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On the other side of his double-digit loss to Muriel Bowser, the notion of David Catania moving into the mayoral suite looks laughable. But it didn’t always seem so impossible. Here’s why.
In 2011, Catania was stuck. He’d easily secured re-election to his at-large spot, guaranteeing him a 17-year stint on the D.C. Council. The seat was his for as long as he wanted it, with a lucrative legal job to follow whenever he tired of public life. White, gay, cantankerous, and a former Republican in a city where those are all disadvantages to higher office, he already had the best position he could hope for.
But Catania still wanted to be more than one of the more outspoken councilmembers. Soon, events started to agree with him. Vince Gray’s friends started pleading guilty to campaign crimes, presaging (possibly) a 2014 race where Gray would make it through the Democratic primary, but just barely. Catania gained control of the Council’s prominent education committee. Meanwhile, more white voters moved to the city.
Backed up by three months of fundraising through an exploratory committee, Catania launched his campaign in March. Two days earlier, though, the rationale for his campaign had evaporated. Jeff Thompson, the mastermind behind the illicit campaigns to help Gray and several other District pols, pleaded guilty in federal court and accused his once-favorite candidate along the way.
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Faced with the prospect of re-electing a mayor who seemed destined to have his own day in court, Democrats disaffected by Gray nominated Muriel Bowser instead. The unlikely circumstance that could have created a Mayor Catania—a rival under the constant threat of indictment—was gone.
Catania ran anyway, giving up re-election to his Council seat in the process, but the campaign looked desperate as soon as it began.
As polls showed Bowser increasing her lead over Catania, his campaign pointed to their own numbers, which they claimed showed Catania closing. Predictably, though, the campaign also refused to release details of those positive internals polls. Bowser staffers, meanwhile, insisted the Ward 4 councilmember would blow out her rival.
With Gray out of the race, Catania needed some new freakish circumstances to replace the lame duck mayor. Instead, his luck ran out.
Everything started to happen like it was supposed to. A Washington Post editorial board endorsement would at least shore up Catania’s base, but they backed Bowser instead. The unions stuck with Bowser, as did most of the District’s deep-pocketed donors. None of his Council colleagues, bruised after years of Catania’s temper, endorsed him.
Bowser didn’t help him, either. Her campaign limited her debate appearances, cutting the numbers of times that Catania could try to wound her. She crushed him in fundraising, denying him the money advantage that could have helped to overcome his weaknesses. She kept intact the get-out-the-vote apparatus that helped her beat Gray, and added some of his supporters along the way. And when Bowser did face Catania in debates, she didn’t do terribly.
By election day, Catania’s chances looked as grim as Gray’s had when the mayor faced Bowser seven months earlier. That loss brought to an end the little campaign that couldn’t, but looked like it could. When Catania returned to the dais, he was quieter, less eager to talk to reporters. Next month, he’ll be out of his Council seat.
If he’d never run, though, he would never have known if he had given up the one chance for a person like him to be mayor of the District. And for Catania, that seems like it would be the worst loss of all.