Orange Returns to a Changed DC Council

The last time Vincent Orange had a seat on the city council in 2006 after representing Ward 5 for eight years, he decided to run for mayor. Adrian Fenty rolled over him, just like every other candidate in a knockout victory.

Now, Orange is back as the newly-elected at-large city councilman, winning a special election to fill the seat formerly held by Kwame Brown, who was elected council chairman last year in a race against Orange. Talk about perseverance.

Orange won a tight race, considering the low voter turnout citywide, that featured a strong challenge by Republican Patrick Mara, who was endorsed by the Washington Post and won impressive pluralities in Wards 2, 3 and 6. Orange, boosted by a strong lead in fundraising late in the campaign, name recognition and experience ended up taking 28 percent of the vote to Mara’s almost 26 percent. Orange won by a margin of over 1,000 votes.

Sekou Biddle, a Shepherd Park resident and Teach for America worker, was the nominal incumbent, having been appointed to fill the seat on an interim basis by the DC Democratic Committee, with support from Mayor Vincent Gray and Chairman Brown. Incumbency was not enough to push Biddle across the finish line in the lead. He finished third, winning 20 percent of the vote.

Bryan Weaver, a Ward 1 activist and ANC Commissioner, made a credible showing at 13 percent (he won a majority in Ward One), followed by Josh Lopez, the young Hispanic candidate who worked on former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s campaign and helped lead a write-in campaign for him.

Looked at from a distance, the results of this race appear to be almost a replay of the results in the mayoral race, which saw Gray upset Fenty by winning heavily in the primarily black wards of 8, 7, 4 and 5, while Fenty took a large majority in the primarily white wards of 3, 2 and 6. Orange scored big in the same wards as Gray, while Mara took large majorities as Fenty. What’s clear is that Mayor Gray’s campaign slogan of “One City” remains no more than just a slogan.

Voter turnout, as usual in such special elections, was not even respectable, coming in at 9.48 percent of eligible voters, according to DC Board of Election figures. Before DC voters again rail against interference from the federal government or for voting rights in congress, they might look long and hard at that figure: 43,208 voters out of 455,842 eligible voters voted in this election.

True, special elections don’t draw a heavy turnout, but for an election deemed critical by many observers, it’s a poor showing that needs to be improved.

Both Orange and Mara indicated they would not support a tax increase on the $200,000 plus earners in the city, something of a surprise from Orange, but not from a GOP candidate. The tax increase is a critical part of Mayor Gray’s budget and the election results probably doesn’t bode well for it. Expect a big budget fight ahead in the upcoming weeks.

What the results showed is that the city, while losing black residents, remains a deeply divided city. Mayor Gray, under a continually raining cloud over hiring practices and investigations from a variety of sources, has been so far unable to effectively lead. School reform was probably not a major issue, since there wasn’t a candidate that doesn’t support reform. The ethical scandals surrounding the mayor, the chairman and some members of the council, however, was a big talking point in the candidate forums.

Orange returns to a council that is different from the one that he left. Brown, the man who defeated him in the chairman race, remains chairman but is a considerably weaker leader almost in as much hot water as Gray and even more unpopular.

For Orange, it’s something of a major comeback and triumph. He won in spite of having lost convincingly in his last two campaigns. He won in spite of a majority of the council support for his opponents. That signals a divided council, which Orange may have difficulty in influencing. On the other hand, Orange brings one quality that is healthy in these tense times to the council: he is an unwavering enthusiast and optimist, not the worst attitude for an elected official.

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