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When Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. hit the campaign trail in 2004, he slammed the city’s proposed stadium deal with Major League Baseball—a populist stance that boosted him to victory. And as the ballpark debate reached a fever pitch early this year, Barry repeatedly called the deal “the worst stickup since Jesse James was robbing trains.”
When the big ballpark vote was finally called on the evening of Feb. 8, 2006, Barry voted for the stadium lease.
Barry attributes his change of heart to the D.C. Council’s demand for a cap on costs and assurances that the stadium would spur billions of dollars in development.
As any Barry observer knows, though, wonky details like cost ceilings don’t drive the decisions of the four-term former mayor. Ever since Barry broke onto the D.C. politics scene in the early ’70s, he’s practiced a highly personal form of politics. And in the baseball deal, Barry listened closely to the advice of Herb Miller, a longtime confidant and chair of the Western Development Company.
Sources say the unpredictable Barry’s final position evolved during several meetings with Miller in the weeks leading up to the dramatic, late-night baseball victory. Miller is more humble about his political pull. “I believe he feels the way I do [about baseball],” says Miller. “It’s now a $3 billion development. It’s not a single giveaway to a rich guy.”
Like-minded people tend to party together. In March, Miller hosted a splendid soiree at his sprawling Georgetown mansion for Barry’s 70th birthday. The event doubled as a benefit for the Marion S. Barry Scholarship and Education Fund.
Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray accomplished a similar about-face: In his victorious 2004 campaign, he panned the stadium plan. Then he voted with Barry and the red-hat crowd in February. Gray and Miller claim a stronger connection than the ties that normally bind politicians and big businessmen. Gray served as the first African-American president of the fraternity he and Miller joined as students at George Washington University.
Miller, 63, is among D.C.’s most affable and generous political kingmakers. He has parlayed part of the fortune he made building huge developments like Potomac Mills and Gallery Place into a personal political enterprise. Over the years, Miller, his family, and his employees have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to D.C. politicos, PACs, and Democratic Party organizations. In the tough world of big business, he’s envied as much for his political skills as for his ability to engineer the big deal. “Herb is clearly a brilliant, visionary business person,” says Ward 2 Councilmember and Miller neighbor Jack Evans. “He’s a local guy made good who understands how to get things done.”
The big deal of late for Miller is baseball. He firmly believes the stadium deal will kick-start development in the ballpark area of Southeast and yield huge benefits for the city. His company is also one of four firms overseeing the building of an entertainment and retail complex on the stadium site. These four companies will split the proceeds on a multi-billion-dollar venture.
And who knows what council actions may be needed to move the development along? Miller isn’t taking any chances.
He seems bent on pulverizing the council’s already diminutive liberal wing, which consists of sometimes-feuding councilmembers Adrian Fenty, Phil Mendelson, and Jim Graham. Mendelson is up for re-election this year, and Miller wants the NIMBY sensibility off the dais.
Last week, D.C. Council at-large candidate A. Scott Bolden, who’s battling Mendelson for his seat, was the guest of honor at a Miller-compound fundraiser. Bolden has all the professional bona fides he needs to woo the pro-business crowd. A partner in the Reed Smith law firm, the Penn Quarter resident was once president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Bolden hopped an easy ride on the money train. All he had to do was convince Miller that he supports the baseball-stadium deal.
“Scott supports baseball, and Mendelson voted against it,” Miller says. Bolden, he says, would bring some much-needed “balance” to the council on matters pertaining to business. “The city is a business. It has to pay bills,” says Miller. “We’re better off if there are people on the council that understand that.” Miller’s 2006 campaign strategy is all about shoring up what he sees as a meager pro-business contingent on the council. “It’s only two or three of them right now,” he says.
Miller’s hot pursuit of political connections hasn’t hindered his pursuit of some of the most challenging developments in the city. Georgetown’s Washington Harbour and Gallery Place may be thriving now, but they were giant leaps of faith—and political nightmares—when first proposed. Washington Harbour was stalled by years of challenges from neighborhood residents. With the help of then-Mayor Barry, Miller’s vision prevailed. Gallery Place relied on government-tax-increment financing that required some tricky political maneuvering.
Miller claims that he’s retired and has turned over most of the day-to-day operations of his development business to his son and company CEO, Ben Miller. Close associates call that a joke, saying the elder Miller still does the heavy lifting. But with a tumultuous 2006 election season in full swing, Miller has an opportunity to pump up his already substantial political clout. Like any great dealmaker, Miller knows his math: “Nine of the 13 seats could change,” he says. “This is a materially important race.”
That statement has decades of political wisdom behind it. Miller’s reputation as a heavy hitter dates all the way back to 1982, when the developer engaged in a fundraising barrage during the first Barry mayoral re-election bid. Western Development executives, their relatives, Western employees, and Western-affiliated partnerships contributed more than $43,000 to Barry’s campaign war chest, according to press reports.
At the time, other developers whined that Miller’s firm was not only a shrewd and daring outfit but also a company that worked a well-oiled political machine to win key development rights.
Miller remained cozy with the Barry crowd and kept the campaign coffers of lots of councilmembers well-stocked. In 1996, then-Mayor Barry appointed Miller chair of the Interactive Downtown Development Task Force, which crafted a plan for what was then called the “old downtown core.” And two years later, Barry recommended that Miller’s company get the Gallery Place property through a non-competitive negotiated sale. Only two councilmembers—including Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson—voted against a resolution supporting the deal.
Patterson’s chief rival for the chairman’s post, Ward 7 Councilmember Gray, will soon be shaking hands and slapping backs out on his grand porch, according to Miller.
His support for Gray proves that Miller isn’t some pure capitalist who only backs candidates ready to make a loyalty oath to the Chamber of Commerce. “Vince Gray is not a business person—he’s a social person,” says Miller. “He believes in a socially mixed city.”
The Miller mansion might also be buzzing with talk of the hotly contested mayoral race. Western Development, Miller, and his wife have already laid down $6,000 for Council Chairman Linda Cropp’s mayoral campaign fund. Miller says Cropp would be the kind of mayor who understands the District won’t make progress without a strong buy-in from the business community. “The Democratic idea that government can solve all our problems is an antiquated idea.”
BOLDEN’S BOUNCING BALL
The great perk of being a challenger is that you don’t have to defend your voting record—and you can fire away at your opponent’s. These days, Bolden is making the most of this dynamic.
The colorful pol has done his best to discredit incumbent Mendelson for his meditations on the baseball deal. Back in December 2005, Mendelson was squarely in the undecided camp on the baseball stadium and delivered this quote to the Washington Post: “If I vote against the stadium lease deal I will lose contributions from the business community.”
Bolden used his campaign blog to pounce on the mild-mannered Mendelson: “Based on recent reports in the media, Councilmember Mendelson’s vote may be up for sale,” wrote Bolden on Dec. 19. “Will campaign contributions and a Mayoral endorsement be enough to help his reelection effort and persuade Mr. Mendelson to change his vote?”
Bolden even questioned whether a yes vote would be the best course for the city. “Is Phil Mendelson putting his personal political future ahead of what is best for the DC residents and business owners?” he wrote.
Mendelson eventually voted against the deal.
But when asked in an interview how he would have voted on the baseball lease, Bolden ditches his swagger. “It’s a deal that has gotten done now, and we’ve got to make it work,” he says. “I had serious concerns about the earlier deal, but in the end, with the caps and the commitments, it’s a deal that has to work now.”
That brand of equivocating is apparently enough for Miller, who last week watched as Bolden stood in the developer’s house, delivering lines custom-made for the Chamber of Commerce crowd. “People say some pretty awful things about big business, success and bipartisanship,” Bolden lamented before an audience of about 30.
Now Mendelson is taking his shot at Bolden’s hedging. “Whatever I did was wrong each time,” he says, noting that Bolden is finally showing his true colors. “This kind of fundraiser drives home the point that Scott’s views are no different than when he led the chamber—his positions are in line with big business.”
THE CHECK IS IN THE MAIL
Back in February, officials at the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission reported that Major League Baseball was ready to cough up about $214,000 for a promised attendance bonus. The Nationals were supposed to give the commission a buck for every ticket sold over the 2.5 million mark for last season’s home games.
The announcement marked a step forward for the commission. At the start of negotiations over the bonus, Nationals President Tony Tavares had sent a letter challenging the commission’s calculations. He’d figured that because of other offsetting costs, the team didn’t owe the commission a dime.
Three months have passed since the matter was supposedly resolved, but the bonus check has not arrived. “They are still in discussions about final settlement costs from last year,” commission spokesperson Tony Robinson wrote in an e-mail. Robinson couldn’t say whether that check would be smaller than the promised amount due to unforeseen deductions.
Commission Chair Mark Tuohey says the whole matter comes down to cutting one check. “It is a netting-out process,” says Tuohey. “The only question is, are there other moneys we owe them and that they owe us?” The ball club is asking the commission to reimburse them for some costs related to stadium operations. The bonus payment figure won’t change, says Touhey, but any money owed to the Nationals will come out of that check. “The $213,996 is hard and fast,” he says.—James Jones
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