Out at home?

Going to bat for limited spending, the D.C. Council connects, and baseball in Washington may be going, going ...

Slighted chairman stands for little guys

Analysis

December 16, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The amendment jeopardizing baseball's return to Washington was crafted with such stunning swiftness that Chris Bender, watching in the D.C. Council chamber, simply dropped his pager to the floor.

"I was literally sending a text message and I just dropped it," said Bender, an aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Bender sensed that D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp's measure could kill the baseball deal his boss had negotiated.

Cobbled together even after Tuesday night's meeting had already begun, the amendment - requiring 50 percent private stadium financing - seemed to materialize out of thin air. But it has a story.

It is the story of a council chairman who felt slighted at being excluded when the mayor promised Major League Baseball in September that it would fund a $534 million stadium in return for getting the Montreal Expos to locate here. Feeling undercut, Cropp and her council mates have been determined to have their say ever since.

And it is the story of D.C. residents, many of them neighborhood activists, who regularly asked their council representatives how the District could pay for a stadium benefiting wealthy team owners when public schools in the area are crumbling.

Like Cropp, the residents felt they weren't being heard. They showed up at council meetings wearing T-shirts with "NO" emblazoned on the front and told members they were being railroaded by powerful forces - namely, baseball and the mayor.

"Citizens and the members of this council have been presented with this very flawed and expensive contract with the contemptuous command that we accept it without change or that we forfeit forever any chance of having a Major League Baseball team in Washington," Dorothy Brizill, executive director of the advocacy group DCWatch, told the council six weeks ago.

The difference between Cropp and the activists is that Cropp was in a position to do something about it.

Cropp, a former school board member and high school guidance counselor, came to believe that most residents in the District believed the deal was overly generous to baseball.

The mayor has said he wishes he could have persuaded baseball to pay more of the tab. The reality, he said yesterday, is "baseball didn't really want to come here, and they were looking at other options." So he said he "bid up" by making an offer in which the District would pay for the stadium largely by a tax on large businesses and stadium merchandise.

Jack Evans, a council ally of Williams on the issue, said baseball really wanted to locate the Expos in Northern Virginia, but the state balked at approving a generous financing plan like the one Washington proposed.

Cropp said yesterday that her constituents believe the District went too far.

"Ninety percent feel that this was a lousy deal," Cropp said. "I reflect the people I represent."

The city has long been fertile territory at election time for politicians who wage wars against influential foes - such as the federal government, the wealthy and now Major League Baseball - in the name of the District's working people.

In the last primary, three council members - Harold Brazil, Kevin Chavous and Sandy Allen - were defeated by opponents of public financing for baseball. Allen was beaten by Marion Barry, who served four terms as mayor and has compared the stadium agreement to a Jesse James train robbery.

The primary election results couldn't have gone unnoticed by Cropp and the other council members railing against the mayor's plan.

One of those members, Adrian Fenty, asked colleagues at Tuesday's meeting to make a direct comparison. How is it, he said, that the District's Eastern High School is falling apart, but nearby RFK Stadium is in relatively good condition and scheduled for an $18.5 million renovation as part of the baseball bill?

Fenty said he couldn't support a measure to enrich baseball, which, he said, is soon to make about $300 million by selling the Expos - now called the Nationals - to private owners.

Fenty is considering running for mayor in 2006.

Cropp, too, won't rule out a run for the city's top spot.

But that's not why she became such an advocate for a better baseball deal, said her husband, Dwight Cropp.

Dwight Cropp, a public policy professor at George Washington University, said in a recent interview that the mayor goofed by not getting his wife and other council members involved in the negotiations with baseball. It's a matter of respect, he said.

Said council member Phil Mendelson, who has generally supported Cropp on baseball: "The council has a legitimate role to review and vote on this proposal, and for anybody to say it's unfair is saying the council should be a rubber stamp."

Dwight Cropp said his wife "told me she had been raising questions about the agreement for several weeks, and the mayor would not entertain any changes in the agreement. After several weeks, she realized she needed a proposal just to get his attention."

The mayor has said he did work with Cropp and intends to continue to consult her to try to salvage the deal.

But Linda Cropp said her concerns about the stadium plan were still "percolating" when she decided to draft an amendment Tuesday night requiring stadium construction costs - about $280 million - be at least half financed by private interests. Even during the meeting, Cropp was still seeking advice from another member, David Catania, about structuring the amendment.

Said Bender: "It is unusual to see stuff put together on the dais like that. It's not an insignificant amendment."

The amendment may prove especially significant to Bender's boss, who has made attracting a baseball team a priority.

Coincidentally, Williams aides chose yesterday to distribute a list of his 2004 accomplishments. Among them was this: "Major League Baseball decided to bring the Washington Nationals to the District."

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