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Gay Republicans Spurred to Action

Times Staff Writer

David Catania used to display a photograph on a side table in his office, in which President Bush, standing next to First Lady Laura Bush, spread his arms wide to embrace Catania on one side and his partner, Brian, on the other.

But last month when Bush endorsed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Catania felt betrayed. “To enshrine us as second-class citizens is a deal breaker,” he said. “My partner and I have been to Crawford. The president was so gracious to Brian and me. I don’t believe in my heart for a minute this is something he wants to do.”

Now, the photo lies face down in a bottom drawer, a symbol of the disconnect between a 36-year-old Republican councilman in the nation’s capital and a conservative president juggling the demands of disparate constituencies, from conservative Christians who oppose gay marriage to moderates offended by intolerance.

For Catania and other gay Republicans, the issue of same-sex marriage -- thrust center stage by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the mayor of San Francisco -- has provoked an identity crisis. Conservative on fiscal and foreign policy, they are not natural Democrats. But they say they are wounded, feeling rejected by their own GOP family.

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“I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach,” said Mark Mead of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization. He said the arguments against gay marriage reminded him of the efforts to block interracial marriage more than 30 years ago, when he was growing up in Mississippi. “Those words of intolerance ring as hollow and untrue today as they did then,” Mead said.

The raw emotion kicked up by the issue is affecting the presidential campaign in ways that no one anticipated. Ever since Bush endorsed a ban on same-sex unions, money has been pouring in to gay rights groups in record amounts.

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which has recruited gay political candidates and raised money for them since 1991, reports a 200% increase in contributions to gay and lesbian candidates. The Log Cabin Republicans, which is fighting the ban, reports it is getting hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in donations.

“There is a huge energy created that I’ve never seen before,” said Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, which promotes gay rights. “Will it translate into ground troops? It’s a little too early to tell. But there is a kind of focused sense within the gay community on the election."Social conservatives also are energized by the issue. And experts on campaign finance say the Bush campaign is not in danger of feeling the pinch from disaffected gay donors because the campaign has already raised more than $143 million of its target of $170 million.

Still, proponents of same-sex unions are warning both parties that money from gay donors may dry up for candidates who side against them on the issue. It may go instead to fund efforts to defeat constitutional amendments at the national and state levels. Already, the Log Cabin Republicans have launched a television ad campaign against the proposed federal amendment, which is running in swing states and could color voter attitudes toward Bush.

“Fighting these constitutional amendments at the state and federal level is going to take financial clout,” Dave DeCicco of the Victory Fund said. “Gay voters are targeting their contributions.”

If this is war, Catania is an unexpected warrior. A rare Republican in the District of Columbia’s Democrat-laden political establishment, he has made his reputation over the last seven years by bringing private sector values to city government, winning bipartisan approval of new approaches to drug rehabilitation and to attracting businesses to the city.

A tiger of a fundraiser, Catania has collected so much money for Bush’s reelection -- as much as $75,000 by his own estimate -- that the campaign recently honored him and a dozen others with a private luncheon at the stately Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington and a private strategy briefing at Bush-Cheney headquarters in Virginia. He says he could have raised much more, drawing from his contacts as a lawyer in Washington’s political and legal circles.

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When the White House backed a constitutional amendment to protect heterosexual marriage, Catania was so angry that he flirted with the idea of becoming an independent. He hosted a fundraiser for a Democrat -- Cheryl Rivers, a supporter of civil unions who is running for lieutenant governor in Vermont.

And he toyed with the idea of creating a website that would invite gays and like-minded allies to register their names and the amount of their contributions to the Bush-Cheney campaign and then seek a refund.

Now, he said, his anger has hardened into a plan of action. “I intend to remain in the party, but I will fight anyone who attempts to write discrimination into our Constitution,” he said in an interview. He plans to go to the Republican Convention in New York as a member of the District of Columbia’s delegation and of the party platform committee, not only to advocate gay rights but to trumpet GOP solutions to urban problems.

“I have carried my party’s banner, I have fought for lower taxes, I have applied our principles to urban problems,” he said. “There is not another gay Republican who has given more, with more to say.”

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A native of Kansas City, Mo., Catania was always a bit of a maverick. An only child, he was raised by his mother, who introduced him to GOP politics -- and politicians. In high school, he was elected the state’s “youth governor” -- this while John Ashcroft, now U.S. attorney general, was the governor.

In college, Catania interned for a Republican, Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri, and for a Democrat, then-professor Madeleine Albright, who became President Clinton’s secretary of State. He remembers standing on the convention floor in New Orleans in 1988, listening to Ronald Reagan give his farewell address, thinking he was surrounded by family, the extended political family of Republicans.

He delayed starting law school to be with his mother while she was dying of ovarian cancer. He told his mother before she died that he was gay.

He also confided in a veteran political hand in Missouri politics. They were sitting in the operative’s kitchen, late at night, sharing a drink, when he told her a friend of his had tried to commit suicide.

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“Which of the two ‘G’s’ was it?” she asked, “Grades or girls?”

“A third ‘G,’ ” he replied. “He is gay.”

Then Catania told his political mentor that he too was gay.

“Well,” she said, “that takes care of the fourth ‘G.’ ”

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When he asked what that was, she replied, “You’ll never be governor of Missouri.”

When he returned to Washington to finish his schooling, he knew that she was right: A gay Republican had a limited future in Missouri, which the Victory Fund lists as one of 27 states without any openly gay office-holders. Catania clerked for two administrative law judges at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and then became an energy attorney for Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, one of Washington’s top firms.

Then, in 1997, at the age of 29, a white Republican in a city of black Democrats, he decided to run for an at-large seat on the District of Columbia council.

Washington’s political registration is 88% Democratic. The incumbent, Arrington Dixon, the former husband of the former mayor, was black, Democratic and a favorite with the gay community.

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In the end, it wasn’t even close -- Catania won, 43% to 37%. “We caught them sleeping,” he said. Catania won the gay vote and Dixon the black vote, but black turnout was low. Catania has twice won reelection easily.

“He is extremely smart, with a strong work ethic,” said Alice Rivlin, the Brookings Institution economist who served on the board that directed the District of Columbia’s finances in the late 1990s. “I’ve worked with him on taxes and economic development. Gay is not part of the persona he projects -- this would be a departure.”

Publicly challenging the Republican Party and the president he worked hard to elect is unquestionably new turf for Catania.

He cast his first vote for president in 1988, for the president’s father, George H.W. Bush.

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“Some gays will never forgive me for being Republican,” he said. “Some social conservatives will never forgive me for being gay. And the only person you have to please is the one in the mirror.”

During the baseball strike of 1994, Catania, a Kansas City Royals fan, was angry at the players. One of the judges he clerked for teased him, calling him “the only kid in America who sided with the owners.”

Catania smiled. “A Republican,” he said.


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