Vincent B. Orange’s election Tuesday to an at-large seat on the D.C. Council could lead to a prolonged period of uncertainty among its members, reflecting a broader divide over the direction of the District.
As recently as six months ago, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) led the 13-member council, rallying its members on some of the most ambitious legislation in the nation, including measures to approve the bag tax and same-sex marriage. But under the leadership of Kwame R. Brown (D), the council has experienced rifts as members investigate the mayor’s hiring practices and manage criticism of a politically wounded chairman.
Without a strong leader and with political sentiment shifting, some observers fear that legislating could be paralyzed by infighting.
“These are challenging times ahead for getting things done,” said Max J. Brown, a D.C. businessman who handled council relations for former mayor Anthony A. Williams. “I think there’s going to be a lot of chess playing in the next few years on the council. When there are lot of chess players, you often end up with a stalemate.”
Brown noted that 72 percent of the vote went to candidates other than Orange, an indication that there are some shifting views in the city. “People are interested in a new way of doing business on the council.”
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics is expected to certify the election May 10, after which Orange will be sworn in for a 19-month term.
Orange previously served from 1999 to 2007 representing Ward 5, but he returns to a council with a different array of personalities — including a chairman whom he ran against last year and often criticized.
In an interview Wednesday, Orange said he will let Brown “take the lead to see how he forms the relationship.”
“I’m just looking to see where there is common ground,” added Orange, who raised questions about personal finances and later complained to campaign finance authorities about Brown’s 2008 fundraising, which led to a probe that found serious irregularities in his filings.
Orange, however, indicated that the relationship could be slow to improve. He said he felt snubbed by Brown, whom he said had not called him as of Wednesday afternoon.
“I would have thought he would have called and said, ‘Congratulations — what does your schedule look like? Can we get together and see how we could proceed?’ ” said Orange, who is filling what had been Brown’s at-large seat.
Brown called Orange shortly after his comments.
Brown has had a tenuous grasp on the council. His relationships with Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), David A. Catania (I-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and, to a lesser extent, Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) have been strained.
Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) have maintained closer ties to Brown, but both have spoken out publicly against his request for a city-leased Lincoln Navigator a few days after his election.
And with some council members saying relationships between some members are becoming toxic, it could be a rocky few months inside the John A. Wilson Building.
“I think the relationships on the council at present are developing,” Evans said. “We have only been there three months, and people are looking at the different personalities, coalitions and seeing where everything shapes up.”
Orange said he hopes to be the consensus builder on the council, noting that he has close ties to Evans as well as more-liberal members with majority-black constituencies.
“I see it as I have a golden opportunity to be the bridge, since I am not in anyone’s camp,” Orange said.
Although Orange’s victory ran along racial lines, with wins in predominantly African American wards 4, 5, 7 and 8 and losses in the city’s other four wards, he ran a campaign that bucked the city’s black leadership.
Orange successfully tapped into both the black and white communities’ disappointment in Brown and Gray, both saddled by recent controversies, to beat eight candidates, including D.C. Council member Sekou Biddle (D), who had been appointed to the at-large seat until Tuesday’s special election.
Orange had promised to root out “waste, fraud and abuse,” a message he said crosses all lines. But his win ultimately centered on his ability to win over African American voters, which several of the candidates did not aggressively pursue.
Republican Patrick Mara, who is white and described himself as fiscally conservative but socially progressive, won wards 2, 3 and 6. Orange won many of those areas last year in his race against Brown.
Mendelson said the results show that Northwest residents are anxious.
“Anyone who dismisses what is going on is going to be in trouble” politically, said Mendelson, adding that Northwest residents are tired of “government as usual.”
Orange has long taken an interest in economic development. On the campaign trail, he regularly touted his role in forging a deal to bring a Home Depot and Giant supermarket to Rhode Island Avenue NE — the first major retail development that area had seen in decades.
But Orange’s successor as Ward 5’s council member, Harry Thomas Jr., now chairs the council’s economic development committee. Orange defeated his father, Harry Thomas Sr., by fewer than 400 votes in the 1998 Democratic primary.
In an interview, Thomas downplayed any potential for tension between him and his soon-to-be colleague. “I firmly believe he will work with every one of us in good measure,” Thomas said.
Sharon Ambrose, a former Ward 6 council member who served alongside Orange, said that he is “more sophisticated” on development issues than Brown or Thomas. “He understands business and economic development and how to do deals,” she said. “I suspect that Vincent has big plans.”
Ambrose suggested that Orange will take an interest in advancing major projects in his home ward, including the redevelopment of the McMillan Sand Filtration site at North Capitol Street and Michigan Avenue NW. Those are projects, she said, that Thomas will also be looking to shepherd.
“I think it’s going to be a tussle,” she said.
But Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said that Orange is deft enough to navigate the council’s political thickets.
“Vincent Orange has been on the council before,” Barry said. “He knows the rules of the council. I think he and Kwame are man enough to rise above their personal differences from the campaign.”
Barry, who supports increasing income taxes to maintain social programs in the pending 2012 budget, said he was not concerned that Orange opposed that idea during the campaign. Orange’s vote stands to give tax-increase opponents, which include Brown, enough votes to eliminate it.
“We’ll just have to hustle votes,” Barry said.
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.