- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2022

Chap Petersen was such a diehard fan of the Burgundy and Gold that the Virginia state senator once co-founded the “Redskins Pride Caucus” to defend the team’s former moniker. And just months ago, the Fairfax Democrat appeared to be one of the main backers of a bill that would help the state provide hundred of millions in public subsidies to fund the team’s next stadium. 

But in a stunning reversal late Wednesday, Petersen announced that he is withdrawing his support for the stadium project — saying in a statement that he’s lost his confidence in the team as a “viable NFL franchise.” He added the Commanders —  “a team with no history, no tradition and no fanbase” — are no longer the right economic partner for the Commonwealth because “I don’t think they have the community support to survive.”

Petersen’s comments raise questions as to whether the bill has enough support to make it out of next week’s special session in Richmond. 

Petersen isn’t the only state senator backpedaling. Sen. Barbara A. Favola, an Arlington Democrat, said she also no longer supports the bill — telling The Washington Times there’s been a “noticeable shift’ in how her fellow lawmakers view the project. 

“From the time we first saw the bill to now, there’s been a big shift,” she said. “It has, in my view, been moving away from supporting the stadium.” 

In February, the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates both passed bills establishing a football stadium authority — a key step in luring the Commanders — with broad bipartisan support. The Senate’s bill, for example, passed 32 to 8, including ‘yay’ votes from Petersen and Favola. A conference committee between the two chambers was formed to hammer out the differences.

Since then, however, the bill appears to have hit a roadblock. Favola said she now has “real issues” with Commanders owner Dan Snyder as the billionaire is the subject of multiple investigations regarding allegations of sexual misconduct and financial improprieties. The latter emerged after the bills initially passed. Snyder has denied the claims, but Favola said “the recent information has swayed a lot of people. It certainly swayed me.”

Sen. Stephen D. Newman also referenced Snyder as a sticking point. Newman, a Bedford Republican, told The Washington Post that the owner’s troubles threaten to sink the legislation.

Beyond Snyder, the team’s reported choice of a site for the project hasn’t been popular with some lawmakers. The Commanders purchased an option for 200 acres of land in Woodbridge — a team source said they have bought the land, only for lawmakers to clarify that the team only purchased an option for it — but the announcement immediately fueled new concerns about the area’s infamously toxic traffic. 

The proposed site, on a congested stretch of Interstate 95, 23 miles south of the U.S. Capitol, has no Metro stop. 

“I know the number one thing is going to be traffic,” Sen. Jeremy McPike, a Prince William County Democrat, told WUSA 9. “It’s got to be the right fit.” 

McPike also told 106.7 The Fan on Thursday that he is likely to vote no at the moment after initially voting yes. 

The Commanders have maintained that Monday’s procurement of the land does not mean the team has settled on Woodbridge as their next home. And on Thursday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the Commanders have drawn up plans for another stadium site in Loudoun — closer to where the team practices now in Ashburn. Unlike Woodbridge, the Commanders haven’t been able to acquire the land rights, the paper added. 

Favola, though, said it doesn’t matter where the Commanders would want to play. She won’t vote for the bill.

“I really have a hard time seeing where the benefits outweigh the real potential negative impacts of the stadium,” Favola said.

It remains to be seen whether the recent change in attitudes will actually prevent the bill from passing. Virginia lawmakers reconvene to vote on the state budget Wednesday, and in that session, the reworked bill could remerge from the conference committee.

House Delegate Luke E. Torian, a Prince William Democrat, told The Washington Post that he still feels “very confident” that the bill has majority support in both chambers. 

But the loss of Petersen‘s support was unexpected. In February, he told The Washington Times that he was “comfortable” with giving the team incentives such as being able to keep a portion of the sales tax revenue. He made no reference to concerns about the Commanders’ viability of a franchise, as he did in his most recent statement.

In two appearances on 106. 7 The Fan, Petersen torched the team. He said that the Commanders aren’t an “iconic part of our community” as they were in the 1980s when the team won Super Bowls with coach Joe Gibbs. He said the loss of support over the years — Washington ranked second-to-last in attendance in 2021 — contributed to his view that entering into a long-term partnership with the team. He wondered what would happen if, say, the Commanders averaged only 20,000 fans per year five years into their stadium deal.

“Would it be almost more palatable to do this with an expansion franchise than the current franchise?” Petersen told the station. “Let’s face it, I think the answer to that may be yes.”

Petersen’s comments received some pushback from team officials. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio tweeted in part, “Not viable? Please. Winning is the key …always!” Coach Ron Rivera tweeted a rendering of the team’s proposed team headquarters. “Proud of what we are building,” he said. 

Team President Jason Wright said in a statement he was “incredibly eager” to work with Virginia “and other jurisdictions.” The team’s stadium, he said, could “dramatically support” Virginia’s economic development goals. 

But the enthusiasm is likely waning. After lawmakers proposed to commit $1 billion in public financing for the project, officials have dramatically lowered that amount. Favola confirmed the suggested amount is now below $300 million, another reduction from $350 million.

“I really don’t think it’s the right project for NoVa,” Favola said. “So I’m in the corner, ‘No, I’m not going to support this regardless of how low the state commitment might be.’”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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