For all its political unanimity, Washington, D.C., is a deeply divided city. Functionally segregated by race, increasingly divided by class, the District today is home to a struggle between the haves and the have-nots—a clash symbolized by our current, unusually fierce mayoral race. Republican-turned-Independent David Catania is battling Muriel Bowser, a product of the city’s Democratic machine. Catania is white and gay. Bowser is black and straight. The conflicts here seem deliciously simple: black vs. white, straight vs. gay, working-class vs. affluent.
But the race hasn’t shaken out that way. Bowser holds a double-digit lead over Catania going into Election Day and boasts a diverse coalition of supporters. Catania’s plan to capture the votes of socially liberal, economically moderate voters has largely fizzled—as has his goal to capture the District’s sizable LGBT voting bloc. The gay community is torn over Catania’s candidacy; as much as queer Washingtonians may want to see the city elect its first gay mayor, a significant number of LGBT voters have defected to the Bowser camp.
Why couldn’t Catania hold onto his core constituency? The most obvious reason is that he’s an awful politician—perpetually pugnacious, pointlessly antagonistic, aloof, alienating, and angry. The Washington Post, in endorsing Bowser, called Catania a “bully”—“a word that crops up with disturbing frequency”—and the descriptors you hear off-the-record are more colorfully profane. Those who served with him on the City Council often complained of his belligerent ad hominem attacks; voters who encounter him campaigning are frequently puzzled by his withdrawn nature. At the city’s recent High Heel Drag Race, both Bowser and Catania worked the crowd before the event. Bowser was warm and eager, shaking hands, chatting and smiling. Catania was reserved and remote; he spent much of the night surrounded by advisers, a look of mild irritation pasted on his face.
Some of America’s greatest public servants have also been bullies, of course. But Catania doesn’t have the substance to back up his combative style. And herein lies the much bigger problem with Catania’s candidacy: He’s offered very few reasons for gay people to actually support him, aside from his orientation. The deck is already stacked against him; a former Republican, Catania only left the party when he was essentially ousted from it in 2004. The reason? He opposed the party’s support of an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment. Only when the Republicans’ policies personally disadvantaged him, then, was Catania ready to drop the party.
Because Republicans remain overwhelmingly anti-gay, most LGBT voters are understandably skeptical of anyone associated with the party. (The skepticism runs even higher in a hugely Democratic city like D.C.) Catania never really tried to overcome this natural suspicion. In fact, as the campaign wore on, Catania’s Republican roots grew more and more exposed. Although his platform devoted thousands of words to the city’s working-class and impoverished citizens, Catania’s campaign behavior suggested the candidate was much more comfortable around business owners and suburbanites than homeless families and the working poor. He refused to support a union’s right to organize and sent out a vicious last-minute mailer accusing Bowser of corruption. And he’s stood by his opposition to two major city-funded construction projects, insisting that they should have been privately financed.
These are not particularly sexy campaign issues. But in a race where both major candidates have extremely similar positions on the big questions, the smaller matters take on outsized importance. Washington’s LGBT residents may hope to see an openly gay mayor in office, but most of them also remain resolutely liberal—a label Catania could never honestly don. A Mayor Catania would likely be great for affluent gays and wealthy Washingtonians in general. A Mayor Bowser would be better for everybody else. D.C.’s LGBT community understands this quite well. And that’s why so many of them will be casting a ballot against Catania on Tuesday.