With D.C. stadium issue, it's political hardball

Baseball: Washington's politicians and residents debate over the proposed $486 million ballpark.


October 31, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The battle to put the Expos in a new ballpark in the nation's capital became pure political pageantry last week as the D.C. Council launched a 12-day blitz to seal a $486 million stadium deal.

There were protests, of course. Posturing from the council podium and from candidates for office. Impassioned pleas for a local baseball team and equally passionate appeals for a good bargain.

Underpinning the complex terms of the deal being considered is a process that began Thursday, continues with a markup hearing this week and leads to a vote by the full 13-member council on Nov. 9. A final vote will be taken in December. To seal the Expos' move from Montreal to Washington, the council will have to ratify the plan by year's end.

"There's some posturing going on in the council, but I think we've got the votes to make it happen," said Jack Evans, baseball's biggest booster on the council.

Until then, the debate rages.

It went on for 16 hours during the public hearing. Hours past midnight, people filed into the council's wood-paneled chambers, breathlessly filling their three minutes of testimony with ideas on the notion of building a stadium in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.

Coaches asked for trickle-down funds for T-ball leagues and fields, and students complained that replacing crumbling public school facilities and outdated recreation centers should come before a nearly $500 million stadium deal.

Some railed against public financing, and others asserted that quibbling over the fine print would cost the city its shot at bringing baseball back after a three-decade absence. Major League Baseball picked D.C. over competitors last month.

To lure the team, the District offered a new stadium to be funded by a package of taxes, ballpark-related sales, and annual lease payments. Many remarks centered on the underlying fairness rather than on the actual terms, which include 83 percent public financing for the stadium and parking lots.

By 2 a.m., when the forum ended, Evans was already rethinking the flat-tax formula to lessen the impact on the smallest of the affected big businesses and to ask more of large corporations.

Political ramifications

More than 220 individuals settled before a microphone facing the council's mostly empty dais. For most of the evening, four lawmakers heard their testimony, council members who were reminded time and again that their vote on Mayor Anthony A. Williams' package of taxes and community investment funds to temporarily renovate RFK Stadium until a new stadium is built would resonate in the 2006 election.

In that election, nearly half the members of the sitting council are expected to throw their hats into the mayor's race, and three are likely to run for the position of council president.

"The day you pass this bill is the day you can start writing your concession speech," Mount Pleasant resident Michael Berler said to sustained applause some nine hours into the hearing. His was a warning aimed at Evans, chairman of the finance and revenue committee charged with bringing the stadium funding bill through a fast-tracked mark-up and full council vote in less than a week.

Evans is the player at the center of the stadium deal. Poised to run for mayor in 2006, he has staked his political future on baseball, aligning himself with Williams, a divisive figure credited with turning around the District's finances and reviled for closing the city's only public hospital. He has beaten back two recall attempts since taking office in 1998.

The mayor - whose role is closer to that of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., than that of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - broke with custom Thursday and didn't attend the hearing to personally pitch his stadium plan to the council. He needs seven council members to approve his financing package to move it forward in time for the home opener April 15.

Had he attended, he might have seen the lines being drawn by members with their eyes on his seat and others who are vying to replace council president Linda Cropp. Five of the 10 members who attended all or part of the hearing opposed the plan on grounds ranging from how much investment the team owner should make to the proposed Anacostia River location.

Evans said he expects them all to attend the home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks at RFK Stadium.

But facing off against Evans last week were council members Carol Schwartz, Jim Graham, Adrian M. Fenty, Kathy Patterson and David A. Catania, who called it "the worst deal in America."

Hurdles to clear

Political analyst Jonetta Rose Barras said the hearing was as much an exercise in how D.C. politics works as a forum to decide how to proceed on baseball.

"These are the three hurdles that you have to get over psychologically to understand what's at play here: the animus against Mayor Williams, the lack of intimacy people have with the game of baseball because we have had no team for many, many years, and the political ambitions of the people on the council," Barras said.

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