David and Goliath: Can David Catania Ever Become Mayor?
David Catania looks like a man running for mayor. For the past six months, the at-large councilmember has visited dozens of public schools and Parent Teacher Association meetings to hone his school reform bills—a journey Catania likens to the “Sawdust Circuit” of early 20th century religious revivalists.
Like any good mayoral candidate, he’s taking shots at the guy who’s already got the job: Catania’s education reform roll-out has blasted Mayor Vince Gray for waiting too long to present his own school agenda. They’ve feuded privately, too—Catania and Gray staffers sparred over email last month over details like whose conference room they would meet in and whether “entourages” were invited.
Last year, Catania was the first councilmember to call for Gray to resign after details emerged about the 2010 mayoral shadow campaign. In an appearance last week on WAMU’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Catania didn’t back down from his advice. “He would’ve done the city a great service had he stepped down last year,” he said.
Maybe, but Gray’s resignation would also have been a great disservice to someone else: David Catania. If Catania wants to be mayor, he’ll need Gray to stick around—and a whole lot more.
Catania, along with former city administrator Robert Bobb and Gray himself, has become a mandatory addition to any story about potential 2014 mayoral candidates. (The other must-mentions, of course, are the declared candidates: Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, and Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells.) And not for the first time—a 2002 Washington City Paper article has Catania “begging” reporters to stop a lukewarm “draft Catania” movement and blushing the whole time.
Like Gray, Catania won’t say publicly whether he’ll run in 2014. When LL approached him about this column, Catania brushed it away as too early to talk about.
But the prospect must be tempting. The Democratic field is crowded and includes a tarnished incumbent, suggesting that this could be the rare District mayoral race where a “(D)” next to a candidate’s name doesn’t mean instant victory. And being mayor would free Catania, prone to swearing publicly at his colleagues, from the day-to-day consensus-building of legislative politics.
Besides, if Catania doesn’t run for mayor, what’s left for him? He’s been eyed as a candidate for the District’s attorney general slot, which will be elected for the first time next year, but it now looks like the office will be hamstrung by weak subpoena powers and staff shuffling. U.S. Attorney Ron Machen has made clear that he would keep the power to investigate Wilson Building corruption.
LL will have to risk being premature, because the idea of Catania 2014 is hard to not to examine. It would be a test of how a white independent candidate could win the mayor’s office in a city that’s still mostly black and heavily Democratic—and it could prove nearly impossible. Get out some graph paper and an eraser, because this gets complicated.
The ideal situation for Catania is that Gray runs in the primary and wins, but somehow looks terrible come November. It’d be best for Catania if Gray is in trouble because of Machen, but maybe he’s been walloped by primary opponents Evans, Bowser, and Wells. Suddenly—and remember, this is a hypothetical scenario—enough Democrats would ignore the party affiliation that has always meant electoral success in the District right as Catania declares for the general election.
“The eventual Democratic nominee must be damaged goods, and not just slightly damaged, not just a crumpled box that UPS puts on your front step but the insides are intact,” says political consultant Chuck Thies. “It’s got to be seriously demolished.”
That’s Catania’s best case, though, and it still looks grim. If the primary is held in April—currently, efforts to move it to June lack enough Council support—he’d be facing an opponent who’s had seven months between the primary and the general election to raise money as the presumptive victor. The District’s Democrats have enough experience making nice with their candidate, at least publicly: A month after his primary victory over Mayor Adrian Fenty, Gray was toasted at a fundraiser with erstwhile Team Fenty stalwarts like Bowser and former Councilmember William Lightfoot. (Them, and a $2,000 maximum donation reminder in the invitation.)
What about if Catania faces not a wounded incumbent, but one of the other challengers? Catania could exercise the advantage he has over the Democratic candidates: the ability to wait. Because he’s not a member of any party, he doesn’t have to worry about qualifying for the ballot until the general election; he won’t have to decide what to do until he sees the results of the primary. If he decides not to enter, he can run to keep his Council seat. And there’s always attorney general.
If Bowser wins the nomination, it’s easy to see Catania choosing not to face a black Democratic woman with appeal to former Fenty supporters. Should Wells or Evans pull off their own miracle and win the primary, Catania could have an edge over them: his own African-American support.
Since earning his spot on the D.C. Council in a sleepy 1997 special election, Catania started making the pitch for himself outside of the city’s white quadrants. He teamed up with ex-Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen on issues like the closing of a Safeway in Allen’s ward, and filed a lawsuit with former Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous Sr. against attempts by former Mayor Anthony Williams and the control board to reduce services at D.C. General. (Catania and Chavous lost in the end.)
More recently, he’s sparred with Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi over what Catania sees as Gandhi’s efforts to set United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the Anacostia River, up for a quick sale in an attempt to get it off the city’s budget.
So far, his actions on the Council have meant easy re-elections for Catania, and maybe more. A Washington Post poll in August 2012 showed him with higher favorable ratings than Bowser or Wells, and just three percentage points below Evans. “He could have hired an eighth-grader to run all but his first two campaigns,” Thies says.
Still, any Catania candidacy would be an extreme game of chutes and ladders, where a single wrong outcome would mean game over. Does Gray run for re-election? Does he win the Democratic primary? Does Machen continue the investigation into Gray’s 2010 campaign? And if Gray loses the primary or doesn’t run, is the Democratic nominee just as bad? Can enough District voters of all races be convinced to vote for a candidate who isn’t just white, but a former Republican? (Catania, who’s gay, left the GOP in 2004 over its vehement opposition to gay marriage.)
“If I was a betting man, those aren’t really good odds,” snarks one Democratic political consultant who would only speak on background.
Winning the mayoralty could resolve some of Catania’s legislative questions, like the debate over whether his education bills undermine mayoral control of the schools. But given the long odds he’s facing, Catania just might ignore the mayor’s race.
Like Wells, Catania’s Council seat is also up this year, meaning he would have to choose between a safe seat and a risky run. He wouldn’t just be betting his secure at-large seat and his cushy fourth floor Wilson Building office (complete with a coveted private bathroom). He’d have to give up his persona of David Catania, Fiery Councilmember. In his current position, Catania can say “fuck you” to Marion Barry, as he did at a retreat last year, and only inspire new civility rules. He can suggest that Gandhi is trying to get rid of United Medical Center because he just doesn’t like poor people. Or he can force his colleagues to vote on a tough amendment to the city’s Certified Business Enterprise law, even when he knows it will fail. Acting like that as mayor would get Catania membership in the Adrian Fenty One-Term Mayors’ Club.
NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood likes to tell a story about Catania’s feisty first years in office, when Sherwood warned that the new councilmember needed to learn to count to seven—the number of votes that it takes to pass a bill through the 13-member body. Years later, Catania’s efforts at legislating still lack the soft touch. Some of the people he interviewed in meetings about his new education bills complained that the meetings weren’t much of a back-and-forth.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson complained that she wasn’t given enough time to prepare before her meeting with Catania. “He just asked me a series of questions,” Henderson tells LL.
The way Catania and his staff ran the launch of the legislation gave the mayor’s camp an opening to complain about how it was handled. “It definitely raises troubling questions about what his intent is here,” mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro intoned darkly.
Still, it’s easy to notice that Catania has changed his stance on running. Last July, Catania said he had given up on his long-held mayoral dreams. He wanted the top job for years, and besides, he always thought he’d make a good mayor. But he was happy on the Council. “I don’t want it as much as the others,” he said in an another appearance on WAMU.
Now, Catania isn’t saying he won’t run—he’s says it’s too early to talk about it. What might he be saying a year from now?
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 650-6925.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery