David Catania is working. For a meeting last week with tenants at Chinatown’s Museum Square apartment building, who fear their housing will evaporate if their building is demolished as the owner has proposed, he shuffles through the cast of characters he’s deployed in 17 years on the D.C. Council–amateur prosecutor, hospital administrator, PTA chairman—and pulls out “disappointed teacher.”
With his finger pressed to his lips, Catania quizzes the tenants’ lawyer on what she’s doing to stop the development, who she’s contacted at various housing agencies, and on and on. Catania only learned about the situation less than a month ago from a news story, and now he’s explaining to their lawyer what will come next.
He lays out a series of options—a lowball offer from the District, a citywide 90 percent transfer tax that would somehow apply only to this building. Most of his ideas, he admits, probably aren’t legal.
“What I want to do is get the landlord’s attention,” Catania says.
Lately, Catania has been getting a lot of attention of his own. His mayoral bid, which swings wildly from looking like a lost cause to looking like it just might work, has boosted his profile beyond what it’s been for nearly two decades—one of the Council’s hardest-working, most reliably irascible members. Thanks to his five-month-old campaign, he’s set up what’ll be the District’s first seriously competitive general election for mayor since the 1990s.
On the way to the tenant meeting, Catania gets a flash of this increased recognition.
“You’re Mr. Catania, right?” says a man next to him in the elevator. “I see you on the TV.”
Catania, now the most fashion-forward councilmember thanks to criminal indictments against some better-dressed former colleagues, is wearing a blue-and-white shirt with French cuffs. On one wrist, he has a bull cufflink. On the other, a bear. They’re a reminder, Catania says, that some days are bulls, and others are bears.
He’s had a lot of bull days over the past year. Jan. 14—when a Washington Post poll showed Catania, who still hadn’t entered the race, tied with Mayor Vince Gray in a hypothetical general election face-off. March 10—the day three weeks before the primary that illicit Gray campaign backer Jeff Thompson plead guilty in court and fingered the mayor as an accomplice. March 12—the day that Catania announced he would run, right as a newspaper retracted its endorsement of Gray.
Then Catania had one hell of a bear: April 1, the day that proved that Gray had become too damaged, too fast, by the federal investigation into his 2010 campaign. Instead of coasting on the District’s economic boom, Gray lost the primary to Muriel Bowser, the Ward 4 councilmember whose victory amounted to revenge for former Mayor Adrian Fenty, her mentor, whom Gray himself had booted from the Wilson Building.
In Bowser’s crushing win, Catania watched as the confluence of events that would have made it easier for a white ex-Republican to win the mayor’s office in a city that has only elected African-American Democrats evaporated. Instead of facing an opponent who seems destined to see the inside of a federal courthouse, Catania will have to face someone who has the weight of a former mayoral administration, the Post editorial board, and the District’s hegemonic Democratic Party behind her. Worst of all for Catania’s plan, Bowser, unlike Gray, is a cipher who’s barely been touched by scandal attached to her (and thus, who gives otherwise loyal Democrats no inherent reason to stray). He was giving up his Council seat for this?
The Museum Square tenants will get good news days later, when the building’s landlord backs off an attempt to have the tenants out by October. Still, as the meeting wound down, it becomes clear that the tenants are, at best, in for a legal slog. At worst, they’ll lose their homes.
Catania’s personal stakes seem grim, too. Hours after the meeting, Bowser’s campaign is setting up her 42nd birthday party uptown. All the people whose support for Bowser makes Catania an underdog—union leaders, other councilmembers, the money men who make up the District’s reservoir of campaign cash—will be there. It’s hard not to think Catania is talking about his own campaign when he describes the gloomy situation at Museum Square.
“I’ve seen worse,” Catania said. “I’ve done worse.”
Bowser’s primary win forced Catania to come up with more than just calling his opponent a crook. In his Dupont Circle campaign office, he lays it out. Bowser, per Catania, is a part of “The Machine”—the developers, cronies, and contractors who prosper whether it’s Vince Gray or Adrian Fenty on the sixth floor of the Wilson Building.
Campaign literature takes the metaphor further. In one image, a cheery rowhouse with Catania signs contrasts with Bowser’s D.C., a grim land that consists of rolls of cash, a literal machine, and lightning bolts. In a handbill, Catania’s campaign turns Bowser into a marionette with strings pulled by shadowy forces.
The attacks don’t exactly land. For one thing, Catania declines to name who makes up The Machine. For another, he’s not much of a populist. Until recently, Catania worked as an attorney for M.C. Dean, a major city contractor. He’s quick to say he didn’t have anything to do with the company’s business with the District, and recused himself from votes involving its business.
Ben Young, the longtime Catania retainer whose jump from his boss’s Council office to his exploratory committee in February signaled that Catania would really run, claims he doesn’t care which opponent Catania faces. Per Young, no one who could run has a more impressive record than his boss’.
He has a point. Ahead of the primary, Bowser memorably snapped at a reporter from the blog DCist when she was pressed to name more than one accomplishment from her time on the Council. Catania, meanwhile, can draw on nearly two decades of work on the Council—from introducing the District’s gay marriage law, to trying to prop up United Medical Center to ensure hospital service for the District’s poorest wards, to his recent success passing a raft of education bills.
Catania frequently compares his record with Bowser’s, who runs a Council committee that covers housing issues. Even as the affordable housing stock shrinks, Bowser has passed only a ceremonial resolution on housing through her committee. “She’s abandoned the field, as she has done on literally every issue involving the human condition,” Catania says.
Campaign bluster aside, though, it obviously does matter who Catania faces. That isn’t lost on Marie Drissel, an activist who’s known Catania since his caustic remarks at Kalorama neighborhood meetings won her over. Drissel knows unlikely campaigns, having been one of the masterminds behind Mayor Anthony Williams’ political career.
“I think the Muriel Bowser people are right,” Drissel says. “It’s really going to be difficult.”
A March Post poll taken before the Democratic primary showed Bowser clobbering Catania in the general election, 56 to 23 percent. A poll commissioned more recently by the Catania campaign shows that the gap between has narrowed dramatically, to what Catania calls “the high single digits.” (The campaign provided me with the poll on the condition that I didn’t describe the findings more specifically; draw your own conclusions about what that indicates about the state of the race.)
Bowser has conducted her post-primary campaign so far on the principle that David Catania doesn’t exist. She refuses to debate him until September, although her campaign keeps pushing forward the day when they’ll agree to meet. At her birthday party last week, though, Bowser took a different tack. Before blowing out the candles on a cake colored in her campaign’s characteristic green, Bowser ran down a litany of complaints against Catania, all without naming him: that he’s a Republican in disguise, that he’s not a strong enough supporter of labor, that Mayor Catania would be “cussing” people out instead of listening to them.
While Bowser shied away from naming her opponent, Bowser spokesman Joaquin McPeek isn’t so reluctant. McPeek points to Catania’s opposition to city deals for the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Nationals Park as a sign that he’s on “the wrong side of history.”
“I think it’s ironic that someone who has sat on the Council for 17 years and is one of the longest serving councilmembers in D.C. history is calling himself anti-establishment,” McPeek says.
Indeed, Catania hasn’t had any trouble ingratiating himself with at least part of the District’s political establishment. In his most recent re-election campaign, Catania received donations from a who’s-who of District powerbrokers, including large developers and a corporation owned by Tony Cheng, a Chinatown businessman who plead guilty earlier this year to a scheme to obtain cab licenses illegally. Unlike fellow reform-minded Councilmember Tommy Wells, Catania hasn’t abstained from taking sometimes hard-to-trace corporate campaign contributions for his mayoral bid.
Like most other District pols, Catania’s bids also benefitted from Jeff Thompson’s network of illicit straw donors, taking in at least $15,750 from Thompson-connected sources in previous Council runs. Catania isn’t one of the politicians who Thompson or prosecutors say knew about the criminal activity behind the money, though. He’s also quick to point out that Thompson made a poor investment—Catania was the most vocal critic on the Council of a District government settlement with one of Thompson’s firms, a deal that is now under federal investigation.
Despite leaving the job more than a year ago, Catania’s work at M.C. Dean continues to pick away at his reformer bona fides. Catania says he avoided even talking about District politics with his boss while he worked at the $240,000 position as the company’s vice president for corporate strategy (though there’s no real way for anyone else to verify that independently). The image of a councilmember working for a company with District contracts still rankles some like Councilmember Vincent Orange, who’s called for a ban on such second jobs.
In the crowd at Bowser’s party, one absence from the party tent loomed: Gray. While most of Bowser’s defeated opponents have endorsed her and fallen in line, Gray has been curiously reluctant to acknowledge defeat. After his loss, he dawdled on making a congratulatory call to Bowser, and he continues to waffle on whether he’ll endorse her. While there are plenty of reasons Bowser would want to distance herself from the target of a federal investigation, Gray’s sore loser feelings offer an unusual chance for Catania to pick up more votes—and to increase his share of the African-American vote.
Catania makes an unlikely second choice for Gray supporters. As the federal investigation into Thompson’s shadow campaign donations in 2010 surfaced, Catania was the first councilmember to call on him to resign, even declaring the mayor a “joke.” Still, that hasn’t stopped some Gray supporters from joining him.
Barbara Lang, the well-connected former head of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and one of Gray’s most loyal supporters, found herself without a cause when her friend went down in April.
Lang met with both Catania and Bowser after the primary. Surprisingly for someone whose livelihood depends in part on making the right guess on elections, she picked Catania. If Catania can combine his support for bailing out Ward 8’s United Medical Center with an appeal to voters whose bad feelings towards Bowser overwhelm their Democratic loyalty, he could cobble together more votes in Gray’s power base in Wards 7 and 8.
Lang claims that there are secret Catania supporters remaining in Gray’s scattered camp. The undeclared Catania supporters are too afraid of angering Bowser’s lieutenants, according to Lang.
“I decided to come out of the closet,” Lang says.
Catania would never have made it this far if he didn’t have some talent for winning races that, on the surface, look unwinnable. His trademark blend of furious campaigning and dumb luck first showed up in citywide politics in 1997, when he won an unlikely victory to get onto the Council.
Catania came to the District for the same reason that many of the people who will make up his base do: college. He moved here in 1986 to study at Georgetown, then stayed at the school for his law degree. Catania had left behind his upbringing by a single mother in Missouri, a woman with a difficult past. At one point, her son says, she was married to a police-dog trainer who used the dogs to keep her trapped in their house. Twenty-four years after his mother’s death, talking about it still makes him tear up.
By 1997, the 29-year-old Catania headed a Kalorama citizens’ group and saw his opportunity to go farther in a special election for an at-large D.C. Council seat. District voters were fatigued by two earlier special elections that same year, and incumbent Arrington Dixon, an on-and-off councilmember so ensconced in the District’s political sediment that he was married at one point to Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, ran a sleepy campaign.
Catania did not. As Dixon coasted through his re-election bid, Catania claimed that voting for Dixon amounted to perpetuating a government devoted to its “privileged political class.”
“I thought David’s tone was awfully harsh and would backfire, but I was wrong and it worked for him,” says longtime gay activist Rick Rosendall.
The Washington Post editorial board conceded that the race was “not a bounty of riches from which to pick.” They endorsed Catania anyway for a race that would have just 7 percent turnout. Thanks to a lack of interest from both the electorate and his own opponent, Catania won.
Catania’s victory made him the Council’s first gay member and only one of two Republicans on the 13-member body. Those two qualities that made Catania unusual would coexist for years, with Catania raising a whopping $50,000 for George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign, a distinction that earned him a trip to Bush’s Crawford ranch. Catania’s Republican registration also helped him hang on to his seat, since he held one of two seats on the Council that Democrats couldn’t compete for. By 2004, though, Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage had soured his one-time supporter. When the D.C. GOP refused to certify Catania as a delegate for the 2004 convention because he had publicly said that he wouldn’t support Bush in the general election, Catania split.
“I was sorry to see when he left, and it was really heartbreaking,” says Betsy Werronen, a former head of the D.C. GOP. As early as 2002, Werronen had hoped Catania would be the District’s first Republican mayor.
By switching his party registration to independent, Catania left the two-member Council fraternity of Republicans that he shared with then-Councilmember Carol Schwartz. Now Catania has something else in common with Schwartz: They’re both running for mayor.
Schwartz and Catania were once such good friends that he named one of his cats after her, on the rationale that the cat was the only thing that ate more free food at his house than she did. Their relationship curdled, though, after he helped oust her from the Council in 2008 by backing Patrick Mara’s primary challenge. (Mara didn’t wind up winning the general election, anyway.) When Schwartz announced this June that she’d also be an option for mayor this fall, also ditching her longtime GOP affiliation to run as an independent, his campaign accused her of acting as a front for Bowser in an attempt to peel off sympathetic voters—or at least buffer Bowser and Catania in debates.
Schwartz, whose previous four runs for mayor suggest she wouldn’t have needed much convincing from Bowser to enter this race, pegs the souring of their relationship on Catania’s opposition to a 2008 bill that guaranteed paid sick leave at most businesses.
“I didn’t like his earmarks, and he didn’t like my sick leave,” Schwartz says. “And that’s when our friendship ended.”
Schwartz has little chance of actually winning the mayor’s race, but she makes Catania’s own prospects even worse. Then again, he’s faced long odds before.
You can’t talk about Catania without talking about his temper—or, more charitably, his reluctance to filter himself. His biggest supporters bring it up without prompting, defensively. It’s hard to find even one of his allies who hasn’t found themselves on the business end of Catania’s mouth.
“He clearly has his—what would one say?—‘personality,’” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who lost his own mayoral bid against Bowser four months ago and is now supporting her. “Where he can be caustic at times and dismissive at times, and I think that’s an issue that many people have with David.”
And Evans considers him an ally on the Council. Others haven’t been as lucky. After Catania won the special election in 1997, he immediately set to terrorizing the Council’s old guard.
Catania didn’t let being the newest member of the Council temper his attacks. When he accused then-Councilmember Harold Brazil of carrying water for politically connected operators Fred Cooke Jr. and David Wilmot on a controversial theme park project, Brazil asked aloud who this “little young’un” was.
Catania teamed up with former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who now chairs his campaign. Ambrose recalls that the two of them amounted to “the gruesome twosome” on fight against government waste.
Catania has proved just as confounding for Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. As mayor, Barry campaigned against Catania’s 1998 re-election on the grounds that it would ensure a white majority on the Council. Despite occasional truces, Catania and Barry are still at odds. In 2012, a Council retreat devolved into a shouting match when Catania called Barry a “despicable human being.”
Now, Catania says a recent revelation that Barry avoided paying nearly $3,000 worth of traffic tickets without getting his car booted amounts to just another example of the “The Machine’s” influence. Catania’s ongoing feud with Barry is one of the only ways the racial implications of the fall’s choice get pulled into the foreground. But while Catania has prominent African-American supporters, including Ward 7 bigwigs Paul and Barbara Savage, electing the District’s first white mayor even as its African-African majority dwindles could prove too much for some black voters—and some white ones, too.
On the Council, Catania didn’t reserve his ire for just his colleagues, either. He was a frequent critic of Williams’ administration (Williams endorsed Bowser in early July) and his department heads, including over competing tech incentive deals and the baseball stadium. At a hearing with one Williams deputy, Catania declared the administration was made up of “sneaky, sneaky, duplicitous people.”
Catania’s jabs made him look like the smartest person on the dais, but his caustic attitude created problems. NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood recalls how he warned a brash young Catania that he needed to learn to count to seven—the minimum number of votes needed for a Council majority.
In recent years, Catania hasn’t had any trouble counting to seven—and regularly, 13. He managed to push through a District takeover of United Medical Center aimed at improving the struggling hospital, despite opposition from the influential Office of the Chief Financial Officer. And his raft of education bills, which include a new college scholarship and special education reforms, have passed with barely a ripple in Council politics. That’s despite Gray administration warnings that Catania’s efforts would amount to legislative meddling in the mayoral-controlled schools.
“At times, I had to make a larger-than-life persona to get things done,” Catania says.
Catania’s admirers cast his trash talk as impatience with waste and corruption, using euphemisms like “passion.”
“That rough edge is something that I think is appealing to a lot of people, because there’s too much buddy-buddy going on in the District,” says Chuck Thies, Gray’s former campaign manager.
The trouble for Catania, though, is that the District has already had a mayor who claimed that his brashness was just a symptom of his impatience to get things fixed: Adrian Fenty. As Catania slams Bowser as a puppet for the District’s machine, he sometimes sounds more like the former mayor than Fenty’s own chosen successor in Ward 4 does. Given Fenty’s 2010 political defeat at the hands of voters who found him distant, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Catania’s anything but distant at a toney Capitol Hill meet-and-greet last month. The event is one of many on Catania’s campaign schedule, despite the District’s normally sleepy summer political season. Running against a strong opponent, Catania has to rely on what’s always won him elections: working harder. It’s the same strategy he’s used as chairman of the Council’s education committee, making more than 100 school visits since taking over last year.
The event starts on a comical note. Faced with a charcuterie spread, one Catania superfan who’s committed to attending an event for his candidate in every ward declares that he won’t eat “before the mayor eats.”
But as Catania throws out ideas—extra funding for schools with at-risk children, a PAC to hunt congressmen who meddle in the District—the night takes a sober turn. A woman with a developmentally disabled child, harried by District teachers unhappy to work with him, asks Catania how she can get him an education.
Catania turns serious. Working with a child with special needs, Catania declares, “is a privilege.” When the woman jokes that her son’s teachers don’t see it that way, Catania doesn’t smile or laugh. He just repeats that it’s a privilege.
With the room hushed, it’s the kind of moment that suggests that Catania could overcome everything—the Democratic Party’s historical dominance in the District, his race, his own personality—that says he can’t be mayor. And then it’s over, and Catania is off to shake more hands, get more checks, and wonder how he can pull this off.