David Catania speaks with principal Tui Roper, left, and social worker Anita Lewis, right, during a visit to Burrville Elementary School on Jan. 16, 2012, in Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/Washington Post)

Beyond the chaotic field of Democrats contesting Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s reelection bid, the man who may be at once the incumbent’s greatest and most improbable threat is watching and waiting.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), tied with Gray in general election polling, is a white, gay, combative former Republican who was a prolific fundraiser for George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign. A decade ago, the idea of Catania’s rise to the District’s top political seat was unthinkable in an overwhelmingly Democratic city that has elected only African American mayors.

But now Gray is battered by scandal, the city is much whiter and more prosperous after a seismic demographic shift, and Catania’s persistent demand for school reform has attracted a passionate following. Whether he is a viable candidate and whether the District has changed enough to elect an entirely new kind of leader have emerged as two of the great unknowns of the 2014 race.

For the moment, Catania is keeping a low profile as the Democrats campaign for the April 1 primary, a contest that has produced the city’s mayors in past elections. But he is exploring the possibility of running as an independent against the winner of that primary in the fall general election. And his candidacy, given the race’s dynamics, could lead to the city’s first competitive general election in two decades.

When Catania talks, he often sounds like a candidate.

“The city has succeeded in spite of the mayor, not because of the mayor,” Catania said in an interview. “I think we’re running on fumes. We have a caretaker, not a visionary.”

Elected to the council in 1997, Catania, 46, has immersed himself in complex, often emotion-laden issues, including the salvaging of a public hospital and legalization of same-sex marriage and medical marijuana.

More recently, his demand for school reform has defined his public image — and his potential candidacy for mayor. As chairman of the council’s Education Committee, he has proposed measures intended to bolster standards and increase resources available to schools in poor and working-class neighborhoods.

In the past year, Catania has visited more than 100 public schools — he keeps a running count on his Web site — including one on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill where he recently talked of the school system’s shocking graduation rate and his proposal to provide college grants to D.C. students.

“What are our common values?” Catania asked the dozen parents assembled at Eastern High School during a talk that could have been a stump speech. “Why not start incorporating our values into what defines us as a people?”

Seated in the audience, the Rev. Kenneth Mackie Sr. said he liked what he heard. As he considered the options in the mayor’s race, Mackie said he was unsure about Gray because of unresolved questions surrounding the past campaign. None of the other Democrats has yet to command his attention.

And Catania?

“I want to hear more,” he said.

‘A very viable candidate’

At the moment, Democrats appear to favor Gray, who, in a recent Washington Post poll, had twice as much support as his leading primary opponents: council members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large).

Yet the same poll showed Gray and Catania about even, appearing to confirm Democrats’ concerns that the mayor has been wounded by the federal investigation into the 2010 campaign. As an independent, Catania faces no primary and can assess the political landscape while the Democrats attack Gray and each other.

Phil Pannell, a longtime Democratic activist and former president of the Ward 8 Democrats, said the party “would have to be worried about Catania,” especially if its nominee is a weakened mayor.

“David Catania can put together a coalition of disgruntled Democrats, independents, and the gay community will make him a cause celebre,” Pannell said. “He can be a very viable candidate.”

Bryan Weaver, a Democratic activist, said Catania “understands there’s a sizable part of the population that believes — fair or unfair — that Gray is corrupt.” Catania “sets himself up in a sweet spot,” Weaver said, “because he ends up as the second chance.”

Catania was raised by a single mother in a small Missouri town. He graduated from Georgetown University and its law school before entering District politics as an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in the Kalorama neighborhood of Northwest Washington.

In 1997, he stunned the city’s political community when, as a Republican, he defeated Arrington Dixon, a prominent Democrat, in a special election for the at-large seat. It was Catania’s last challenging campaign.

As chair of the council’s Health Committee, Catania delved into critical issues facing predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, including the financial rescue of what was then known as Greater Southeast Community Hospital. He also pushed legislation to provide health coverage to the uninsured.

Paul Savage, an African American civic leader in Ward 7 who successfully chaired Anthony A. Williams’s first mayoral campaign, in 1998, said Catania’s immersion in health care and education has made him well enough known to “get considerable support” from black voters.

“He takes on tough issues, and I don’t see others stepping up,” said Savage, who volunteered for Gray in 2010 but is now undecided. “He’s like the Lone Ranger. People may disagree with him, but he’s a hard worker.”

‘Grown up a lot’

As a candidate, Catania would face a number of potential hurdles, not the least of which is whether voters are “ready for a gay mayor of the nation’s capital,” said Sharon Ambrose, chair of his exploratory committee. Another, she said, “is being white” in a city in which only blacks have held the top office.

In 1980, seven in 10 Washingtonians were African American, and the city was nicknamed “Chocolate City.” More than 30 years later, blacks now make up half the city’s population.

“This is the first election in the city where it’s really possible for a white candidate to win,” Ambrose said.” And I think there will be some unhappiness in some quarters.”

Catania also must deal with his reputation as a combative presence on the council. At hearings, he has belittled witnesses he deemed unprepared and chastised colleagues he considered unworthy.

“The mayor has been reduced to a joke,” is the way Catania put it when federal prosecutors alleged that Gray’s 2010 campaign was tainted by illegal activities.

In a particularly high-profile clash, he and council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) — a former four-term mayor — cursed and screamed at each other during a legislative retreat two years ago.

“His Achilles heel is his temper,” said Weaver, who described himself as an admirer of Catania’s. “He has an ability to turn on something that most people would view as an insignificant difference and go from a minor disagreement to a full-out screaming match. He’s not willing to gloss over something.”

Catania, who has won election to the council five times, characterized his zealous advocacy as an asset, something that Washington needs. He said he has “gotten much better at listening” and “channeling my passion in a constructive way” during a political career that began at 29.

“I’ve grown up a lot,” he said. “I don’t believe I have a temper. I believe I have a great deal of passion for doing what’s right. However people want to characterize my disposition, it delivers results.”

“Sometimes,” Catania said, explaining his style, “you have to break a dish because people don’t want change.”

Republican past

When it comes to Catania, Gray’s camp is watching and waiting, too.

Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, said he is concentrating on the mayor’s Democratic opponents. He declined to address the prospect of Catania’s candidacy.

But another Gray adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to talk for the campaign, said Catania would be a formidable opponent, assuming the mayor wins the Democratic primary.

That said, the adviser predicted that Gray would gain momentum if he wins the primary and that Catania would face an “uphill” climb because the city’s electorate remains overwhelmingly Democratic.

“He was a lifelong Republican, and he visited [then-President George W.] Bush at his ranch,” the adviser said of Catania, referring to a trip to the presidential retreat in Texas a decade ago. “You can rest assured that we will remind voters of that.”

After Bush supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004, Catania abandoned the Republican Party and removed from his office a photograph of him with Bush and Laura Bush that was taken at the ranch.

Yet Catania’s switch to independent might not satisfy Democrats who emphasize party affiliation. “He’s an independent?” asked Mary Cuthbert, a member of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. “That’s just as bad as Republican. You don’t know which party you want to be in.”

Catania dismissed any attempt to turn his Republican past against him as a “weak strategy,” because “I don’t believe the vast majority of residents are going to get hung up on labels.”

“Go ask those others who are running,” he suggested. “ ‘Tell me: What have you accomplished in the last year?’ ”

He concluded: “Not one can match my record when it comes to delivering for our residents.”

Catania declined to talk in detail about his candidacy or about the Democrats challenging Gray for the nomination, except to say that he has “yet to see” anyone “speak with a degree of commitment and passion” about education.

Several years ago, when Gray was council chairman, the two men were allies as they sought to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2010, Gray described Catania as “an absolute giant” who “has made an enormous difference.” Catania praised Gray for “extraordinary leadership.”

The relationship deteriorated after Gray became mayor. When prosecutors alleged that an illegal $650,000 “shadow campaign” helped elect Gray in 2010, Catania was among the first to call on the mayor to resign.

Gray has not been charged and has denied knowledge of wrongdoing during the campaign even as several political associates have pleaded guilty. Catania has described the investigation as an “anchor around the city.”

“We’re all in a giant pause mode,” he said, “everyone holding their breath, wondering if and when a shoe will drop. That is hardly the environment in which you can motivate people around a vision.”

Catania said he is still deciding “whether I am the right person for the job.”

Yet, Ambrose, the exploratory committee chair, said, “I think he has made the decision to run” no matter who wins the Democratic primary, whether it’s Gray or any one of seven challengers.

“He has told me he wants to be mayor,” Ambrose said. “David has considered this probably for four or five years and took a hard look at the field this time around and decided this was the time for him.”