December 4, 2013 at 7:25 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
David Catania forms mayoral exploratory committee
David Catania, gay news, Washington Blade, 2013 Capital Pride Parade

Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) filed papers on Wednesday to create an exploratory committee for a possible run for mayor, raising the possibility that he could become the first openly gay mayor of the nation’s capital.

As a 16-year veteran on the Council, Catania has been credited with taking the lead on many far-reaching legislative initiatives; including the city’s same-sex marriage law, the expansion of health insurance coverage to nearly all city residents long before Obamacare, and sweeping reforms at the Department of Health and the AIDS office.

In a letter to city residents posted on his exploratory committee’s newly launched website, Catania said improving the D.C.’s public education system is currently his top priority as a Council member and would be his highest priority as mayor should he choose to enter the already crowded mayoral competition in 2014.

Mayor Vincent Gray and four of Catania’s Council colleagues are among the 11 candidates that have entered the Democratic mayoral primary. A Statehood Green Party candidate and Libertarian Party candidate have also entered the race and are expected to be on the ballot in the November general election along with Catania should he decide to run.

“In 1997, as a political outsider, I ran for the Council of the District of Columbia,” he said in his open letter. “I believed that through hard work and standing up for what’s right, I could contribute to a brighter future for our city and its residents. Since then, we have made incredible progress as a city, and I am proud to have played a part in it,” he said.

Catania won his first race for the Council in 1997 as a Republican running in special election to fill a vacant at-large seat. He won re-election the following year followed by election wins in 2002, 2006, and 2010.

In 2004, Catania withdrew from the Republican Party in response to the support by then-President George W. Bush and the Republican Party leadership of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He has remained an independent since that time.

Should he decide to run for mayor next year he would have to give up his Council seat since that seat is also up for election in 2014. But as an independent, Catania would have the advantage of knowing who wins the Democratic primary scheduled for April 1 before the deadline for filing as an independent mayoral candidate in June.

And if he chooses to run, he would be considered a significant challenger to the Democratic nominee in a city where the mayoral contest has almost always been effectively decided in the Democratic primary. No non-Democratic candidate has ever won election as mayor since D.C.’s first home rule election for mayor in 1974.

Although Catania has wide name recognition and has won a citywide election for the Council six times, he has always competed for one of the two at-large seats up for grabs every two years that by law must go to a non-majority party or independent candidate. While Catania has won his races by large margins he – along with all other non-Democrats competing for the non-Democratic seat – has received about half the votes that the Democratic candidate running for the other at-large seat.

Political observers say the drop off in the vote for the non-Democrat may be due more to the fact that many voters don’t realize they can vote for two candidates rather than one in the at-large race, with the top two vote-getters winning the seat. Even with the so called “drop-off” vote, Catania has always received strong support from Democratic voters, a factor that could make him competitive against a Democratic mayoral candidate.

Catania said in a telephone interview on Wednesday the fact that the Blade was the only news media outlet so far to ask him about his sexual orientation out of more than a dozen interviews throughout the day was indicative of the “extraordinary progress” the city has made on LGBT equality.

“16 years ago when I was first elected to the Council in every sentence in every report, every story that came out in the weeks following my election there was always a comma – openly gay,” he said. “It was a label that no matter what I was talking about it always included my sexual orientation. And 16 years later we don’t see that anymore.”

Catania said he had no objections to being labeled as openly gay then or now. But he said the apparent disinterest in his sexual orientation as he launches a mayoral exploratory committee this week shows that the city has progressed to a point where someone’s sexual orientation is no longer a big deal.

“I think it underestimates the independence of all of our voters to suggest that they will vote for someone simply by virtue of their sexual orientation, or their gender or their color or geography,” Catania said. “I think we are entering an era where people no longer feel that they have to or are inclined to support a person who may demographically be similar to them.”

He added, “We have a smart and sophisticated electorate that will make a decision based on who they believe best represents their value system and that they trust. And in that debate I think I’m going to do well across all demographics.”

Catania said he’s optimistic that if he decides to run his record as a Council member and a concerned city resident will likely be how he will be judged.

“I’m very proud of what I feel I’ve contributed to over these last 16 years,” he said. “The renaissance of the city and particular initiatives I’m proud of includes things like marriage equality, smoke-free D.C. I’m proud of offering the medical marijuana initiative. I’m proud of the work I did to bring health insurance to 40,000 people. I’m proud of the work I did on HIV/AIDS and on so many other subjects.

“But an enduring challenge remains, and that is the quality and the state of our public education system,” Catania added. “And that is the singular focus of this exploration at this point. How to set our kids up to succeed. We are never going to tackle the income inequality in this city if we continue to do things as we have done them. And at the moment, while our schools are showing a modest improvement, that improvement is uneven and is leaving vast portions of our city behind because we do not have excellence in every school for every child. We do not. And until we make it a top priority of this city we are not going to be the city that we can be.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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