- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams offers many an analogy. At a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times this week, he likened buying a baseball stadium to buying an expensive painting.

It’s a painting everyone in the family wants, so they pool their money and offer an outrageous bid at auction. The painting is soon theirs, even though they recognize that “it’s not the best circumstances.” In other words, they know they got jacked, but they have their family heirloom.

But, as these things go, when the family gets home and hangs the painting above the hearth, one complains that they paid too much and wants to send it back.

“Everybody comes out of negotiations unsatisfied,” Mr. Williams said.

I don’t know about the Williams family, but in the Terrell family, Grandma Bea would have spoken up before the deal was struck and said, “Sorry, we can’t afford a pretty painting when we have children to feed and educate first.” In most families, some prudent person always rises to be the voice of reason. “If we’ve got $660 million to play around with, let’s buy a fast-food franchise; then we know we will get a return on our investment,” says the family penny pincher.

Is the D.C. Council stepping in to play the prudent person or the penny-wise, pound-foolish family member? After all, they have a legal obligation to D.C. taxpayers not to hock the family jewels for peanuts and Cracker Jacks.

Mr. Williams said his focus always has been to “take the cards we’ve been dealt and move to a better place.” Well, Mr. Williams now finds himself in a very uncomfortable place. He’s got to face the wrath of Grandma and convince her about the value of his folly or face the embarrassment of returning the painting to the rip-off artist at the auction who sold him a bill of goods in the first place.

No wonder the mayor looks stressed one minute and subdued the next. Clearly, he’s catching it from all sides. And it’s not clear he knows how to cope or counter the criticism.

Is Mr. Williams still relevant as a lame duck mayor, given the hostile political climate on the council, where just about everyone is jockeying for the mayor’s seat? “I think I still have leverage,” he said.

I think not. It’s every sister for herself.

“The city still has a strong mayoral form of government,” the mayor said, and he still has “a strong reservoir of support.” Can the notorious bean counter tally votes? We’ll see come Tuesday. That’s when the council will let Mr. Williams know who’s really the boss in the family when they vote on the $667 million (and still raiding the cookie jar) baseball stadium lease.

She may not look the part, but council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, a Democrat, is trying to sound an awful lot like Grandma Bea these days. And David A. Catania, at-large independent, gets the family stewardship award hands down.

“My financial stewardship [of the city] is basically great,” and should not be called into question, Mr. Williams said Wednesday after a brutal four-hour family feud with the council. “We have ample resources to pay for all costs,” he steadfastly maintained. Yet, he conceded, “I never argue with [Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi] on numbers because we can’t win that argument.” Hey, math has never been my strong suit, but the overrated financial wizard’s figures have proved to be more than a little fuzzy, too.

The overreaching public policy argument Mr. Williams is trying to make is that the baseball team (which the family said it wanted) can’t play without an expensive new stadium (which the family agreed to build) that will provide long-term benefits to the family’s trust fund. Few seem willing to trade on those future commodities.

Mr. Williams points out that tourism is the Washington area’s lifeblood, and the stadium, which will bring in more tourist dollars, “is a good economic investment.” But he fails to mention the imbalanced risks.

Major League Baseball, you see, continues to issue edicts. Its latest is to dictate where the stadium must be built.

The Southeast waterfront, of course, with its backdrop of the U.S. Capitol dome, is their preference. They get to say no to the cheaper RFK Stadium site that some council members have proposed. “It’s not an issue of if MLB wants to go to RFK. [It’s] do they take this as our best effort” to make good on the deal, the mayor said.

But what is baseball willing to concede without a guaranteed return? If they lived up to their end of the “deal is a deal,” the District would be in a much better spot with a local owner.

Mr. Williams agreed. And, city negotiators repeatedly have told MLB that having an owner at the table would be beneficial. The day the mayor announced that Washington would get a team, a press release read “an ownership group will be in place by the end of 2004.” What a guarantee. If MLB named a local owner today, the deal, though more like a steal, would be done tomorrow.

Only then could cautious council members, who must face D.C. voters come Election Day, unlike the lame-duck mayor, feel comfortable in falling back into the fold.

How else to explain paying for that ridiculously expensive painting that will become a family heirloom?

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