City Paper is not for tourists
It’s an unassuming battleground: Monday afternoon in the sparsely filled D.C. Council chambers, under the buzz of fluorescent lamps, during a numbingly long hearing on taxes. But At-Large Councilmember David Catania has declared war nonetheless.
The targets of his attack sit in the front row of the audience, armed with boxes of testimony and sheepish, nervous looks. The staffers under the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) know what’s coming: A front-page article in the Washington Post warned Catania of their forthcoming testimony against a controversial tax-cut plan introduced by Catania and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. Catania is mad as hell. It’s his default position.
At his post on the council dais, Catania pores over his ammunition: letters and financial documents and old budget books, all highlighted and annotated with Post-it notes. Brow furrowed, forehead buried in one hand, he scribbles furiously. A few final points and the plan of attack is complete. Those suckers will never know what hit ’em. He cracks his knuckles.
Evans starts the hearing with no certain flair, but Catania follows quickly, wasting no time on niceties. In his opening remarks, he accuses the CFO reps of “bastardizing numbers.” Like a ’90s Gen. Douglas MacArthur plotting his attack, Catania maps out his strategy and predicts he will destroy the opposition: “I will demonstrate, when they testify, the fallacies of their numbers and how they have poorly served this institution.”
Five hours of public testimony pass before the CFO witnesses finally take the stand. Many in the audience have lost interest and drifted away. A few of the councilmembers have to be summoned back to the dais. But Catania has used the time to fume, stoking his indignation and righteousness to a high state of readiness. When he finally has the floor for questioning the witnesses, he goes off immediately.
“Let’s begin with your doom-and-gloom forecasts for budget recessions,” he starts. He fires off questions: How were these figures determined? Who is responsible for this? When the hell has the District evereveractually lost $120 million in revenue in one year’s time, as you predict? The witnesses shuffle through a few documents before they have to admit the city hasn’t. Catania responds with a sly, smug smile that says, I got ’em now, got ’em by the balls. “In other words,” he says, “you’ve come up with a recession scenario that is not based in fact or the District’s experience as we know it.”
Not waiting for a response, Catania quickens his pace. His face tightens. He points to two pages in the CFO office’s figures where tax credits have supposedly been double-counted. “This is another area where I think it is patently dishonest, what you have done,” he rants. “It is one of two things: It is dishonest, or it is incompetent.” His lips curl.
Chief Economist Julia Friedman explains that the document he is referring to is not part of the official testimony. Catania blows up: “That is exactly the problem with dealing with the CFO’s office. It is sleight of hand every time you turn around. Not this pageit’s that page.” He flips wildly through papers on the desk, and his hand hits the microphone. Static fills the council hearing. Catania roars through the buzz: “You cannot ask us to work with a moving target.”
It’s a bitchy, bravura performance, an act he has patented in just 18 months on the council. He’s certainly not the first member in the history of the council to use bluster to political ends, but Catania is different, because his indignation is always tied to the facts. You cannot beat Catania on the facts. He does his homework, and then he does yours. At the moment, the target is the staff from the CFO’s office, but they are only the most recent of Catania’s victims. The first openly gay member of the council, Catania is also young, white, and Republicanan anomalous presence in virtually every way. But none of those characteristics speak to his real trademark: From his campaigns to council hearings to plain old neighborhood meetings, Catania is notorious for turning routine questioning sessions into virtual bloodfests.
Catania says he doesn’t have time to be cordial, not with the city at stake, but you get the feeling that his political tactics are congruent with his personal style. Nobody could act like such a prick without lots and lots of practice. His wild-man act has paid off again and again. Since joining the council in December 1997, Catania has managed to secure federal money for the Civilian Complaint Review Board and helped create the city’s first Office of Women’s Health. He has conducted the first-ever screening of the District’s 37 advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs) and turned oversight of local agencies into an art forma martial art form, that is.
And all of that was just a warmup for the recently passed tax cut, the biggest piece of legislation to come out of the council in years. While more seasoned colleagues watched, Cataniaalong with Evansquietly built a supermajority that gave his side enormous leverage when it came time to sit down with a skeptical Mayor Anthony A. Williams. And in spite of his uncompromising reputation, Catania demonstrated that he could outplay the players, eventually agreeing to stretch the cut out over a number of years to address the mayor’s concerns.
But his primary MO is still one of fiery engagement. And, for the most part, local activists from all parts of the city love him for it. They worship Catania, a vexing David come to battle the durable Goliath of D.C. corruption and mismanagement.
“I can only say that he can do no wrong,” says Kerry Stowell, political director of the League of Republican Women and former chair of Ward 2 Republicans. Stowell gushes about Catania to a near-seizure level: “David does not have a second agenda. His first agenda is doing the best for D.C., and he has very little patience for those who have a second agenda.”
Catania is a rookie, but he didn’t spend much time on the bench. A lawyer who specializes in representing energy companies at the firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, Catania had almost no experience in local politicsonly one term as a Ward 1 ANC commissionerbefore he campaigned in a 1997 special election to fill an at-large council post. He ran hard.
Catania’s primary opponent was Arrington Dixon, an old-guard District Democrat who started working in local politics when Catania, 31, was still in high school. Far from slinking away from the disparity in experience, Catania used Dixon’s political history as a selling point in his own campaign.
“Every time I stood up at events, I made it a point to mention that [Dixon] was one of the principal architects of the status quo,” says Catania, who adds that he prepped for debates by reading hundreds of articles about Dixon and “could finish almost any sentence he started….He was completely unprepared for me.”
Today, Dixon is willing to give Catania his due. “He has proved to be a very stellar member of the council,” Dixon says. “I enjoyed my campaigns with him. I wish him well….I thought that we’d both be working together on the council. It just didn’t work out that way.”
But Phil Pannel, a longtime Dixon friend and Ward 8 activist, recalls Catania’s campaign tactics as “particularly vicious” and quibbles with Catania’s decision to focus on past experience over issues. He says Catania behaved as a “nasty bitch.”
Pannel recalls one flier Catania mailed out to all Republican voters registered in the District that urged them not to vote for Dixon, calling him an “FOB,” which stood for “Friend of Barry.” “I know that was supposed to be cute and a play on SOB,” says Pannel. “But Arrington was never a friend of Barry’s.”
Catania’s fresh face looked plenty good to District voters, who elected Catania with 43 percent of the vote. Fewer than 24,000 votersonly 7 percent of those registered in the Districtcast ballots in that special election. The low turnout worked to Catania’s advantage, who faced seemingly impossible odds in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans better than 10-to-1.
Catania joined the council that December and began jumping up and down on his colleagues’ nerves in a matter of days.
At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, for instance, did not take kindly to Catania’s rebuke at a December 1997 hearing on the Children’s Island proposal, which would have built a theme park on two islands in the Anacostia River. The hearing was Catania’s first as a councilmember. He demanded that Brazil explain his flip-flop and eventual support for the plan. The just-hatched councilmember wondered aloud whether Brazil had been swayed by one of the key lobbyists of the plan, who was heading the senior councilmember’s exploratory committee for the mayoral bid.
Brazil looked as if he was ready to settle it man to man. “I don’t have to jump to your tune…the man who has been here a day and a half,” Brazil said at the time, according to a Post report.
“Certainly no one wants to be falsely accused,” says Brazil today. “We’ve worked the relationship out….We all have different styles. There’s good and bad aspects of each of our styles. That’s
Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose says it’s nothing personal: “He is an intense person, and he cares very deeply about the city. And he’s impatient. So he doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on niceties. He wants to get to the issue. And he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
Catania is councilmember as Uzi, a high-powered weapon that can take out a lot of targets in a short time. He’s berated witnesses from all parts of the city: mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer on the proposed budget; Medicaid director Paul Offner on the mayor’s plans to expand health insurance to low-income and disabled residents; District developer T. Conrad Monts on the bungled Wilson Building transaction.
But Catania’s antics aren’t confined to oversight hearings, nor to issues as weighty as the behemoth tax-cut plan. His fuse is short no matter what the situation, and he doesn’t welcome the same sort of scrutiny he dishes out. When Washington City Paper ranked councilmembers according to vote attendance for a September 1998 article, Catania was less than pleased to hear that he rated fourth from the bottom. A reporter called for a comment, and Catania demanded the records, arguing that the ratings were skewed. He was equally irate when WAMU political commentator Mark Plotkin asked him in the hallway outside council chambers why he hadn’t attended the hearing for two cases urging voting rights in the District. Catania went ballistic, say Plotkin and other observers, reminding them that he already does plenty for the District.
He has also been known to throw a few punches when no one is even near the ring. After he was re-elected to a full term in 1998, Catania did not use his January ’99 inaugural speech to lavish listeners with promises and thank-yous. Instead, he came out fighting. He fumed about politicos of the past and said the “broken government” has “not served us well.” It was a battle unprovoked.
But Catania insists his tactics are defined by the opponents he faces, not his personal style. “I don’t enjoy taking people to the woodshed. In fact, I find it distasteful,” he says, sitting on the edge of a chair in his office. “But this bureaucracy has a circle-the-wagons mentality, and they figure if they can fake you out, nothing can change.
“Now, I know I’m not going to be here forever, and I don’t have time to waste. People have paid for these services. I side with the citizen over the bureaucrat,” he says.
“That means that if you are the head of the employment services, then you’d better be doing your best to find employment for our population,” Catania adds. “If that means you’re going door to door, knocking on businesses, that’s what it means. It doesn’t mean having a big bureaucracy when the only jobs that are provided by the Department of Employment Services are provided at the headquarters of the Department of Employment Services.”
The tirade comes in the midst of what has so far been a casual interview. One minute we are chatting along, and then, in a second, his eyes fixate into a freaky, menacing stare. Sitting on a couch in his office, watching his jaw tighten as he talks, I feel genuine pity for those who must endure his gaze from the dais. I start to squirm in my seat. I feel the impulse to nod and apologize and promise I’ll do a better job, as best I can, whatever he wants.
Of course, that’s just the effect he’s going for. And it’s his push for performance that has many local activists turning cartwheels. They’re confident he will seek out whatever ineptitude remains, hunt it downand kill it.
“It’s quite clear to everyone who follows D.C. politics that we have been sold down the river on a number of issues,” says Ward 2 activist Madelyn Lane. “That can’t happen with someone like David Catania around, because he blows the whistle on them. Hopefully, we’ll throw out some of the other bums.”
Even people who commend Catania for his energy wish he’d lose the tendency to froth at the mouthespecially if his spittle is headed right for their lapels.
“I do know that sometimes he gets so intense that I want him to chill out a little,” says At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, the only other Republican on the council. “I think it can sometimes take merits off his position.”
Ambrose thinks Catania would do well to turn down the volume a bit, but she readily admits she’s not above reproach herself. A council staffer calls the two of them a pair of “junkyard dogs.”
“I have been known to be less than judicious, and he has also done it on occasion,” says Ambrose. She adds that after one of her recent blowups, the two made a pact, promising to alert each other when either one was getting a bit too overheated. “It clearly undermined our effectiveness to go over the topthat is, to get a little nasty.”
You can’t get nasty without acquiring your share of enemies. The Williams administration has absorbed plenty of Catania’s invective, but publicly, it seems willing to overlook Catania’s tendency to lecture anybody who doesn’t share his position. Mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong says Catania’s grilling is all part of the natural give and take of government oversight.
But one government administrator who has faced off with Catania during hearings is tired of being on the receiving end of his lightening bolts. “David is not really trying to solve problems. He’s trying to embarrass you and get attention….He plays what I call legislative gotcha,” says this administrator. “He thinks the way to make progress is to keep bureaucrats on their toes. There are plenty of bureaucrats that need a kick in the rear end, but at some point, you’ve got to get past the embarrassment model.”
By most standards, Catania has overstepped the bounds of healthy dialogue, especially in meetings with the city’s financial control board and the mayor’s office over the tax-cut proposal. During one recent meeting, says a government source who attended, Catania rebuked At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson for opposition to the tax plan, demanding an apology for statements Mendelson had made in the Post. Council Chair Linda Cropp nudged Catania and told him to hush up, says the source.
Debate at another meeting prompted control board Chair Alice Rivlin to leave in a huff, warning Catania not to bully her. Rivlin says she was merely late for an appointment, but agrees that Catania was “not terribly polite.” Another government employee who attended the meetings is more specific: “He’s crazy. He’s absolutely, freaking crazy. He interrupts people. He doesn’t have respect for anyone.”
Those closest to Catania are the ones who are subject to the most heat. “David can be hell to work for, and that’s an understatement,” says former staffer and longtime friend John Shumake, who served as both Catania’s campaign manager and his chief of staff and now works as a staffer on the Hill. Shumake is proud of what Catania has accomplished and believes he deserves any credit that comes to him. Still, he compares the work with Catania to “kick-boxing.”
Catania’s rules of engagement inevitably yield casualties. Since he took office in 1997, the body count has piled up almost as quickly as the impressive headlines. Catania’s first chief of staff, Tina Dobbins, stayed less than a year, leaving in November 1998. Shumake replaced her, but remained for only a few months. Two others have left Catania’s office in the last several months: Committee Director Kathy Sternberg and Administrative Assistant Rodney Hudgens.
People who have worked for Catania suggest that his strength can become a weakness when it’s taken to an extreme. “Professionally, he deserves all the credit,” says a former council staffer. “But personally, he deserves the blame.”
Former campaign staffer Kaffie Milikin decided to leave rather than endure Catania’s wrath. She quit his 1998 re-election campaign the weekend before the vote, following a clash with Catania. Milikin declines to comment on specifics of the situation out of “personal loyalties” to mutual friends, but sounds scarred by the experience. “I left David behind, and I don’t want to revisit him or the campaign,” she says.
Catania feels no such compulsion. He says he complained to a secretary about Milikin’s slow pace on a mailing project, who in turn told Milikin. She confronted Catania, urging him to register complaints about her performance directly with her. “I said, ‘I would have if I thought you could take it. But I bit my tongue, and now I have blood in my mouth. If you want to sit down now and have a reality check, fine,’” recalls Catania.
Milikin left soon after. “The situation was thrust upon me,” says Catania.
Politics, by Catania’s lights, is a contact sport. “I was not planning a garden party. This isn’t croquet in the back yard,” rants Catania over French toast one Sunday morning. “God damn it, I don’t have time to put a cherry on top.”
“Like John [Shumake] always says to me, ‘Your strength is to push people to the point where they call you a motherfucker. Then you draw back. And you get the most out of them in the meantime,’” says Catania. “It’s like a muscle. You don’t know how far it goes until you press it.”
Catania is anything but a mama’s boy, but he was probably closer to his motherAudrey Cataniathan anyone else in the world. She died in 1990 from ovarian cancer. Catania recalls that the woman he cuddled up to was hardly a pushover. “She was a tough broad,” he says.
Catania was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Jan. 16, 1968. His parents were never married, and his father wasn’t around when he was growing up. Catania was a steadfast academic achiever, but
he had trouble solving the riddle of adolescent
sexuality. He recalls that he avoided dating by absorbing himself in his studies. He also engaged in Missouri politics at a young age, holding student government posts and volunteering to work in a handful of Republican campaigns.
In 1986, Catania came to the District to attend Georgetown University and stayed there to go to law school. He says he initially planned to return home to Missouri after graduation and made regular visits home during his college days to see his mother and friends.
You don’t need to talk with Catania for long to realize that his mother had a huge impact on his life. In private conversation and in public, he often references his mother’s wisdom. “As my mother used to say,” he offers during one interview, “‘If you’re going to beat me, you’re going to have to outwork me. And if you outwork me, you’re going to be damn tired.’”
Catania starts to cry when he tells me about his mother’s cancer during an interview in his office one Friday afternoon. I would doubt the sincerity of the tearsa little timely pathos for a reporter’s sake?except for how they arrive. Catania is recalling the history of his mother’s sickness with composure, in his usual matter-of-fact tone: “My mother’s cancer was diagnosed in April” He stops abruptly, staring out a window. Tears well at the corners of his eyes as he realizes that today, the day of our interview, April 9, is the same date he learned of his mother’s cancer nine years earlier. “It’s so odd. It still affects you,” he says.
Even though he’s living in the headlines and running more than his share of the show in the council offices at One Judiciary Square, his longtime cohorts don’t look for him to forget where he came from. Or who helped him get there.
“David is amazingly loyal,” says former romantic partner Ken Baker. “It doesn’t show in his political life. But he’s amazingly loyal to the city. And he’ll fight tooth and nail for his friends.”
Before Evans and he unleashed their massive tax-cut plan in mid-April, Catania was better known for reacting than proposing. His coming-out party as a lawmaker was a perfectly timed media event: a tax-cut plan announced on April 15. The plan was an ambitious one: a three-year proposal that would reduce both commercial property and business taxes and cut personal income tax rates by as much as 30 percent.
Nine councilmembers supported the plan when it was unveileda “veto-proof” number, as Catania would say again and again. Cropp and Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis signed on a few weeks into the deal-making. Mendelson and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham remained the longest holdouts, finally agreeing to the plan in the last stages of negotiations.
Catania looked at the plan as win-win and had the votes to show for it. But the size and impact of the proposal began to raise doubts. Graham grumbled about potential cuts in city services. “I was concerned the tax cut was so great that it would have a negative impact on the ability to provide effective and efficient services,” Graham says, speaking from a cell phone in his car. He is cut off when he hits a pothole and has to call me back. “Speaking of potholes,” he continues, “I think the first step is to have every dollar effectively spent. After that, the question is whether there are places we want to spend additional money.”
Mendelson launched the most formal campaign of opposition, pitching a detailed alternative proposal and publishing an editorial in the Post. He argued that the proposal gave the greatest benefits to D.C.’s wealthiest, but did nothing for lower-income residents. “The initial proposal was way out of scale and ignored needed reforms,” says Mendelson. “Cutting rates was not the answer.”
Iris Lav, deputy director for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research organization, repeated Mendelson’s concerns that the Evans-Catania plan would bring the greatest boon to the city’s high-income residents, at a cost to poorer residents. The plan seemed evena cut of roughly a third for all income groups. But it only takes a bit of common sense to suggest that a third of more money is more money. A report Lav did after the proposal came out suggested that the city’s richest fifth would receive 65 percent of the benefits.
Lav also challenged the supply-side logic that drove the proposal. Catania and Evans suggested that the proposal would more or less fund itselfnew residents and businesses attracted by better tax rates would come into the District and create a surplus to cover the $400 million yearly cost of the plan. She claimed annual surplus would actually be more like $100 million or $200 million for the next few yearsfar short of the yearly cost of the proposed cuts.
“This is what you would call a supply-side
tax cut or a recyclables tax cut or a Jack Kemp
tax cut,” says Lav. “I know from my work and from my research that [making up the revenue] is
Critics also suggested that Catania, a short-timer on the council, was overlooking the number of vital city programs that had already taken huge hits back when the city was struggling. Programs like General Public Assistance and the Tenant Assistance Program were significantly reduced or cut altogether in the mid-’90s, says Mary Ann Luby, outreach coordinator for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “Clearly, this tax thing was to address the people who have,” says Luby. “I didn’t get any sense [that Catania] was taking into account the people that struggle in the District of Columbia.”
Aside from the risk to the city, most pointed to the proposal as a sign of Catania’s Republican identity shining through. He may have barked about improving city agencies and providing for citizens, but critics said his tax-cut plan as proposed would cripple the city’s ability to deliver an appropriate level of service. For years, District residents had complained that they didn’t get what they paid for, without even mentioning how much they paid in the first place. Catania turned that history on its head.
“What he was able to do was to get a majority of a Democratic city council to act like Reagan RepublicansReagan Republicans beyond even Ronald Reagan’s fantasy,” says Howard Croft, field coordinator for the D.C. Consumer Health Advocacy Initiative. “I think it demonstrates two things about this city: It shows the real power of well-heeled interest groups in city. And it shows the voting power of the affluent community.”
It also shows a little something about Catania’s politics, adds Scott McLarty, a local activist and member of the D.C. Green Party. “Dave is an interesting combination,” he says. “A lot of people who consider themselves liberal like Dave and voted for him because he ran on a platform that emphasizes good government, and cleaning up a lot of the inefficiency, and coming out against some of the really bad ideas. But Dave is also very much a Republican, with Republican ideas about cutting taxes and especially about cutting taxes for people at the high end of the income spectrum.”
Catania may have believed he was feeding his base by bringing home the tax-cut bacon, but not all of his supporters are applauding. “To me, it sounds like trickle-down Reaganomics, and that’s not what I voted for,” says Catania supporter Lane. “I don’t know why he’s doing this. I expected something like this from Evans, but I didn’t expect it from David.”
Catania, one of two Republicans on the council, is a commodity of sortsa huge asset when dealing with a Republican-led Congress. He’s also the first councilmember to have a part-time paid lobbyist in Congress: Carl Schmid. Not that he calls himself that. “Congressional liaison,” Schmid corrects. Catania furthers the distinction: “I don’t consider it appropriate to lobby. Carl is a conduit of information.”
The city could use a few more friends on Capitol Hill, but not everyone is happy to see Catania or Schmid traipsing back and forth between council and congressional offices. When Congress slashed funding for ANCs in the District’s 1999 budget, for instance, Catania joined forces with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to return the money to its rightful place. They succeeded. But some on the Hill say Norton wasn’t thrilled about sharing the limelight. “Eleanor is very territorial,” says one Hill staffer.
And when Catania went directly to the Senate to request $1.2 million to fund civilian review of the police without consulting Norton, the congresswoman was reportedly perturbed and called Cropp to see if Catania had gone through the proper channels.
Norton spokesperson Donna Brazile discounts tales of tension between Norton and Catania. She says the confusion was solved within 24 hours and that the congresswoman now has “an excellent working relationship” with Catania and Schmid. “He’s learned from this office that the best way to work is through communication,” says Brazile.
Democratic D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss worries about the kind of politicians Catania is fraternizing with, District antagonists like Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) and Rep. Ernest Istook Jr. (R-Okla.). “David’s renegade trips to the Hill don’t exactly thrill me,” he says. “A lot of these Republicans he’s chumming up with are not friends of the District.”
WAMU’s Plotkin says it’s an issue of missed opportunities. If Catania, as well as Schwartz, is going to have direct contact with some of the most anti-D.C. politicians around, why not work more to convert them, rebuffing District criticism and supporting home rule issues? “They don’t do enough to sell the District to the natural constituency,” says Plotkin. “If they do, they’re very secretive about it.”
Plotkin points to Catania’s proposed tax-cut plan as a typical Republican move and wonders where Catania’s voice is on the issues that need Republican supporters: voting rights, repeal of 30-day congressional review of D.C. legislation, budget autonomy. “I think he feels [that those issues aren’t] career-advancing,” says Plotkin.
But Catania says that’s he’s establishing important relationships with Hill politicians. “Somebody has to tell people on the Hill what we’re doing,” he says. “I make them D.C.-friendly,” he adds, although he’s light on the details of exactly what he does. Right now, he says, he’s talking with congressional politicians about the specifics requiring the District to keep a $150 million reserve account. But he also works on “everyday stuff,” like federal appropriations for the District. “There’s a lot of shit I can’t really summarize. It’s ongoing, and it lasts.”
Talking about his love life doesn’t bother Catania. Well, not much, anyway. He was closeted as a youngster, but says he got over that long ago, finally coming out when he was in college after falling in love with a male friend. The friend had trouble dealing with his own homosexuality and made an attempt to kill himself on Halloween 1988.
Catania’s own maturation was fairly smooth, with support from his mother and friends. But coming out ended any thought of politics in conservative Missouri, says Catania. He decided to stay in the District, moving on to law school. He dated several men during his time there and met Baker, his partner for five years, in 1993. The two lived together for four years but grew apart after Catania came on the council, finally ending the relationship this winter. Both Catania and Baker say the parting was amicable. He’s now dating, casually.
Catania is open about his homosexuality, but he doesn’t flaunt it. It takes me hours of interview time to get him to admit he has a social life (dinner with friends, dating around, nothing serious), let alone that he takes part in the typical D.C. gay scene (drinks at J.R.’s, dancing at Badlands).
When I ask to go along one Friday night as we pick at sandwiches at the 18th & U Duplex Diner, he declines. He’s a guarded person, he says, and worried about jeopardizing his image. We part. I go home.
Ten minutes later, my phone rings. It’s Catania. “OK, you win,” he says. He’s going for drinks at J.R.’s, he saysnothing planned, nothing special. He might run into some friends. We meet there at 11:30, making our way through the crowded room. A few of the guys notice me, probably because I’m one of four women in the place. More notice Catania.
Catania flirts openly, pointing out the guys who catch his eye. When he eyes one tall cutie leaning against the pool table, he says to me and Steve, a friend we have bumped into, “I tell you, darlin’, there’s a gold mine in tall men.” Steve smiles and whispers in my ear, “He knows, because he’s been digging around in them.”
It’s not the same Catania who brings a machete to budget meetings. Relaxed and playful, he’s more coquette than political overlord. He talks easily about past loves and offers me unsolicited dating advice. But I get the feeling he’s agreed to have me tag along on this one night so I’ll stop asking about his social life. Give the pesky reporter the gay dating scene and she’ll lose interest. Catania is still in control.
“I kinda hope that someday there’s a photograph of me falling down the stairs drunk at J.R.’s, just so we can get it out there,” he says later. I tell him that can be arranged. He declines. “At the same time, I’m not going to put myself in a position to really embarrass myself. I’m not going to do a lap dance with an 18-year-old.”
Catania’s not confused about his identity, but he’s hardly a prisoner to it. For Catania, politics has always been more about the city than gay rights issues. He was virtually unknown in the gay community when he ran in the special election. Gay activists generally welcomed Catania to the political scene, but a few in the community just couldn’t get past Catania’s party affiliation. “Being Republican isn’t a skin color; it’s a political philosophy,” says Kurt Vorndran, vice president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a liberal advocacy group for gay and lesbian rights. “There’s a great spectrum. But certainly typical Republican views aren’t generally in our interests.”
“Gay” and “Republican” used to have an oxymoronic ring, but Catania is the fruit of a small but growing movement. The local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group for gay Republicans, now has a membership of 100 and a mailing list of more than 500, says Paul Dionne, the group’s president. Membership swelled by more than 200 percent in the mid-’90s, he adds. “There is still a faction [of the gay community]…that thinks all we need to do is focus on the Democratic party and the Democrats will solve everything. And I think that’s always going to be there,” says Dionne. “But I think more and more people realize we are in a two-party system, and it’s better for us to be involved in both parties.”
Catania doesn’t worry himself with the social implications of his party affiliation. “I’m often asked, ‘How do Republicans deal with you?’ That’s code for ‘You’re a fag. How come they like you?’” says Catania. “As long as I get what I want, I don’t care what they say.”
So far, Catania hasn’t been blazing trails on gay issues in the District. He says he’s sensitive to the needs of the gay community, of course. “But I don’t think there’s any difference between the interests of a gay person and of a heterosexual one,” says Catania.
That sits just fine with many local gay activists, who see Catania’s election more as a symbolic victory than a practical one. “We’re concerned about medical marijuana and domestic-partner coverage, but we also care about getting our potholes fixed,” says Everett Hamilton, president of the D.C. Coalition, a group for gay, lesbian, and bisexual African-Americans in the District. “At the end of the day, those of us who care about the District of Columbia want someone who will represent all of the citizens of the District of Columbia, not just the gay population.”
Even the old gay Democrat strongholds have warmed up to Catania. At an April luncheon for the Metropolitan Retirees, a group of retired gay and lesbian workers, Catania is the guest of honor. Seated at a long table at La Brasserie, a French restaurant on Capitol Hill, the “old queens,” as Catania calls them later, pepper him with questions, and he schmoozes like a pro. They applaud wildly when he speaks. They don’t care if he’s Republican. They’re just glad he has made it. “We are so proud of you,” one yells.
When Catania was first elected, he promised to finish the special-election term, run for another, and then leave gracefully.
Less than two years later, Catania’s talk has changed. “I know I was probably premature when I made that public,” he says. “I should have probably kept that to myself, because you never know what the future has in store for you. Or what unfinished business might exist in a few years.”
Small wonder he doesn’t relish the prospect of walking away. Spend a few hours with him and you see the grandstanding, baby-kissing politician just beneath the honest, hard-working Midwestern exterior. He can play the media better than some politicians with decades of experience, in part because he is willing to take risks and be outspoken. And all of the laurels have had their effects: Catania can’t help but be a little full of himself after all of the success he’s experienced at a tender political age.
As long as he doesn’t become what he replaced, the city could do worse than Catania.
“David is a prototype of the type of councilmember that this city needs to move into the next millenniumvery demanding, vigilant,” says Ward 7 activist Greg Rhett. “It’s the straight black Democrats who got us into this whole mess. The objective now is to move the city forward, and it shouldn’t matter the sexual orientation or gender or race, as long as we have honest, hard-working public servants that are looking out for the interests of the city. That hasn’t happened for a long time.”
So, all hail the pain in the ass.
“David came in with a number of other reformers, but he is clearly the most prepared,” says pal and former staffer Shumake. “They all want to be part of the tough questioning, but they don’t want to start it….It’s kind of like this: Throw the meat out and all the councilmembers come to it, but David is the first dog on the bone.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.