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.
Equality Act, contorted as a danger by anti-LGBTQ forces, is all but dead
No political willpower to force vote or reach a compromise
Despite having President Biden in the White House and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, efforts to update federal civil rights laws to strengthen the prohibition on discrimination against LGBTQ people by passing the Equality Act are all but dead as opponents of the measure have contorted it beyond recognition.
Political willpower is lacking to find a compromise that would be acceptable to enough Republican senators to end a filibuster on the bill — a tall order in any event — nor is there the willpower to force a vote on the Equality Act as opponents stoke fears about transgender kids in sports and not even unanimity in the Democratic caucus in favor of the bill is present, stakeholders who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity said.
In fact, there are no imminent plans to hold a vote on the legislation even though Pride month is days away, which would be an opportune time for Congress to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTQ community by holding a vote on the legislation.
If the Equality Act were to come up for a Senate vote in the next month, it would not have the support to pass. Continued assurances that bipartisan talks are continuing on the legislation have yielded no evidence of additional support, let alone the 10 Republicans needed to end a filibuster.
“I haven’t really heard an update either way, which is usually not good,” one Democratic insider said. “My understanding is that our side was entrenched in a no-compromise mindset and with [Sen. Joe] Manchin saying he didn’t like the bill, it doomed it this Congress. And the bullying of hundreds of trans athletes derailed our message and our arguments of why it was broadly needed.”
The only thing keeping the final nail from being hammered into the Equality Act’s coffin is the unwillingness of its supporters to admit defeat. Other stakeholders who spoke to the Blade continued to assert bipartisan talks are ongoing, strongly pushing back on any conclusion the legislation is dead.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Equality Act is “alive and well,” citing widespread public support he said includes “the majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents and a growing number of communities across the country engaging and mobilizing every day in support of the legislation.”
“They understand the urgent need to pass this bill and stand up for LGBTQ people across our country,” David added. “As we engage with elected officials, we have confidence that Congress will listen to the voices of their constituents and continue fighting for the Equality Act through the lengthy legislative process. We will also continue our unprecedented campaign to grow the already-high public support for a popular bill that will save lives and make our country fairer and more equal for all. We will not stop until the Equality Act is passed.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chief sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, also signaled through a spokesperson work continues on the legislation, refusing to give up on expectations the legislation would soon become law.
“Sen. Merkley and his staff are in active discussions with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to try to get this done,” McLennan said. “We definitely see it as a key priority that we expect to become law.”
A spokesperson Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had promised to force a vote on the Equality Act in the Senate on the day the U.S. House approved it earlier this year, pointed to a March 25 “Dear Colleague” letter in which he identified the Equality Act as one of several bills he’d bring up for a vote.
Despite any assurances, the hold up on the bill is apparent. Although the U.S. House approved the legislation earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee hasn’t even reported out the bill yet to the floor in the aftermath of the first-ever Senate hearing on the bill in March. A Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic aide, however, disputed that inaction as evidence the Equality Act is dead in its tracks: “Bipartisan efforts on a path forward are ongoing.”
Democrats are quick to blame Republicans for inaction on the Equality Act, but with Manchin withholding his support for the legislation they can’t even count on the entirety of their caucus to vote “yes” if it came to the floor. Progressives continue to advocate an end to the filibuster to advance legislation Biden has promised as part of his agenda, but even if they were to overcome headwinds and dismantle the institution needing 60 votes to advance legislation, the Equality Act would likely not have majority support to win approval in the Senate with a 50-50 party split.
The office of Manchin, who has previously said he couldn’t support the Equality Act over concerns about public schools having to implement the transgender protections applying to sports and bathrooms, hasn’t responded to multiple requests this year from the Blade on the legislation and didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who declined to co-sponsor the Equality Act this year after having signed onto the legislation in the previous Congress, insisted through a spokesperson talks are still happening across the aisle despite the appearances the legislation is dead.
“There continues to be bipartisan support for passing a law that protects the civil rights of Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Annie Clark, a Collins spokesperson. “The Equality Act was a starting point for negotiations, and in its current form, it cannot pass. That’s why there are ongoing discussions among senators and stakeholders about a path forward.”
Let’s face it: Anti-LGBTQ forces have railroaded the debate by making the Equality Act about an end to women’s sports by allowing transgender athletes and danger to women in sex-segregated places like bathrooms and prisons. That doesn’t even get into resolving the issue on drawing the line between civil rights for LGBTQ people and religious freedom, which continues to be litigated in the courts as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected any day now to issue a ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia to determine if foster care agencies can reject same-sex couples over religious objections.
For transgender Americans, who continue to report discrimination and violence at high rates, the absence of the Equality Act may be most keenly felt.
Mara Keisling, outgoing executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, disputed any notion the Equality Act is dead and insisted the legislation is “very much alive.”
“We remain optimistic despite misinformation from the opposition,” Keisling said. “NCTE and our movement partners are still working fruitfully on the Equality Act with senators. In fact, we are gaining momentum with all the field organizing we’re doing, like phone banking constituents to call their senators. Legislating takes time. Nothing ever gets through Congress quickly. We expect to see a vote during this Congress, and we are hopeful we can win.”
But one Democratic source said calls to members of Congress against the Equality Act, apparently coordinated by groups like the Heritage Foundation, have has outnumbered calls in favor of it by a substantial margin, with a particular emphasis on Manchin.
No stories are present in the media about same-sex couples being kicked out of a restaurant for holding hands or transgender people for using the restroom consistent with their gender identity, which would be perfectly legal in 25 states thanks to the patchwork of civil rights laws throughout the United States and inadequate protections under federal law.
Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the American Unity Fund, which has bolstered the Republican-led Fairness for All Act as an alternative to the Equality Act, said he continues to believe the votes are present for a compromise form of the bill.
“I know for a fact there is a supermajority level of support in the Senate for a version of the Equality Act that is fully protective of both LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom,” Deaton said. “There is interest on both sides of the aisle in getting something done this Congress.”
Deaton, however, didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry on what evidence exists of agreeing on this compromise.
Biden has already missed the goal he campaigned on in the 2020 election to sign the Equality Act into law within his first 100 days in office. Although Biden renewed his call to pass the legislation in his speech to Congress last month, as things stand now that appears to be a goal he won’t realize for the remainder of this Congress.
Nor has the Biden administration made the Equality Act an issue for top officials within the administration as it pushes for an infrastructure package as a top priority. One Democratic insider said Louisa Terrell, legislative affairs director for the White House, delegated work on the Equality Act to a deputy as opposed to handling it herself.
To be sure, Biden has demonstrated support for the LGBTQ community through executive action at an unprecedented rate, signing an executive order on day one ordering federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County to the fullest extent possible and dismantling former President Trump’s transgender military ban. Biden also made historic LGBTQ appointments with the confirmation of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health.
A White House spokesperson insisted Biden’s team across the board remains committed to the Equality Act, pointing to his remarks to Congress.
“President Biden has urged Congress to get the Equality Act to his desk so he can sign it into law and provide long overdue civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans, and he remains committed to seeing this legislation passed as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. “The White House and its entire legislative team remains in ongoing and close coordination with organizations, leaders, members of Congress, including the Equality Caucus, and staff to ensure we are working across the aisle to push the Equality Act forward.”
But at least in the near-term, that progress will fall short of fulfilling the promise of updating federal civil rights law with the Equality Act, which will mean LGBTQ people won’t be able to rely on those protections when faced with discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
D.C. bill to ban LGBTQ panic defense delayed by Capitol security
Delivery of bill to Congress was held up due to protocols related to Jan. 6 riots
A bill approved unanimously last December by the D.C. Council to ban the so-called LGBTQ panic defense has been delayed from taking effect as a city law because the fence installed around the U.S. Capitol following the Jan. 6 insurrection prevented the law from being delivered to Congress.
According to Eric Salmi, communications director for D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who guided the bill through the Council’s legislative process, all bills approved by the Council and signed by the D.C. mayor must be hand-delivered to Congress for a required congressional review.
“What happened was when the Capitol fence went up after the January insurrection, it created an issue where we physically could not deliver laws to Congress per the congressional review period,” Salmi told the Washington Blade.
Among the bills that could not immediately be delivered to Congress was the Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunter Panic Defense Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act of 2020, which was approved by the Council on a second and final vote on Dec. 15.
Between the time the bill was signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser and published in the D.C. Register under procedural requirements for all bills, it was not ready to be transmitted to Congress until Feb. 16, the Council’s legislative record for the bill shows.
Salmi said the impasse in delivering the bill to Congress due to the security fence prevented the bill from reaching Congress on that date and prevented the mandatory 60-day congressional review period for this bill from beginning at that time. He noted that most bills require a 30 legislative day review by Congress.
But the Evangelista-Hunter bill, named after a transgender woman and a gay man who died in violent attacks by perpetrators who attempted to use the trans and gay panic defense, includes a law enforcement related provision that under the city’s Home Rule Charter passed by Congress in the early 1970s requires a 60-day congressional review.
“There is a chance it goes into effect any day now, just given the timeline is close to being up,” Salmi said on Tuesday. “I don’t know the exact date it was delivered, but I do know the countdown is on,” said Salmi, who added, “I would expect any day now it should go into effect and there’s nothing stopping it other than an insurrection in January.”
If the delivery to Congress had not been delayed, the D.C. Council’s legislative office estimated the congressional review would have been completed by May 12.
A congressional source who spoke on condition of being identified only as a senior Democratic aide, said the holdup of D.C. bills because of the Capitol fence has been corrected.
“The House found an immediate workaround, when this issue first arose after the Jan. 6 insurrection,” the aide said.
“This is yet another reason why D.C. Council bills should not be subject to a congressional review period and why we need to grant D.C. statehood,” the aide said.
The aide added that while no disapproval resolution had been introduced in Congress to overturn the D.C. Evangelista-Hunter bill, House Democrats would have defeated such a resolution.
“House Democrats support D.C. home rule, statehood, and LGBTQ rights,” said the aide.
LGBTQ rights advocates have argued that a ban on using a gay or transgender panic defense in criminal trials is needed to prevent defense attorneys from inappropriately asking juries to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression is to blame for a defendant’s criminal act, including murder.
Some attorneys have argued that their clients “panicked” after discovering the person against whom they committed a violent crime was gay or transgender, prompting them to act in a way they believed to be a form of self-defense.
In addition to its provision banning the LGBTQ panic defense, the Evangelista-Hunter bill includes a separate provision that strengthens the city’s existing hate crimes law by clarifying that hatred need not be the sole motivating factor for an underlying crime such as assault, murder, or threats to be prosecuted as a hate crime.
LGBTQ supportive prosecutors have said the clarification was needed because it is often difficult to prove to a jury that hatred is the only motive behind a violent crime. The prosecutors noted that juries have found defendants not guilty of committing a hate crime on grounds that they believed other motives were involved in a particular crime after defense lawyers argued that the law required “hate” to be the only motive in order to find someone guilty of a hate crime.
Salmi noted that while the hate crime clarification and panic defense prohibition provisions of the Evangelista-Hunter bill will become law as soon as the congressional review is completed, yet another provision in the bill will not become law after the congressional review because there are insufficient funds in the D.C. budget to cover the costs of implementing the provision.
The provision gives the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the Office of the D.C. Attorney General authority to investigate hate related discrimination at places of public accommodation. Salmi said the provision expands protections against discrimination to include web-based retailers or online delivery services that are not physically located in D.C.
“That is subject to appropriations,” Salmi said. “And until it is funded in the upcoming budget it cannot be legally enforced.”
He said that at Council member Allen’s request, the Council added language to the bill that ensures that all other provisions of the legislation that do not require additional funding – including the ban on use of the LGBTQ panic defense and the provision clarifying that hatred doesn’t have to be the sole motive for a hate crime – will take effect as soon as the congressional approval process is completed.
D.C. man charged with 2020 anti-gay death threat rearrested
Defendant implicated in three anti-LGBTQ incidents since 2011
A D.C. man arrested in August 2020 for allegedly threatening to kill a gay man outside the victim’s apartment in the city’s Adams Morgan neighborhood and who was released while awaiting trial was arrested again two weeks ago for allegedly threatening to kill another man in an unrelated incident.
D.C. Superior Court records show that Jalal Malki, who was 37 at the time of his 2020 arrest on a charge of bias-related attempts to do bodily harm against the gay man, was charged on May 4, 2021 with unlawful entry, simple assault, threats to kidnap and injure a person, and attempted possession of a prohibited weapon against the owner of a vacant house at 4412 Georgia Ave., N.W.
Court charging documents state that Malki was allegedly staying at the house without permission as a squatter. An arrest affidavit filed in court by D.C. police says Malki allegedly threatened to kill the man who owns the house shortly after the man arrived at the house while Malki was inside.
According to the affidavit, Malki walked up to the owner of the house while the owner was sitting in his car after having called police and told him, “If you come back here, I’m going to kill you.” While making that threat Malki displayed what appeared to be a gun in his waistband, but which was later found to be a toy gun, the affidavit says.
Malki then walked back inside the house minutes before police arrived and arrested him. Court records show that similar to the court proceedings following his 2020 arrest for threatening the gay man, a judge in the latest case ordered Malki released while awaiting trial. In both cases, the judge ordered him to stay away from the two men he allegedly threatened to kill.
An arrest affidavit filed by D.C. police in the 2020 case states that Malki allegedly made the threats inside an apartment building where the victim lived on the 2300 block of Champlain Street, N.W. It says Malki was living in a nearby building but often visited the building where the victim lived.
“Victim 1 continued to state during an interview that it was not the first time that Defendant 1 had made threats to him, but this time Defendant 1 stated that if he caught him outside, he would ‘fucking kill him.’” the affidavit says. It quotes the victim as saying during this time Malki repeatedly called the victim a “fucking faggot.”
The affidavit, prepared by the arresting officers, says that after the officers arrested Malki and were leading him to a police transport vehicle to be booked for the arrest, he expressed an “excited utterance” that he was “in disbelief that officers sided with the ‘fucking faggot.’”
Court records show that Malki is scheduled to appear in court on June 4 for a status hearing for both the 2020 arrest and the arrest two weeks ago for allegedly threatening to kill the owner of the house in which police say he was illegally squatting.
Superior Court records show that Malki had been arrested three times between 2011 and 2015 in cases unrelated to the 2021 and 2020 cases for allegedly also making threats of violence against people. Two of the cases appear to be LGBTQ related, but prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not list the cases as hate crimes.
In the first of the three cases, filed in July 2011, Malki allegedly shoved a man inside Dupont Circle and threatened to kill him after asking the man why he was wearing a purple shirt.
“Victim 1 believes the assault occurred because Suspect 1 believes Victim 1 is a homosexual,” the police arrest affidavit says.
Court records show prosecutors charged Malki with simple assault and threats to do bodily harm in the case. But the court records show that on Sept. 13, 2011, D.C. Superior Court Judge Stephen F. Eilperin found Malki not guilty on both charges following a non-jury trial.
The online court records do not state why the judge rendered a not guilty verdict. With the courthouse currently closed to the public and the press due to COVID-related restrictions, the Washington Blade couldn’t immediately obtain the records to determine the judge’s reason for the verdict.
In the second case, court records show Malki was arrested by D.C. police outside the Townhouse Tavern bar and restaurant at 1637 R St., N.W. on Nov. 7, 2012 for allegedly threatening one or more people with a knife after employees ordered Malki to leave the establishment for “disorderly behavior.”
At the time, the Townhouse Tavern was located next door to the gay nightclub Cobalt, which before going out of business two years ago, was located at the corner of 17th and R Streets, N.W.
The police arrest affidavit in the case says Malki allegedly pointed a knife in a threatening way at two of the tavern’s employees who blocked his path when he attempted to re-enter the tavern. The affidavit says he was initially charged by D.C. police with assault with a dangerous weapon – knife. Court records, however, show that prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office lowered the charges to two counts of simple assault. The records show that on Jan. 15, 2013, Malki pleaded guilty to the two charges as part of a plea bargain arrangement.
The records show that Judge Marissa Demeo on that same day issued a sentence of 30 days for each of the two charges but suspended all 30 days for both counts. She then sentenced Malki to one year of supervised probation for both charges and ordered that he undergo alcohol and drug testing and undergo treatment if appropriate.
In the third case prior to the 2020 and 2021 cases, court records show Malki was arrested outside the Cobalt gay nightclub on March 14, 2015 on multiple counts of simple assault, attempted assault with a dangerous weapon – knife, possession of a prohibited weapon – knife, and unlawful entry.
The arrest affidavit says an altercation started on the sidewalk outside the bar when for unknown reasons, Malki grabbed a female customer who was outside smoking and attempted to pull her toward him. When her female friend came to her aid, Malki allegedly got “aggressive” by threatening the woman and “removed what appeared to be a knife from an unknown location” and pointed it at the woman’s friend in a threatening way, the affidavit says.
It says a Cobalt employee minutes later ordered Malki to leave the area and he appeared to do so. But others noticed that he walked toward another entrance door to Cobalt and attempted to enter the establishment knowing he had been ordered not to return because of previous problems with his behavior, the affidavit says. When he attempted to push away another employee to force his way into Cobalt, Malki fell to the ground during a scuffle and other employees held him on the ground while someone else called D.C. police.
Court records show that similar to all of Malki’s arrests, a judge released him while awaiting trial and ordered him to stay away from Cobalt and all of those he was charged with threatening and assaulting.
The records show that on Sept. 18, 2015, Malki agreed to a plea bargain offer by prosecutors in which all except two of the charges – attempted possession of a prohibited weapon and simple assault – were dropped. Judge Alfred S. Irving Jr. on Oct. 2, 2015 sentenced Malki to 60 days of incarnation for each of the two charges but suspended all but five days, which he allowed Malki to serve on weekends, the court records show.
The judge ordered that the two five-day jail terms could be served concurrently, meaning just five days total would be served, according to court records. The records also show that Judge Irving sentenced Malki to one year of supervised probation for each of the two counts and ordered that he enter an alcohol treatment program and stay away from Cobalt.
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