When Vincent Orange became president and CEO of the DC Chamber of Commerce back in August of 2016, it seemed like a good fit for him, a kind of climax to the natural curve of his professional life. “The transition was seamless to me,” he said.
Now three years into the job, he radiates confidence, looking forward to fall events, notably the Chamber’s Choice Awards & Gala on Saturday, Oct. 26, at the National Building Museum.
Orange is a familiar face and presence in the District of Columbia. Arriving from Oakland, California, he jumped into and maintained a position as a high-profile politician and elected leader on the D.C. Council, and therefore in Washington politics. He ran successfully for a seat on the Council for two terms in Ward 5, from 1999 to 2007, and later served as an at-large member, winning a special election in 2011 and a regular election the following year.
The city went through a period of highs and lows, then began to rise again during that time. The experience gave Orange opportunities to work with people at all levels of government.
“When you’re at that level, you get to see how the whole city works, and the people who are getting things done and the city’s relationships to its regional neighbors,” he said. “You see how things work and how to make them work, and use the tools at hand, including finding equitable taxation and regulatory mechanisms to make the District attractive to prospective businesses.” That is, one would think, the essence of what a chamber of commerce does.
He’s proud of what he accomplished as a Council member, especially being a proponent and leader in the passage of the $15 minimum-wage legislation, the establishment of sick-leave pay and the reopening of McKinley Tech as McKinley Technology High School.
He seems especially proud of the latter, a venture that connects with what’s special in the identity of the District of Columbia. “It’s about directly working on education issues. I think there’s been a tremendous amount of progress here, but we have to do a lot more and we can contribute to that with our resources at the Chamber of Commerce.” He’s particularly concerned about the continuing difficulties at the point where fourth graders move on to middle school.
Although he feels that he was an effective legislator and leader on the Council, he doesn’t feel nostalgic about the body. “I don’t miss it,” he said. “To be honest. I think the Council has changed quite a bit in recent years. There’s fewer long-term members, or a sense of the history of the Council.”
As a Council member, you could readily identify Orange as the kind of politician and Council member who was comfortable in most communities, neighborhoods and organizations. There’s an open-faced approach that he carries with him, and it feels authentic, whether at a business association meeting, an ANC meeting or the year-round celebrations that identify neighborhoods.
“This city is so special and what we do — it was our 80th anniversary when I came to the chamber — is to put out what makes us special to potential business owners, to people who want to bring their work and their vision here,” he said.
“It’s a city of neighborhoods, and the reality is that the city is changing, in a positive way, in economic terms. Just look around you — look at Southwest, downtown, finding new uses for old buildings. And it’s happening all of the time,” he said. “That’s change, and that can be challenging, too. We have to make sure that the people that live here now can be a part of that change, and be able to live here. This is about housing and jobs.”
Orange is also very aware of the recent spate of violence that’s hit the District. “It’s very concerning, of course,” he said. “I think we need to find more ways for the communities to work with the police department. People need to feel safe.”
And as for statehood?
“I’m a big supporter, one hundred percent,” he said. “I think what we see now is a passion and enthusiasm for the prospect and idea of statehood. It’s not going to happen overnight, but now you have a lot of people who are willing to listen to the idea. And that’s a little different from even 10 years ago.”
In Orange, the Chamber of Commerce has a savvy leader, a man who knows the city and its various leaders at different levels. He knows where to go for what. He is the classic co-operator, not operator. There used to be talk, during local election cycles, about bringing the city together, or One City. If anybody seems fit to accomplish that, it’s probably Vincent Orange, who’s a true believer when it comes to working with other people.