In the increased intensity of interest surrounding the District’s mayoral race, the casualties have been the attention paid to the other electoral races in the city.
Chief among them is the race for the chairman’s seat left open by Gray’s mayoral bid. When Gray finally announced, the political air was full of rumors about who would run, and a lot of the buzz was about Jack Evans, the Ward 2 Councilman who is also the longest-serving member of the council and a one-time mayoral candidate. The other speculation was Kwame Brown, who is in the midst of his second term as at-large councilman. Other names floated around included Michael Brown, the independent at large council member, and Phil Mendelson, now running to keep his Democratic at-large seat in a confusing race. Evans in fact had flat out said he was going to run if Gray ran for mayor.
Nobody much mentioned Vincent Orange, twice elected to the Ward 5 Council seat which he held until he decided to run for mayor four years ago (and lost decisively in a crowded field).
But when the dust settled there were no Evans, no Mendelson, and no Michael Brown. There was just Kwame Brown and Vincent Orange.
Evans quickly announced, without explanation, that he had decided not to run. Kwame Brown was effectively alone in the race until, after some time, Vincent Orange decided to step into the mix. “I would not have run if Jack had run,” Orange said. “Once I knew he wouldn’t – well, I just decided to enter the race. One of the things the job needs is experience, and I think I’m the guy best qualified.”
But for Orange, it’s been an uphill battle. “I know how the council works; I was on the council for eight years. I know the people, the process, the workings of the committees, the way things work,” he said. “And one of the things we have now is a bit of an imbalance, and that’s got to change. We have a powerful executive, and a council that hasn’t been a true partner. I would push for an equal partnership – in education especially. I’m for reform, but we have to be a part of it.”
The other thing for Orange, who has an up-from-poverty background (that he will detail for you with great intensity and feeling), is that he insists Kwame Brown simply isn’t ready. “He doesn’t have the know-how, the experience. You’ve got to have an experienced leader in that job. You can’t have somebody that everybody backs because he’s a nice guy. Sure, he’s a nice guy. Everybody thinks so. That doesn’t make you qualified to be chairman of the city council. It’s the second most important job in local government.”
There’s that, and the fact that in the summer, after Kwame Brown had piled up a significant package of endorsements – including all of his fellow council members – it was reported that he had amassed a considerable credit card debt while spending money on upwardly mobile items, including a boat he named “Bulletproof”. The resulting media furor gave Orange the opportunity to chastise Brown as not being fit to represent the city on Wall Street. But it has not helped much.
Neither, it appears has a Washington Post endorsement, or a recent endorsement by the City Paper. More importantly, it turned out, was a Washington Post poll which showed that Brown was winning easily, by as much as 20% or more.
Still, Brown isn’t taking anything for granted. And he says he’s learned his lesson from his financial woes, which he’s taken care of. “I made mistakes,” he said. “It happens to people when they get into a certain position – a certain level. You learn from things like that, you really do. Not going to happen again, I can tell you that.”
Orange has scoffed at the council endorsements. “It’s a club,” he said. “When you’re in, that’s what happens. When you’re not, you’re not.”
However, Brown has a different take on the situation. “The council members trust me,” he says. “It’s not about committee assignments or things like that. They think I can do the job, and I intend to prove that.”
Here’s the thing. Brown IS easy to like. And he makes a strong case when he talks about his own native DC background, his rise in the community, in business, and on the council. “The chairman has to be able to work with the mayor,” he said. “I think I’ll be able to work well with the mayor – if Gray wins or if Fenty wins. Chairman Gray and I have already established a strong working relationship on the council, and I’m about the same age as the mayor [Fenty]; I’ve got the same kind of concerns and energy, so I think we can talk together pretty well. We understand each other.”
On the council, Brown comes across as a guy who can bridge the gaps between the wards — his two young sons go to public school in the neighborhood, his wife is a school teacher, and he knows what’s going on in the wards where Fenty is meeting anger and resistance from voters. His appeal, in spite of his financial controversies (there have recently been campaign fund issues) is broad throughout the district.
He’s also been effective — witness his leadership in the School Modernization Act and, equally impressive, in the reform of the District’s domestic violence laws.
Brown currently chairs the Committee on Economic Development.
Still, it’s fair to say that the city has had a history of effective, and often memorable, council chairpersons from Sterling Tucker Dave Clark, to John Wilson, to Cropp and Gray.