In his decades of activism, Kurt Vorndran has watched the passing of numerous gay rights milestones in the District: The end of anti-sodomy laws. The legalization of gay adoption. The first openly gay lawmakers. Domestic partnerships. Same-sex marriage.
And in November, he will have his first opportunity to elect an openly gay mayor. David A. Catania, the at-large independent who 17 years ago became the D.C. Council’s first gay member, says he is determined to challenge Democratic nominee and fellow lawmaker Muriel Bowser.
But Vorndran, a union official and former president of the city’s leading gay political organization, said he’s not ready for the passing of that milestone, at least not yet: He’s supporting Bowser.
“I think it’s important, but I don’t think it’s a trump card,” said Vorndran of electing a gay mayor. “If he were to win, I think there would be a certain sense of accomplishment and pride.” But Bowser, he added, “is not in any way out of touch with our community.”
As Catania gears up his independent run in a predominantly Democratic town, insisting on a “race of values” and not a “race of labels,” his candidacy puts gay Democrats in a tough spot: Vote for the contender who would be the city’s first openly gay mayor — and one of the first gay mayors of any major American city — or remain loyal to the party that has backed major advances in gay rights, in Washington and nationally?
In the close-knit community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists immersed in local politics, the question of Catania vs. Bowser is more than a political choice. It is a balancing act of sexual and partisan identities.
“I’m a rock-ribbed Democrat, don’t get me wrong,” said Deacon Maccubbin, who for decades owned Lambda Rising, a prominent gay-oriented bookstore in Dupont Circle. “But in this case, between the two candidates who are running, I don’t think the decision is hard at all.”
Maccubbin is backing Catania — mostly because of his knowledge and diligence on the council, he said, but also because he is gay. “It’s important that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have a seat at the table; it’s important that there be that access,” he said. “It’s not what I would make my final choice on, but it is an important consideration.”
The backdrop for Catania’s mayoral bid is a city that has gone further than most of the country — San Francisco possibly excluded — in integrating LGBT priorities into mainstream politics. The close relationship forged between gay residents and the city’s Democratic power structure dates to at least 1978, when the gay community formed a crucial part of upstart mayoral candidate Marion Barry’s winning coalition.
Today, candidates fight mightily for the blessing of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the organization Vorndran once led, organizing membership drives to swell the club’s rolls with supporters ahead of endorsement votes.
No major citywide politician has taken a position overtly at odds with the gay community since 2006, when mayoral candidate Vincent B. Orange said his opponents who supported same-sex marriage were not “morally fit to run this city.” (Orange badly lost that race. Now an at-large D.C. Council member, the Democrat has since changed his views on gay marriage.)
That influence has resulted in a string of legislative advances, culminating in the 2009 legalization of same-sex marriage. And it has resulted in a political agenda in which few priorities have gone unaddressed.
That has left Catania in the position of appealing to gay voters not on the basis of the work still to be done, but on his leading role in advances made — including legalized same-sex marriage and major improvements in the city’s handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
He is also leaning on his potential to be a national symbol in the broader struggle for equal rights for gay citizens — for instance, telling a crowd of hundreds of prominent gay and lesbian political donors gathered at the Washington Hilton recently that having an openly gay mayor in the nation’s capital is critically important.
“While we have . . . some indispensable straight allies, there simply is no substitute for us fighting our own battles,” he said at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund event. “It is the self-respecting thing to do.”
In an interview, Catania said he does not expect gay voters to support him merely because he is gay. “In 17 years, I have never asked a person to vote for or against my sexual orientation,” he said. “I’m asking people to support me because I’ve been a fighter on behalf of issues and priorities that are important to them.”
Bowser’s record on gay and lesbian issues is undoubtedly thinner. The Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, a nonpartisan advocacy group that rates candidates on LGBT issues, gave the Ward 4 council member a middling ranking among her Democratic primary foes. Aside from her co-introduction of a bill to aid homeless LGBT youths, her record is based more on votes cast than legislation introduced.
“There’s a difference between someone who passively approves the work of others and a genuine champion,” Catania said.
Many gay activists say they are nonetheless convinced that Bowser will be every bit as supportive of their community as Catania or outgoing Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who enjoyed strong support from the gay community ahead of the primary.
Christopher Dyer, who was former mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s top liaison to the gay community and is supporting Bowser, says he has a simple pitch for gay voters choosing between Bowser and Catania: “She’s going to be a better mayor.”
“I have yet to have anyone say, ‘We have to support one of our own,’ ” he said.
Bo Shuff, Bowser’s campaign manager, said he was not surprised that gay voters’ loyalties are split. “LGBT voters are concerned with myriad issues, and non-LGBT voters are still concerned about LGBT issues,” he said. “I don’t think the electorate is fractured along those lines.”
For many gay voters, Catania’s sexual orientation isn’t enough to erase their doubts about a former Republican with a reputation for pulling no punches. “They’re both qualified to run the city, but other factors come into play, like temperament,” said Lateefah Williams, a former Stein Club president who is backing Bowser.
Even Catania’s backers say his appeal to gay voters will be more rooted in his legislative record and his policy pitches than in his sexual orientation.“The main consideration is that he has a solid record of accomplishment and that he has a knowledge of how the levers of government work,” said Lane Hudson, an activist who backed Gray and now supports Catania.
One striking feature of Catania’s mayoral run is that, as a gay, white non-Democrat, he would be a pioneer among District mayors in each of those categories, let alone all of them together. And that has left him to navigate a sea of identity politics in which his sexual orientation may be the least of his obstacles.
Hilary Rosen, a prominent Democratic political strategist who is an enthusiastic Catania supporter, said she has no issues with his status as a former Republican. (He left the party in 2004 over its support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.)
Rosen, also active in LGBT causes, said Catania might have a bigger problem: the fact that he’s a white man running in a city where white voters remain well outnumbered by African Americans. “I actually don’t think his sexual orientation is as relevant as his race from a political perspective,” she said.
Williams — like Bowser, a black woman — said Catania isn’t the only candidate whom gay voters will be identifying with. “If we’re talking demographically, I can relate to Muriel Bowser as well as David Catania,” she said. “I’m looking at other issues.”