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At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz is starting to get calls from some bigwigs. This week, Ralph Nader was on the horn, explaining why the baseball stadium is a bad deal for the city. Major League Baseball’s (MLB) pitch team has made an appointment to give her its sales spiel, and phone calls from constituents on both sides of the baseball debate are starting to pick up. Schwartz stands pretty firm on most issues and seldom responds to pressure tactics, but she’s on the fence with respect to one of the most heated and high-stakes issues ever to come before the D.C. Council. On Dec. 20, the council will vote on a lease agreement hammered out recently by MLB and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission for a stadium in Southeast. Baseball backers say a no vote would leave the city in default of its previous commitment to host a major-league team, triggering a claim for tens of millions of dollars in damages and driving the Nationals out of town. Polls show solid public opposition to what the city has promised to do—namely, build a stadium with revenues from a special tax on D.C. businesses. And with nine of the 13 councilmembers considering a run for higher office or seeking re-election, the lease vote will not be forgotten. Baseball backers have slim reason for hope. Right now, three councilmembers seem certain to support the stadium lease. Six seem ready to vote against it. That leaves the final outcome of the ballpark deal riding on the four councilmembers now floating between yes and no.

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Council Chairman Linda Cropp

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Does anyone know where Cropp stands on the Southeast baseball stadium at this point? In last year’s holiday cliffhanger, she played for both teams on the MLB question—cheering for baseball’s arrival along with Mayor Anthony A. Williams while nearly torpedoing the deal from her chairman’s perch. She became a household name and managed to emerge with her political prospects intact. By maneuvering to win concessions from MLB in return for her yes vote on the deal, she propelled herself into the 2006 mayoral race and staked claim to winning a better deal for city residents.

Cropp desperately wants baseball to remain in D.C. but finds a way to finish every pro-stadium speech with “but not at any cost.” During a Dec. 13 hearing on the stadium lease, Cropp strongly defended Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi from attacks by other councilmembers about rising cost estimates. She passionately argued that baseball could be an economic engine for the District. Cropp says she backs the Southeast stadium site, but she continues to press the mayor, the sports commission, and Gandhi to explain why building the ballpark at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium site is a bad idea. As long as Cropp remains obsessed with RFK, she can’t be counted on to vote for the current lease deal.

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The chairman is in a political bind. Cropp must emerge from the baseball-lease vote looking better than her main rival, Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty. That’ll be tough, given Fenty’s consistency on the matter. The whole baseball affair has been a low-pressure exercise for him. While Cropp twisted in the wind last year, Fenty staked out his anti-stadium position from Day 1. He always refers to the project as a publicly financed giveaway to rich people that crowds out other priorities like school construction. Fenty is poised to pounce if Cropp votes yes.

Baseball backers are also hoping Cropp can deliver at least one other vote in favor of the lease. Her campaign co-chair, At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown, is firmly in the no camp, but his political alliance with Cropp keeps him on lots of “persuadable” lists.

It’s as if Cropp is in the middle of a game of pickle. If she votes no on the lease—or fails to cobble together the votes for the agreement—she could be memorialized as the politician who sent baseball packing. That pitiful and unfair title would put her in the company of former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt—who received the blame for driving the Redskins to Maryland. A yes vote, even if it includes concessions from MLB, will fuel more campaign attacks from Fenty.

RFK would be Cropp’s way out. “I have 10 or 11 votes [in the council] for RFK right now,” she says.

A Christmas-eve rerun of 2004 may be in the works. Getting MLB back to the negotiating table is probably the only way for Cropp to deliver another extra-innings victory for baseball.

LL Prediction: Cropp squeezes modest concessions out of MLB and says yes to a stadium in Southeast.

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At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson

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If the baseball lease is voted down next week and the Nationals start packing their bags, baseball backers will curse the council. But Mendelson sees another villain in the baseball collapse: Williams. “I think the mayor has not been adequate in explaining to the council and the public the costs and controls and why we can’t get better terms,” says Mendelson. “Wouldn’t you think, with this coming, we would not be in a situation where five different people were citing seven different numbers? You would think these people would be working hard to resolve the doubts.”

Mendelson made it clear last week that his 2004 vote against the stadium deal won’t necessarily be followed by a rejection of the lease. He cast the decisive vote Dec. 6 that killed emergency legislation to cap the stadium costs at $535 million. If you believe the baseball boosters, that bill would have sent the Nationals to Puerto Rico or Las Vegas in a couple of years. Mendelson explains his vote as a way to light a fire under the mayor’s baseball backers: “I felt that the vote was sending a clear message to the mayor that he may have eight or nine votes against the lease.” Translation: I can be persuaded, Mr. Mayor, but you’ve got lots of work to do.

Without some cover, Mendelson will walk into a political meat grinder if he supports the baseball lease. He may be an incumbent, but the bulk of his support during his two previous election victories came from the wealthiest parts of the city. The anti-stadium rhetoric resonates well in the less fortunate wards that have not been so kind to Mendelson on Election Day. His main challenger in 2006, A. Scott Bolden, has already started pounding away at Mendelson’s vote against limiting the cost of the new stadium. He’ll go nuclear if Mendelson supports a lease with some vague new concessions from baseball.

LL Prediction: Mendelson votes yes and rolls the 2006 election dice.

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At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz

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Schwartz has enjoyed exploring all sides of the baseball issue. When baseball agreed to come to Washington in the fall of 2004, she attended the big throw-down at the City Museum of Washington, D.C. She cheered with the mayor and Cropp and all the baseball fanatics from Maryland and Virginia and then later voted against the ballpark deal when it came before the council. But Schwartz was back in the baseball fold at the home opener, basking in an on-field introduction and wearing her Nationals red. She practically gushes when talking about her baseball-filled summer, and she’s desperately searching for a way to save the game. “That was a very difficult vote for me, because I love having baseball back in Washington,” she says.

But sentimentality won’t be the determining factor in Schwartz’s vote to save or kill baseball. Nothing short of major new concessions from MLB or rock-solid promises of more outside construction funding will bring her into the yes camp. At a Dec. 13 hearing, she railed against the stadium deal as if she’s already decided to vote no on the lease. If baseball can’t offer more than what’s now on the table, she’s prepared to vote no. “If it comes to that, I will be sad to say goodbye to baseball, and I mean that,” she says. “But I don’t want to put this city that I’ve worked so hard to help put on financially good standing in a bad position.”

Count on Schwartz to keep looking hard for a reason to save her beloved game. “I remain hopeful that some last-minute changes can be made,” she says. “Since our approval is needed, I would expect there to be some give.” Translation: Please come up with an offer I can’t refuse.

LL Prediction: For the last time, MLB doesn’t want a new stadium near RFK. Schwartz votes no.

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Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson

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Patterson has virtually put a sign on her council door reading, “C’mon in. Let’s talk.” After launching a campaign to run for chair in 2006, Patterson is in a dealing mood. “I would like to be able to support the lease,” she says. “But I have lots of questions that have to be answered.”

Committee on Education Chair Patterson is particularly sensitive to the most powerful political theme to emerge from the ballpark debate: the schools-before-stadiums mantra. “You see the schools-before-stadiums signs all over the place,” she says. For the past few weeks, a poster campaign that suggests the stadium tax on businesses compromises the city’s ability to fund school construction has hit lampposts and parking signs from Mount Pleasant to Congress Heights. It may be a false choice since the stadium-construction bonds won’t be paid off using the city’s general fund, but the message will be driven home over and over during the 2006 political season.

That would explain the first question that Patterson tossed at the mayor during the Dec. 13 hearing. She’s backing a bill that would impose a tax on some businesses and delay planned tax cuts to create a $1.3 billion school modernization fund. “When bill 16-250 gets to your desk, will you sign it?” she asked Williams. The mayor’s response: “I believe school modernization is an important priority.”

Let’s hope Williams’ minions are better at recognizing when an undecided councilmember is looking for a deal. Patterson is one of the few councilmembers who might be swayed by more practical considerations often lost in the political rhetoric. “The basic deal was struck a year ago. The city did sign on to a deal that we could build a stadium. We have certain liabilities,” Patterson says. Stadium supporters can also take comfort in Patterson’s long-term view of how a yes vote would affect her political future. “I do think it is a political hot potato,” she says. “But I also think there are questions that need answering that go into whether it stays politically unpopular.”

Patterson holds out hope that baseball can deliver more along the lines of the money promised in the lease to cover cost overruns. “The additional $20 million is certainly helpful,” she says, but she stresses that she needs “some nugget” to reverse her previous no vote and back the lease. Baseball—or the mayor— will need to ante up a 14-carat nugget. Holding a vote with the same explanations about the benefits of baseball and the related development in Southeast might not be enough to sway Patterson.

LL Prediction: Patterson gets pledge from the mayor to sign her school-construction bill. She votes yes.—James Jones

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