David Catania might be D.C.’s first openly gay mayor
By Maya Allen Howard University News Service
David Catania, a D.C. City Council member and mayoral candidate, waded through the crowds of potential voters at Columbia Heights Day, an annual festival in Northwest Washington, D.C., shaking hands and meeting community members. His volunteers were a rainbow of affiliations and colors — Black, white and Latino; gay and straight, long-time Washington residents and newcomers to the nation’s capital. They were decked out in blue and white Catania gear, waving their signs and working the crowds.
Greeting guests in khaki pants and a lavender-collared dress shirt, Catania didn’t look like the type of guy on the verge of possibly making political history. But he’s been working on it.
Catania could become the first white mayor of the nation’s capital. If elected, he would also be the city’s first openly gay mayor.
In addition, in a city where every elected mayor has been a Democrat, this Republican-turned Independent, is gaining ground, according to recent polls, and could beat his Democratic opponent.
Jon Clenert, a member of the board of directors of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, an organization that endorsed Catania over a year ago, said Catania has made great strides by even making it a race beyond the April primaries, when the winner of the Democratic primary is usually seen as the shoe-in winner for may-or.
“We knew that Catania had a chance of winning,” said Clenert, a resident of Washington, D.C. since 1967. “We honestly believed that, in this particular campaign, after the April primary there would be a real election in November as opposed to the November election being a coronation that it has been since home rule.”
Catania, a nearly 20-year elected official, has taken to the mayor’s race and describes the experience so far as “exhilarating.”
“I look at it as an opportunity every day to get out and talk with residents about what they’re looking for in the next mayor, what priorities they have, what issues are important to them and how they want us to go about solving those problems,” he said.
“People really care about this city. They’re excited about the vibrancy of it, and they want to see it continue,” Catania said.
Catania is the son of a single-mother, from Kansas City, Mo., with an upbringing that he says has impacted his career and his politics. He has retold the story of how his mother was married to a police-dog trainer who used his canines to keep her trapped in their home. It’s been 24 years since his mother’s passing and talking about her still brings tears to his eyes.
What his mother endured, he said, is why he is so concerned about the underdog in American society.
“So many of the problems our community faces are the legacies associated with failed public school system,” he said. “People don’t have opportunities for housing because they can’t get jobs. They don’t have access to jobs because they don’t have the skillsets because the education system failed them.”
Catania continued: “Many of our social ills about crime, families, and human service is-sues all comes down to setting people up to succeed. The most important thing a government can do is give individuals a chance to take care of them-selves and education paves the way for that opportunity.”
Catania moved to Washington in 1986 to attend George-town University for his undergraduate degree. He continued on and earned his law degree.
Throughout his 17-year tenure as a councilmember, his smarts and intelligence have been widely recognized.
Erika Wadlington, a volunteer for his campaign knows Catania through her work as the director of the Education Committee of the D.C. City Council, which Catania chairs. Wadlington said Catania is very passionate and it shows. Catania sets a really high bar and expects his staff to meet them, she said. Still, he always shows respect and encourages them to keep on doing their best.
“He’s super smart and he always wants to learn every single thing about a subject, and he’s always interested in learning best practices,” Wadlington said. “I really appreciate the fact that he’s willing to learn about what works in other places.”
Ethelbert Miller, poet, author and professor at Howard University, describes Catania as “the smartest kid in the classroom.”
“You know Catania read the chapter three times,” said Miller, a Catania supporter. “If he were a student in my class, I would tell others to go get his notebook.”
Catania’s smarts, however, can rub people the wrong way. He has a reputation, his supporters said, for calling people out publicly.
“People know when he is having his hearings, you better show up prepared, and if you’re not prepared, he will let you know that he is not satisfied with your performance,” Clenert said.
Don Plank, a property manager, said he thinks that if Catania’s personality is sometimes abrasive, it does get things done.
“He might have a reputation of having a little temper, but I don’t think anybody is going to walk into a meeting with him and not be prepared,” Plank said.
Lorenzo Morris, a political analyst and political science professor at Howard University, said he finds it disturbing, however, that Catania, unlike his opponent, does not have one endorsement for mayor from his fellow members of the City Council.
“The most striking fact is that no one on the council supports him, which he’s been a member of for at least decade,” Morris said. “In this case, it’s important that there’s nobody that works with him to contradict that.
Morris continued: “That in itself is a demonstration of a personality problem. It would be difficult to trust anyone who comes from a fairly small organizational set of relationships and nobody in those organizations who have worked with him for years will stand up for him.”
Despite such reservations, others believe Catania’s temperamental tendencies have not overshadowed his ability to get things done. Brendan Williams-Kief, Catania’s City Council chief of staff, said Catania’s “record of success” has been resonating with a lot of people and gaining him support.
“He is known as a guy who does his homework, works hard, and prepares,” Williams-Kief said. “To get ready for a hearing, event or a debate we are producing volumes of information. His ability to recall down to the minute statistic or fact to figure is pretty well-known.”
Jamall Jordan, a graduate of Hampton University and the City Council’s director of Constituent Service and Community Engagement, has been a part of Catania’s campaign. He admires Catania’s work to push for more equality in Washington, D.C.
“He believes that everyone deserves fairness,” Jordan said.” “As long as you’re doing the right thing you, should have a shot at the table to be with everyone else and live the American dream like we all want to do.
“He understands the urgency in matters, regardless of race and gender. He knows that no matter what your background or circumstances are, we are all US citizens and Americans who have a right to be here and abide by a fair system.”
Morris said one of Catania big challenges in pursing the mayor’s office is that he is a converted Republican.
“Republicans have not done that well in D.C. politics,” he said. “Now he’s an independent. He’s an outspoken representative of the gay community, but it is not clear that the gay community likes him. In fact, there have been a number of indications that he’s not that popular with the gay community as many would have thought.”
Catania’s supporters said their candidate is misunderstood.
“He’s not the ogre that a lot of people think he is,” Clenert said. “I always tell him to smile, because he has a beautiful smile.”
Miller, who is also director of African-American Resource Center at Howard University, said he believes that many District residents will have to get past Catania’s symbolism.
“Can we vote for a person who’s in a party that we might not be a part of?” He asked. “Can we vote for somebody that might have a certain sexual orientation? I think all of those things are what we have to overcome in the city.”
Miller added: “This is a historical election coming up because it’s going to change the city government for the next couple of years. If Catania wins, he would break the Democratic hold on the city and he would be a gay [mayor] of the nation’s capital.”