Saturday, December 25, 2004

After more than two months of angst-ridden deliberation, the D.C. Council approved financing for a ballpark in Southeast for the Washington Nationals, and baseball officially is back in town.

The back-and-forth political saga, however, was not without lessons and drama that never received a full airing in the heat of battle. A look back at the council’s review of the ballpark legislation:

• The big loser in the ballpark fight is District Mayor Anthony A. Williams. His glaring inability to twist arms and convince skeptical council members of the project’s merits was obvious. After the first council vote Nov.30, delivering a tepid 6-4 approval with three abstentions, Williams and executives with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission confidently predicted an increase in support, with as many as 10 of 13 members voting in favor of the ballpark the second time around.

That never happened, and Williams needed to bow heavily to council chairman Linda W. Cropp to produce a meager 7-6 approval in the pivotal vote last week and save the Nationals.

“Clearly we saw the mayor wasn’t ever able to control his own council,” one senior Major League Baseball official said.

• Williams administration hopes of getting Democrats Phil Mendelson and Kathy Patterson and Republican Carol Schwartz to vote for the ballpark never materialized either. Mendelson came close to supporting the package at several points, but his vote was lost when his attempt to include local utility tax funds in the ballpark financing lost out to a rival version of the same idea from Democrats Jack Evans and Vincent Orange. Patterson never overcame a fundamental unease with the level of public money in the project.

Schwartz, however, particularly angered and confounded ballpark supporters on the council. One of the most prominent flag-wavers for Washington baseball at the celebratory press conference in September, Schwartz indicated before the council’s Dec.14 vote on the bill that she could change her no vote to yes if moves were made to control the District’s exposure to potential cost overruns and compensatory damages.

Cropp delivered that, but instead Schwartz ran even more stridently in the opposite direction, calling Williams and the sports commission “minor league negotiators.”

• The decision to delay the council’s consideration of ballpark financing until after MLB awarded the Montreal Expos to the District showed itself to be correct. Jurisdictions typically approve funding for sports facilities in advance of the arrival of an expansion or relocated team. Ward 4 Democrat Adrian Fenty said last week that should have happened in Washington as well.

But Evans said last year he would not move any stadium legislation out of his finance committee without a relocation commitment first from MLB, dramatically reversing the entire process. While the last few weeks were decidedly messy, putting the council first likely would have cost Washington the team, industry sources said.

“Can you imagine if we had to make a deal with that whole group?” the MLB official said.

• The oft-blurry line between what is public financing and what is private financing is no clearer through Cropp’s insistence to pay for at least half of stadium construction with private funds.

Cropp has done much to spur investor interest in the District, itself a laudable achievement and something that ideally will not be limited to baseball. But there’s still no such thing as a free lunch, and each of the private financing offers wants access to an asset in the project that is either the property of the Nationals or probably can be exploited by the District at a lower cost.

Williams did little last week to conceal that he believes the ballpark financing already includes plenty of private money, most notably through the annual lease payments from the Nationals. But he went along with the Cropp requirements in order to secure her needed vote.

• Cropp was vilified first by stadium supporters for nearly killing the deal, then by opponents for removing the sunset provision that would void the deal without at least 50 percent of the ballpark financing coming from private funds.

Her political methods were often clumsy, and some of the changes she secured were cosmetic or symbolic at best. And her attempt to move the ballpark site to the grounds of RFK Stadium, weeks after MLB executives and Williams made plain their desire to not build there, looked desperate and uninformed.

But in the end, the Nationals are still in Washington and the deal is now better for the District. However small they may be, the givebacks Cropp gained did arrive from an organization built on a hard-headed and often cutthroat negotiating style.

To put it another way, when was the last time anyone saw a statement from Bud Selig talking about “better understanding the concerns of the other” side?

• The Evans-Orange amendment to include utility tax funds from nonresidential customers in the stadium financing was instantly but unfortunately lost in the Cropp tsunami. The provision not only slashes the gross-receipts tax on large District businesses by about two-thirds but brings in the federal government as a new and significant entity helping pay for the ballpark. Considering District officials are forever complaining about both the feds and suburbanites leeching city resources without providing commensurate return to the tax coffers, this is no small achievement.

cIn an ironic twist, Cropp last week displayed much of the same behavior for which she berated the mayor. After blasting Williams and Selig for reflexively saying “a deal is a deal,” Cropp made her own pact with MLB and then vigorously fought off all attempts from Fenty and independent David Catania to change the language of her amendments.

• The District’s stadium fight was not dramatically worse or better than bitter episodes in San Francisco, Milwaukee, Miami, Minneapolis, New York and dozens of other cities. The differences lay in the timing.

“This was similar to a lot of those other situations,” MLB president Bob DuPuy said. “What particularly hurt is what happened after we thought we had a deal. So much happening late in the process, after things were put to paper, was unique in that sense.”

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