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Last week, Neiman Marcus executives Martha Slagle and Craig Johnson, along with other big-business types, stormed the hallways of the John A. Wilson Building, hunting down city officials.

Did the Mazza Gallerie tenant’s reps have some kind of objection to At-Large D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz’s tax-free shopping week?

Actually, they were up in arms about a different tax proposal. The day before, Mayor Anthony A. Williams had adjusted his deal with the city’s business community to fund a new baseball stadium. Biz groups had committed to paying a gross-receipts tax that maxed out at $28,000 per business. The proceeds were to be dedicated solely to paying off bonds for the stadium.

But the mayor tinkered with the agreement before sending it along for council approval. The maximum gross-receipts tax went from ceiling of $28,000 per firm to $48,000, in a move designed, in part, to ensure that the city’s biggest companies would bear a greater share of the tax burden. The additional monies would also fund a nebulous community-investment fund to renovate libraries, rec centers, and other neglected city institutions.

The tax hike didn’t sit well with D.C.’s department-store crowd. So the Neiman Marcus lobby landed in the stately office of D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp. The retail reps, D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang, and others complained that the mayor was using them as a slush fund. “This should not be a tax for everything,” Lang complained to LL last week.

The retailers sold Cropp on their plight. By Friday, Cropp had come up with a headline-grabbing alternative to the mayor’s plan, and she used the department store in her pitch: “Neiman Marcus…pays more than $3 million annually in taxes, and they see no benefit [to a stadium],” said Cropp to the D.C. press corps. In outlining her competing proposal to build a ballpark next door to RFK Stadium, as opposed to the previously agreed upon South Capitol Street site, she said, “What has happened is that the cost [of the South Capitol stadium] is going up so high that it would have a negative impact on our business community.”

First, Neiman Marcus shopper and former Washington Teachers Union President Barbara Bullock gets caught spending union dues on pricey jewelry. Now the Friendship Heights store has to shell out up to $48,000 a year for baseball.

This is going to send the price of furs through the roof!

Amid the Neiman Marcus posturing, Cropp has walked down the Wilson Building runway with a brand-new look. Since the end of last week, the usually under-the-radar council chairman has stood in front of microphones and cameras to announce seemingly fly-by-night schemes to counter the mayor’s plan to publicly finance a $500-million-plus ballpark at M and South Capitol Streets SE.

First came the RFK proposal, unveiled on Friday. Over the next few days, however, Williams rallied a council majority in favor of his South Capitol plan. Facing sure defeat for the RFK whim, Cropp at Tuesday’s council meeting played her trump card: She asserted the chairman’s prerogative to pull the baseball legislation from the council agenda. She says the council will revisit baseball in two weeks.

At the same time, she floated Cropp Plan No. 2, an admittedly undeveloped notion to privately finance a ballpark. “I am not sure of everything,” she said on Tuesday.

Hmmm. Is Cropp already trying to fill the flaky, flip-flopping role of departing At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil?

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Cropp’s about-face on baseball in the past week has shocked D.C.’s political establishment, for good reason. The council chairman generally prefers to iron out political differences behind closed doors in her infamous breakfast meetings, which in the last year or so have drawn the ire of the local press. Cropp governs more by majority than by ideology. Always on the hunt for seven votes, she generally frowns on colleagues who showboat in front of TV cameras and ink-stained print reporters to get their points across.

Until now.

Before she came up with the RFK plan, Cropp sounded a lot like the point person for the mayor’s ballpark-financing package. Following the executive office’s script, she argued that the three dedicated revenue streams to finance the ballpark—the gross-receipts tax, on top-earning local businesses; in-stadium sales taxes; and a rent payment by team owners—would have no fiscal impact on other municipal priorities. “Make no mistake,” preached Cropp at the Sept. 29 announcement of the signed agreement between Major League Baseball and the city, which would deliver the Montreal Expos to D.C. “If it wasn’t for baseball, these dollars would not be moving into the city and therefore no dollars are being taken away from education, housing, or from any other social services in the District of Columbia.”

And at the Oct. 28 marathon D.C. Council hearing on baseball, Cropp profiled as a zealot for the mayor’s scheme. When D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute Executive Director Ed Lazere cited poll numbers showing that a majority of District residents opposed putting lots of public money into building a ballpark, Cropp attacked Lazere and the integrity of the poll.

She accused him of “misleading” the public. “Be honest with the citizens no matter what side you’re on,” she warned Lazere.

A Washington Post poll published this week confirmed Lazere’s findings.

About a week after upbraiding Lazere, Cropp introduced her RFK proposal, citing substantial savings to D.C. taxpayers.

What made the chairman switch teams?

Cropp explains that after attending community meetings and listening to citizens complain about the large outlay of taxpayer dollars, she started searching for a cheaper alternative. Those “citizens” clearly include Lang and members of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, who have felt taken advantage of by Williams. “We signed up for a tax for the stadium,” said Lang, pointing out that the mayor’s community fund was not part of the original deal.

Cropp’s insistence that the business community objects to the increased gross-receipts tax brought about an interesting response from Williams. On Monday, Williams lunched with Greater Washington Board of Trade President Robert Peck, developer Douglas Jemal, and Dynamic Concepts head Pedro Alfonso, among others.

Did gambling proponent Alfonso propose slots at the ballpark?

When the lunch buddies later stood before reporters in a press conference, there was not one female business leader in the crowd.

Some of LL’s colleagues in the Fourth Estate smell mayoral ambition and speculate that Cropp adopted a more populist tone late in the game after seeing little public support for the mayor’s public-financing deal. Cropp has the equivalent of tenure as council chairman, because none of her ambitious colleagues have the chutzpah to challenge her.

One thing’s for sure: The chairman believes the mayor took her cheerleading on baseball for granted. “I don’t think the executive branch took the concerns I raised seriously,” Cropp complained last Friday. And in a session with local media Monday night, Cropp she said several times that Williams “wasn’t in town, probably,” when certain important issues were discussed.

Here’s a possible scenario for the lashing out: While Cropp spent her evenings getting pummeled by the Kingman Park Civic Association and other neighborhood groups in October, Williams was on an 11-day junket to China, sampling how General Tso’s chicken as offered in Beijing differs from the Foggy Bottom version. Williams defended the trip as a means of extending D.C.’s global reach, but it came with a cost back home: Before he left, he had eight councilmembers likely to support the financing package.

The coalition frayed in the following weeks. One defection was At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who was concerned about how the gross-receipts tax would affect businesses. And Ward 8’s Sandy Allen, never a pal of the mayor, needed the appropriate political inducements to vote for the package.

On this unstable terrain landed Cropp’s RFK bombshell. Now council politicos who had misgivings about the baseball deal actually had an alternative plan to embrace. The Wilson Building buzzed with speculation that the skillful compromiser could certainly corral seven votes for her pet project.

Fearing disaster, the mayor’s baseball allies called in special help to try to placate the council chairman: D.C. political fundraiser and lobbyist Kerry S. Pearson.

Pearson has close ties to Cropp, as well as many other councilmembers for whom he has raised money over the years. Pearson first became involved when a client of his who supports baseball asked him to offer his services to the mayor to help solidify D.C. Council support. Pearson says he called and did just that—and never received a call back.

He called again.

Then on Saturday—the day after Cropp’s RFK announcement—Pearson received a phone call. The mayor’s allies wanted him to work with Cropp to come to some kind of understanding. “My efforts were designed to develop a compromise between Chairman Cropp and Mayor Williams that would have baseball at the M Street location and a financing package approved Tuesday,” says Pearson. “My goal was not to have the vote delayed.”

“I was trying to keep the lines of communication open,” he adds.

And that’s difficult when you don’t have a phone number. According to sources close to both Cropp and the mayor, the executive office eagerly wanted to speak with the council chairman over the weekend. There was one problem: It didn’t have a phone number.

Cropp says that Pearson wasn’t negotiating on her behalf. Instead, Pearson made phone calls and shopped ideas between Cropp, the executive office, and key members of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission—the mayor’s folks, for example, offered to insert language in the financing package about moving the stadium to RFK if the South Capitol site became “unavailable.”

Pearson’s backdoor channels didn’t seem to be promoting progress. So Cropp resumed her public campaign, stating on Monday that she didn’t have the council votes for her proposal but insisting that the mayor didn’t, either.

On that, the consummate vote-counter miscalculated: As chairman, Cropp has all kinds of power over her colleagues. Except, that is, for the three lame ducks who were voted out of office in the September primary. All three—Brazil, Allen, and Ward 7’s Kevin P. Chavous—seemed to be in the mayor’s camp. Despite years of working with these members, Cropp had little leverage over the lame-os.

The mayor, on the other hand, has lots of pork to dole out. Cropp admitted as much on Monday. “I certainly don’t have the entire city government and jobs to offer,” she said.

On Tuesday morning, Cropp’s closed-door magic didn’t work. For almost an hour, the chairman tried to push one of the mayor’s seven votes to her side to table the legislation.

She pleaded with her colleagues to respect the chairman.

The baseball seven wouldn’t budge, so Cropp took the liberty of tabling it on her own.

MAYORAL RACE POTPOURRI

On Oct. 26, he strode up 17th Street NW as grand marshal of the High Heel Race, a Halloween highlight. On Oct. 28, he spoke about how the citizens of this city don’t support public financing of a new baseball stadium. On Nov. 2, he campaigned for his Ward 4 D.C. Council seat.

Will Adrian M. Fenty finally admit he’s running for mayor?

For weeks now, as speculation has grown about his executive-office ambitions, Fenty has responded that he remains focused on “Nov. 2.” Now that he’s won, and it’s beyond Nov. 2, that excuse no longer works.

And he knows it. “I am beginning to think about running for mayor,” admits Fenty.

—Elissa Silverman

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