Independent D.C. Council member David Catania on Wednesday launched a bid for mayor ensuring the city’s most competitive general-election fight in 12 years and perhaps ever since the city began electing mayors in 1974.
Catania, 46, has won five citywide races and in a recent Washington Post poll, was statistically tied with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) in a theoretical November matchup.
Filing his papers Wednesday at the city’s elections office, Catania said he had made up his mind to run last week and opened a campaign account then, necessitating his announcement by Wednesday.
Nonetheless, his entrance into the race came just two days after federal prosecutors alleged Gray knew of a broad conspiracy by donor Jeffrey Thompson to use illicit funds to help elect Gray as mayor.
“This whole drama that we’ve had, this ‘Jeff Thompson-Vince Gray drama,’ the time has come for this to end,” Catania told a throng of reporters outside the elections office. “We need to be talking about how our kids are ready to succeed. We need to be talking about an affordable housing plan, and a public safety plan of action. . . . The less we talk about Vince Gray and Jeff Thompson the better.”
Nodding to Gray’s denial of the allegations by Thompson and prosecutors, Catania continued: “I’m talking about my vision for the city, which doesn’t include serving as a human lie detector for Jeff Thompson or Vince Gray.”
Catania was first elected in 1997. If he wins his bid for mayor, it would be many firsts for D.C.: Catania is white, gay and a former Republican. He was a fundraiser for George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign. Catania left the party in 2004, after Bush supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Regardless of whether Gray or one of his many challengers prevails in the April 1 Democratic primary, Catania’s Republican past and his ties to conservative donors are bound to be probed deeply in coming months.
On Wednesday, Catania sought to take on the issue head-on: “I would be delighted to put my record against any of those who currently have Democrat by their name, as it relates to Democratic values,” Catania said. “Labels are fine, but I think the people are looking for a leader who has actually delivered.”
On the council, Catania has worked to salvage a public hospital and to legalize same-sex marriage and medical marijuana.
As chair of the council’s Education Committee, his recent push for school reform has defined his public image. Catania 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 and keeps a running count on his Web site.
Catania on Wednesday took credit for many new education initiatives under Gray, charging that work to close the gap between student performance in poor and wealthy areas of the city was a back-burner issue until he drew attention to it on the council.
Catania’s challenge, however, remains clear. No candidate outside the Democratic Party has ever been elected mayor, and three out of four registered voters in the city are Democrats.
The closest a non-Democrat has come to the mayoralty since home rule began in 1973 was in 1994, when perennial Republican candidate Carol Schwartz lost to Marion Barry by 14 percentage points.
A Washington Post poll in January showed 43 percent backing Gray and 40 percent Catania, a statistically insignificant advantage.
Here’s more from Catania’s interview outside the elections office:
What’s your reaction to the allegations made this week by federal prosecutors?
“I made my feelings known about the mayor’s shadow campaign once it was first disclosed nearly two years ago. I said he should have resigned then and I believe that today.”
What’s your path to victory?
“I’m going to be just as clear as I can be, I’ve won more citywide races than everyone else in the race combined. I’ve won citywide five times, I’ve represented every corner of the city since 1997. … I’m not worried about who prevails in the Democratic primary. I’ve got a record that I’m very proud of and very excited to share and very excited to talk about.”
You are a former Republican, running in a very Democratic city, can you appeal to Democrats?
“I would be delighted to put my record against any of those who currently have ‘Democrat’ by their name, as it relates to Democratic values, I think my record more embodies Democratic values than the field, candidly, running as Democrats. If you look at what I have done for marriage equality, medical marijuana, smoke-free D.C., cutting the rate of uninsured children and adults in half in this city, my work on HIV, and most recently, my work with respect to education.
Labels are fine, but I think the people are looking for a leader who has actually delivered. The others have talked a good game, but I’ve actually delivered.”
Jeff Thompson has previously supported your campaigns. Would you return the money?
“Mr. Thompson held a fundraiser for me in 2006. Unfortunately … the account has simply been closed out” under city rules, which requires candidates to close campaign accounts at the end of each election cycle. “It’s not like I have additional money laying around” to pay it back “and I think that’s illegal.”
“I think this whole subject, this whole drama that we’ve had, this Jeff Thompson-Vince Gray drama, the time has come for this to end. … We need to be talking about how our kids are ready to succeed. We need to be talking about an affordable housing plan, and a public safety plan of action … the less we talk about Vince Gray and Jeff Thompson the better …. I’m talking about my vision for the city, which doesn’t include serving as a human lie-detector for Jeff Thompson or Vince Gray.”
Why did you oppose the city’s Chartered settlement?
“This was obviously an attempt to square accounts with the shadow campaign, as far as I’m concerned. …Do I believe the mayor knew it and participated, and do I believe the city actually paid the shadow campaign money back? Yes, I believe that.”
Some say the city has been doing well, why not vote for the mayor?
“Our city is growing in spite of the mayor, not because of the mayor. One thing is certain about our city: we have incredible fundamentals in terms of economy. … this city can survive just about anything, and this is an illustration of it.
I think we have more of an administrator than a leader, the mayor has tended a garden that was planted before him. I don’t believe that any of these cranes are traced to the work of Vincent Gray.”
You have a reputation of being difficult.
“We’re not cutting the crust off of cucumber sandwiches here. This is about running a $12 billion organization where the lives of 645,000 depend on someone being honest, having the values and the vision … I’m not going to apologize for the passion that I take to this job. I think most residents are outraged when they have fire and EMS officials standing by while our citizens are in harm’s way … when they see half of our African American males not graduating on time from high school. I think most of our citizens are outraged when they see our homeless living in rec centers.”
There were reports last week that city police had not done well protecting LGBT victims.
“Cathy Lanier has been an excellent chief. Now, we can all do better and learn from our mistakes, but I want to be clear, I’m not talking about personnel decisions until after the election. It is the right of every mayor to select those individuals that he or she wishes to work with. I think Chief Lanier has been an excellent chief. But again, there is always room for improvement, both in terms of the reaction to the LGBT community and internal affairs.”
Would you retain schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson?
“I’m not going to be discussing who I might take or might not. … I think there are some things I think the chancellor has done very well and, obviously, I have spent the last year discussing areas where improvement is needed.”
How would you assess your chances?
“Who else can claim that they saved our public hospital? Who else can lay claim to a marriage equality bill that finally made all of our families equal before the law? Who else can claim that they produced the lowest rate of uninsured children in the country? Who else championed medical marijuana, or the most comprehensive mental health system for young people in the country.”
What can you do as mayor on education that you can’t do as a council member?
“A great deal. So much of what is left with respect to improving schools is about management and about the vertical integration of our schools. Our schools are presently organized in a horizontal way. Elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, as opposed to vertically so you can leverage both curriculum, programming and organizational development. So, we have a broken supply chain in terms of quality and failure cascades up. For starters, you begin by vertically integrating your schools, and you also start by saying that you’re not going to accept what we have now, which are huge gender and racial gaps in terms of on-time graduation rates.”
“I’m pleased that the mayor yesterday has decided that he is going to fund the at-risk weight, this is the work the committee started last year and I am pleased he is going to fund it because at long last it acknowledges that the challenges facing our poorer students, our at-risk students do call for additional resources so that there is a fairness and a chance to succeed. I will remind people that we’ve had this mayor for four years and until I became chairman of the committee on education, the whole subject was more or less on pause.”
Would you keep Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe?
“No … I’ll make an exception, because that one’s so glaringly obvious.”
Mike DeBonis and Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.