At-Large Race Now Has Nearly 20 Candidates, Including Ex-Lawmaker Vincent Orange (DCist)
If all the candidates currently vying for David Grosso’s soon-to-be vacant D.C. Council seat got together in the same room, they might have a hard time staying six feet apart.
That’s because, to date, there are 15 of them who have picked up petitions for ballot access—a substantial number of candidates in any race, let alone one for a non-majority-party, at-large seat on the local legislature. The candidates are competing in the November general election and have until Aug. 5 to submit 250 voter signatures to the D.C. Board of Elections to qualify for the ballot.
The field includes former Grosso staffer Christina Henderson, veteran former head of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute Ed Lazere, Capitol Hill Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Chander Jayaraman, former D.C. Office of Human Rights director Mónica Palacio, D.C. State Board of Education vice president Markus Batchelor, real estate developer Marcus Goodwin, and tenant advocate Will Merrifield.
Two recent additions are former councilmember Vincent Orange, who last week announced his resignation as president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce (the job he took when he left office, under controversial circumstances, in 2016) and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alex Padro. It’s possible that even more candidates could pick up ballot petitions in the weeks ahead. Ex-Councilmember Michael A. Brown, who pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in 2013, is also considering a run, the Washington City Paper reported.
In November, voters will choose from this slew of candidates and the Republican, Libertarian, and Statehood Green nominees: Marya Pickering, Joseph Henchman, and Ann Wilcox, respectively. (D.C. typically elects independents over other non-Democrats who run for either of the council’s two non-majority-party seats.) Democratic incumbent Robert White is also seeking re-election to his at-large seat, which he’ll likely keep: He ran unopposed and won more than 93,000 votes in the June 2 primary.
In such a crowded field, some observers see the entrance of Orange, a longtime politico with a history of colorful proposals, as a surprising new wrinkle.
As a registered Democrat, Orange held an at-large seat from 2011 to 2016, when he lost in the primary to Robert White. He ended up resigning before his term had finished, amid a scandal over his accepting the top role at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce while still holding office and chairing the council’s business committee. The move drew intense criticism from Orange’s council colleagues, a previous president of the chamber, and the then-editor of the Washington Business Journal, among others.
Despite joining the race only recently, his ethics record already hangs over his campaign—launched in a year when one of his former colleagues, Jack Evans, resigned as the longest-serving member of the council over his own ethics troubles. (Evans then ran in the Democratic primary and failed to win his party’s nomination for the Ward 2 seat he’d held for almost 30 years.)
In an email announcing his campaign, Orange points out that the D.C. Board of Ethics and Government Accountability “determined I did not have a conflict of interest when I became [head] of the DC Chamber, and more importantly, they opined I could hold both positions simultaneously.”
In a separate matter about his involvement in a city health inspection of a business owned by one of his political donors, Orange in 2013 became the first councilmember to be reprimanded by the board.
Shortly after Orange filed papers for his candidacy this month, veteran D.C. journalist Tom Sherwood reported that Orange was stepping down from his position with the chamber. He declined to speak with DCist for this story, but, via email, sent his campaign announcement, several links to his recent tweets, a 2015 speech in support of D.C. statehood, and a video about his work at the chamber.
“If we can get out the gate or get to first base, get to second base on my finished DC Council business, and see if I can get home on an unfinished DC Council agenda,” Orange says in his announcement, which he sent to various members of the media. “Let’s have some good clean fun and excitement, and stir up the pot, and present a good meal for everyday people to digest.”
Previously, Orange ran unsuccessful campaigns for mayor and council chairman. Many of his campaign committees for those races remain active, either with money in or outstanding debts associated with their accounts, according Office of Campaign finance records. At the Chamber of Commerce, Orange oversaw the release of a 2018 report on gentrification and displacement, but also rocky finances, as the Business Journal has chronicled.
Padro, the Shaw Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, entered the race around the same time as Orange. He says he’s campaigning on his experience at the community level, and wants to promote equitable development and affordable housing.
“The voters today aren’t looking for retreads, they’re looking for new blood,” says Padro, who directs the Shaw Main Streets nonprofit. “They’re not looking for councilmembers with spotty track records.”
Padro has served on various local committees, including the African American Heritage Trail Advisory Committee and the D.C. Commemorative Works Committee. He also chaired the Historical Society of Washington’s board of trustees and the D.C. Preservation League’s landmarks committee.
He says that in the last 20 years, he’s worked to transform Shaw into a vibrant neighborhood and destination. “I see this campaign as an opportunity to try to bring those skills to bear to help other neighborhoods across the city achieve their dreams,” Padro adds.
Like the June primary, the at-large race will provide voters an occasion to cement the council’s idealogical drift to the left, and to elect a relatively young, or female, representative. To recap: In the Ward 4 primary, first-time, 32-year-old candidate Janeese Lewis George ousted Brandon Todd, a close ally of Mayor Muriel Bowser, marking a progressive shift in D.C.’s northernmost ward. And in central Ward 2, first-time, 28-year-old candidate Brooke Pinto beat a crowded field that included erstwhile lawmaker Jack Evans, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, and political newcomers.
In the at-large race, progressive residents have started to coalesce around Ed Lazere, who was most recently the director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, an influential local think tank he led for nearly 20 years. On Tuesday, he was endorsed by the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America; he’s also been endorsed by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine and activism group D.C. for Democracy.
Lazere lost a bid for council chairman in 2018, when he challenged incumbent Phil Mendelson in the Democratic primary. He’s since changed his party status to independent and emerged at the upper tier of the at-large field in terms of fundraising. Along with several others in the race, including Orange, Lazere is registered for D.C.’s new public financing program, which matches small-dollar donations with public money.
In an interview, he cites differences between his and Orange’s views on the District’s budget and paid family leave program, which is slated to go into effect in July. Lazere pushed for the precedent-setting law behind the program, while Orange opposed it as too costly for employers.
“I think the question for voters is: ‘Do you want someone who is a champion for things like paid family and medical leave for all people who work in the city, or do you want someone who’s against that?'” says Lazere, adding that he has a long record of “ethical, principled, progressive leadership” in D.C.
Given the profusion of candidates, the field might not significantly narrow, at least anytime soon. Some of the candidates have held elected office or worked in government before, but others are political newcomers striving to build name-recognition.
Among those in the race who have elected experience, Franklin Garcia, D.C.’s shadow representative in Congress, is also running.
Goodwin, the real estate developer, made his political debut in 2018, when he unsuccessfully ran to unseat Anita Bonds, one of the at-large Democratic incumbents. Now 30, he says D.C. needs fresh leadership and that voters “don’t want a corrupt career politician on the Council.”
“People will contrast VO [Vincent Orange] and myself and they will see that I’m running a campaign focused on equitably growing the economy and making thoughtful investments in our communities,” Goodwin says in an email to DCist. “VO has an unsettling record of ethics scandals and I think voters don’t want those kinds of distractions in government.”
Henderson, the former staffer for outgoing Councilmember Grosso, has received her old boss’ endorsement. As people have taken to the streets en masse to protest against police brutality and for racial justice in the last few weeks, she has voiced concerns about overfunding the Metropolitan Police Department and defended the council’s recent police reform bill. (Lazere and Batchelor, the D.C. State Board of Education vice president, have expressed support for defunding the police department.)
“My conversations with voters over the past eight months suggest that they are looking for a new generation of leadership into the council,” Henderson, who is in her early 30s, tells DCist.
The other independent candidates in the race are A’Shia Howard, Michangelo Scruggs, Mario Cristaldo, Calvin Gurley, Jeanné Lewis, Eric Rodgers, and Rick Murphree. Asar Mustafa also is seeking the seat, per a statement of candidacy he filed with the campaign-finance office, but isn’t included on the office’s latest candidate list.
The general election will take place November 3. Last week, the Board of Elections announced that it would proactively send every registered D.C. voter a mail-in ballot, in an effort to avoid the kind of mishaps—ranging from miscommunications and long polling-place lines to missing mail-in ballots and a dysfunctional election app—that this year’s primary saw.