Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series profiling the leading candidates for mayor. Last week’s interview with Carol Schwartz is available here. Next week: Muriel Bowser.
If he should emerge as the winner in the Nov. 4 mayoral election, D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At-Large) would become the first non-Democrat, the first white person, and the first out gay to become mayor of the nation’s capital since the start of the city’s home rule government in 1974.
Most political observers agree that those are three big hurdles to overcome, and many believe Catania’s status as a non-Democrat may be the most difficult of the three.
But Catania, 46, and his supporters – both gay and straight – argue that a careful assessment of his 17-year record on the City Council would convince voters that he is the most progressive of the three main candidates in the race and a proven ‘good-government’ advocate who’s most qualified for the job of mayor.
“I’m the only one in the race with a progressive record of substance,” Catania said in an interview with the Washington Blade earlier this month.
“And I think that progressive record resonates across all demographics in our city,” he said. “I’ve won five races citywide. I’ve made friends in every corner of the city. And I have delivered for every corner of the city.”
Added Catania, “And when people go into the voting booths they are asking themselves do they want a mayor who can deliver and who has delivered and who knows where he or she is going to take the city. Do they want values or do they want labels?”
Some believe Catania faces another hurdle of overcoming his status as a former Republican in the eyes of at least some D.C. voters. Catania first won his seat on the Council in 1997 as a Republican. He switched from being a Republican to an independent in 2004 when President George W. Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Catania again points to his record, dismissing as ridiculous any notion that he would be influenced by the rightward drifting GOP he says he abandoned for reasons beyond Bush’s opposition to marriage equality.
He said his Republican roots stem, among other things, from his childhood upbringing in his mother’s hometown of Osawatomie, Kan., a town in which the abolitionist movement with close ties to the then fledgling Republican Party took hold shortly before the start of the Civil War. Catania notes that the town’s leaders advocated for Kansas to become a free rather than a slave state.
He’s most proud, he said, of his role as author and lead advocate for the city’s marriage equality law that the Council passed in 2009 and enabled same-sex couples to begin marrying in D.C. in early 2010. He says he’s also proud to have authored a transgender rights measure that requires the city to issue a new birth certificate for people who transition from one gender to another.
Other city measures he authored and played a key role in shepherding through the Council include the city’s medical marijuana law and the “smoke free” law banning smoking in most places of employment, including bars and restaurants. During his 10-year stint as chair of the Council’s health committee, Catania is credited with pushing through major reforms in the city’s AIDS related programs, boosting the city’s program for providing medical insurance for low-income residents and children, and preventing United Medical Center, the city’s only hospital serving residents east of the Anacostia River, from closing due to financial problems.
Catania’s two main rivals in the mayor’s race – Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the frontrunner in the race according to latest polls, and former Council member Carol Schwartz, a Republican turned independent, argue that their own records and accomplishments make them the best suited to be mayor.
Bowser has said she is reaching out to all voters, even though her campaign emphasizes she’s the Democratic candidate who’s been endorsed by President Obama. With more than 76 percent of the city’s voters registered as Democrats, most political observers consider Bowser to have a significant advantage.
Catania supporters, including his large cadre of Democratic supporters such as former Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), point to what they say are strong signs of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo of D.C. politics.
The indictment of three City Council members in recent years on corruption-related charges and the investigation of Mayor Vincent Gray for the illegal “shadow” campaign linked to his 2010 election have changed the way voters view their elected officials and candidates, many political pundits have said.
Catania backers, noting that two of the three indicted Council members were Democrats and the other had strong ties to the Democratic Party, have said voters are ready to break from the past trend of electing only Democrats as mayor.
“I’m clearly the anti-establishment candidate,” he said. “In this city we have a machine and I don’t want to be a part of that machine…I want to see things that aren’t right and I want to make them right.”
Catania has been endorsed by a number of organizations his supporters consider to be progressive, including the Sierra Club and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. He received a +10 rating from the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, the group’s highest possible score.
The Blade interviewed Catania for this story on Oct. 6, the day the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for same-sex marriage to become legal in several new states.
Washington Blade: There’s breaking news this morning from the Supreme Court, which refused to take on the same-sex marriage cases from several states, including Virginia. It appears that same-sex marriages can begin in Virginia as soon as today. What is the significance of that as you see it?
David Catania: It’s breathtaking – the scope and pace of change with respect to marriage equality today. I’m reminded that on this day five years ago on Oct. 6 of 2009 is when I introduced the marriage equality legislation in the Council. So we’ve come a long way in five years. It’s a pleasant coincidence that the Supreme Court would deny cert for these many circuits on the subject of marriage equality on the same day that marks the introduction of marriage here. We’ve come a long way.
Blade: How do you see D.C. fitting into all of this?
Catania: What’s interesting is that in 2014 a lot of people kind of jumped on the marriage bandwagon. But I remember laying the foundation for this work in 2008, when many of the individuals who have been involved in advancing LGBT rights in the city were not sold on the timing of my introduction and the strategy that we took. But I took a very purposeful strategy starting in November of 2008 that ultimately culminated in the introduction in October of 2009. It was a very deliberate, very focused effort to get people, to get the community galvanized, to get the community on board with the notion of inevitability to bring the various leaders in the community together, to bring the religious community together with the LGBT community.
We got very lucky. A whole series of events made it possible for us to go forward. I want to say that I think often about Frank Kameny. And it’s a name I hope we don’t forget. And I think of him in particular as the father of the movement here in so many ways. Now there have been so many others. I don’t want to suggest him at the exclusion of others. But as far as me personally, Frank Kameny played a big role in my thinking toward how we were going to capture our equality.
Blade: With that as a backdrop, why are you running for mayor?
Catania: Well, for the last 17 years I’ve gotten up every day with an incredible sense of urgency, and I’ve run toward the city’s problems. And I’m running for mayor for the same reason I ran for Council in 1997. I see a city that can do better. And I see things that aren’t right and I want to make them right.
That’s what I’ve spent my career doing. And globally it’s a city that has strong enduring fundamental strengths. But we haven’t really lived our values. Our values – our common values as a city – where after 17 years having been in every corner of the city I can tell you as a city we have common values that are deeply American values. We believe in opportunity. We believe in fairness. We believe in playing by the rules. And yet our government very often falls short of those values. I think we need a government that is as good as we are, as good as our values. And that’s why I’m running.
I’m the only one in the race that candidly has a record of delivering for people. So my principle opponent is trying to encourage people to be for her because of her party label. And it’s hard to see any evidence that she advanced the ball on behalf of the people in our city.
You know, I can look at without question having the most progressive record in this race, regardless of label. My values are in line with the residents of our city. I have the most progressive record without fail in this race – having authored marriage equality, having authored medical marijuana many years ago before that was an easy thing to do.
My work as the chairman of the Committee on Health – we made some historic progress in this city. We cut the rate of uninsured in half through improvements in our publicly funded system and targeted expansions and eligibility. We went from 12.8 percent uninsured to 5.9 percent — the second lowest rate in the country — 3.2 percent for children — the lowest rate in the country.
You recall the HIV/AIDS crisis that I inherited in 2005, when we were compared to Third World countries, where we had an epidemic three times the rate of a World Health Organization epidemic, where we weren’t paying vendors. It took us a year to pay vendors. We had a pile of money in the bank and a wait list for HIV drugs. There was very limited testing, etc.
And you know through force of will and very tight and focused management and oversight – we had weekly hearings of the HIV/AIDS Administration early on to turn this around. We cut our new infections in half during my eight years and deaths by 69 percent.
I’m the only one with a record of touching the lives of people who live east of the Anacostia River. My opponents can’t point to a single thing for a quarter of our city that lives east of the Anacostia River. And my work to cut the rate of the uninsured in half had a profound impact.
The community legislation I wrote in 2006 secured ties to our tobacco settlement and produced $240 million in capital. The largest investment in primary and acute care in our city’s history was under my leadership, including a $100 million investment in United Medical Center to turn that hospital around. It includes a Children’s National Medical Center run pediatric emergency room on that site that sees 40,000 kids per year.
I think these are historic initiatives that give people an understanding of things I care about and my approach to issues and so on.
Blade: As you know, some of your critics are saying that along the way during the oversight hearings you held on a lot of these issues, including hearings on HIV/AIDS matters, you have been too abrasive in grilling the government officials who came before your committee. On the other hand, others have said they were glad you did that because some of the unresponsive bureaucrats needed a verbal kick in the pants. How do you respond in your own words to the criticism that your temperament may be a little too harsh?
Catania: You know I think you should look at some of the people that were before me during those early years and see where they are now. Among my biggest supporters and contributors were the people who were on the other side. People like Shannon Hader and Dr. Pane, who was the head of the Department of Health. During this entire period Shannon Hader who was the head of the HIV/AIDS Administration – Dr. Feseha Woldu, who was the longest serving [D.C.] deputy director of health. If you look at actually the people that I worked with, they’re among my biggest supporters because they appreciated that what I was doing was breaking logjams in the entire government.
It wasn’t focused at the person at the table. It was focused at the entire organization. And, you know, like it or not we went from an epidemic that was uncontrolled and unresponsive to one where we have among the best data and research analysis in the country with our annual epidemiology report. What we don’t have are waitlists for HIV/AIDS drugs, where we went from 8,000 to 138,000 publicly funded [HIV] tests. We went to a factor of 10 increase in publicly distributed male and female condoms. We improved the infrastructure of primary care facilities across the city. We engaged primary care physicians on how to broaden their practice of treating the epidemic – and on and on and on.
And governing isn’t easy. This is not a garden party. This is about marshaling resources. It’s about constructing accountability plans; it’s about pushing people until you get the results that our residents deserve.
Blade: Some of the Bowser supporters are saying you’re taking credit for some of the things that a lot of other people played a role in. Concerning the decline in the number of AIDS deaths they say it was due to the availability of improved drugs nationally that became available.
Catania: Well it’s interesting that Muriel Bowser in seven years on the Council has never mentioned HIV/AIDS once – not once. Obviously she has not mentioned or introduced a single measure on the subject. But she’s not even mentioned the subject once.
Blade: Do you mean while in a Council meeting?
Catania: Ever — I have never heard her — there’s no introductions, there’s no proposals, there’s never been any leadership at all from Muriel Bowser on the subject of HIV/AIDS…She’s had seven years on the Council and has done nothing but platitudes on anything, including HIV/AIDS. And so people have to decide for themselves. Look, I’m offering myself as a leader who took the city from an epidemic and vastly improved the response by government…
Blade: Some in the community are saying that Carol Schwartz, Muriel Bowser and David Catania are strong supporters of the LGBT community and they’re strongly committed going forward to do what they can. So therefore there is no real difference between the three of you on those issues so they should vote based on non-LGBT issues. What do you say to that?
Catania: Well I think people should vote on non-LGBT issues, of course. I think people should vote on the person they believe has the best record and experience and values to secure our future. But there’s a difference between rhetoric and record. In this race, only one of us championed marriage equality. Only one of us has introduced measures to secure the rights of the transgender community with the Deoni Jones Birth Certificate Equality Act. Only one of us candidly has employed a person who happens to be transgender. Only one of us has talked in a substantive way on HIV/AIDS through legislation.
So it’s one thing to rhetorically say I’m supportive of the community. But then when you actually look and see what has the person done? What is the record? That is a very different conversation than rhetoric. And if people are satisfied with empty gestures and rhetoric — that’s one thing. But I think an empty gesture and rhetoric doesn’t tackle HIV/AIDS. An empty gesture of rhetoric doesn’t secure marriage equality or secure the rights of the transgender community. Empty gestures and rhetoric don’t do anything. They don’t accomplish anything substantively that changes the lives of everyday people – records do.
Blade: Can you tell a little about your background growing up in Kansas, your early years in Washington and what you did before you ran for public office? Was it Kansas or Missouri?
Catania: I spent time on both sides of the state line. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. But I spent time on the Kansas side and the Missouri side. My mother is from a small town in Kansas – Osawatomie. And I spent my summers when I was younger there in my mother’s hometown. And went to middle school and high school – most of my schooling was on the Missouri side. And then graduated from high school and came to Georgetown in the School of Foreign Service in 1986. I graduated in ’90 and took a year off from school then into law school also at Georgetown.
Blade: It’s widely known that you started out as a Republican in your earlier years and you dropped your Republican affiliation in 2004. Can you respond again to the critics who are saying now that you should be viewed suspiciously because you may still have a Republican philosophy that may be at odds with the best interests of D.C.?
Catania: … I think most reasonable people see my record – they see a couple of things. They see I left the party 10 years ago. And they see the fact that in my 17 years on the Council before and after I left the party I have a totality of a record that’s the most progressive record in this race.
It’s so progressive, in fact, that the most progressive governor in this country, Pete Shumlin (D) the governor of Vermont, supports me and endorsed me last week. Now why would the most progressive governor in the country endorse me if I were somehow at odds with his value system? And let’s talk about that endorsement. Unlike many people who get an endorsement because of party affiliation where it’s obligatory, Pete Shumlin and I worked together for over a decade. He was in the Senate in Vermont and I was obviously a member of the Council here.
And I chaired this national legislative association on prescription drug prices. And we would see each other throughout the year – quarterly visits – sometimes more. And for 10 years we worked on a whole host of issues that were ultimately folded into the Affordable Care Act.
So this is a person who knows me inside out for 10 years and he has endorsed me and essentially has told the residents of this city that I have the most progressive democratic values in this race…
It is true that I was a Republican until 2004. The Republican Party that I grew up in and grew with is a very different party than it is now and a different party than it was in ’04. I was active in the party in part because I wanted to bring it toward the center and I wanted to make it relevant for issues that people in cities confront.
And as a result I worked with the Republican Main Street Partnership and fought with Congressman Steve Gunderson who came out [as gay] and then left Congress. And we were looking at how we can improve and broaden the party’s base and be more moderate. And ultimately we weren’t successful. And it was made clear to me that I wasn’t going to be successful in that effort when President Bush announced the amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
And so that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t the only issue. It was a long series of issues. And I invite you to talk to my ex – Brian Kearney. He went with me – when we went to Crawford [Texas in 2003] it was for a particular purpose. It wasn’t to fawn on the president. It was to raise issues that relate to cities. It was to talk about LGBT issues, to talk about housing and cities. And it was to have a voice at the table. In order to have a voice at the table with these kinds of leaders you have to do things like raise money. And you hope that once you have a voice at the table you can moderate and change the party. I tried it. It was unsuccessful. But that was 10 years ago.
Blade: On some of the issues that will be coming up, you have said you will not say whether you will retain the public schools chancellor and the police chief until after the election. Is that your position?
Catania: We haven’t had an election. I think engaging in personnel items before an election is premature. Where does it end? I for one think the respectful thing to do is – these individuals presently have a boss. There’s no successor until there’s an election. And their boss is the mayor.
Look at the public safety issue. I have a great deal of respect for Chief Lanier. And I called her after I received the endorsement of the FOP [D.C. police union] and I said I want you to know that once I’m elected I hope you and I can sit down and talk about your future here because I have a great deal of respect for you.
All indications, of course, are why would I not keep her? I told her look you’re the chief of police. The mayor is your boss. And to have candidates compete for you or to have these conversations in the meantime I think it clouds the chain of command.
And the same is true for the chancellor. I’ve had a great relationship with her. I look forward to talking to her after I win on the issue of whether she is willing to stay and under what terms and conditions is she willing to stay? I just think these discussions before an election are premature.
Blade: In terms of the chief, you may know, there has been some friction among some in the LGBT community and the chief ever since she was appointed by Mayor Fenty over the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. The head of the police division that oversees the GLLU was just transferred after a member of the GLLU filed a complaint against him for calling him Justine when his name is Justin. If you were mayor how would you handle a situation like that? Even if you didn’t want to replace the chief do you see yourself playing some role in departmental policies?
Catania: The mayor is not going to be getting into and should not be getting into issues like who should be the 8th grade biology teacher…There are certain things where you hire good people and you trust their judgment. When they give you reason not to trust their good judgment you have conversations with them going forward. Without knowing the whole detail I’m not going to comment on this particular issue.
But I think it’s safe to say that if the chief has a member of the LGBT community as the mayor the chief will be particularly sensitive of the LGBT community, among others – not exclusively obviously but I think it will color the way in which this issue is handled. Going forward obviously there will be zero tolerance of violations of our city’s Human Rights Act.
Blade: You’ve been asked this before. Everybody familiar with the city knows we’ve never had a non-Democratic mayor, we’ve never had a white mayor, and certainly we’ve never had an out gay mayor. So you have a number of what some say could be hurdles to go through. Do you see the demographics of the city changing so these hurdles could be overcome?
Catania: I think the people want the best mayor. I think the majority – there will always be people who have points of view who can’t check their prejudice. I think the majority of the people want the best mayor. And so they want a mayor with experience and values and vision. I have a 126-page vision statement that goes into detail about how I intend to lead our city and the priorities that I have for the city.
I’m the only one in the race with a progressive record of substance. And I think that progressive record resonates across the board with all demographics in our city. I’ve won five races citywide. I’ve made friends in every corner of the city. And I have delivered for every corner of the city. And when people go into the voting booths they are asking themselves do they want a mayor who can deliver and who has delivered and who knows where he or she is going to take the city? Do they want values or do they want labels?
This is an election where my record contrasts with my opponents’ rhetoric. And of things that matter to your readers, on more things than not, I think they are more closely aligned to me than they are my opponents. I’m appealing to all voters. And we have support from all voters…
And I think people are kind of sick and tired of the machine in this city. And it’s a machine that has governed this city to its own benefit that has given up on the idea of ideas and governs by trying to cajole people in some instances and intimidate them in others to vote for their candidate. And I think people want a fresh start. They want a new leader, a leader with vision, a leader who has done things on their behalf.
And I think it would be historic just as it was historic in 1997 when I became the first openly LGBT member of the Council. That was historic. I think people thought, ‘Oh gosh he’s going to be the openly LGBT Council member.’ And we dispensed with that notion quickly and people saw me as someone who is a fighter for the people of our city across demographics, across the city. And that’s exactly the kind of mayor I’ll be.
So any time you take on the establishment – and I’m clearly the anti-establishment candidate. I am clearly not part of this machine, nor have I ever been nor would I ever aspire to be a part of the machine. That’s not meant to be pejorative to a particular party. It is in this city we have a machine and I don’t want to be a part of that machine. I want to see things that aren’t right and I want to make them right.
Blade: You’ve said in the past that your upbringing in Kansas played some role in you becoming a Republican. Can you tell a little about that?
Catania: I grew up playing in the John Brown State Park. We were all very proud of the abolitionist tradition, the Lincoln Republican tradition. It was deeply embedded in who we were. But it was a different party than the one that exists now and existed 10 or 12 or over 20 years ago. If you’re from a small town and you’re deeply part of that – the roots of that community, you know, it’s hard to let go of those roots and those labels.
I grew up with labels that were extraordinarily progressive – I mean the values that were extraordinarily progressive…
And so my mother’s hometown was a very proud tiny community that has a history that was hard to let go of. And that’s why maybe I worked so hard to try to make the party what it represented to me as a child and as a young person.
But again, I’ve had a pretty incredible life. How many kids can come from a single mother without a 10th grade education as a gay person? And all these other things people look at as barriers I look at as opportunities – and to come and stand before and be a serious candidate to lead their nation’s capital – it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.
And so I am an eternally optimistic person. So when people try – I mean who as a gay person, who among us – we have all been tormented. So there are people in our community and some who will try to torment me one way or another. But I’ve been tormented for a good part of my life and I used that as a fire – candidly – to see things that are wrong and try to make them right.
So you know passion and anger – not in a mean-spirited way – but passion and anger are necessary components of great leaders. You cannot – unless there is that eternal fire in the belly – that quest to make things right that sustains you in good times and in bad.
And so you ask how are you going to win? You are all of these things. You are a duck-billed platypus and you’re all this other stuff. People who view me through those lenses miss what America is. The vast majority of the people in this city understand what America is. They will judge me on myself and my record and can they trust me and have I delivered for them.
Blade: When you mentioned being tormented in your younger years did you mean anti-gay bullying and that sort of thing?
Catania: Well listen, no more than anyone else. I mean all of us have been called faggot. If you can find a gay person in their 50s or 40s in this country that hasn’t been called a faggot or worse – but it’s how you respond that matters. And my life made me stronger. It made me what I am.
Blade: Can you respond to the issue that Carol Schwartz has been raising in the recent debates – that your decision to work in outside jobs during your tenure on the Council at a law firm and later with a construction company that has city contracts are problematic.
Catania: I’m not responding to her in particular. But I think what we’re doing is we’re hiring this city’s mayor. We’re hiring a mayor, a chief executive. And I think it’s absolutely necessary to look at the totality of our experiences. Until the end of 2012 I was vice president of corporate strategy for one of the most innovative, fastest growing design build companies in the East Coast – 3,000 employees and 30 offices around the world.
And I was responsible for everything from compliance to legal affairs to organizational development. And so as you look at the candidates and say, ‘Oh gosh, who here can run an $11 billion outfit, which is the size of our government of 30,000 employees? Who here has a clue as to actually running a government or to run an organization?’ And I’m the only one in this race who has done it.
Let me give you an example as to why it’s important. One of the things I was responsible for – and I mention this all the time on the campaign trail – I was responsible for organizational development. The tenets of how you build a great organization are these. It’s how you recruit your workforce, how you educate your workforce, how you evaluate your workforce, how you promote your workforce, how you retain your workforce. In other words building a great organization is indispensable if you intend to accomplish anything. You simply can’t take a disjointed, dysfunctional entity and expect it’s going to deliver once you make a pronouncement.
Neither of my principal opponents have ever been part of running an organization, let alone a multi-national organization with 3,000 employees where we had to get up every day and make sure we were meeting our customers’ needs and we were being innovative and creative and competitive.
As far as I’m concerned, I would take my experience that includes everything from water projects in Panama to cyber security in Europe – I would take my experiences and I would think they would apply quite nicely when it comes to running a government.
Now in campaigns people always try to take cheap shots. The fact is the company I worked for – the contracts it had were always less than 2 percent of the company’s total contracts – always. They were always competitively bid. I recused myself from all matters involving the contracts – votes and otherwise. So trust me, if anyone had any goods on me picking up the phone on behalf of that company — that would have been dimed out long ago.
Carol says, ‘Well our budgets include the money.’ That’s true. We do approve budgets. But then we do contracts on how we spend them. And on those contracts I recused myself at every time.
But I had a top-secret security clearance with this company. I went through a thorough investigation by the National Industry Security Program that gave me a top-secret security clearance. I was up to my elbows in national security issues because of the work we did with our government contractors. The notion that the company would lose the livelihoods of 3,000 people for a contract in this city or to do anything nefarious is just a joke. So I am really not responding to that.
I have the experience and the values and the vision to secure our city’s future and I intend to be the next mayor of this city. And I think having an LGBTQ mayor is a very powerful international symbol because it’s a symbol of what America is. We are a place where there is equality of opportunity – where there is fairness when people play by the rules. I intend to be the mayor of our city. I intend to be an LGBTQ symbol. And I intend to use my office to point out things that are wrong in this world.