On the Record: City Councilmember David Catania (SFS ’90, LAW ’94)

On Wednesday, D.C. Councilmember and Georgetown alum David Catania (I-At Large)(SFS ‘90, LAW ‘94) spoke to a Voice reporter about his run for re-election, his recent work on same-sex marriage and medical marijuana legalization, and his time at Georgetown. Below is a full transcript of their conversation. Interview conducted and transcribed by Claire Wheeler.

Voice: What led you to first become involved in politics?

Catania: Where should I begin … I was active in my neighborhood before running for the Council. In the mid-1990s I was active in my former neighborhood, which was called Sheridan-Kalorama. I ran for the [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] in 1996 and was successful in that race and then the opportunity presented itself to run for the Council in a special election. Based on the work I had done as an adviser to the Neighborhood Commission and the view I held about the direction of the City, I decided if we wanted the City to improve, we would have to have a new generation of leadership with a different set of priorities then the generation that preceded me. So when the opportunity presented itself to run for the council in 1997, I decided to run.

V: Why did you decide to run for re-election in the council?

C: I think first and foremost, that I have chaired the Committee on Health since January 2005 and over the last five years I think we have made a lot of progress on improving the quality of healthcare in the district and access to healthcare. We are working to narrow certain health disparities that exist in the city, but there are still many challenges and a lot of work to do. I had hoped that we would have universal access to health insurance by 2010. It was a goal of mine. The economic meltdown in 2008 has really frustrated that goal, but I am still committed to it. The District enjoys one of the lowest rates of uninsured in the country, thanks in part to the work that I have started in the past few years on expanding our Medicare programs and expanding our Alliance programs. The district is in the top-tier in the Nation in terms of insured, but we still have, nonetheless, about eight percent of our population that is not insured, and I want to continue my work to bring that down to zero.

V: What do you think are the most important issues facing the District at the moment?

C: Well, there are many, right? But the most pressing issue for our government is improving the quality of our public education. And a few years ago under Mayor Fenty’s leadership, we reorganized school governance to give the Mayor control over public schools. It has been a very trying journey, a very challenging journey, because the level of dysfunction had been bound to the system when we assumed control in 2007. Nevertheless, it is a very important and rewarding exercise to put together a plan not only to improve not only the quality of education within the school system, but also the equity associated with high education. We are working to ensure that every child, regardless of where they live in the city has access to a high-performing public education and we have a long way to go. There were huge levels of dysfunction that faced us when we started this journey in 2007 but without question, we have very good principles and very good teachers, we simply have to work harder to raise our standards, to make sure that the resources are there for our kids and hold them to these high standards.

The second biggest issue in front of us now involves the economic security of many of our residents. We have a very high rate of unemployment. It’s falling very hard on our under-skilled and unskilled workers. They are suffering disproportionately in this great recession, and the kinds of jobs for which they have an appropriate skill-set for are not returning quickly as we begin our recovery. So we are looking at having to invest money in our unskilled and under-skilled workers going forward, if we are to hold out hope that they will regain their workforce in the future.

V: Do you think that Congress will intervene in same-sex marriage legislation?

D: Well, you know, it has been before them for well over a month and from what I understand from our Congresswoman, we have assurances from the respective Committee Chairs from the Committees that would have jurisdiction over the matter that any effort to undermine or frustrate or reverse the Council’s actions will not come before these Committees. And so will there be saber-rattling on the part of some? Yes. Will there be efforts in the future to try to reverse what we did? Probably. But for the foreseeable future, I feel bearably certain that with the efforts of our delegate on the Hill and with the support of the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate that we have a very good chance in sustaining marriage equality in the District.

V: Do you think that the District council should forward recent corruption charges made against Marion Barry to the U.S. attorney’s office?

D: Yes.

V: Do you think that Marion Barry should resign over these charges?

D: Well that is, you know, an intensely personal decision to make that involves Mr. Barry, his conscience, and his constituents. Right? I think that Councilmember Barry needs to reflect seriously on whether or not the continuous controversies that surround him are affecting his ability to deliver for his constituents. Mind you, since he returned to public life in 2005, it has been one issue after another after another. Whether it has been his failure to pay taxes and his failure again to pay taxes, or his arrests, or his involvement in this kickback scheme with a lover involving city money, one issue after another surrounds Mister Barry. This has to frustrate his ability to deliver for his residents because he is spending so much time defending his conduct that there cannot be enough hours in the day for his constituents. So I think that he needs to look very hard at himself and whether or not he has organized his life in such a way that causes so much chaos that it means he can no longer deliver for his constituents? He’s going to have to make that decision in concert with his constituents.

V: Why do you think that it is important for the medical marijuana bill to be passed in D.C.?

D: I think that there is ample evidence to support the position that the appropriate use of marijuana for medical purposes reduces pain and suffering and stimulates appetite. So there are, in my mind, very convincing reasons to have marijuana available for individuals who are ill upon the recommendation of their doctor. What I also think is important is that we organize this in a way so that it is a closed system and is highly regulated and highly controlled. Meaning that, in other jurisdictions that have permitted medical marijuana, there have been many efforts to expand its use beyond what was originally intended. And there [has] been a proliferation in parts of California of dispensaries and a mushrooming of these doctors called pot-docs who will issue a prescription from everything from a hang-nails to pain associated with wearing high-heels—it’s a true story. So I think that it is important that it be a controlled system with a finite number of dispensaries and that we pay attention to where the marijuana is cultivated and the manner in which it is cultivated. And frankly, Europe has a long tradition of the medical marijuana and there are corporate entities that grow marijuana, and they pay very close attention to issues of purity and safety.

So I think the more we professionalize the medical use of marijuana going forward, the more likely we will be to continue the use of medical marijuana, because keep in mind that marijuana is not approved on the Federal Level for medicinal purposes. It is still against Federal Law. And at any time the Justice Department wants, the Justice Department can begin prosecuting marijuana use or possession or growing or distributing in any part of this country. Historically the Justice Department has left it to state and local government to prosecute marijuana offences, but the fact remains it still is a controlled substance and against Federal Law to distribute, cultivate, sell or use. So if the District is not careful, and we create a very lose system that is rife with misuse, it does present a problem in the future, should we have a less responsive administration than the one currently in the White House or if there were to be a back-lash and a crack-down where we lose the ability to have medical marijuana by virtue of enhanced federal enforcement here in the City.

Under President Obama, there is guidance in the Justice Office that basically informs U.S. attorneys that they should be judicious in their use of scarce prosecutorial resources and that they should refrain from prosecuting medical marijuana possession, distribution, etcetera … if it is consistent with the local law on the subject of medical marijuana. But a future president could have different guidance and if we have pot shops and pot docs on every corner we are inviting a future president to enhance prosecutions here in the District and it could shut down the whole lawful use of medical marijuana.

V: What do you think is the proudest moment in your career so far?

D: Well, I have had a number of moments that, you know, stick out. There have been a number … I am very proud of the work that I have done to expand health insurance for District residents. I am very proud of the work I have done in marriage law equity legislation. I am very proud of the work we have done to transform and save the only hospital we have East of the Anacostia River, United Medical Center. I was in fact there today to deliver $6 million of additional resources for the hospital. I am very proud of the work I have done for preschool immunization and adult dental benefits. I am proud of the work we have done to make the District more competitive from a tax perspective, for small-businesses and entrepreneurs in particular.

There are any number of issues, you know, that we act on as a body, so it is hard for any one person to take credit because it takes seven people here to do anything. I am proud of the way in which, generally speaking during my tenure on the council my colleagues have rallied behind a way of governing that is more generous, more inclusive than any kind in the country.

V: How do you think that your time at Georgetown University changed you?

D: I had a fantastic experience at Georgetown. I was really lucky to not only have exceptional professors, but also to meet extraordinary people as peer students. I thought my time at Georgetown presented not only a chance to explore a big city and find those areas of interest. It really opened up the world to me, while giving me the security of an isolated campus that I always appreciated and felt truly lucky to be a part of. While I was at Georgetown I was the administrative assistant to Dr. Madeline Albright, and I got to see quite a lot as virtue of that position, and it was of course a very exciting time, 1989-90. It was of course a very exciting time to be working for her. It was the time of the Velvet Revolution, and the fall of the Iron Curtain. And of course her role, and her participation, and her interest in that period allowed me to see things that never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined, so I just think across the board, you know, my experience at Georgetown prepared me.

As for the Jesuit education that I receive, I am every day grateful. I am in the position of practicing either law or serving on the Council with individuals who are from various backgrounds, from various educational experiences, and everyday I am grateful for my Jesuit education. Because of the emphasis on philosophy and on literature and on understanding the world and that theological inclusion and the ethics and sense of personal responsibility and social justice, all of these qualities which are part of a Jesuit education. You come to realize, as you get older, that not every education is seeped in a Jesuit perspective or a sense of social-justice. Many people are simply educated in subject manners, not a way of living.

Photo by Helen Burton for the Voice.

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