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Catania ‘does his homework’

While some urge mayoral run, councilman says he’s got ‘unfinished business’

(Published March 26, 2001)

By SAM STRIKE

Special to The Common Denominator

Councilman David Catania, R-At Large, goes over paperwork with his director of constituent services, Melissa Wimbish. Although his Judiciary Square office supports eight staff members, Catania says "I wish we had eight more."

David Catania steps into the entryway of his suite of offices at One Judiciary Square and is greeted by Frank Malone, a former Ward 4 activist who has stopped by to meet the city councilman.

"Just tell us when you're ready to run. People like what you're doing," he said.

Despite a lot of supportive talk around town, the at-large city councilman said he is not planning to run for mayor in 2002. In fact, Catania has already officially begun his 2002 re-election campaign and collected about $50,000 at a March 8 fundraiser.

Still, Malone’s words sound similar to what many others regardless of their political affiliation have been saying about the Republican councilman because of his diligence at "doing his homework" on the issues since he was elected to the council in December 1997.

Malone, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner, vows to muster all his influence in the District to support Catania should he choose to throw his hat in the ring for the mayor’s job. "He'd bring me back (to the District)," added Malone, who now works for the city of Alexandria.

"I learned to stop saying ‘no.’ I don't know," Catania said about a future mayoral run. "I have a lot of unfinished business on the council."

And he is not the only one who feels that way. Vicky Wilcher, executive director of the D.C. Republican Party, said she doesn't want Catania to move from his current spot either. She said she wants to see him stay on the council because "it's what the city needs most from him right now."

Wilcher used to be a Democrat, but after watching Catania run in the city council’s 1997 special election and speaking with him several times, she became a Republican.

Catania was "the primary reason for my switching parties," Wilcher said.

The reason that some people cite for using "Catania" and "mayor" in the same sentence is because the 33-year-old has gained citywide support in his work and legislation on oversight and personal empowerment issues.

ANC 1B04 Commissioner Lawrence T. Guyot Jr. said he talks to a lot of people about politics and "from conservatives to moderates to radicals, [Catania] has earned respect that makes people comfortable in publicly supporting him."

Guyot said he’s a Democrat, but that he would support Catania in anything he runs for.

"A lot of people who would never be a Republican support him as much as I do," he said.

Catania grew up in Kansas City, Mo., where he attended public schools and had what he said was a "nice, safe" childhood. He first came to the District in 1986 as a freshman at Georgetown University and stayed to complete law school at Georgetown.

While working as an attorney, he served as chairman of the Sheridan-Kalorama ANC, managing to make some substantial changes in the neighborhood with practically no other members, he said. When asked why he ran for the council seat, he said his "serious" answer was that he was "saddened by the poor quality of individuals" stepping forward for the post. Jokingly, he said he wanted to escape his law practice.

When Catania was elected, he was essentially "an unknown," said Dorothy Brizill, executive director of D.C. Watch, a government watchdog organization. He made a lot of political activists sit up and take notice when he defeated former councilman Arrington Dixon, whom many assumed would win the seat that Catania claimed.

But now, only four years later, he "is a rising star in the Republican Party," said U.S. Rep. Thomas Davis of Fairfax, who serves on a congressional oversight committee for the District.

In fact, Catania has done so well in such a heavily Democratic city that he would make a good spokesman for the Republican Party nationally should the opportunity arise, said U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md., who chairs the House oversight subcommittee on the District.

"The Republican Party wants and needs to broaden its base; it’s looking for intelligent people who have a passion for public service," she said.

The fact that Catania is openly gay indicates the inclusiveness of the Republican Party, she added.

And while Catania is an active Republican, he doesn’t suffer fallout from the national party’s issues, Brizill said.

Unlike many congressional Republicans, Catania believes that the District should have full voting rights and said he doesn't care that representation for the District would likely put three more Democrats in Congress.

The fact that the District has no voting representation in Congress is "mind-boggling and disgraceful," he maintains.

Catania said that the Republican Party did a disservice to citizens by "disengaging from urban areas," as he said was clear in the presidential election results in which Bush captured most of the rural votes and Gore the urban ones.

"I've not diminished my principles, I've just applied them to an urban setting," he said.

He cites as an example his Choice in Drug Treatment Act, which allows substance abusers to choose where they want to receive treatment. "Giving people choices as opposed to the government choosing is, in my opinion, a Republican principle," he said.

Still, "you don’t think of ‘party’ when you think of David Catania," Morella said.

Even fellow members on the city council don’t always have cause to label his politics. "I can't even recall an issue where it was David and I against everyone," said Councilwoman Carol Schwartz, the other Republican on the council.

The city council is "too small a body to lock horns in partisan debate…You'd never get anything done," Catania said.

His executive assistant, Ernest Olivas, said that Catania is using his Republican ties to promote D.C. issues on a national scale. He has discussed council legislation and local issues with various White House staff, including the political director of the White House and the deputy domestic policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Catania was one of the authors of an urban policy paper that put forth the idea that both the Bush administration and the national party should have urban policy initiatives and should be aggressive in their support for Republican elected officials in urban areas. He also served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last summer in Philadelphia and was feted during a reception for gay Republicans.

As chairman of the city council’s Committee on Public Services, one of Catania’s goals is to strengthen advisory neighborhood commissions so they can be more effective. Overhauling the ANCs is "a work in progress," he said. But "when ANCs work, they really work well."

ANC 5C Chairman James Berry is just one of the numerous Democrats interviewed who supports Catania. He said the councilman practically saved the District’s community groups through ANC reform legislation that provided resources for communities that require training and support.

"He could have presided over our demise if he had wanted to…but he elected to strengthen it," Berry said.

For example, in the legislation, Catania put a definition on the term "great weight" so that city agencies have to explain why they don’t take ANC recommendations on an issue. The ANC Assembly sent him six changes that they recommended in the reform legislation, and Catania fought for and won all of them, Guyot said.

"The ANCs now have more power because of David Catania," he said.

Regina James, ANC 5B03 commissioner and president of the Brookland Civic Association, said she likes Catania because he "holds people accountable." Every year all 37 advisory neighborhood commissions appear before his committee to show him their budget and make sure they are in compliance with all laws, and to answer all the questions he poses to them. That kind of oversight has never happened before, James said.

"It wasn’t that way when he got the committee. We get an opportunity to express what we’ve achieved and what we’re working on, and he seriously takes our recommendations and looks into them," she said.

Some commissioners might think that he asks questions to the point of being annoying or disrespectful, or even that he’s meddling in the ANCs’ business, but it’s because they are not used to it, James said.

And he will ask as many questions as necessary, something Catania may have learned while on a debating team throughout high school.

"When you deal with Catania, your facts better be clear and complete, otherwise you’re going to have a problem," Guyot said.

Besides annual oversight meetings, Catania is constantly in touch with ANC commissioners via phone and email, many of them said.

"He keeps us well-informed. I’ve never been so informed since I became an ANC commissioner," said Johnnie Scott Rice, vice chairman of ANC 7E and president of the Massachusetts Avenue/Southern Avenue Block Club.

And many neighborhood groups keep Catania up-to-date through their meetings, which he said are the best ways to hear people’s concerns.

"Sixty-eight square miles doesn't seems like a lot, but there are hundreds of communities within it; and its hard to get around to all the meetings," Catania said.

But he tries. Since the beginning of January, Catania has spoken at meetings of the Far Northeast Far Southeast Community Association; Terrell Hills Community Association in Ward 7; ANCs 2B, 2C and 8D; a ministerial alliance meeting in Columbia Heights; and a D.C. General Hospital rally, according to Olivas.

"He’s out in the ward all of the time, which is a rarity (among council members)," Rice said. "It’s very important to me and people who live east of the river that he is willing to come. He has attended my meetings, he has attended my church."

Practically every person interviewed for this article from fellow council members to ordinary residents to the councilman himself said that Catania always "does his homework" on the issues. "But he’ll be the first to admit that he may not ask [his questions] in the most delicate manner," Brizill said.

In October 1999 Sandy Saunders served as special counsel to Catania in helping him prepare and conduct an investigation of alleged improprieties by Super Shuttle, an airport transit company.

"David has an amazing ability to focus and absorb details in a compressed period of time…He was not as focused a week before the hearing, but within 48 hours he sat down and took in the information and knew it cold when we went into the hearing," he said.

Saunders, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, knew Catania when the councilman worked at the law firm and he helped formulate Catania’s New Economy Transformation Act, which provides incentives for new economy companies to stay in or move to the District. The legislation was approved by the council and will become effective at the end of March.

Catania posted the proposed legislation online at www.dcneweconomy.com, the Web site for the New Economy Advisory Group, and received input from the public that was eventually incorporated into the bill. It was a "beautiful way to do government," he said.

"David showed leadership in the first truly interactive legislation in the country…We received positive input outside of D.C. and it was David's leadership that got it going," Saunders said. Catania was also invaluable in getting the legislation through the city council and communicating with people from the mayor’s office, he said.

"The reality is, he’s a bright, young, white, gay individual, and I’m always concerned whether or not he’ll suffer from burnout," Brizill said.

Catania admitted he is not in a state of balance because he said he works too much and doesn't take care of himself as he should – only managing to relieve his stress through aerobic cycling three times a week for 45 minutes.

This particular Monday morning Catania is even more out of whack than usual, he said. "Today is not a great day," he said, because he's envisioning the next 60 days – nonstop work and struggle in the fight to keep at least a Level 1 trauma center and inpatient care at D.C. General Hospital. "I've got some cards still up my sleeves," he said.

Catania said he considers how the mayor’s office has been handling the Public Benefit Corp. issue to be "dishonest" and "dangerous." While he said he has nothing against Mayor Anthony Williams personally, he said he thinks the mayor "has staff members who misunderstand their place."

He said the mayor’s office "suffers from attention deficit disorder" in that it continuously trots out new initiatives for media attention but never follows through on the work, causing a "decaying effect" in citizens’ confidence in government.

Catania, on the other hand, "buttresses people’s confidence in government," Guyot said.

The councilman "has a great combination of innate intelligence, personal integrity and a genuine passion to represent people and work to better the lives of folks across the board in D.C.," Saunders said.

He "inspired my wife to come downtown and stuff envelopes and lick stamps, which she won't do for just anybody," he said.

Catania said that his public service stems from a great love for the city and for the country and that he wants to share the benefits he has had in his life with others, which is why he focuses on the enhancement of opportunities.

"I think I have a really good value system, core honesty and great passion for the city," Catania said.

He said he has had the chance to have many "inspirational mentors," including former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, whom he worked for when she was a Georgetown professor in 1989-90. "I appreciated the job and the money, but the real benefit came from watching her," he said.

Among the things he said he wants to accomplish before leaving the city council is to create an elected attorney general position for the District and return more vocational education to D.C. public schools.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator