The setting is idyllic, a warm Saturday morning on a leafy street in the Chevy Chase section of the District, a choice opportunity for David Catania to harvest the kind of votes he will need if he is to become the city’s first ex-
Republican, first gay and first white mayor.
In a liberal Democratic neighborhood, voters are wary of the longtime D.C. Council member. “Why were you a Republican?” one woman asks. “I’ve heard you have quite a temper,” says another.
Catania drops his voice, moves close and zooms in on every doubt. He expounds on the intricacies of zoning in Minneapolis and the arcana of school boundary policy. He spends seven minutes listing his progressive credentials for one voter, then six minutes with another on how he saved the city’s only public hospital. The voters, yearning for honesty and competence, are enchanted. Three in a row declare themselves converts.
Then, suddenly, as he tells a woman how he’s visited 144 public schools in the past 20 months, he interrupts himself mid-sentence: “Would you mind?” he says sharply to two people standing behind him having their own conversation. “I’m hearing voices in the back of my head.”
The voter he’d been speaking to turns away: “Did I tick him off?” she asks.
After 17 years on the D.C. Council, David A. Catania remains a puzzle: He wins reelection handily, yet the city is studded with people who consider him impolitic and overly aggressive. His list of legislative accomplishments is unusually long, yet not one of his council colleagues has endorsed his independent mayoral candidacy.
Catania, 46, is a Republican who bolted from his party because it wouldn’t open its arms to gays. He is known for sometimes-harsh questioning of bureaucrats yet easily tears up while summoning memories of his mother. He is a gay man who has never won overwhelming support from the city’s gay voters.
At the Chevy Chase event, as Catania wins over a Democrat with an explanation of why he quit the Republican Party, an aide nudges him to give another voter a chance to chat.
The candidate bristles: “When I’m done here,” he snaps.
A few days later, at a meet-and-greet session in Northwest, two people ask about his temper.
“I don’t have a temper,” Catania replies. “I have never lost my temper. I use my passion to put points on the board. I have high standards. I don’t apologize for that, because people are in need.”
Audrey Catania was, by all accounts, a tough lady. She dropped out of school in 10th grade and worked like a dog — at one point balancing two jobs, managing a grocery store and toiling in a stone quarry. She taught her only child that “you can be who you are and you don’t have to accommodate the wishes of others.”
David Catania recalls those words now and tacks on a few of his own: “Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
His mother died of cancer in 1990, long before David entered politics, but two years after he had told her that he was gay, that he would not be coming home to Missouri and that he saw a bright future for himself in Washington.
He had known since middle school that he was attracted to men, and in high school, he says he discovered how “to obscure the conversation” that his sexuality could engender: “If I was at debate tournaments every Friday and Saturday night and studying 24 hours a day, no one ever asked about my personal life.”
Coming out, however, had a swift impact on his early political ambitions. In his late teens, Catania became active in Missouri Republican campaigns. Then, in 1988, his first boyfriend, a fellow student at Georgetown University, attempted to kill himself. Catania went home and discussed the traumatic event with his political mentor, a woman he describes as “a country club Republican with frosted roots.”
“Which of the two G’s was it — grades or girls?” she asked.
“Well, it’s neither of those — it’s a third G,” Catania replied. “He’s gay, and what you should know is I’m also gay.”
The mentor took a long drag on her cigarette and said, “Well, that takes care of the fourth G: You’ll never be governor.”
Going back to Missouri after that “was not on the agenda,” Catania says, because he would not hide who he was.
As a student at Georgetown, Catania applied for an internship at the State Department; when an investigator came to check him out for a security clearance, Catania insisted the interview take place in his bedroom, where the walls were covered with safe-sex posters.
“I wanted it to be very obvious that I was gay, to show that I had nothing to hide,” Catania says. He got the internship.
Catania moves quickly from being outraged to taking action. He first ran for office as a young lawyer, winning a seat on the advisory neighborhood commission in Sheridan-Kalorama in 1996. Within two years, he took his battle to a larger stage.
From his first day as an at-large council member, his work ethic and drive won admiration — and fear.
“My mother used to say I was so serious I’d make coffee nervous,” Catania says.
She taught him that through work, he could get what he wanted. “I really feel like I’m squaring accounts,” he says. He spent years running the council’s health committee, a job he sought because his mother had always credited a public hospital with saving his life when he had spinal meningitis at 18 months old.
“He’s a tough guy, and his survival instincts come from his mother,” says Brian Kearney, a lawyer who had a romantic relationship with Catania for seven years, starting in 2002. “But I see a sensitive side to him, too, and that’s also from her.”
Catania laughs easily and has a puckish side. He gives his cats names such as Lillian Rosenberg and Morty Schwartz — and he sits shiva for them when they die.
But asked whether Catania is warm, his longtime friend Todd Dickinson pauses. “We all are who we are,” he eventually replies. “Most politicians are successful because people like them, but you can earn respect in different ways. David does it by being extraordinarily hard-working.”
Soon after the two started dating, Kearney learned he would be sharing his evenings not only with Catania, but also with his ever-present stacks of paperwork. Catania’s knowledge of city government is encyclopedic; his recall, near-total.
“He worked all the damn time,” says Bill Dean, who employed Catania as an executive at his Loudoun-based engineering company, M.C. Dean. “David would crawl up a problem, meet with everyone and solve it. People who get along with him really get along with him. David would get frustrated at some other people, and they just avoided him.”
Several of Catania’s council colleagues won’t speak on the record about him; they say they admire his hard work but find him so righteous and insistent that they avoid him when possible.
Asked to name cases when he’s made the wrong decision, Catania initially comes up empty. Later, he recalls shifting his view on requiring employers to give workers paid sick leave. Initially worried that such a move would result in job losses, he later voted to extend sick leave to additional workers because the benefit was not producing layoffs.
But he stands by his opposition to the new convention center and baseball stadium — the center because the site was too small to accommodate growth and the stadium because he wanted the team to pay for most of its new home, which he had never visited before Game 1 of this season’s National League playoffs, on Oct. 3.
Many people who admire Catania’s legislative work also consider him unnecessarily rough and rigid, even as they concede that he has a knack for getting things done. Mark Tuohey, a prominent D.C. lawyer, found Catania to be a quick study and appropriately aggressive investigator when they worked on a council probe of mismanagement in the police department. But a few years later, when the two were on opposing sides in the stadium debate, “he was too categorical and overly aggressive,” Tuohey says. “He’s sometimes overbearing, rude and intemperate, and he’s the first to admit that.”
Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, has been on the receiving end of Catania’s wrath but says his oversight of government spending is zealous: “I saw him bring in every single private contractor who provided employment services, and he demanded a level of detail that no one else had sought.” The result was considerable savings.
Even council members who admire Catania’s work ethic, however, find his attack-dog persona frustrating.
“What separates David from anyone else I’ve known on the council is the ad hominem attacks,” says council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has served with Catania for 16 years. “He’s gotten big things done. He’s a brilliant strategist. But his mode of operation is to make people afraid of him. I’ve witnessed him attack Carol Schwartz and tell her he’d make sure she was defeated, and I’ve seen him do the same to Mary Cheh [the Ward 3 member]. He said, ‘I’m going to get you.’ Is this an emotionally balanced professional?”
Cheh declined to discuss Catania. Schwartz, who is also running for mayor, lost her council seat in 2008 when a candidate Catania helped beat her in the GOP primary.
Graham supports Democrat Muriel E. Bowser (Ward 4) for mayor but notes that voters face a difficult choice between Catania’s harsh efficiency and Bowser’s thin record: “One gets things done with a few broken bones, and the other doesn’t get things done.”
Sharon Ambrose, the Ward 6 council member from 1997 to 2006 and now chairman of Catania’s campaign, says signature achievements such as saving the city’s only hospital east of the Anacostia River and reducing the ranks of the uninsured resulted from meticulous fact-gathering (she saw him spend five hours in the D.C. General Hospital waiting room, taking notes and asking questions) and the ability to persuade colleagues and demand competence from bureaucrats.
At a recent forum, Ambrose said Catania “doesn’t suffer fools quietly.” A man in the audience replied that perhaps he was in the wrong business.
“That’s true in a sense, and he knows that,” Ambrose says. “And he has really taken that to heart in recent years. He is allowing his sensitivity to come out.”
After Linda Bumbalo had worked for Catania for nine years, she says, he accused her one day of losing some checks that had been given to his campaign. “He stopped talking to me,” she says. “There weren’t any lost checks.”
Soon after that, she says, Catania called her in and said, “Can’t you take a hint that I don’t want you around anymore?”
Bumbalo says she retired a few months later. Catania says he fired her.
Bumbalo, who was Catania’s chief of staff and legislative counsel, says she holds “no bad feelings towards David. He’s done great things, but he’s got these fatal flaws: He doesn’t have allies, he can’t and won’t delegate, he doesn’t let go of control.”
Bumbalo is one of a series of staffers who say Catania sometimes reduced employees to tears. “There’s a whole army of people like us,” she says. “He sheds people.”
“That boy just crushed Linda, but she wasn’t alone — nobody could please him,” says Johnnie Scott Rice, who worked for Catania for seven years handling constituent services. “He’d get so angry at people, he’d pull phones out of the wall.”
Rice — a cousin to Bowser who supports her mayoral bid — says she also saw Catania go out of his way to help people, such as when he arranged medical care for D.C. Council colleague Marion Barry’s late ex-wife, Effi. “He stepped up, without any publicity, just because it was right,” Rice says.
She and Catania got along well for several years, but then he “turned on me,” she says. “He’d find little nit-picking things, and he’d be nasty, mean, arrogant. He talks to his young staff like they’re dogs and slaves. I’d come in and them kids’d be crying. He’d call them stupid, dumb.”
Such stories are the vengeful acts of “people I fired,” Catania says. “I’m the first to admit I put quite a lot of demands on my staff.” Staffers who meet his high standards, he says, stay with him for years.
Catania says the man his critics describe is a stranger to him. “A temper suggests an irrational outburst,” he says. “It suggests being out of control. I’m in control. I’m not going to be part of the okey-dokey, go-along-to-get-along club. I’m not part of the ‘Can’t I have some graft?’ club. No, there’s right and there’s wrong.”
Friends agree Catania has calmed considerably, especially since a couple of years ago, when he began his relationship with Bill Enright, an events planner who steers clear of the campaign trail.
Catania believes that “the seminal change in me occurred around marriage equality. I went from being told I would never be equal to being the architect of that change. To be able to look at Bill now and say this is someone I could marry, that’s huge, huge, huge. Huge.”
It’s another Saturday, the air growing crisper as the November vote approaches, and Catania is in a living room full of older black voters in Fort Davis in Southeast. The atmosphere couldn’t be more different from his appearances in upper Northwest. He hugs, and he is hugged. He dials down the wonkery and tells stories — about times he’s been treated in the Southeast hospital he worked to save, about his upbringing by a single mother.
“I know what it’s like to struggle,” he says, and the room fills with murmurs of praise.
Here, when people interrupt, he doesn’t bristle. He’s relaxed, affectionate. His voice rises with passion as he talks about miseducated children. “I get criticized all the time because sometimes I’m a bit blunt,” he says before rattling off the sorry graduation rates among black students.
“What I like about you is you’re honest and you say what’s on your mind,” says Catania’s host, Lillian Chatmon.
Outside the house, Catania remains confident that voters will choose him because he is driven to root out cheaters and raise standards. “Here I am, warts and all,” he says. “This job requires intellect and analysis — and forceful personality. It isn’t reducible to smiley faces and Hello Kitty dolls. If I become someone I’m not, then I lose.”