King: David Catania has experience, but does he have the personality?

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DC City Council member David Catania, candidate for mayor meets with voters at the home of Sirraya Gant in Washington, DC. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

By Colbert I. King August 1 at 7:57 PM

The next D.C. mayor had better come equipped with world-class political and diplomatic skills. That’s because the chief executive who succeeds Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) may have to serve under a radically changed federal landscape.

For starters, the next mayor’s term will span two White House administrations: two years with President Obama, until Jan. 20, 2017, and two years with the president who follows him.

Gray’s successor will also have to do business with a Republican majority in the House that could get bigger in November, quite possibly a GOP Senate and an Obama White House that’s backed up to its own end zone.

The next four years will be no place for a tactless, emotionally insecure, inflammatory or politically tone-deaf mayor. The city is going to need a cultivator, not a terminator, at the helm.

That’s a tall order in a place where the mayor is expected, at the drop of a hat, to weep, wail and lash out against any threat to D.C. interests. That kind of response works fine when the mayor has some backup, such as membership in the party that controls both Congress and the White House. But it’s just “selling wolf tickets,” as the phrase goes, when a mayor’s bark has no bite. That will be the case if federal governance is firmly in opposition hands.

Mayoral temper tantrums may win points in some parts of the community. But getting results that benefit the city without damaging long-term relationships has to override the desire for short-term gratification.

If the city ever needed a mayor who enters the public arena both with experience and with his or her emotions in check, that time comes in January.

Who among the leading mayoral candidates comes closest to fitting the bill? The debates, if they ever take place, will help determine that.

On experience — on knowing how to develop public policy, get laws passed and put programs in place — David A. Catania (I-At Large) deserves the nod.

Catania asserts that during his eight years as chairman of the D.C. Council’s health committee, and as the District’s leading health advocate, the city’s uninsured rate was cut in half. Medically underserved Ward 8 has kept a safety-net hospital. His leadership also helped the city turn the corner on HIV/AIDS.

Catania notes that since 2005, when he became health committee chair, AIDS-related deaths have plummeted by 70 percent and new HIV cases have been reduced by 50 percent. Most important, there’s been a 40 percent reduction in the number of HIV infections that progress to full-blown AIDS.

Wishful thinking didn’t get the city there.

A series of hard-hitting hearings initiated by Catania in 2005 laid bare the city’s inadequate response to the crisis. It was his dogged push for a coordinated and integrated response to the epidemic that produced the results many now take for granted.

Parents can thank Catania, too, for delivering an additional $80 million in educational aid for poor and at-risk students after he took over the council’s education committee last year. Catania says he brought a halt to social promotion in the public schools, helped established smoke-free workplaces and led the effort to make marriage equality a fact of life in the city.

Catania is an action figure who probably has the most bona fide progressive record of the candidates in the field.

Is that a formal endorsement? No. Simply a recognition of credible achievements.

Catania’s downside? He seems unacquainted with Isaac Newton’s quote, “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” Catania always assumes he’s the smartest person in the room. Thus he often comes across as a bad listener who respects only his point of view — a toxic attitude when building relationships is required. How would a Catania-led city fare in a changed federal landscape? He’s strong on assertiveness, but does he have the diplomatic skills?

Catania’s campaign advisers contend that his candidacy is taking hold.

They claim that, since his announcement in March, he has signed up about 750 volunteers, delivered 2,000 yard signs, collected more than 6,000 petition signatures (only 3,000 are needed to get on the ballot) and attended more than 55 meet-and-greets across the city.

The Catania camp also says internal polling shows a tightening race against Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser (D) and gives him a higher “favorable” rating. We’ll see what independent polling says as the race moves along.

The upbeat assessment contrasts sharply with my column last week, in which I noted Bowser’s commanding position with regard to party registration, fundraising and political backing going into the fall.

That evoked this discordant response from a prominent former city official and active Democrat who asked to remain anonymous: “Bowser does seem to be running out the clock and counting on the overwhelming Democratic Party registration to get her elected. But that leaves voters with the pig-in-a-poke default position. We have no real way of knowing or valuing what Bowser will do. She has not afforded voters a real sense of her leadership. The city needs a leader and not a politician playing it safe.”

The writer, noting that he is no Catania fan, added, “It does make me wonder, if Bowser is unwilling to demonstrate leadership when she is trying to get elected, what leadership can the voters expect when she no longer needs their votes?”

Ouch.

To come: a look at a January scenario and the campaign of former council member Carol Schwartz (R).

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

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