D.C.’s own Ralph Nader didn’t take any extended out-of-town vacation after his latest bid for the presidency flopped. No, the lifelong little-guy advocate is ready to spend whatever political capital he’s got left on another campaign.
A local one.
One he thinks he can win.
“The stadium’s not going to happen,” says Nader, staying late on a Friday in the downtown offices where his presidential run was headquartered. “It can be stopped. It won’t happen.”
Many of the staunchest Nader lovers turned against him after his bid for the highest job in the land did nothing to hurt George W. Bush’s 2000 election. And an unscientific poll would probably show that while his 2004 campaign was embraced by 100 percent of late-night monologuers, few others noticed he was in the race. (Quick now: Camejo is the name of (a) Nader’s running mate, or (b) the Expos closer?)
Nader, who has lived in D.C. for more than four decades, actually tried to make the local stadium issue part of his national platform in the waning days of his run for office. He issued statements in October blasting the proposed deal between Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Major League Baseball as soon as it was announced. And he now says that the last event of his presidential campaign—an appearance on Election Day eve at Capitol View Library on Central Avenue in Southeast D.C.—was designed to highlight the lunacy of spending hundreds of millions of dollars of public money on a project to benefit what he called the “fat cats” of corporate America.
“I ended my campaign at a run-down library [in Ward 7], and the stadium was in mind when I chose that,” he says. “I wanted to contrast the condition of the clinics, libraries, and the schools in the District with this [stadium] project. The enormity of this subordination of life’s necessities to billion-dollar sports-and-entertainment complexes can’t be exaggerated. If parents dealt with their family budgets the way [Williams] is dealing with this city’s budget, they’d be committed for neglect and [have] their children taken from them.”
But, again, Nader wasn’t worth paying attention to, at least while the race was on.
Yet maybe folks should again start taking Nader seriously. He can’t be accused of grandstanding when it comes to getting involved in the stadium fight in his hometown.
Truth be told, Nader’s been involved in stadium squabbles as long as anybody on either side of the D.C. battle. And his track record in such matters is far more impressive than his attempts to get votes.
In 1998, politicos from Connecticut, led by Gov. John Rowland and exhibiting as much excitement as Williams did in his stadium announcement in September, claimed they’d lured the New England Patriots out of Foxboro, Mass., by promising team owner Robert Kraft a $374 million publicly funded package highlighted by a new stadium in Hartford.
Nader, who was born in Connecticut, jumped in and held a press conference to say Pats stadium “would never be built” with money from the people of the state. He organized a federal lawsuit to stop the project and used the media to keep heat on all civil servants involved in the deal with the Patriots.
His involvement wasn’t taken to kindly by fellow Connecticutters, and he wasn’t given much chance of succeeding in stopping the stadium construction. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told the Associated Press at the time that Nader’s suit was “unfounded as a matter of law.” Gov. Rowland went the ad hominem route, saying Nader “has been a nuisance for 30 years.”
“There’s no way that Mr. Nader has any recourse,” Rowland added. “He can make all the noise he wants, but we’re going ahead with this with the support of the Legislature and the majority of the state.”
Alas, Nader won. Rowland was standing alone by the time he gave up and reneged on his deal with Kraft. Connecticut voters saved hundreds of millions of tax dollars. (Rowland resigned his office in June amid an investigation into steering contracts to political associates.)
“What happened in Hartford, the governor and the legislature hooped this big deal through and acted like it was a done deal,” Nader says, “and in six months we sent them all packing back to Boston. All these stadium packages fall apart because they’re never enough—there’s never enough money to take care of pollution, environmental remediation, things like that. And as soon as people start hearing all the details about the contracts, about the corrupt politicians involved, the thing starts falling apart of its own weight. All you need is enough people to press everybody on it, and it will fall apart.”
In 2001, fresh from his successes in Hartford, Nader founded League of Fans, what he describes as a “sports-reform project” that is designed as a clearinghouse for information about publicly funded stadium projects. The D.C. stadium endeavor is just the latest in a long line of proposed sports-and-entertainment complexes the group has sought to keep from being built. The League of Fans’ batting average is darn good: On election day, while candidate Nader was getting less than 1 percent of the popular vote, referendums to fund three stadium projects were defeated in the San Francisco, Kansas City, and St. Louis areas; a measure to finance a new home for the Dallas Cowboys, however, was passed by voters in Arlington, Texas.
The D.C. stadium deal won’t even have to be put before voters to self-destruct, Nader predicts.
“The deal the District has proposed for baseball is the sweetest deal ever proposed for any stadium, even sweeter than the Hartford deal. Mayor Williams gave away the store,” he says. “But it can’t hold up. Polls show two-thirds of the people of the city are opposed to this deal. How can it go through? There’s so many things that could bring this down. The way we’re going to beat this deal, the same way we beat all these deals, is we put that $500 million for the stadium up against all the needs of one ward after another, and after a while, it won’t pass the smell test. Schools and libraries are crumbling in this city. Clinics are closing. And they’re going to spend $500 million to build a goddamn stadium? You watch: One law firm could bring this down.”
Chris Bender, spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, says the charges that the stadium deal ignores the state of the city’s schools, libraries, and clinics are “unfortunate and offensive.”
“I think Ralph Nader should look at the facts before he opens his mouth. The baseball stadium is linked legislatively and financially to [funding schools, libraries, and clinics]. These are tied; one will help the other. So if Ralph Nader is saying we should fund these other projects, well, we are. It’s almost sad that someone who ran for president is so misinformed.”
Nader admits that he hasn’t yet found anybody to take his anti-stadium case to court.
“I’ve been otherwise occupied,” he says, with a big laugh. “But I’m looking now.”—Dave McKenna