David Catania wasn’t on the ballot in D.C. mayoral primary, but he was visible in Ward 7

Although his name wasn’t on the ballot, David A. Catania showed up to the polls. The at-large D.C. Council member, who has declared his intention to run for mayor as an independent in the general election, put in some face time at a couple of Ward 7 polling centers, just to talk to residents. He wasn’t campaigning or cheerleading, just doing what he does every day as someone who represents the entire city at the John A. Wilson Building. He was listening to constituents.

Catania’s reputation as a person is often boiled down to three categories: white, gay, ex-Republican. Legacy politics in this city would tell you that just one of those things, never mind all three, might make him a long shot for mayor. Some think his best path to victory would be to mobilize gentrifiers.

But east of the Anacostia River, while mostly older, black voters were busy picking among Democratic candidates, Catania appeared right at home. Outside Washington Seniors Wellness Center on Alabama Avenue SE, poll workers ate grapes and kicked it on the lawn. There, the Kansas City, Mo., native ran into Calvin Nophlin, whom he knows from their days of working on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board together.

“Honestly, I think he’s got a tremendous opportunity because he’s proven himself,” said Nophlin, 75, a former University of the District of Columbia administrator. “I’ve known him for a long time. He’s always on the right issues. He’s always there for people who are poor, people who are downtrodden, people who are disenfranchised. He’s there.

“Unfortunately, in this town, you don’t hear that. You only see the negative stuff. We’re driven, unfortunately, by people who’ve been in the system a long time. They think it’s owed them to be in positions [of power]. I differ with that. I think we need to bring new people into the fold because the city ain’t working. The city is not working.”

And though Catania’s work over the years, as chair of the council’s Committee on Health and on the Committee on Education, speaks for itself, it’s clear from his simple working knowledge of Ward 7 that his concern is not motivated by grabbing headlines. Conversation moves from topics such as the impact of improving the United Medical Center campus to the legacy of longtime D.C. activist Lorraine Whitlock. Sure, he may curse occasionally and get into spats with Marion Barry every now and then, but that’s just his style. It’s not an affectation.

“I will admit that I am not the best, and I’ve never been one who will make an empty promise. There are many people who run for mayor who will promise a chicken in every pot. I’m just not made that way,” Catania said while driving along Southern Avenue SE. “If I can’t keep the promise, I’m not going to make it. A lot of people in this business will do one thing and talk about it incessantly. I don’t like to talk about stuff we’ve already done. I like to joke that I run my office like a convention center. A convention center is always divided in three. You spend one-third of the space hosting your present convention. One-third is tearing down the last convention. And then one-third is setting up the next. So, you’re running constantly. You’re not just dwelling on one success you had in 1944.”

But not everyone trusts him. More than the two other oft-pointed-to characteristics, the former-Republican thing is the hardest hill to climb.

Alan Holt, who works at the School Without Walls in Northwest Washington, was outside St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church talking with Catania about special education Tuesday afternoon as a scant few voters trickled through the Precinct 110 polling station. The GOP label alone was enough to turn Holt off as a voter.

“He’s a Republican in independent clothing, I think. I couldn’t see myself voting for a Republican, because I think Republicans are just nasty,” Holt said.

Later in the afternoon, as classes let out at Burrville Elementary School on Division Avenue NE, Catania seemed most in his element. He hadn’t been there more than two minutes before people started flagging him down to air their problems. One lady had an issue with people littering in her yard while waiting at a bus stop. Another man had a specific inquiry about why the school’s graduation ceremonies had been pared back. Catania is no stranger here.

His dedication has not been lost on Ward 7 residents. “I respect David. I like David. I like the fact that David knows everything about our D.C. public school system. I like the fact that he has educated himself and took it upon himself to learn the needs, the wants of the people that advocate around our D.C. public school system,” Walter J. Garcia II, ANC Commissioner 7C04, said Tuesday while supporting Muriel Bowser
(Ward 4). “When we ask for him in our community . . . he has been available. [Once] he had tickets to a show, but it was more important for him to stay with us. . . . It was more important for him to stay and listen to the views of the people. I respect that.”

Oh, and that show he missed? Catania got excited just thinking about it.

“Kanye West!”

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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