeaked into a full term the next year and barely registered in the 2014 mayoral race with just 2 percent of the vote.
Critics say Orange’s seemingly never-ending campaigning reflects naked ambition, not sincere interest in the office.
“What people are looking for is someone who is going to represent them . . . and not being in it to run for office because you’ve run for 100 offices in the past and keep running until you win,” said Garber, who is making his first bid for office.
Orange says he is dedicated to public service and that his victories prove he is more than a perennial candidate.
He says he would not rule out a future run for mayor but that he likes Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and has been a reliable vote on the council for Bowser, who has endorsed him. He said his positions have shifted from pro-business to pro-labor; he recently led the negotiations over the deal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
In 2013, Orange became the first council member to be admonished by the city’s new ethics board when he interfered with health inspectors trying to shut down a rat-infested produce shop owned by a campaign donor. Orange said he was trying to keep the store’s workers employed during the holidays.
White, a 34-year-old Brightwood Park resident, says Orange is too cozy with special interests, and he criticized Orange’s campaign for inviting city contractors to a May fundraiser and for raising money from businesses affected by legislation considered by his committee.
Orange counters that White has also raised money from lobbyists and companies with business before the city.
After graduating from law school, White worked as a legislative counsel to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) before resigning to make his first run for an at-large seat in 2014. He worked as a community outreach director for Racine for less than a year in 2015 — drawing criticism from Orange for planning his next run while employed by the city.
White says he’d bring tougher oversight to city agencies, including the departments of transportation and consumer and regulatory affairs.
A fifth-generation Washingtonian who says his relatives have left the city because of rising costs, White wants to create more affordable housing. He said the city should enforce requirements that new developments include lower-cost units and should rezone struggling commercial corridors such as Georgia Avenue NW to allow for more housing.
With help from consultants who ran Racine’s campaign for attorney general, White is trying to increase his visibility with paid canvassers and campaign signs plastered across the city. “We know the vast majority do not like Vincent Orange and will vote for me as long as they know who I am,” he said.
At a recent Ward 6 candidate forum, Pleasant Plains resident Lenwood Johnson said he was warming to White but was hesitant to support someone untested.
“I’m going to have to look at what Vincent Orange has done and if I’m willing to give Robert a chance,” said Johnson, a 56-year-old administrative assistant at a law firm.
Garber, 32, has had a tougher time in the race, with the least cash on hand as of the latest March campaign reports.
A Shaw resident who has worked in real estate, Garber is also a former Navy Yard advisory neighborhood commissioner and at one time ran a blog about Anacostia. Well-known in city-planning circles, he has a large following on social media.
In 2014, Garber became a substitute teacher in D.C. Public Schools to better understand education issues, but he had to quit and pay a $1,000 fine for violating a federal law barring District employees from engaging in political activity.
Garber wants the return of plainclothes vice units and more affordable housing. He says he would focus on neighborhoods and constituents and would not be beholden to special interests. “Voters are looking for someone who isn’t old-style D.C. politics,” said Garber, who would also be the council’s only openly gay member.
Orange is the only citywide candidate in a contested race on Tuesday. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) faces reelection in November, and his opponents can formally enter the race after the Democratic primary.