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Of the 13 members of the D.C. Council, five have announced they are running for higher office. Three others are considering a run. Two wish they could move up but can’t. One faces a tough re-election campaign, and another is retiring.
The odd man out is At-Large Councilmember David Catania. The two-term rep has a legislative record that would make him a force in the races for council chair or mayor. And ever since he surfaced in D.C. politics, Catania has been continually nosing around for a scuffle.
But this time, he isn’t biting. He’s just legislating. While his council colleagues have been jockeying for position, he’s rung up an impressive haul of victories in his role as chair of the Committee on Health.
His signature achievement is a bill that must have him on wanted posters in the offices of an almighty industry: the pharmaceuticals trade.
The Prescription Drugs Excessive Pricing Act passed the council unanimously and will soon carry the mayor’s signature. Authored by Catania, the bill makes it illegal for drug makers to sell their wares at an “excessive price” in the District—meaning 30 percent higher than in four other high-income countries. Companies that overprice their products could draw lawsuits from District consumers, whose cases would be greatly aided by Catania’s legislation.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) said the bill would stifle innovation and harm the District’s business climate. A lengthy legal challenge is expected. PhRMA’s spokesperson declines to talk about Catania. The group prefers issuing statements slamming the bill to taking shots at their chief villain.
Perhaps PhRMA understands that if it makes Catania part of the fight, it will be granting the populist free publicity. “I want to see this thing through to the end,” says Catania. “I want to see a well-funded plaintiff who will take this thing to court.”
Drug company reps lobbied hard against the bill. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce convinced Catania to delay passing it for a month. But Catania won big. “Shutting down the pharmaceutical manufacturers does not happen anywhere in the country,” he says. It’s the kind of braggadocio Catania is famous for.
#Other items on Catania’s performance scorecard:
•He initiated a plan to help Hurricane Katrina evacuees while Mayor Anthony A. Williams Jr. was out of town. OK, so the bus caravan that Catania helped fill with supplies and D.C. emergency-management staff came back with only one person from the hurricane zone. But when the mayor and councilmembers mugged for the cameras as the evacuees arrived by plane, Catania was front and center. He still regularly visits the D.C. National Guard Armory, where some evacuees remain.
•Catania personally managed the renovation of D.C.’s addiction-treatment facility. “The entire physical structure has been transformed,” he says. “We suspended some contract-and-procurement rules. It has been huge for the morale of the employees.” Catania even helped pick out the furniture.
•As Health Committee chair, Catania is a pivotal figure in the debate over the mayor’s plan to build a new hospital on the D.C. General site. After initially backing the plan, he is now questioning the need for the facility.
•His oversight of the city’s dysfunctional HIV/AIDS office hastened the departure of former office director Lydia Watts.
The councilmember claims he needs no more power to keep pushing his agenda. “My intention is to seek re-election to the at-large seat,” Catania says. “I’m hitting my stride. The things I care about are coming to the forefront of the city’s agenda.”
Catania has good reason to be content. The independent has benefited from a law passed by the city’s federal overlords that sets aside two at-large seats for the nonmajority party. Republican At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz holds the other. He has had no serious challenge from the field of non-Democrats. His intense and sometimes vicious grilling of government witnesses has endeared him to many and made enemies of many. He’s logged several famous public fights with a number of his council colleagues. As one health advocate puts it, “David has little patience for bullshit.”
The last person to take a shot at Catania was Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a Ward 8 Democrat and activist who ran for the at-large seat as what he calls an “independent Democrat” in 2002. Catania crushed Kinlow in the general election by a 3-1 margin on the way to winning every city ward in the non-Democrat race.
Catania was first elected as an openly gay Republican in a 1997 special election. The then-29-year-old newcomer shocked the city establishment by defeating former D.C. Council Chair Arrington Dixon. Catania became an independent after President George W. Bush backed a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.
He’s gone from being a fiery fiscally conservative but socially progressive Republican to an independent highlighted in the lefty Mother Jones magazine for his battles with the drug companies. All the while, he’s held on to his spend-as-you-go ways.
Catania says his days of being voted Most Likely to Start an Argument on the Council Dais are over. “I hope I’m becoming a more mature, balanced person,” he says.
The job description for this mature person may extend to playing peacemaker on the council dais. With five councilmembers seeking higher office, after all, the panel’s public meetings are threatening to become more fractious, more petty. Catania says he’s just the guy to head off a council-chamber circus. “This has to function and has to work. When I see unfair allegations from one person to another, I plan to point it out,” Catania says. “I go back to 1998, when we had three members running for mayor. I remember two of those almost coming to blows at a council breakfast.”
In fact, the pit bull of the council has offered up his mediating services to Cropp. “I think there have to be some voices on the council that say, ‘Keep these campaigns out of the chamber,’” he says.
That’s a tall order for a guy not known for his diplomatic skills.
Last year, during a meeting about one of his drug bills, Catania cussed out attorney A. Scott Bolden—who was representing PhRMA—and showed him the door.
Bolden’s assessment of Catania’s possible role as council conciliator: “Fat chance.”
But Catania says he is committed to his independence. “I am going to stay out of these other campaigns,” he says. “I mean it.”
As long as you can ignore the mayoral race. Catania the legislator is in no mood to lose his momentum. He’s supporting Cropp for mayor, and the endorsement could complicate his transformation into the Jimmy Carter of the council.
With his formidable, headline-grabbing record, council watchers say Catania would be a better candidate to move up than some of his less effectual council colleagues. As an independent, he is the only sitting politician who can jump into a race after the voters have sent what are likely to be battered Democratic-primary winners on to the general election.
Other advocates say Catania has developed a following that goes beyond those who admire his tenacity and bullying of bureaucrats. Sharon Baskerville of the D.C. Primary Care Association, who has seen her fair share of Catania blowouts, says, “He’s gotten to the point where people can’t dismiss him because his blood sugar is low.” She says the most telling sign is something that surprises a lot of activists: “He actually admits sometimes when he is wrong.”
•It’s no surprise that Crestwood should become the Gettysburg of the war over mayoral campaign signs. After all, contenders Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty and Cropp live a few blocks apart in the wooded enclave off 16th Street NW. Dozens of red-and-white Cropp signs and green-and-white Fenty signs politely display neighborhood loyalties. But nearby, someone has set off a campaign dirty bomb. One of those “Think Cropp” yard signs—the brainchild of an independent political-action committee with no connection to Cropp—has been transformed by black felt-tip pen. The altered black-and-white ad in front of the National Memorial Church of God at 16th and Taylor Streets NW reads “Think Crap!” On the morning of Sept. 27, the placard was still in perfect position for southbound rush-hour viewing.
•Most D.C. politicos figure that the District is the best place to meet voters. Mayoral hopeful Michael Brown isn’t so limited. Over the weekend, he was spotted working crowds at the Trent Jones Golf Course in Gainesville, Va.—about 35 miles from D.C. Thousands of spectators were on the course for the President’s Cup, a professional team tournament pitting the best U.S. golfers against an international all-star squad. Brown says he handed out about 500 Brown-for-mayor campaign cards to spectators. “There were a lot of District voters there,” Brown says. He sees no need to explain the utility of leaving the city in search of votes. “Everything I do is related to campaigning. When I went to the Redskins game, I handed out information there.”
At least Washington is part of the Redskins’ name—even though they play 15 miles away in Maryland. And it’s not as if Brown has missed too many big political events in the city. As for his opponents’ focus on hitting the neighborhood meetings and campaigning door-to-door in the city where the election will actually be held: “They campaign the way they need to; I’ll campaign the way I need to.”—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.