Better Wait Than Never: Norton thinks undue haste on gay marriage could be congressionally disastrous.
Better Wait Than Never: Norton thinks undue haste on gay marriage could be congressionally disastrous. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Last Thursday evening, Eleanor Holmes Norton gave a speech to a gathering of gay and lesbian public officials at the Oval Room restaurant. In her remarks to folks from across the country, the District’s congressional delegate praised the crowd’s struggles to gain equal rights and delivered, in essence, a war cry to keep it up.

Seated not too far from the podium was one of Norton’s hometown colleagues, At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania. “I’m sure she saw me,” he says, “but I don’t think I was her audience.”

There’s good reason to think he wasn’t. Catania is widely expected to introduce a bill to legalize same-sex marriages during the next council term, and, according to multiple sources, he has expressed the distinct possibility of introducing the bill on Jan. 6, at the very first legislative meeting of Council Term 18.

That—to paraphrase the late John A. ­Wilson—fucks with Eleanor’s shit.

Norton, for years, has put securing a vote for herself in Congress at the top of her Hill agenda. With a Democratic president and sizable Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, things are looking as sunny as ever—Norton hopes to have a vote on the vote by Feb. 12. But she thinks if there’s anything that could darken that sky, it’s gay marriage—an issue that LL is going to go ahead and say will be the biggest local political story of 2009.

For years, local politicos, mindful of the congressional noose that’s hanging around the District’s neck, have suppressed any desires to move forward on gay marriage. For instance, in 2004, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams asked his attorney general, Robert Spagnoletti, to draft an opinion on whether the District should recognize other jurisdictions’ same-sex marriages. The so-called “Spagnoletti memo” was drafted and never released—because, most observers assume, it would have legitimized gay unions and attracted a congressional flare-up that Williams and some activists didn’t want.

The don’t-rock-the-boat approach has worked: Same-sex couples in the District enjoy some of the best domestic partnership benefits in the country, right in Congress’ backyard. But now, the same circumstances that have Norton all pumped about her congressional vote—a uniformly blue federal government—have the LGBT folks pumped about moving forward with gay marriage.

And no one is more pumped than Catania, who by all accounts harbors the most gung-ho attitude of the major players on the issue. Fellow openly gay councilmember Jim Graham also wants his name on the District’s marriage bill, but in style and practice, the Ward 1 boss is a consensus-seeking kind of guy.

Catania, of course, is not. This famously combative former Republican left his party over gay marriage, refusing to support President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election based on Bush’s advocacy of a constitutional ban on same-sex unions. And with rumors flying that he might not seek another term in 2010, Catania sees no reason to wait.

The 11-year council vet says his marriage bill is “almost complete,” and when LL asked if it would send a message if the bill were numbered 18-1—the first of the term—Catania replied, “Of course it would—or 18-2 or 18-3 or 18-4.” But he denies that’s he’s decided to introduce the marriage bill on Jan. 6.

Any commitment to move on the issue early in the council term puts him in conflict with Norton, who says—in a statement issued by her chief of staff, Sheila Bunn—that she “supports gay marriage and always defends strongly the laws that D.C. enacts. For a number of reasons, she thinks we can prevail on this one, but smart strategy and timing would be necessary.”

Make no mistake that “smart strategy and timing” means she wants the council to maintain a holding pattern while she gets her vote. And that’s not all she wants them to wait for: “After voting rights, she will follow straight on with budget and legislative autonomy, which we can get this year but would be derailed entirely if marriage were in the picture early on. It is possible to be successful on all of this if we understand the land mines and are smart about avoiding them.”

In other words, Norton wants the marriage backers to get in line—you’ll get your chance, but you’re going to have to hold your horses.

Says Catania, “We keep acting as though the Republicans are still in charge. It’s a simple matter of arithmetic—there are more Democrats than Republicans! When I am told, ‘You just wait your turn, and I’ll get to you,’ that inspires just a very different reaction than I think that is intended.”

The Eleanor problem is just one of a host of strategic concerns causing gay-marriage organizers to wring their hands. Most of the others surround the nitty-gritty racial politics this town knows so well. The CW is, by and large, that while there’s enough votes on the D.C. Council to pass a gay-marriage bill, a backlash from the black clergy would complicate matters and lead to an effort to ban gay marriage through a ballot measure.

While an initiative or referendum is certainly a possibility, there are big roadblocks to getting any measure on the ballot. And then there’s this fact: There’s nothing that D.C. voters can do that the council can’t turn around and overturn later—which is exactly what District lawmakers did in 2001 to a term-limits initiative passed seven years earlier.

The bigger threat, most parties agree, is that gay marriage in the District becomes a hot-button national issue, leading to a full-scale congressional assault. “I think anybody who wants to kill this will go right to the Hill,” says one activist involved in the strategizing.

National gay leaders—licking their wounds after big setbacks with various Nov. 4 ballot measures, including California’s Prop 8—plan to focus their energies on getting various low-key bills through the newly Democratic Congress. Those would be things like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and extending domestic partnership rights to federal employees. On the outside edge of the envelope is ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. A knock-down gay-marriage fight on the floor of the U.S. Congress—reigniting the culture wars while Dems try to pass legislation on health care and economic relief and so forth—is not a happy thought right now.

Says Rick Rosendall of the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance, a group with a long history of extreme caution in these arenas, “The advocates I know, both gay and ungay, are not thrilled. [Marriage] won’t become a controversy when it passes the council and goes to Congress for review. It’ll become a controversy 15 minutes after it’s introduced.”

Closer to home there’s the question of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. He made a campaign promise to sign any gay marriage bill that crosses his desk—a pledge he reiterated to LL last week. But what he’d do between now and when that happens is anyone’s guess. He certainly didn’t betray any particular feelings on that matter when LL pressed him last week.

To date, he hasn’t gone too far out of his way to endear himself to gay activists. Under the terms of a wide-ranging domestic partnership bill passed in June, the mayor is empowered to automatically certify other states’ same-sex unions as domestic partnerships in the District. He has not done so. There’ve been tussles with the attorney general’s office over how transgender inmates are dealt with at D.C. Jail and parenting rights for domestic partners. And, well, he’s running for re-election—never a good time to take a stand on anything controversial.

The activists are doing what activists will do—i.e., create new acronyms for the cause. The Foundation for All D.C. Families includes several familiar local names—GLAA’s Rosendall, activists Peter Rosenstein and Sheila Alexander-Reid (also a City Paper employee), and former Whitman-Walker Clinic honcho Cornelius Baker.

Another group, D.C. for Marriage, is headed by a relatively unfamiliar face on the local gay-rights scene, Michael Crawford, who has worked mainly on national issues to date. The group is taking a decidedly soft-sell approach to this whole thing. In comments to LL, Crawford repeatedly tried to downplay the importance of pushing a gay-marriage bill past Congress posthaste. “I hope that the budget and the economy are the No. 1 issues,” he says. “Extending marriage rights is something that is important, but the budget, the economy, health care are issues that are most important.”

Crawford, who is black, says the extra time would be well spent reaching out to the African-American community in particular. “My thought is that there is a lot of work that needs to be done from a council perspective and a community perspective,” he says. “We need to be smart and strategic about how we move forward”—a direct echo of Norton’s comments on the matter.

To that end, on Thursday, Crawford’s group is holding a town-hall meeting at the downtown offices of the Human Rights Campaign, in what promises to be the most substantial public forum on the issue yet.

But what was probably the more momentous meeting took place on Tuesday evening—after LL’s deadline—in Catania’s council office. Gay activists, including Crawford, Rosendall, and Rosenstein, were scheduled to gather to discuss strategy. Or, as it’s been put to LL, to convince Catania that introducing a gay marriage bill early in the term would cause too many problems.

Don’t expect a whole lot of traction: “There are one or two vocal people [who favor holding off] but I don’t think that constitutes the community at all. I think the community, to be sure, has watched the recent defeat in California and was energized by it,” Catania says. “We’re never going to move forward unless we take a step, and this is a step. Can I guarantee with metaphysical certainty what’s going to happen? No, but neither can anybody else.”


In June, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty nominated Lori “Missy” Murphy Lee to chair the Public Service Commission, a regulatory body with broad authority over electric, natural gas, and telecommunications companies operating in the District.

Lee’s nomination was quietly bottled up and has more or less sailed under the radar until recently. Ahead of a hearing last week, Friends of the Earth sent a mass e-mail asking its allies to oppose Lee’s confirmation, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club dispatched a note opposing the nomination.

Objections to Lee cite her thin résumé [PDF] in key areas. For a decade, she’s worked as a Department of Justice staff attorney focused on immigration issues. The Friends of the Earth e-mail says Lee is “devoid of any of the regulatory, utility, or management experience required” for the job, which currently pays more than $146,000. (The enviros are concerned about the commission’s role in promoting green energy concerns.)

The nomination is also attracting attention in no small part because Lee is First Lady Michelle Fenty’s best friend. How does LL know this? Because both Missy Lee and Michelle Fenty took to the pages of Washingtonian earlier this year to detail their platonic devotion to each other. “The best thing about our friendship is we have an unspoken understanding,” Lee told the magazine. “I look at her, and she gets it—we just pass a look and don’t exchange words.”

Herbert Harris Jr.—chair of the Consumer Utilities Board, a ratepayers watchdog group—also testified against Lee. He wrote in an e-mail to concerned parties, “In my opinion, this nomination has reduced the chairmanship of our state utility commission to the lowest level of political patronage.”

The hearing last Thursday, before the public services and consumer affairs committee, cast panel chair Mary M. Cheh as grand inquisitor. Cheh, in a damning litany of questions, hammered Lee on her lack of experience in relevant matters.

Lee, however, wasn’t without advocates: Neighbor and former at-large councilmember Bill Lightfoot testified on Lee’s behalf—mainly to her interpersonal skills. And Catania, the only other councilmember to show at the hearing, did his best to try to keep Lee afloat with longwinded softball questions.

Missy is not the first Lee to be tapped for a Fenty administration post. Her husband, Garrett L. Lee, left the mayoral legal staff earlier this year after being disbarred for botching a divorce case before his tenure in public service (“Vetting Zoo,” 8/1).

Cheh says she has “no plans for immediate action” on the nomination.

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