White, gay Republican upsets odds by winning special vote for D.C. Council Political neophyte had support of national GOP and gay community

December 04, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When David Catania heard that he had won a D.C. Council seat this week, the first thing he did was tell a crowd of supporters how thankful he was for Ken Baker, his companion of four years.

The fact that Catania is the council's first openly gay council member is not the only reason why his victory is remarkable. He is also white in a majority-black city and a Republican in a town where there are 10 times as many Democrats as Republicans.

Catania, a 29-year-old political neophyte with a doughy face and wire-rimmed glasses, surprised the establishment here in Tuesday's special election for the open at-large seat.

'It's overwhelming'

"It's overwhelming," Catania said yesterday from his law office at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld. "We worked really hard to make this happen."

Observers of district politics say his election to the council -- which has only one other Republican -- could help loosen the longtime Democratic stranglehold here. In electing Catania, residents defied traditional voting patterns.

"Catania was able to build on multiple bases that had never been united in D.C. politics," said Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor. "He became the candidate of change."

The odds were steep. Catania unseated Arrington Dixon, an incumbent Democrat with roots going back 20 years to the start of home rule. Catania is a white Republican on the 13-member council dominated by African-American Democrats.

And his colleagues at his law firm -- led by Robert S. Strauss, a former Democratic national chairman -- are more likely to take jobs in the Clinton administration than to take a turn in district politics.

The role of disgust

Raskin believes that Catania was elected in part because of voter disgust with failing services and government corruption -- the very disgust that prompted the federal government to strip the council of most of its powers in 1995 and vest that authority in a nonelected control board.

In his bid for the seat, Catania enjoyed the backing of the Republican political establishment, with campaign contributions from national Republican groups and folks like Haley Barbour, the party's former national chairman. Helping matters, the Washington Post endorsed him.

During the campaign, Catania never tried to hide his homosexuality. Nor did he try to make it an issue. He hammered at themes of public safety, better schools and responsive government. At the same time, he campaigned with his companion, spoke at a gay-issues forum and raised up to $5,000 from the gay community.

"Our party, which has not always embraced gay people, totally embraced David," said Carl Schmid, a Catania campaign worker who heads the local chapter of the Log Cabin Club, a gay Republican group. "This is a message to the Republican Party that being gay should not be an issue."

Democratic votes

In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, many Democrats voted for Catania. The low voter turnout -- only 7 percent of the electorate -- combined with the presence of two Democrats in the field to divide the Democratic vote further helped the Republican.

The Republican National Committee is beginning to view the district as fertile ground for candidates. "It seems like in this city the Democrats keep recycling the same folks," said Cheri Jacobus, a committee spokeswoman. "This win really changes the landscape."

Not so fast, says the defeated Dixon, who contends that he was simply a victim of low voter turnout. "This is not a major statement," he said. "Certainly there are a lot of things about the past that are good to keep in place."

In the race for the seat vacated by Linda Cropp, who became council chairwoman in July, Catania received about 1,400 more votes than Dixon.

Pub Date: 12/04/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.