Podcast - Ep 57: Catherine Read, mayor of Fairfax City, Va., is outspoken, unfiltered

Fairfax mayor and Mason alumna Catherine Read records Access to Excellence podcast
Fairfax Mayor is outspoken, unfiltered

Catherine Read is the first woman and first George Mason University graduate (BA government and politics ’84) to be mayor of Fairfax City, Va., the university’s hometown, and she isn’t shy about touting a university she says helped teach her how to think critically. Want to know why it’s good to “disrupt the system,” why it’s important to get more women into policy-making decisions, and why our educational system doesn’t reward bold ideas? Read tells you in this Women's History Month conversation with Mason President Gregory Washington. She also is adamant that “if we can’t maintain democracy, if we can’t preserve our country’s rule of law, then all of these other things make zero difference.” This podcast was recorded on March 21.

 As I started out doing nonprofit advocacy work, I became aware that we did not have enough women around the table for good public policy. A lot of the problems and the issues that exist are because women are not in a position to create policies around, such as, universal pre-K or affordable quality childcare or paid family leave. And you have to ask yourself, why? And it's because women have not been at the table.”

~ Catherine S. Read, Mayor, City of Fairfax, Virginia

Read the Transcript | Fairfax Mayor is outspoken, unfiltered

Narrator (00:04):

Trailblazers in research, innovators in technology, and those who simply have a good story. All make up the fabric that is George Mason University, where taking on the grand challenges that face our students, graduates, and higher education is our mission and our passion. Hosted by Mason President Gregory Washington, this is the Access to Excellence podcast.

Gregory Washington (00:26):

George Mason University is a school for groundbreakers and trailblazers from globally impactful research to creating lasting change locally and beyond. Mason students, faculty, staff, and alumni put their stamps on their communities every day. With me today is one of those extraordinary alums, Catherine Reed. Class of 1984 with a bachelor's degree in government and politics is the first Mason graduate and the first woman to be mayor of the city of Fairfax, Virginia, the university's hometown. Katherine has dedicated herself to serving and supporting the city and its people. She's a small business owner with a social media consultancy firm. She is a long-time host of Fairfax Public Access shows Inside Scoop, Your Need to Know and Making Change Radio. She is also dedicated to bringing the city of Fairfax and George Mason into a closer partnership and that I can, so well, thank you for. I am so pleased she could be here during Women's History Month of all months to talk about the history she herself is making Catherine Read, welcome to the show.

Catherine Read (01:46):

Thank you so much for having me. It wasn't far to travel, actually, from City Hall to this radio station. Probably not even a mile.

Gregory Washington (01:54):

<laugh>. Hey. And that's the whole point, right? You are right here. You're right here with us in this community in George Mason.

Catherine Read (02:02):

Well, it's interesting because when I was here, when I arrived in 1981, I moved into the first dormitory ever built. It opened on October 25th, 1981. Prior to that, there were no dormitories. There were the old student apartments, but there was no dormitories. And so that was one of the reasons I chose to come to George Mason. That and the fact that it was in a suburb of Washington DC. I grew up in rural southwest Virginia.

Gregory Washington (02:25):

Yeah, I know you took one of my questions. This is fantastic. Well, let me, let's talk a little bit about things. You have a really interesting background. You have said that you're not a politician, and I can tell by your background why you would say that, but talk a little bit more about what you mean by that.

Catherine Read (02:42):

Well, being mayor was not really in my life plan. I mean, I do have a degree in government and politics and, and people have asked why I changed from being a theater major at Emerson College to being a government and politics major at George Mason University. I had an interest in both. I mean, I was very politically aware in fifth grade. During the Nixon McGovern race, I asked my fifth grade teacher if I could do a bulletin board about the presidential race. And he was like, as long as you cover both candidates equally in fifth grade, I was politically aware. I watched the Watergate hearings, the summer of the Watergate hearings I can remember most clearly as yesterday. So even though I had a love for theater and thought that's what I wanted to do as a career, I've always had an interest in politics. But not necessarily as I got older, seeing myself in a political role. As I started out doing nonprofit advocacy work, I became aware that we did not have enough women in the rooms where decisions were being made.

Catherine Read (03:39):

There were not enough women around the table for good public policy. A lot of the problems and the issues that exist and still exist are because women are not in a position to create policies around like universal pre-K or affordable quality childcare. Or paid family leave. There's not even paid parental leave, maternity leave that doesn't exist in this country. And you have to ask yourself, why? And it's because women have not been at the table to make policies that benefit women and families. And so I became an advocate working with nonprofits, but also electing more women to public office. So I know a lot of women in this region who sit in positions of power like Phyllis Randall out Loudoun County. I knew Phyllis before she was running for the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Katie Cristol. She and I sat on panels before she was ever on the Arlington County Board. All of these women that I've worked with for over 15 years trying to figure out how we get women in the room where it happens. So I always saw myself in that role, not in the elected role, but being the person who helps women who see themselves in the elected role get into those seats.

Gregory Washington (04:52):

Well, we are dealing with a time in the US House where, what is it? I think it's up to 29% women now. So 128 out of the 440 members. You know, it's a high watermark, but not where we need to be.

Catherine Read (05:11):

No. In 2013, I remember working for women candidates in 2013. We were 47th in the United States for the percentage of women in our legislature. Virginia was very low. And that year, 24 women ran for office. In the journal assembly. 12 were incumbents, including Charniele Herring, who's also a Mason alumna. That is true. Charnel was an incumbent in 2013, and there were 12 challengers and all 12 incumbents won, and all 12 challengers lost. When you look back and you think, well, 2013, that's just 11 years ago. Look how far we've come in 11 years from that to where we are now. You look in the House, you look in the Senate, you see women, you see women with babies. You see women who have given birth in office. You see women with school aged children. And that didn't exist a decade ago. It just didn't.

Gregory Washington (06:06):

So when you were elected in 2022, you became the first alum, as I said, and first woman to be mayor of Fairfax. Did that dawn on you? Were you thinking, look, I wanna be a trailblazer here?

Catherine Read (06:17):

You know, it was funny because somebody from the Washington Post said, are you running on being the first woman mayor? And I'm like, are you kidding me? Did you see how that worked out for Hillary? No. <laugh>, no. I don't talk about it at all because it's a double-edged sword. Right? People don't wanna hear about gender, even if it's a factual statement. People don't wanna hear about gender. They want you to make a case for why I should be elected based on my vision, my commitment, my background, my skillset. And same with being a George Mason alumna. I mean, I did not talk about that, but I talk about it all the time now that I'm in office.

Gregory Washington (06:51):

Yeah, look, I see here what the City of Fairfax Women's History Month proclamation stated that there have been only 15 women elected to Fairfax City Council since 1961 and only two women ever elected to Virginia statewide office in the Commonwealth's 500-year history. Right? Yeah. We have a history of government here longer than, literally longer than the country's age. By a wide margin. mean, it's not even close. And we still have not had

Catherine Read (07:23):

Well, so we don't, we haven't had a

Gregory Washington (07:24):

Woman governor. Two elected officers, one of them is sitting in her seat right now.

Catherine Read (07:29):

Right now. So, there was a long time between Mary Sue Terry, who was attorney general in the late 1980s, and Winsome Earle-Sears, who's the current 42nd lieutenant governor, those are the only two in the 405 year history. It's been five centuries. We have the longest, continuously operating legislative body in the Western Hemisphere. And the fact that we as the Commonwealth of Virginia have not been able to elect a woman governor in five centuries, people should be asking themselves, it's not about the candidates. There are plenty of qualified women. So if it's not about the candidates, then we have to ask ourselves, is it about the voters? So I had an interesting conversation At a political event

Gregory Washington (08:09):

Okay, this is getting really interesting. Let's go

Catherine Read (08:12):

At a political event hosted by Gerry Connolly, which he does every St Patrick's Day, the holiest day of the year, according to Congressman Connolly. And he has a big event where, and it's all Democrats. And you know, I was talking about a potential ticket in 2025 of candidate for governor, lieutenant governor, and Commonwealth attorney, and a longtime friend of mine, someone who I just love and respect. She goes, well, we can't do that. I'm like, why? She goes, well, it's three women. I'm like, Judy, you did not just say that. Did you just say the Commonwealth of Virginia could not, would not, will not elect three women to the top offices 'cause that's what I just heard you say. She goes, well, yeah, I don't think that they could get elected. I'm like, wow. Wow. And wow. This is 2024. And you're telling me, I said, do you remember what Ruth Bader Ginsburg said when somebody asked how many women Supreme Court justices will be enough? And she said, when there are nine, because no one ever questioned the fact that we've had nine male Supreme Court justices. Why should anyone question if there are nine women? But I just had a long-time feminist activist woman say to me, oh, three women on a ticket. Oh, that won't work.

Gregory Washington (09:25):

You know, that's interesting that you bring that up. Not only is it commonplace for there to be only men on the ticket, it is clear that even some, I assume you're talking about a Democratic ticket. Yes, yes. That even some of the Democratic party would be uncomfortable with a ticket of all women. We have a saying, I'm an engineer. We have an old saying. Every system is designed to get the results it gets. If the system's giving you a certain result, that's because that's the way it was designed. Those are those results it was designed to give you, well, this is a primary example of that. This is exactly an outcome, that's a part of a system of which all of us are included that we produce even when we're not thinking about it. Those kinds of things have to be disrupted. They have to be changed. It's people like you that change 'em. So this is fantastic. I did not think we were gonna go in this direction. These questions are not on my card.

Catherine Read (10:23):

Well, that's okay. Because I under, I understand that you kind of a are freethinking, freewheeling, and I love that about you. It's kind of like that is true. Go where the conversation takes you. And you're right about disrupting systems. And it's kind of like, how was I the first woman mayor in 2022? Because it was the first time municipal elections were held in November instead of May. Historically, and this is part of the Virginia Constitution, and it's part of the Byrd Machine.

Gregory Washington (10:47):

Preach. Teach on this one. Go ahead.

Catherine Read (10:48):

Right. So every other year in May, 20% of registered voters voted. 20% of a hundred percent chose the mayor and city council since 1961. And I call that voter suppression. That's when I call it. When you have a system, to your point about what the system produces, when you have a system that consistently produces 20% or less over 60 years, then the system is working the way it was designed to work. So we had 15 women who were elected to city council over that period of 60 years. And there were many, many years where it was an all male city council and a male mayor. And that's what May elections produced. It produced a consistent constituency who decided that that is what they wanted their government to look like. So in 2022, when we moved to November, 59% of registered voters came out to vote, which meant two thirds of those voters had never voted for mayor and city council before.

Gregory Washington (11:46):

And you got a different outcome,

Catherine Read (11:47):

Different electorate, different outcome.

Gregory Washington (11:49):

Exactly. A different system.

Catherine Read (11:52):

Different system. <laugh>.

Gregory Washington (11:55):

Amazing. Amazing. So when did you feel as if you were making history?

Catherine Read (11:59):

You know, I didn't really. I do now, because it matters to young women who want representation. Like you can't be what you can't see. I have a Girl Scout troop that's coming to City Hall. This is interesting too, because Deepak Madala, who I worked with at Virginia Poverty Law Center, and he just reached out to me and said, my daughter's Girl Scout troop would like to come to city council and meet with you and take a tour of the City Hall. And I said, well, that would be wonderful. And then it's occurred to me, I've never seen Girl Scouts in City Hall. Boy Scouts come to do the Pledge of Allegiance. We got lots of Boy Scout troops that come to the meetings and they have for years. But to my memory, I've never seen a Girl Scout troop in City Hall. So I'm like, yes, absolutely. Bring them. And I said, and I will ask the women on staff to come down. It's gonna be late in the afternoon to come down so that these girls can see the different kinds of people, the different women who have jobs in government besides the mayor. We have a deputy city manager, the city registrar, uh, Asian American woman. We have so many women. And these girls need to see.

Gregory Washington (13:03):

That's exactly right. That's how you change the vision of the future. This is Women's History Month. Who are the women you look up to?

Catherine Read (13:11):

Greta Thunberg.

Gregory Washington (13:12):

That's interesting.

Catherine Read (13:13):

It is because I tell you, young people at a certain point in their lives don't understand that things aren't possible. Kids come into this world curious and they learn all the time. And they ask questions and they have bold ideas. But a lot of times our educational system doesn't always reward that. And so as time goes on, you start to realize that what gets rewarded is hitting benchmarks and achievements and checking off boxes. That is what is rewarded. And all your big bold ideas somehow are not something you start to believe in. But Greta Thunberg does. Greta Thunberg is like, I can change the world. There are young women out there that I think will go forward boldly without considering the fact that they could fail or consider the fact that it could be wasted effort, because it, that's not what is driving them.

Catherine Read (14:07):

What is driving her and what is driving a lot of young women is the fact that they see a problem that needs to be solved, like climate change. They feel an urgency that it needs to be solved now. And they don't doubt their ability to move the needle forward. And a lot of times you take criticism, I look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or even Nancy Pelosi, right? Two different generations. And those two women are not on really on the same page. But each of them has taken their fair share of criticism over what they have committed themselves to do in moving the needle forward in a way that they think serves the greater good.

Gregory Washington (14:45):

That's exactly right. And when time came to support one another, they did. Do you get what I'm saying?

Catherine Read (14:51):

Yes I do. And I think, and you know, and I heard Liz Cheney speak at the, uh, Richmond Forum like, uh, last month. And listening to Liz Cheney speak too, she was on the Rachel Maddow Show. That's another example of how two women who will tell you they don't agree on most things. RAnd yet Liz Cheney was on Rachel Maddow's show because what they do agree on is our country and our democracy comes first above partisanship, above politics. Because if we can't maintain democracy, if we can't preserve our country's rule of law, then all of these other things make zero difference.

Gregory Washington (15:27):

Yeah, I really like Liz Cheney. I saw her maybe about a year ago when she came, right before she was ousted. She came to DC to give a speech. And I happened to be able to meet her then. She's phenomenal.

Catherine Read (15:41):

She is. And, again, this is a woman who took a stand and got kicked out of her own party. But you have to admire women like that, right?

Gregory Washington (15:49):

She got kicked out of Congress.

Catherine Read (15:51):

<laugh> True. She got kicked outta Congress.

Gregory Washington (15:54):

She got kicked outta Congress. I don't think she got kicked outta her party.

Catherine Read (15:58):

Well, it'll be interesting to see what she does. I don't know what a path forward is for her, but she hasn't given up and she's using her influence in her platform to speak her truth.

Gregory Washington (16:07):

That's right. I love principled people who stand on right. And fight for what they believe in.

Catherine Read (16:13):

Me too.

Gregory Washington (16:14):

Yeah, so you've been in this job now, how long?

Catherine Read (16:17):

15 months. And I'm already running for reelection.

Gregory Washington (16:19):

Okay, well look, that's the nature of the beast, right?

Catherine Read (16:22):

Uh, every, every other year. Yes.

Gregory Washington (16:23):

That’s right. So 15 months, is the job what you thought it would be?

Catherine Read (16:27):

Some of it, but no. First of all, people are like, well, it's a part-time job, right? I'm like, no, it's 365 days a year, 24/7. And a lot of that is because of email, social media and smartphones. Sometimes I think about former mayor John Mason, who was the longest serving mayor from 1990 to 2002. He recently passed away. And I'm thinking John Mason probably got up when he was mayor on a Sunday and read The Washington Post. I get up every single morning and look at my work email. I look at my smartphone and I see what text messages and what emails have come in. And

Gregory Washington (17:01):

From the night before,

Catherine Read (17:02):

From the night before and overnight.

Gregory Washington (17:04):

While you were sleeping.

Catherine Read (17:04):

Well, yeah. And I sit on regional committees too, so I really didn't understand that part of it. I sit on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which meets once a month. The national, I mean the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. That is four monthly meetings a month. Right. But it's important because we are a region. And I'm committed to doing that work. But again, there is so much to this, it's not a part-time job. A podcast I really like a lot is Pod Virginia, Michael Pope and Lauren Burke do a twice a week podcast. And they, it is all Virginia politics. But one of the things on Tuesday's episode that they were talking about is what the House of Delegates gets paid.

Gregory Washington (17:48):

Oh, that's ridiculous.

Catherine Read (17:49):

Well, $18,000 a year. But they're a part-time legislature, right?

Gregory Washington (17:53):

Yeah. But it's not true.

Catherine Read (17:54):

It's not. And so they were talking about the fact that, again, we were talking about is it the candidate or is it the voters? But in this particular case, is it the fact that these people don't deserve to be paid a living wage or a fair wage? Or is it the fact that people just believe that this is some sort of volunteer job and we're just honored to do it, but it's an equity issue. I can do this job. I don't do, people are like, do you have a day job? I'm like, well, I used to do many things that I don't do anymore. I do the mayor job every day, every week. That's right. I'm on all the time. And I said, so this is not a part-time job, but it pays $13,000 a year. So if I had to pay my mortgage with what I make as mayor, it wouldn't work.

Gregory Washington (18:36):

That's exactly right. And that's why you have people of substantial means being the ones that run for office, because they are the ones who can afford to.

Catherine Read (18:45):

And it's not representative government. So we need to care about that.

Gregory Washington (18:49):

We are getting deep.

Catherine Read (18:49):

Well, we have to. You know, I got a great education. I got a great education at George Mason University.

Gregory Washington (18:54):

You know what? I was about to say the same thing. Boy, those George Mason professors have indoctrinated you well.

Catherine Read (19:01):

They taught me to question everything and to look deeply into government <laugh>. But I do think

Gregory Washington (19:05):

This is amazing. I gotta pinch myself a little bit. So let me back up and see if I could get us back on track here. I was asking you about role models is how we got on this one, right? Let me ask you one more question in, in, in this segment and then move on. If you could sit down with any woman in history, any woman, who would it be and what would you wanna know from her?

Catherine Read (19:25):

It would be Eleanor Roosevelt. It would be Eleanor Roosevelt. You know, the more I learn about history, the more I admire that woman. And just when you think you know everything about somebody, you find out something else.

Gregory Washington (19:38):


Catherine Read (19:39):

Like the Golden 13, I asked an American Legion full of veterans if they knew who the Golden 13 had ever heard of the Golden 13. And no one had. It is the first 13 Black naval officers that were trained during World War II in 1943. And they were called the Golden 13. And they didn't even know why they were selected. They went through a three-month training program in 10 weeks. They did so well that they were accused of cheating and had to take some of those tests over again, which they passed. But this was because of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt is the one who pushed for training Black naval officers. The USS Mason, which is over there fighting off Somali pirates, when I heard something about the USS Mason, I remembered from the book the Golden 13, that that ship was built in commissioned during World War II because it was going to have an all Black crew. And they called the USS Mason Eleanor’s Folly. This is why, no matter how much we think we know about history, there is so much more to know. And I would love to know what Eleanor knew and all the things that she was behind that no one knows

Gregory Washington (20:47):

<laugh>. Catherine, can I ask you a question? Can I, can I <laugh> You are hitting me with zingers, man. Wow. This is fantastic. Okay, look, let's back up a little bit and talk about your time as a student at Mason. You said earlier from Southwest Virginia came to Mason from Emerson College where you were a theater major. So how do you make that flip? How do you go from being a theater major in Boston to a government and politics major at Mason? That's a flip

Catherine Read (21:18):

It is. It is. But like I said, I'd always had a deep interest in both. And when I realized theater was probably not a good career choice. And I have to tell you, I'd never been off the farm when I went to Emerson. I went to Emerson College in 1980 on a Greyhound bus with a steamer trunk and electric typewriter and $20 in cash and a work study job and a Pell Grant and a lot of scholarship. I had the International Thespian Society Scholarship, the Elizabeth Taylor Warner Scholarship for the Dramatic Arts had all this one-time money and a grant from the school. But I'd never been to Boston. I'd never seen the school. So I get on this Greyhound bus leaving Roanoke. 15 hours changed buses at Port Authority in New York. I loved every single second of my time in Boston. Loved it.

Gregory Washington (22:02):

Boston is a great university town.

Catherine Read (22:06):

It is. Oh, it's oh, every, yes. Every so many schools we used go to them.

Gregory Washington (22:08):

Don't let, don't let anybody fool you.

Catherine Read (22:10):

Yeah. $1 movies at MIT and we prayed they didn't check student IDs. So we would go over there and watch first run movies at MIT. But I realized that the kids who were there, it was a small school because it had about 1500 undergraduates. And George Mason was the same size.

Gregory Washington (22:26):

We're not the same size now.

Catherine Read (22:27):

Not anymore, right? <laugh>. And so in 1980, Mason literally had the number one debate team in the nation. Their forensics team just knocked everyone out. And I had never heard of George Mason, even though I lived in Virginia my entire life. I'd never heard of this school. And so when I decided I couldn't afford to stay at Emerson and that theater was not a good career choice by which to have an independent life, I started looking at George Mason strictly because of my interaction with the Mason forensics team. And so I ended up applying to Mason.

Gregory Washington (22:57):

Did you tell them that? That is something that they should know, by the way. Fantastic. Fantastic.

Catherine Read (23:02):

Yeah. I mean, I was on the forensics team in high school, but the funny thing is, once I got here, I had a work study job. I had a series of work study jobs here on campus and I ended up not joining the forensics team. Like I didn't do forensics at Mason, even though that's what brought me here. But I did get a great education working my on campus jobs. And I will tell you this, I learned as much working jobs at Mason as I did in the classroom. Absolutely. I mean, you interact with staff and faculty in a different way. I was doing data entry for the chair of the American Studies Department, and we are still friends all this time later, Hans Bergman and I are still friends, still talk to each other over LinkedIn. And I worked in the copy center at Thompson Hall binding reports and hot gluing things.

Catherine Read (23:47):

And that was one of my work study jobs. I was a desk receptionist at the dorm. That was one of my work study jobs. And you know, I worked my way through school. And I will tell you Mason at that time was attractive for a lot of reasons. But I could afford to go here. I could afford to work my way through school. I had student loans, but it didn't take me 20 years to pay off my student loans. It took me probably five years to pay off my student loans. And I think the cost of public education is so prohibitive now. Young people are discouraged from even considering a four-year college degree because they don't want to start out life with a degree and $20,000, $40,000 in student loans and no guarantee that that degree is gonna get them a job to even pay off their loans. You know, young people really have very tough choices to make. But Mason is still a school and it's got many accolades. It's a research school, it's world renowned, but it's still a school where more students can afford to go and get a world class education, not for world class tuition. That is the legacy.

Gregory Washington (24:52):

That's my tagline right there. I'm gonna take it. I am going to use it. That is fantastic. That's exactly what we are and who we are. And not only that, we find you, no matter where you are. We're that place of opportunity. We are that place of access. We are that place where if you want to become a success, we'll provide a pathway for you. We will work with you to figure it out. And that is probably the most attractive thing about this place. So at some point in time, something had to flip in your mind to say, I wanna do politics, right?

Catherine Read (25:28):

Well, okay, I'll tell you what that was. I reinvent myself every seven years. So I had a career.

Gregory Washington (25:32):

Is this on purpose or it just happens every seven years? It's like it happens. It’s like the itch thing?

Catherine Read (25:37):

It just happens. It’s an itch thing. So my first job out of George Mason was actually, I got a job as a software tester on a Navy payroll personnel project for the Navy through a government contractor. And it's 'cause I had computer experience. Computers were very new in the early eighties. And so if you had computer experience, you could get a job. It wasn't in my major, but it, it was a job that paid decent money. I worked in the data processing industry and then I decided to take a job in human resources. So I was in human resource for seven and a half years for Long and Foster local real estate company. And then I was a small business owner with my second husband. We opened a fax company back. Remember fax machines? There's some kids who couldn't even tell you what one does, but yeah, it was back with

Gregory Washington (26:20):

No you, you still see them around on desk desk and many offices around here. When they come on, people are like, well, well what is that?

Catherine Read (26:27):

But it, but back when, when fax was new in law firms and hospitals relied on fax machines. That was a going business. So Fax World was a business I co-owned. I did the bookkeeping, I ran the service techs, I did all the things in a small business. And then I ran a program called Home Service Connections for Long and Foster. And that was in the early 2000s. And then I had a business mentor who suggested to me in 2007 that these 18,000 real estate agents didn't know how to market themselves online. So think about 2005, 2006, there was no social media. It was called online marketing. Social media wasn't even a term. And so you've got 18,000 independent contractors who still use business cards and telephone to market themselves. And so he suggested to me, he goes, you should start your own business teaching professional people how to use these online tools. And so I did, in 2007, I started Creative Read and I started teaching people how to use Facebook and Twitter, which, you know, people are like. And this is political people too. This is one of the, how, one of the doorways I walked into politics and I know so many people in politics. I got Mark Keam on Twitter. He's like, Catherine,

Gregory Washington (27:39):

Mark Keam?

Catherine Read (27:39):

Mark Keam. I got him on Twitter. He's like, Catherine, it's so stupid. I'm like, mark, you have to be where the people are having a conversation. They're trying to talk to you and they're definitely talking about you. And so got Mark Keam on Twitter back when he first ran in 2009. So I started teaching people how to use social media, how to use online tools. I was doing that as my own business starting in 2007. But then that led me to nonprofits. Then all of a sudden, word of mouth, the Virginia Autism Project, how can we use social media to get autism insurance reform? Then I got Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. How can we social media to abolish the death penalty in Virginia?

Gregory Washington (28:19):

Oh, okay. I see what's happening.

Catherine Read (28:20):

So this is how I pivoted to that. So this every seven years thing is just, this is just where life led me, I guess. I see opportunity and I'm like, there's an opportunity there. And I take it.

Gregory Washington (28:31):

Ain't nothing wrong with that. So one of your goals, one of your major goals since taking office has been to expand the partnership between Fairfax and Georgia Mason University. And one thing you've done to do that, to personify that, is hosting the first ever Fairfax Pride event, which was a collaboration, which is a collaboration between your office and Mason's LGBTQ+ Resource Center. And so can you talk a little bit about what was your vision for that event? How it got started?

Catherine Read (29:03):

So Josh Kinchen invited me to the Mason Pride event, which I came to last April. And I'm coming to on March the 30th this year is, is the pride event here. And they were very generous. I mean, they introduced me not only as the first woman mayor of Fairfax City and the fact that I was a Mason alumni. Lots of applause, lots of applause. But the night of my election, we had our thank you party. I didn't call it a victory party 'cause I didn't know if I was gonna win, right? But we had it at what was then the Earp’s Ordinary Popup on the plaza in Fairfax City. It's now McKenzie's Tonics and Tunes. And I said to Josh, I'd like to have all of my volunteers and my campaign workers come for an event. And he goes, well, what time would that be?

Catherine Read (29:44):

Because we have a drag show that's gonna be Tuesday night. And I'm like, really? What time's the drag show starting? And he goes, it starts about nine. And I said, well, I'd still like to have my event. Is there any way that we can just stay for the drag show? And he goes, well, there's a cover charge. And I said, well, can I cover the cover charge? He goes, well, lemme talk to Alan. So long story short, not only am I the first woman mayor, first Mason alumni, first mayor who's never served on city council. I'm the first mayor who had a drag show at my election night party. Okay. So I think that pretty much says it all. So all this is

Gregory Washington (30:15):

You Trailblazin’.

Catherine Read (30:16):

So this was relayed at the Pride event last year at Mason. And so recognizing, and again, I I was on the, the Board of Equality Virginia for seven years too. Recognizing we have to celebrate, recognize, celebrate, uplift, support, protect every single person in our community. And that means the LGBTQ community too.

Gregory Washington (30:37):

Without question, without question. So you clearly know how to build partnerships. You've been doing it your whole career, you've done it with us. What are some ways in which students can get involved with the city, can help the city, can engage the city.

Catherine Read (30:52):

Your, your students are already there. A lot of them are already there. The women's basketball team and the men's baseball team are volunteers at our Providence Elementary School. And I think we have athletes who volunteer at Daniels Run Elementary School. There's a lot of students, Mason students who live in the city. They live in the city and not just at the Flats at University. They rent houses that are in our neighborhoods. And so they're very much a, a part of the fabric of the city. But we have park cleanups that they come to. We have all kinds of events downtown, like the Fall Festival. And I just wanna mention this too, about partnerships Fall for the Book is a super important partnership that we have with George Mason University. Ollie, the OSHA Lifelong Learning Institute, which is in the city. Very much a partnership and, um, Spotlight on the Arts, uh, a partnership between the city and the university.

Catherine Read (31:40):

These are longstanding partnerships that bring our residents together with students, faculty, and bring visitors in from outside of the city to take advantage of these things that we produce together as a collaboration. But, uh, as far as students, we have reached out to the Climate Center, which is, we are very excited that the Virginia Climate Center is located here. You know, we have environmental issues in the city. Kate Doyle Feingold, who sits on our city council, her dissertation advisor, Kate contacted her and she's working with our police department to help us to analyze data, public safety data. Um, I've just reached out to Dean Perry of your College of Public Health.

Gregory Washington (32:21):

She's fantastic.

Catherine Read (32:22):

Well, I, because we have a homelessness task force.

Gregory Washington (32:24):

She is fantastic.

Catherine Read (32:26):

And one of the things we have not included is part of our homelessness task force is public health issues and how we address public health issues as part of what we're trying to do for people who are unhoused in the city. So I just reached out to Dean Perry to see, you know, how can we work? So there are so many opportunities for students to get involved. Using our city is basically a way to get clinical experience. Again, I'll bring up Mason's Community Mental Health Center, which is also in the city, Behavioral Health Center. You've got students getting their clinical hours right here in our city providing mental health services to our residents. And the school of business. I can't even, how could I forget? The Costello Business School is, we've got one of your faculty members that sits on the Economic Development Authority for the city of Fairfax, Patrick Soleymani. And we are glad to have him.

Gregory Washington (33:14):

He’s a good guy.

Catherine Read (33:15):

But we've got students who are working on a, a retail assessment for a parcel of land that's being redeveloped in the city. And we've got students who are working on what that could look like through the business school. We welcome partnerships like that where students get real experience and we benefit from the faculty members in the programs and the disciplines here at the university.

Gregory Washington (33:38):

So for 10 years before you became mayor, your focus was on legislative advocacy work. If you, you just highlighted mostly with nonprofits and you had some big victories, right? Uh, the Virginia Autism Project lobby for autism insurance reform that when it passed in 2011, required insurance companies to provide medically necessary behavioral therapy. They, they were not doing it before then. You also helped the Virginia Alliance for Breastfeeding successfully push for a new 2015 law that allows mothers to breastfeed their children anywhere the mother is lawfully present. So talk to us a little bit about focusing your efforts on Fairfax relative to focusing your efforts on the larger picture items.

Catherine Read (34:29):

Yeah, well, you know, there's a lot of crossover. I think one of the things we're waiting for right now is when you talk about advocacy and how state issues can impact local issues, we have to renovate our schools soon. It's been 20 years. And so we're gonna have a bond referendum on our ballot in November. But there's a 1% sales tax that both chambers passed that would allow locality, every locality to have a 1% sales tax specifically for education. Yeah. But will the governor sign it?

Gregory Washington (34:59):

Is it K-12?

Catherine Read (35:00):

It’s K-12. I know I would, I wish it was for you too. I wish it was for you too, but it's a 1% sales tax for K through 12. And, but we don't know if the governor's gonna sign it. But those are the kinds of things where it matters. And we advocate as a local government, as a municipal government. And a lot of that advocacy is done through the Virginia Municipal League too. Because getting that ability to have a 1% tax in addition to a bond referendum, to fund this major school innovation really makes a difference for us. And again, we're a Dillon Rule state, and people don't understand that too. There's a lot of things we can't do as a locality without asking permission from the General Assembly. We can't change our charter. Almost everything we do is a locality. It has to be approved by the General Assembly and then signed off on by the governor because we're a Dillon Rule state, and not every state operates that way. A lot of states have home rule, and we don't.

Gregory Washington (35:49):

I'm gonna have to look up this Dillon Rule.

Catherine Read (35:50):

Well, I tell you, I got a good education, Mason. Did I mention that?

Gregory Washington (35:53):

You got a great education at Mason.

Catherine Read (35:54):

I learned all the things.

Gregory Washington (35:55):

And we are seeing the evidence right now. Among the many roles that you've had, you've hosted this Fairfax Public Access, these shows Inside Scoop, Your Need to Know and Making Change Radio. What's the genesis for these shows?

Catherine Read (36:11):

So I fell into it as somebody else had been hosting Inside Scoop, and she had family issues. Her sister and mother were ill in upstate New York. And so I started filling in for her. And I didn't have any broadcast experience. I might've been a theater major, but no broadcast journalism experience whatsoever. And this is live television. This was a one-hour live television show. Yeah. I'm in the host seat and I'm just learning as I go. I will tell you this, I am good at learning as I go. Like I learn on the job and it's fine. So I started being in the host seat. And what I found is that people were trying to do important things, policy-wise, like decoding dyslexia, parents who were trying to get resources for their dyslexic children in the public school system. I mean, at that time, back in 2015, Fairfax County didn't even have a reading specialist in an administrative role to test kids for dyslexia.

Catherine Read (37:00):

A lot of parents felt like they were setting kids up to fail before they got help. So having a show where you could get these parents on air to talk about what the challenges were, what they were asking for, it presented it in a different way. And not only were the shows broadcast on television, but they go out on YouTube. Which means that all of these groups could send it out by email. They could embed it on their website and it would present what they were trying to do in a different way. So for me, the shows were just an extension of this nonprofit advocacy work. How do we help people understand the problems you're trying to solve with your nonprofit? And doing it in a interview format was just helpful. It's better than trying to read an assessment. It's like somebody hand you a brochure or a one pager about what they're doing. It's not the same thing as talking to somebody who has some basis of knowledge and who's really interested in what you're doing. So people would say to me, I've never been on television before. I'm so nervous. I'm like, all you have to do is look at me. We are having a conversation. And the reason these shows work is because I am interested and you are passionate.

Gregory Washington (38:05):

You talked a little bit about the new voter turnout, right? And how that new voter turnout changed the election in your case. I surmise for years of just 20% of the population showing up for these elections, there were probably some things that were undone or some opportunities missed. Really core kinds of things that we were not able to do as a community. Have you thought about what happens to a community when constituents really don't take part in elections, right? Because we had that over a period of time.

Catherine Read (38:40):

Well, this is sort of my assessment of the 20%, the 20% who tend to turn out were a demographic, older, educated White property owners.

Gregory Washington (38:51):

Okay. And I know what the outcome of that was.

Catherine Read (38:54):

Right? And so you have a government that reflects the electorate, but you also have a government then who recognizes that the constituency to whom you feel you are answerable are the 20% who come out reliably every other May. So when people look at Fairfax City, and we are a bit on the conservative side to be in such a progressive region, and our citizens tend to be progressive. I have a member on my city council right now, Jeff Greenfield, and I forget, but he served for 22 years. He took four years off, but he's been on there for 22 years on the city council. And so there was basically a lot of consistency. There was not a lot of turnover. Generally, you stayed in your seat and got reelected every time until you decided to step down or retire. And that might have led to some stability in the government, which is good.

Catherine Read (39:46):

But it also led to sort of this mindset about what the community valued. And so I was in a meeting with Fairfax County not too long ago, and somebody said, I'm a 2012 graduate of George Mason University, and I lived on the campus. And he said, and I didn't feel like the city really welcomed us being there. And I said, well, that is not your imagination. I said, one of my good friends pointed out that until recently, there were not streetlights on the sidewalk from the downtown to the campus, right? So subtle things that make you feel not welcome.

Gregory Washington (40:25):

You know, every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. And so you don't want those folk in your establishments and in the downtown you develop systems to keep those kind of things from happening. You, you develop covenants so that you can only have a certain number of people in an apartment, right? That would discourage students from getting apartments together, right? You have all of these kinds of things.

Catherine Read (40:54):

I like your systems thinking. If you think about the, the fact the university is like 52 years old and the city gave land to the state for the university, but it was a commuter school. So people were like, we should have a university. A university is a good idea. Yeah. A university that would be a good idea. But then suddenly it's like, but we don't wanna be a college town. We don't wanna be Charlottesville. Like, that's not what we had in mind. So you go do your university over here, but we want Mayberry over here. And Mayberry did not have college students in it. We're at an inflection point. I'm a different kind of mayor, you know, I have a different vision. I do. And I think that the relationships between the university and the city benefit both. And it's not like we don't have a say in how that looks or how it feels. We can build parameters. I don't necessarily want a hundred tipsy college students in the middle of downtown on a Tuesday night. But honestly, we don't have that. And I don't even see that that will ever be a thing. When the Flats at University was proposed, people just, it's gonna be like a frat house. People really believed it was just gonna be noise and kids and cars, and you know something, none of that has happened.

Gregory Washington (42:07):


Catherine Read (42:08):

They brought energy feet on the street. It is great to be in the downtown with people.

Gregory Washington (42:13):

It's helping. And it's helping business

Catherine Read (42:14):

A hundred percent.

Gregory Washington (42:15):

And businesses are now coming back and that helps the tax base. Which helps the resource base, which provides more amenities. Right. It's a virtuous cycle.

Catherine Read (42:25):

It is. It is, and I love it.

Gregory Washington (42:25):

You hit the nail right on the head and we're seeing some pushback from some members about cricket. And I believe it's the same thing about our cricket baseball stadium, right? No one pushes back against the baseball side of that, but the cricket side of that, what is cricket, what does it mean? I know it's gonna bring a whole new community of people to this area and the ultimate beneficiary will be the city of Fairfax.

Catherine Read (42:54):

I agree. You know, and I think people don't understand cricket. And even though people are like, no, that's not it. That's not it. I'm like, but it is it. It's kind of like if there's nothing in it for you; you can see yourself going to a baseball game at Mason. But it's like cricket, what is it? Who plays it? I don't know anything about it. So why would I go there? And so when there was a,

Gregory Washington (43:14):

Until you actually wind up going and saying, huh, this is actually pretty cool.

Catherine Read (43:18):

Pretty interesting, right? And it's family friendly. And I think that's the other thing that the owner of the Washington Freedom, he did a good job on the town hall meeting explaining the fact that it's a family friendly game. They've modified it so it doesn't take three days to play a match anymore. <laugh>, it's a T20 three-to-four-hour model. And it's early in the evening. Yeah, it's early in the evening, the afternoon. So it, it doesn't go till 11 or 12 o'clock at night like a Nationals baseball game.

Gregory Washington (43:42):


Catherine Read (43:43):

Again, people just don't like change and they don't like things that are unfamiliar. But to me, the Cricket Stadium is a reflection of the diversity of this university in this region. I know so many people who play cricket and when you travel the world, you run into people. When we were Warsaw, Poland, which is where our grandchildren are. There was an Uber driver who's married to a Polish national, he's from India, and he was showing us pictures on his phone of the cricket pitches in Warsaw, Poland. This is a beloved international sport and we have an opportunity and I think it's an amazing opportunity here.

Gregory Washington (44:16):

Well, you know what, I really appreciate it 'cause hearing this is energizing in terms of what we've been dealing with today with cricket. So it's really interesting. This is fantastic. You have <laugh>, you have put it down, and I really, really appreciate you for it. And so we're gonna have to leave it there. Mayor Catherine Read, thank you for your time and most importantly for your leadership. I will tell you right now today that your George Mason degree, has never been worth more than it is today. I am Mason President Gregory Washington saying, until next time, stay safe, Mason Nation.

Narrator (45:04):

If you like what you heard on this podcast, go to podcast.gmu.edu for more of Gregory Washington's conversations with the thought leaders, experts, and educators who take on the grand challenges facing our students, graduates, and higher education. That's podcast.gmu.edu.