July 3, 2018 at 2:36 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Catania, former mayor back opponent of lesbian candidate for Council
Dionne Reeder, gay news, Washington Blade

Dionne Reeder is running for D.C. Council as an independent. (Photo via Reeder Campaign Twitter)

In a development that has surprised some political observers, gay former D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) and former D.C. mayor and longtime LGBT community ally Anthony Williams (D) have signed on as co-chairs for the campaign of recently declared at-large Council candidate S. Kathryn Allen.

Allen, who recently changed her party affiliation from Democrat to independent, is an attorney who served as the city’s insurance commissioner while Williams was mayor and currently owns two local insurance related businesses.

Catania and Williams’s decision to back her is being viewed by some as an effort to help her surpass lesbian businesswoman and at-large Council candidate Dionne Reeder as the front runner in the race against incumbent Council member Elissa Silverman and as the preferred candidate of the city’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Reeder, who also worked in the Williams administration as his mayoral coordinator for neighborhood services in Ward 8, is the current owner of Cheers at the Big Chair, one of the few full-service restaurants in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood. Reeder is also running as an independent.

Representatives of the business community have been open about their strong opposition to Silverman because of her role as a leading sponsor for controversial legislation approved by the Council requiring employers to provide private sector workers paid family leave financed by a newly created business tax.

Allen has joined Reeder in expressing opposition to the version of the family leave legislation backed by Silverman and passed by the Council. Mayor Muriel Bowser also opposed the legislation but decided not to veto it. Reeder has said the legislation should be revised so that small businesses are not hit with what they consider an unfair burden of paying for it through a special tax.

In addition to Reeder and Allen, three other independent candidates are running in the race for two at-large Council seats, one of which is held by Silverman and the other held by Democrat Anita Bonds. Bonds and Silverman have been strong supporters of LGBT rights.

Under the city’s election law, a Democrat is eligible for only one of the two at-large seats. With Democrats comprising the overwhelming majority of registered voters, Bonds is considered the strong favorite to win re-election to the so-called “Democratic” seat. That reality has created a hotly contested race among mostly independents for the second seat.

In a process that sometimes confuses voters, all of the candidates are lumped together on the same ballot in the Nov. 6 general election, and voters can vote for two candidates. The two receiving the highest vote counts are declared the winners.

And although a Democrat is only eligible for one of the two seats, a non-Democrat, including an independent, can theoretically win both seats if they receive more votes than the Democrat. However, that has never happened since the city’s home rule government took effect in 1974.

With that as a backdrop, Reeder’s supporters were hopeful that she would win more votes than Silverman through a coalition that included the business community, the LGBT community, and moderate to progressive voters across the city. Some LGBT activists consider Reeder a highly qualified and credible candidate who could once again bring an LGBT voice to the Council following Catania’s departure due to his unsuccessful run for mayor in 2014.

They and some political observers have pointed out that Silverman may be vulnerable this year because she is considered to be to the left of most of the Council’s progressive incumbents in a year in which every candidate challenging the incumbents from a further left-leaning position lost their races in the city’s June 19 Democratic primary.

Meanwhile, the campaign finance reports filed by the at-large candidates with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance on June 10, the most recent reports filed, show that Reeder is leading the field in money raised. Her June 10 report shows she has raised $84,399 compared to Silverman, whose report shows she raised $79,847 as of June 10.

The OCF did not have a report for Allen in its website records, possibly because she entered the race after the most recent filing deadline. But on her campaign website she announced that her campaign has raised $37,017 since she became an official candidate.

Among the remaining independent candidates, University of the District of Columbia professor Rustin Lewis raised $16,648; and American University Professor Omekongo Dibinga raised $4,094. The OCF had no records available on its website for independent candidate Traci Hughes, the former director of the D.C. Office of Open Government.

The filing deadline for running for a D.C. Council seat as an independent in the general election is Aug. 8, so more candidates could still enter the race for the non-Democratic at-large seat.

Silverman, a journalist and former analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, takes strong exception to claims by critics that the family leave legislation is overly burdensome to small businesses. She has argued that in a city experiencing a severe affordable housing shortage and high cost of living, paid family leave for middle and low income workers is a necessity. Critics, including Reeder, however, point out that the legislation forces D.C. private sector employers to provide the paid family leave to employees who live in Virginia and Maryland as well as D.C. residents.

In a story about Allen’s candidacy in its Sunday edition the Washington Post reported that Silverman considers Allen to be a “tool” of the business community and that Catania and Williams were “out of step” with the needs of D.C. residents in their support for Allen.

Allen told the Washington Blade she disputes that assessment, saying her experience as a business regulator and business owner provides her with important experience for a balanced approach for the needs of city residents.

Asked where she stands on LGBT rights, Allen said, “I am absolutely 100 percent supportive of LGBTQ rights.”

The Blade also asked her what message she would have for LGBT voters who would have a choice between her and Reeder, a longtime advocate for LGBT rights who could become the Council’s only LGBT member.

“I would offer that in no way am I trying to say that I’m better, worse, or whatever,” Allen said. “But I do believe that David Catania, who I know was the first openly gay Council member – the fact that he chose to support me is not something he did lightly,” she told the Blade.

“And for that matter, former Mayor Tony Williams didn’t do that lightly,” she said. “They both strongly believe in what I can bring and believe in who I am as a person. They’ve both known me for close to 20 years.”

Catania couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Reeder told the Blade she doesn’t believe Catania and Williams’ support for Allen will impact her campaign in a negative way. But she said their decision to back another candidate with views similar to hers on some issues would be detrimental to the large number of people who believe someone new should replace Silverman on the Council.

She said the fact that she is leading in fundraising, especially among small donors, shows that her campaign has momentum and has broad grassroots support.

“So I’m still in this race and I see a really clear path to victory,” she said. “And despite the special interests and Mayor Williams and Mr. Catania taking the lead in backing another candidate, I am by no means intimidated nor do I feel discouraged,”  she said.

Although she didn’t say so directly she suggested that Allen’s candidacy could divide the opposition vote in a way that will help Silverman. She pointed to her more than 20 years of experience in a wide range of areas, including her stint as a legislative assistant to a member of Congress; a stint with the non-profit D.C. Community Prevention Partnership where she helped young people prepare for admission to college, and her work on a city program to curtail youth violence.

“I think it’s time for us to unite ourselves collectively behind a candidate not because that candidate has the special interests of the establishment behind them but who is committed to work for the betterment of the people of this city,” she said.

Earl Fowlkes, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest local LGBT political organization, said the club has yet to decide whether it will make an endorsement for the non-Democratic seat in the at-large Council race. He said the club would endorse Bonds at an upcoming meeting.

In addition to Bonds and the independent candidates running for the two at-large seats, Libertarian Party candidate Denise Hicks and Statehood Green Party candidate David Schwartzman will also be on the ballot for the at-large seats in the Nov. 6 general election.

Although no Republican candidate appeared on the city’s June 19 primary ballot for the at-large seats, one or more Republicans received 536 write-in votes, according to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. The board has yet to vet those who received those votes to determine if they wish to be placed on the ballot.

Another gay independent candidate, community activist and professional sign language translator Jamie Sycamore, is running for the Ward 1 Council seat held by incumbent Brianne Nadeau, who won the Democratic primary on June 19 by a lopsided margin. Her campaign finance report shows she has raised $243,935 compared to Sycamore, whose report says he has raised $3,612 as of June 10.

Among the Democratic candidates that lost to Nadeau was gay Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and law librarian Kent Boese.

Two other independent candidates running for the Ward 1 seat, Greg Boyd and Anthony Greene, had no finance reports posted on the OCF website.

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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