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In March, David Catania launched a campaign to be the unlikeliest kind of D.C. mayor. Never, in the 40 years of home rule, had there been a white mayor, an openly gay one, or a non-Democrat. There’d never even been a competitive general election. Catania, a Republican-turned-independent, thought he could bring about the first.
His odds only got steeper as the election progressed. He’d hoped to square off against an incumbent under federal investigation for illegal campaign funding; instead, the April 1 Democratic primary determined that he’d face a relatively blank slate in Muriel Bowser. Catania tried to pin scandals on Bowser—her connections to the management of the troubled Park Southern building, her hands-off oversight of the housing committee as residents of places like Mount Vernon Triangle’s Museum Square Apartments faced displacement—but they mostly slid off, regarded as the politically driven attacks they largely were.
In June, a second white Republican-turned-independent, Catania’s old nemesis (or maybe the other way around) Carol Schwartz entered the race, threatening to siphon off some of the base voters on whom Catania thought he could rely.
Bowser, with the Democratic Party and a number of their D.C. Council colleagues behind her, outraised and outspent Catania throughout the race. Polls showed him consistently trailing, and while he dismissed their methodology and promised better results on Nov. 4, there was little reason for optimism.
Yet on Election Day, as he shook hands with people headed into the polls, vainly hoping to squeeze a few last votes out of them, Catania remained hopeful. He put his odds at 50-50.
“I feel great,” he said as a supporter outside Lafayette Elementary School handed him a cup of coffee to fuel his all-day dash around the city and wished him good luck. “This is a tossup at this point. I think we’ve got the message and the momentum.”
In the end, as many expected from the start, it was an unwinnable fight. From the moment the early-vote numbers were posted to the time the final returns trickled in, Catania trailed Bowser by nearly 20 points. In a city that remains as divided as ever, she trounced him among black and low- to middle-income voters, while he won by smaller margins among white and wealthy residents.
The strength of Bowser’s campaign surely had something to do with her resounding win—but with her decision to participate in only four public debates and her reluctance to engage in policy arguments with Catania, she made it clear that she could afford to stay above the fray and coast to victory on the strength of her party backing. Schwartz didn’t help Catania, but she won only 7 percent of the vote, not nearly enough to make a difference. Ultimately, the takeaway for Catania was this: In this District, at this time, a man of Catania’s profile would have needed a miracle to be elected mayor by a city that so far has chosen only mayors who don’t look like him and don’t vote like him. And miracles of that sort are hard to come by in a city where most voters seem to think things are on the right track.
“Not all fights are easy,” Catania told the crowd of supporters at his Tuesday night party in Shaw’s Long View Gallery. “Not all fights are winnable. The important thing is to fight.”
The extent of Catania’s challenge was evident as he crisscrossed the city on Tuesday. In wealthy upper Northwest, there were plenty of baby-blue-shirted supporters cheering him on, of voters exiting the polls assuring him he’d received their vote. (Their messages didn’t always sit well with him; one man told Catania enthusiastically, “My parents are turning in their grave, ’cause I just voted for a Republican!” “Independent,” he corrected, with a wary grin.)
But east of the Anacostia River, where he received less than 15 percent of the vote, voters eager to engage with the candidate were scarcer. Outside a church on Alabama Avenue SE, Catania had trouble finding any targets in the mid-afternoon slump, instead chatting with volunteers for other campaigns. When he finally did nab a mother and son, the conversation quickly turned awkward, with Catania asking the 23-year-old son why he wasn’t in school and suggesting he become an engineer or electrician’s apprentice—professions in which the young man had expressed, and continued to express, no interest.
Catania began his Tuesday-night concession speech full of smiles and jokes. But when he finally got around to conceding—eliciting a few gasps from his supporters who weren’t quite ready to give up—there were tears in his eyes. The nine-month campaign, he said, was “the closest thing to a pregnancy I’ll ever have.”
No one knows yet what the post-partum era holds for Catania. There will be two more months of legislating, and then he’ll leave the Council, perhaps for a lucrative return to the private sector. (He gave up side jobs with city contractor M.C. Dean and law firm Greenberg Traurig last year.) He urged his backers to lend their support to Bowser and to fight on for the principles he put at the center of his campaign.
“When we talk about what we hoped to accomplish,” he said—on housing, on education—“we meant it, and that dream continues. The real strength of our city isn’t in one person. It’s in all of us.”
Catania told me earlier in the day that ever since running for class president in third grade, he’d never lost a race. With the mayoral campaign just about behind him and his streak likely to be broken, I asked him if there was anything he’d do differently if he could do it all again. His answer was immediate.
“Not one thing.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery