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Same-sex marriage bill is milestone for D.C. Council member

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009; B01

When David A. Catania swept onto the D.C. Council a dozen years ago, even the shrewdest politicians were baffled by his rise to power.

He was young -- 29 when he defeated Arrington Dixon, a former council chairman who had been in and out of city politics since the 1970s.

And he is white, which upended the expectation that a majority-black city would not elect him over Dixon, who is black. And Catania, who was virtually unknown, was a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

"I just put my head down and started working," said Catania, 41, the first openly gay council member. "For a long time, we had officials who just posed all day, and I was determined to get things done."

On Tuesday, 12 years to the day after he was sworn in, Catania will oversee his greatest triumph when the council is expected to give final approval to his bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

Cementing a goal he set a decade ago, Catania has bullied his proposal through the political process, convincing not only his council colleagues and Democrats in Congress but also skeptics in the gay community that this was the year to act on same-sex marriage.

Catania's doggedness has made him one of the most influential, yet feared, men in city government.

"The combination of his personality and his intelligence make him intimidating," said Walter Smith, executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a think tank that focuses on city issues. "But it gets results."

Tuesday's vote will be a major milestone in Catania's life, coming less than two decades after he was forced to come to terms with his sexuality while beginning a career in Republican politics.

Final passage of the bill, which cleared an initial hurdle two weeks ago by a council vote of 11 to 2, will also mark the next step in Catania's professional journey, as he contemplates whether to seek a fourth term next year.

'I make no apologies'

As chairman of the health committee, Catania is at the front lines of the city's battle against HIV/AIDS, and he is on a major push to reform a health-care system that he says was at the brink of collapse a few years ago.

Now an independent after leaving the GOP five years ago because of its stance on same-sex marriage, Catania has emerged as a key mediator in battles between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and other council members.

But Catania has a reputation as a feisty -- and, some would say, petty -- politician who governs through intimidation. His style has helped him cut through bureaucracy, but his critics say those who go against him can quickly find their careers in tatters.

In the past two years, council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), former Republican council member Carol Schwartz and Don Blanchon, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a District center that offers HIV/AIDS services, have found themselves in Catania's cross hairs.

"David is smart, does his homework and brings some value to the table, but his vindictiveness is legendary, and most are too afraid to talk about it for fear of more," said Schwartz, who said Catania targeted her after she questioned how he was spending tax dollars. "If he does not get his way, he lets loose the petty bully to get even and, in that case, watch out for the bus."

In an interview, Catania didn't shy away from his reputation as a brawler.

"I make no apologies for going in, in a very vigorous way, and fighting for reform in this city," he said. "Reform is difficult. It's hard, and sometimes people get their feelings hurt. . . . If I at times appear strident and impatient, I acknowledge that."

Even before election night last year, Catania had decided he was going to take advantage of expected Democratic majorities in Congress by pressing ahead with same-sex marriage this year.

He shared his plan with some gay rights activists last winter, but few others. But then council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage, began preparing a proposal to extend domestic partnership rights to gay couples who marry out of state.

A few days before the council was to vote on that bill in April, Catania met with Mendelson and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), sternly telling them that the council was instead going to vote to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, council members and activists said.

Under a cloak of secrecy to avoid scrutiny before the initial vote, Catania called each council member, saying that it was time to stand up for gay rights. Barry was the only one who didn't vote for the bill, clearing the way for Catania to move swiftly on his current proposal. After Fenty signs the bill, it will be subjected to a 30-day congressional review.

"David was certainly prodding," said Richard J. Rosendall, a vice president of the District-based Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. "I think this has been his finest hour."

Coming to terms

Catania, an only child, was raised by his mother after his parents split up when he was an infant. During his childhood, he spent the school year in Kansas City, Mo., and summers in his mother's home town, Osawatomie, Kan., population 4,600. Settled by abolitionists in the 1800s, the town has deep ties to the Republican Party, fueling Catania's early attachment to it.

After his sophomore year at Georgetown University, Catania was a page at the Republican National Convention in 1988 in New Orleans. There, his emerging sexuality began to clash with his politics.

"The people in the Missouri delegation . . . saw me as an up-and-comer, but while I was there, I thought, 'This just isn't sustainable,' " Catania said. " 'I don't know how long I can remain in denial.' "

Back at college for his junior year, Catania began dating a man. The relationship forced Catania to come out to his mother and to university officials, who he said were far less sensitive about homosexuality than they are now.

When Catania returned to Kansas City that year, he met with his mentor, Barbara Ladesich, a longtime GOP leader in Missouri whom Catania described as a "fantastic, stereotypical, country club Republican woman."

Ladesich told Catania she had heard he was having troubles with his roommate.

"She said, 'Which of the two G's -- girls or grades?' " Catania said. "I said, 'Neither of those two G's.' It was a third. 'He's gay, and he is having a very difficult time, and, I should tell you, I am also gay.' "

Ladesich took a puff of her cigarette and a sip of her martini, Catania said. She looked at him and said, "Well, that takes care of the fourth G. You will never be governor."

Finding a niche in politics

Catania, who received a law degree, plunged into his career and was persuaded to run for the D.C. Council in 1997.

After his unexpected victory, he became a strong voice on the council for fiscal prudence, repeatedly voting against the construction of a new convention center and baseball stadium.

Catania struggled to get along with his colleagues, many of whom were turned off by what they described as arrogance and a combative style. But Catania built a political operation that kept him getting reelected, although he had initially pledged to serve only one term.

In 2005, he took over as chairman of the health committee, a job he vowed to use to honor his mother, who died of ovarian cancer in 1990.

He set a target of extending health insurance to every District resident, a goal that he said is nearly complete. And he pushed for greater oversight of spending on HIV-prevention programs, bolstered funding for mental health services and launched a school nurse program that has put a full-time nurse in 96 percent of the city's public schools.

Catania, whom many people describe as brilliant, has been known to spend dozens of hours preparing for committee hearings, which can lead to combative witness questioning.

"There are a lot of [witnesses] who are not prepared," said Robert Malson, president of the D.C. Hospital Association. "They are the ones who get ripped apart. I see him up there [on the dais] with notebooks, and there are hundreds of little stickies in there, cause he's done his homework."

But some critics say Catania, who oversees about $2.5 billion in local and federal funds for the city's health, mental health and health-care finance departments, can at times act like a dictator. During the 2005 budget debate, he quietly began inserting $14 million in no-bid grants to health-care organizations, the beginning of the modern-day council earmark.

Schwartz, who had been one of his closest political allies, began questioning his spending. Catania grew irate, she and other members said.

In the ensuing weeks, Catania started plotting to have Schwartz defeated in the 2008 election, and she lost in the GOP primary to Patrick Mara.

"Next question," Catania said when asked whether he put Mara up to it.

"Carol began to pick and pick and pick at me as to how I was running my committee, and, frankly, I did not appreciate it," said Catania, who moved into Schwartz's spacious council office with a view of the White House after she was defeated.

A. Cornelius Baker, a former executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, said Catania's blunt style can detract from some of the programs he is trying to protect.

"Sometimes you have to know what not to say, and I have not seen evidence of that maturity," said Baker, a longtime health-care and gay rights advocate.

Catania said that many of his critics are "jealous at how effective" he is.

But few deny that he has a profanity-laced mean streak, citing his recent battles with Barry over same-sex marriage and his efforts this year to oust Blanchon as the executive director of Whitman-Walker.

"If I did some of the things that David did, they would probably throw me out of the Wilson Building," said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), referring to the D.C. government building.

Catania now finds his political and personal lives at a crossroad.

His term expires in 2011, and he has not said whether he will seek reelection next year, although he has said he has more work to do in reforming health care.

And, over the summer, as he was nearing his goal of legalizing same-sex marriage, Catania separated from his longtime partner, whom he had been dating for seven years.

Still, Catania said, he, too, might walk down the aisle one day.

"It's interesting to be 41 and for the first time to feel like a fully enfranchised person," he said.

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