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For Catania, Mellowing With Age, Incumbency

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006; C01

Looking back over his nine years as an at-large member of the D.C. Council, David A. Catania has a small apology.

He thinks he should have cut Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) a break once in a while. The two men were elected to D.C. government in the late 1990s with similar reform agendas, but the mayor ended up a target of Catania's ire on a wide range of issues, from tax policy to baseball.

"In retrospect, in too many instances I was harder on him than I should have been," said Catania in an interview last week.

But, he added, "In other instances, I was spot on."

Catania's self-assured, combative style has been his hallmark since 1997, when he ran as a Republican at 29 and won an at-large seat in a special election that had 7 percent voter turnout.

He has easily won reelection twice in an overwhelmingly Democratic city with an assist from the D.C. Home Rule Act, which specifies that two citywide seats on the legislative body must be held by members of the non-majority party.

As a celebrated local Republican, Catania once visited President George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and a photo from the trip used to be on display in Catania's John A. Wilson Building office. Catania, who is gay, brought his partner, Brian Kearney, and the photo showed the couple with first lady Laura Bush and the president, who had his arm around Kearney.

The photo was removed in February 2004, when Bush announced his support for a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage. Catania later rejected the party and said he voted for Democrat John Kerry.

Catania is now an independent and appears on the ballot alongside Democratic incumbent Phil Mendelson, Republican nominee Marcus Skelton, Statehood Green nominee Ann C. Wilcox and Antonio "Tony" Dominguez, also an independent. Voters get to pick two from the list.

Catania's politics defy easy labeling. He is a true believer in cutting taxes and advocates investing more dollars in government programs to benefit the poor. He has pushed for an elected attorney general and has been a critic of police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. He espouses free-market principles but has authored legislation to lower prescription drug prices.

"I really enjoy being an independent. I really enjoy being this party-of-one thing," Catania said. "It just suits me."

Political analysts predict that Catania faces no threat of defeat, but the incumbent has spent many mornings handing out literature at Metro stations and evenings at political fundraisers. As of Oct. 10, he had raised $365,233 for the council race.

Catania has a reputation as a hard-working pol, and he also has a job outside of D.C. government. He is general counsel to OpenBand, a telecommunications subsidiary of the Dulles-headquartered engineering firm M.C. Dean.

Colleagues and political analysts around City Hall praise Catania as a shrewd political operator who has managed to assemble a diverse base of support. Early in his career, Catania co-authored legislation that cut personal income and property tax rates, which was especially popular with the city's business community. His fierce opposition to the closing of D.C. General Hospital and public financing of a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals had made him popular with working-class residents and grass-roots activists.

Some have viewed Catania's embrace of issues such as D.C. General and baseball as calculated political moves to gain support in eastern wards of the city, which are predominantly black. Catania is white and lives in Dupont Circle.

"He distinguished himself as a champion of D.C. General, which was a very popular position in the African American community," said Howard Croft, a former chair of the Urban Studies Department at the University of the District of Columbia.

He has been an active committee chair, finding money for programs to expand health care to the city's poor. He has increased the number of children eligible for Medicaid and made dental care more accessible to low-income adults and children.

Some political observers see him laying the groundwork for a future mayoral run, but Catania said that he plans to work collaboratively with the likely incoming mayor, Adrian M. Fenty.

"I don't see any opening for him right now," said University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters. "I think he's trapped."

Catania's citywide visibility has been raised most by his opposition to public financing of a new Nationals ballpark. At a recent council session, he was armed with a black binder of documents marked with color-coded Post-it notes. He accused the Williams administration of "playing games," citing escalating cost estimates and redefined terms.

"I need us to stop this chocolate factory mentality that if we don't hurry up and jump to their tune, the sky will fall," said Catania, referring to the Nationals ownership and Major League Baseball.

"He certainly has interesting ways of getting his point across. You can't take the barbs personally. When you look beyond them, he often has a good point to make," said Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, whom Catania once referred to as the city's "Chief Fictional Officer."

He often uses colorful language, and his relentless drilling can be withering. His colleagues are rarely exempt. Catania's attempt to block baseball legislation in a committee meeting once drove council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) to scream and curse.

Catania said he has matured over the years, and he has tried to make his battles less personal.

Some colleagues agree that he has mellowed. "I think you see that in his evolution from someone who would go off yelling at a colleague or witness to someone who is a major force behind the scenes in the council or on the dais," said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3).

"It's not easy to mature in the public eye," Catania said. "We all have a bit of pride, and we hate to admit that we didn't come out of our mothers perfectly ready for prime time."

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