By any measure, David Catania’s campaign for mayor is historic. As one of the first two openly gay candidates to seek the office (Libertarian Bruce Majors is also running), one of the first electorally viable white candidates since Republican Carol Schwartz won 42 percent of the vote against Marion Barry 20 years ago (this year, she’s running as an independent), and what would be the District’s first elected non-Democratic mayor since Home Rule, a Catania victory on Nov. 4 would break a number of glass ceilings when it comes to serving as the District’s executive-in-chief.
But perhaps what is most impressive is that Catania is even slightly competitive in a city where the last two elected mayors won their general elections with more than 74 percent of the vote and where almost three-quarters of voters identify as Democrats. Even public polling shows Muriel Bowser, who failed to win a majority of Democratic voters in the April primary, below 50 percent, albeit with a 17-point lead over Catania. So while Catania is a significant underdog in a city where party allegiance usually trumps all, his profile, particularly his refusal to allow himself to simply be pigeonholed or defined by his sexual orientation, provides voters with an interesting and unique choice come November.
Throughout his career as an at-large councilmember, Catania has often cut his own path, mixing a dash of fiscal restraint and skepticism of government overreach with a genuine concern for the disenfranchised and downtrodden, particularly residents east of the Anacostia River, where he at least enjoys some degree of name recognition from his 17 years serving on the D.C. Council, and his five citywide election victories.
To wit, Catania’s biggest impediment is likely his party affiliation, both as an independent now — with no political party infrastructure to back him up — and, formerly, as a Republican, albeit a very liberal one. But Catania argues that the Democratic Party, particularly in the District, does not hold the copyright on progressivism. Catania’s challenge, then, is to convince Democrats, particularly newer, younger residents unaware of his record on the Council, that they would be better suited casting their votes for him.
“I am the most progressive candidate by far,” Catania says, ticking off a list of his accomplishments. “If you agree with the issues I’ve championed, which include marriage equality, medical marijuana, Smokefree DC, cutting our rate of uninsured in half — before the Affordable Care Act — the work I’ve done with respect to at-risk funding for kids, it’s all very progressive.”
And Catania’s not done. He’s proposing that the District become the fourth jurisdiction in the country to offer paid parental leave. He’s concerned about developing a broader range of economic opportunities, moving away from the city’s two dominant — and yet, shrinking — industries of government and legal services, looking instead to focus the District’s efforts on the hospitality, information technology, and health care. He argues his private-sector experience at the multinational corporation M.C. Dean, particularly in the areas of regulation compliance, ethics and organizational development, make him the candidate best able to manage the city’s $13 billion budget.
That’s not to say Catania doesn’t have potential liabilities as a candidate. He’s not very good at providing canned sound bites, often preferring to expound upon his plans in great detail, much to the chagrin of local news hosts and debate moderators. He dismisses other politicians’ promises as talk without substance, leading some pundits to refer to him as “snippy.” He admits to being passionate about issues, but acknowledges that he can be perceived as abrasive, and may have offended some people during the course of his career, something his chief opponents have raised in debates in an attempt to discredit him. He’s often blunt when speaking, and impatient when it comes to dealing with incompetence or intransigence, even as he seeks a job that can require an ability to speak softly and tread lightly, particularly when it comes to dealing with a hostile Congress. But Catania also insists he’s a team player.
“To be honest, there are folks who might have concerns about ‘How do you intend to govern? How do you intend to get things done?'” he says. “My response is: exactly the way I’ve done for 17 years. I wouldn’t have been able to get some of the things I’m proudest of through the Council, or bring them to fruition, without putting together coalitions and work with people to share the credit.”
With one month left to go, it’s clear Catania is fighting an uphill battle that will require a lot of shoe leather and door-knocking to introduce himself to voters. But the task doesn’t seem to phase him, at least outwardly.
“I’m running for mayor because I think the city can do better,” he says. “And I think we deserve a mayor who will work every day to address the challenges, and I’m ready for them. … It’s my job to get out and communicate my message, and if I do that, then I’ll win.”
METRO WEEKLY: Introduce yourself to D.C. voters. Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like, and what brought you to D.C.?
DAVID CATANIA: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and spent my childhood living in Missouri and Kansas. I spent most of my school years in Missouri, and I would spend many summers, especially when I was younger, living in my mother’s hometown, a small town in Kansas.
I came to Washington in 1986 as a freshman at Georgetown University. I was a student in the School of Foreign Service, which is one of the five schools at Georgetown University.
MW: What made you stay in D.C. after graduation?
CATANIA: I made a decision to stay in Washington sometime around my sophomore or junior year. Sometime around that time, it became obvious to me that I wouldn’t be returning to Missouri. And a lot of that was just a function of the opportunities that were available to me here that would not have been available in Kansas City. Just like many members of the LGBTQ community who decided to make Washington their home because opportunities were present here that weren’t where we came from. The Washington of 2014 is a very, very different place than the Washington of the late ’80s.
MW: When did you first know that you identified as gay? What was your coming out story like?
CATANIA: I think, like many people, we have an appreciation that we’re different from a very early age. And we don’t understand what that is. I mean, it’s not like we reverse-engineer ourselves and understand, “Oh, that’s what that was.” I knew I was different from my male cousins at an early age, I want to say around early elementary school. I think human sexuality is something that unfolds as you get older. I came to the full realization that I was attracted to men [in] middle school.
MW: Who was the first person you told?
CATANIA: Interestingly enough, the person who would become my first boyfriend. I still remember it. It was September 9, 1988. And I came out to my roommate, who was also my best friend. And I’d known that he was gay, and he was older than me — he had started school later. I came out to him, and had had a crush on him, privately, for some time before that.
MW: And when did you tell your family?
CATANIA: Shortly thereafter. And not in the best of circumstances. The person who would become my first real boyfriend, shortly after [my] coming out, attempted suicide on Halloween in 1988. And so, there was a great deal of raw emotion at that time. Because the university had evicted him from our apartment, and there were a lot of stresses associated with that time. Fortunately, he was fine, but I was obviously upset, and my mind was distracted and wandering, and I shared my concerns about his health and well-being with my family. And I was obviously taking it very hard. And one night, in the middle of just being incredibly upset discussing the circumstances of the attempt and the aftermath, and the other challenges associated with trying to make sure he was well, my mother asked me if I was gay and if he was my boyfriend. And I said, “yes,” and that was that.
MW: Most voters know that you’ve spent many years on the Council…
CATANIA: [Laughs.] I came over on the Santa Maria and joined the Council.
MW: Well, late ’90s. About 17 years.
CATANIA: I guess that does sound like a while, doesn’t it? I didn’t start off with the notion that it would be so long. To the contrary, I started off with the notion that it would be a short tenure. But a funny thing happened on the way to the theater. And 17 years later, here I am.
MW: During those 17 years, what do you think your top accomplishments are, and what do they tell us about who you are as a person?
CATANIA: There are a lot of things I’m proud of. One is I’m proud of marriage equality. I’m proud of my work cutting the city’s rate of uninsured in half, before the Affordable Care Act. I’m proud of Smokefree DC, and medical marijuana. I’m proud of the work I’ve been doing with our public schools, including adding an at-risk weight [in the school funding formula], so that we’re investing more money in closing the achievement gap, and trying to make sure every child in every neighborhood has a chance to succeed. There are a number of things. But mostly, I think, if I had to summarize, I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve spent my career in public service running towards the challenges and not away from them.
Trying to save United Medical Center, which is our public hospital in Ward 8, is an example. The year that General Motors collapsed was the same year I was trying to put together the deal to save the hospital from closing. And trying to preserve a safety-net hospital in the middle of the Great Recession is not easy, but it was necessary.
This was a hospital that served a quarter of our residents that was borrowing pharmaceuticals from neighboring hospitals, where the radiology department had been burned out, nurses routinely walked off the job for failing to be paid. And that is what passed as “quality healthcare” for a quarter of our residents. Someone had to get out of bed and fight like hell, because the residents in Wards 7 and 8 have the same right to healthcare as the residents in Wards 3 and 4. And I’m proud of that.
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And I want to mention one thing about HIV/AIDS, because I think it’s particularly important. I’m very proud of the work on civil rights issues I’ve done with respect to the LGBT community, whether it’s marriage equality or transgender rights. But the work I think I’m proudest of was improving ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistance Program] in response to our HIV epidemic when I became chairman of the Committee on Health in 2005. The year I became chairman, we were routinely reminded that the District had “Third World bubbles” of the epidemic, with 3.2 percent of our adult residents testing positive. And it was obvious to me how we had fallen into this place. We had taken our eye off of evidence-based health. In 2005, I remember assuming the chairmanship of the committee, where we had no epidemiology, no data and research department, we didn’t know how the epidemic was spreading, or routes of transmissions, or the communities affected. We had a wait-list for people needing ADAP drugs, while we had money in the bank to fund them, which made no sense. It took us, often, 12 months or longer to pay vendors, instead of the required 30 days. We had essentially abandoned public testing, and public distribution of condoms. So we had a broken system.
And during my eight years chairing the Committee on Health, we were able to rebuild our epidemiology department to one of the best in the country. With a partnership with George Washington University School of Public Health, we increased publicly-funded HIV tests from 8,000 to 138,000. We multiplied, by a factor of 10, condom distribution, including female condoms. We eliminated the wait-list for ADAP drugs. We improved our infrastructure by developing and supporting nonprofits throughout the city, including areas that had previously been left to their own devices. We improved testing in the D.C. Jail, and created models for the rest of the country for an opt-out strategy of screening [by primary care providers]. By the time my eight years as chairman of the committee ended, we had cut our new infection in half, and we’ve cut our death rates from HIV-related illnesses by 69 percent. And, you know, percentages are important. Numbers are important. If you put it in human terms, the first year I was chairman of the Committee on Health, 238 Washingtonians died from AIDS-related illnesses. By the year I left, the number had been reduced to 72. And I’m proud of that.