- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that he is ready to build a relationship with the Lerner group, the new owners of the Nationals, despite a chilly history between city government officials and the Lerner family.

“I’ve always said that I would accept the Lerner group,” Mr. Williams said. “They weren’t my first choice, but I would accept the Lerner group — I’ve always said that, on the basis of my criteria, as long as the group has got baseball sense and local presence and genuine minority equity participation.”

Theodore N. Lerner, a Bethesda-based billionaire, was named owner of the Washington Nationals yesterday by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

The Lerner group is thought to have purchased the team for $450 million.

Early this year, Mr. Williams said he would prefer a group other than the Lerners be granted ownership. He said the Lerners had never contacted him as several other groups had during the process.

Yesterday Vincent Morris, a spokesman for the mayor, said Mr. Williams had not been invited by the Lerners to a press conference announcing the new ownership.

But despite the snub, Mr. Williams extended an invitation to today’s baseball stadium groundbreaking to the group, and at least one member of the Lerner family accepted, Mr. Morris said. The event will be Mr. Williams’ first opportunity to meet with members of the Lerner group, Mr. Morris said.

In a statement released late yesterday, Mr. Williams said he is looking forward to meeting the owners.

“I spoke with Ted Lerner today after he was awarded the team, and I firmly believe he will make an excellent owner and a good partner,” Mr. Williams said. “I look forward to working closely with the Lerner family as we move forward with construction of the new ballpark in Southeast.”

The ownership announcement was officially made late yesterday afternoon by Mr. Selig during a conference call with reporters.

The Lerner group then introduced itself to reporters during a press conference yesterday evening in Northwest.

Mr. Williams, council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, who is running for mayor, and Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, who led the effort to bring baseball to the District, received word of the sale from Mr. Lerner early yesterday afternoon.

“The choice has been made, and I think it’s extremely important for this city to get behind the new owners, and for us to move forward and make sure this baseball venture is an extremely successful one,” Mrs. Cropp said.

Mr. Evans said he’s excited an owner has finally been named.

“They need to get out in the community very quickly so people can know who they are,” he said. “They are the owners, and they need to introduce themselves to the council, the mayor and the community.”

The Lerner group also was not the council’s first choice.

On Tuesday, council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., Ward 5 Democrat who is running for mayor, and council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat and former mayor, proposed a resolution to the council supporting ownership by D.C. executives Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients or a group led by media executive Jeffrey Smulyan.

The resolution, which failed by a vote of 10-3, did not specifically mention the Lerner group.

During a press conference Monday, Mr. Barry accused the Lerners of adding minorities to the group only because MLB demanded it.

“The issue is that everyone who comes to the plate should have major significant equity involvement … and not just window dressing or store-fronting,” Mr. Barry said.

Last night, however, Mr. Barry and Mr. Orange were the only two council members at the press conference introducing the new owner.

After the press conference, Mr. Barry and Mr. Orange were both invited onto the stage, where they were greeted warmly and posed for photographs with the owners.

“I came tonight to see for myself,” Mr. Barry said. “I see for myself that they have minority participation.”

Mr. Lerner said he will soon meet privately with city leaders.

“We called each and every one of the council members and the mayor, and we plan to meet with each and every one of them,” he said.

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