On Sept. 29, Mayor Anthony A. Williams was really happy.
He was happy because Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had called to congratulate him. He was happy because he finally had a real legacy—returning America’s pastime to the nation’s capital. He was happy because he was surrounded at the announcement that the Montreal Expos would be moving to Washington by seven D.C. councilmembers—the legislative majority needed to approve the financing of a new ballpark.
LL might be projecting a bit on that last one.
But he acknowledged the elected officials crowded around him: D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, and Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen. “And soon to be announcing her support, I’m sure, for this important initiative,” announced Williams with a smirk, “At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz.”
“We’ll see,” grumbled the two-time mayoral rival.
“If you’re going to be on the stage, you got to support it,” shot back Williams, as Schwartz’s colleagues giggled.
Perhaps the at-large Republican just wanted to be a part of local history: The struggling City Museum probably broke a one-day attendance record that afternoon.
Schwartz explained her appearance a few moments later in front of the microphones. “I gotta tell you, folks—it’s nice to have a choice,” said Schwartz.
This is Carol’s choice: whether or not to build a $430-million-plus publicly financed ballpark at South Capitol and N Streets SE for the former Montreal team. Williams has already agreed to the ballpark deal with Major League Baseball, but he needs Schwartz & Co.’s stamp of approval to make it actually happen.
That, of course, makes him far less happy.
Specifically, the mayor needs the council’s approval for the issuance of up to $500 million in revenue bonds to pay for land acquisition, construction, and other incidentals and cost overruns involved with building a baseball stadium. And he also needs the council’s say-so to pay those bonds back through special stadium taxes: a gross-receipts tax on local businesses earning more than $3 million per year and a designated sales tax on anything from tickets to hot dogs requiring the exchange of money in the ballpark.
Williams wants to move the legislation through the council before January, when three likely ayes for the new ballpark will get replaced by three likely nays.
Along with Schwartz, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson place themselves in the ballpark undecided camp, too. The council’s potential swing voters on baseball sound like those elusive presidential voters in Ohio and Florida: They want more information.
LL believes the decision couldn’t be more stark: unilateral aggressor or multilateral deliberator. States’ rights or civil rights. Fragments or complete sentences.
The D.C. Council undecideds cast themselves as judicious legislators. “For me, this isn’t an issue of nostalgia—it’s an issue of economics,” says Graham. So he wants marathon hearings, where he will hear both that ballparks have lots of economic impact and that they have no economic impact at all. He wants to be the center of attention. He wants the mayor and activists and business leaders calling and writing.
Hearings, investigations, testimony, whatever. None of it will shed new light on the costs and benefits of D.C.’s hosting a major-league team. It all comes down to this: Either you agree to using lots of tax dollars to build a baseball stadium or you don’t.
Most of the council understands the clear choice. Evans, Ambrose, Orange, Brazil, Allen, and most likely Ward 7’s Kevin P. Chavous will vote for the mayor’s legislation.
Ward 4’s Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson, and At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania oppose the package, arguing that it’s a giveaway to the rich and monopolistic owners of Major League Baseball. “I cannot…support raising taxes to build a baseball stadium when the District of Columbia has so many other, more pressing public needs, chief among them our deteriorating public schools,” Patterson wrote in a statement.
“We got extorted,” says Fenty of the ballpark deal.
Fenty has floated a proposal to use RFK Stadium as the permanent home for the new baseball team: That’s essentially saying no to the robber barons as well, because it would violate the city’s agreement with Major League Baseball. In the 31-page document, Williams has agreed to house the team at RFK for three years, only as a temporary home until a state-of-the-art ballpark gets completed.
The naysayers echo the predictable slogan of the city’s activists: We should spend the money on other civic needs. “If we are going to raise and spend an additional $20 million a year for the next 30 years, we should put those dollars to work to rebuild our schools,” added Patterson. “That’s another, and a far more important, investment in the future.”
Baseball boosters on the council don’t like the words “raising taxes” and “publicly financed” to describe how the city will pay for the ballpark. They say tax dollars are used for all sorts of projects—and Patterson et al. could try to raise money for schools with another special tax. They nod with approval when Williams launches into his mantra: “Not one dime—and I emphasize that—not one dime of the money for this ballpark is coming from D.C. residents,” asserted the mayor at the City Museum announcement.
“It’s the team owners, the business owners, and the stadium users who are paying for this—and not one dime of D.C. resident money is covering for this important investment in our city,” repeated Williams. First, supporters claim, the team owners would pay up to $5.5 million a year for rent—but the owners would retain multi-million-dollar naming rights on the city-owned stadium. Then fans would pay an estimated $11 million to $14 million each season, through sales taxes on everything for sale on stadium grounds. And finally, the city’s biggest businesses—the ones that gross over $3 million a year—would contribute $21 million to $24 million a year in a special stadium tax.
Williams, Evans, et al. call that creative financing.
Fenty, Patterson, et al. call that highway robbery.
But the city hall debate over financial semantics obscures the main drawback of the stadium: It doesn’t divert money so much as it diverts resources from other supposed top priorities of the Williams administration.
The ballpark agreement established building a stadium as the No. 1 priority of the Williams administration. And what about the other big concerns?
Take the proposal to build a hospital with Howard University on the D.C. General campus: When will City Administrator Robert Bobb have time to work out the finances and all the other red tape?
He’ll be busy figuring out where to place home plate. Over the next few months and years, Bobb Squared needs to secure the property, oversee requests for proposals, and attend to the multitude of other tasks involved with building an estimated $430 million-plus ballpark on the banks of the Anacostia.
Or let’s go back to Patterson’s issue: schools. Less than a year ago, the mayor stated that his top issue was acquiring control of the D.C. public schools and its finances. When will Williams have time to address that important investment in the city’s future?
Or what about other economic development projects, like the redevelopment of the old convention center? “As someone said to me who works in that office, if you’re not talking about a baseball stadium or a soccer stadium, [Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] Eric Price doesn’t have any time to listen,” says Fenty. (Price announced his impending departure from D.C. government this past Wednesday.)
The perils of executive-branch distraction probably won’t even make an appearance in the council debate on baseball. That’s because hardball softie Cropp will head up deliberations. Although Cropp says that she has concerns about the stadium deal, the Queen of Consensus has shown her support for the stadium along the way:
•She stood right next to Mayor Williams as he received the phone call from Selig.
•She made all kinds of CYA statements in favor of the proposal. For example: “It is important to emphasize that under no circumstances would a new baseball stadium in the District of Columbia be financed by any citywide tax on residents nor any existing money in the D.C. budget,” said Cropp at the City Museum announcement.
•In fact, she sometimes sounds more like Williams than Williams himself: “Make no mistake: 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 service in the District of Columbia,” Cropp also stated that afternoon.
Plus, the council chairman has persuasive power with the undecideds: She also holds the cards for who gets what committee come January. Both Graham and Mendelson, for example, want to move up in the committee hierarchy.
Yet Cropp also has made sure to say all the right things to indicate her independence from the executive branch. “The council is prepared to step up to the plate and conduct its own due diligence to ensure that citizens of the District of Columbia will benefit from the return of baseball,” said Cropp. She says she has lots of unanswered questions about the deal.
LL has come up with at least one such line of inquiry: Will it be French’s or Gulden’s mustard available at the concession stands?
•On Sept. 29, before Selig’s call to Williams, LL received word of incredible news: The D.C. council’s fashionista finally had wheels as precious as her jewelry.
Later that day, LL inspected the vehicle: The 1994 Jaguar XJ6 has a golden color, a license-plate holder that says “Rehoboth Beach,” and At-Large Councilmember C tags in the front window.
Carol Schwartz had pimped her ride.
“If you do write about it, you need to say I bought it for less than $11,000,” Schwartz told LL, who has questioned the vitality of both Schwartz’s Chrysler convertible and Buick. The councilmember says she fell in love with the car while used-car shopping with her two daughters, who were in need of new wheels. When Mom bought the Jag, the Schwartz daughters inherited the 1991 Buick.
The new addition to the John A. Wilson Building caused LL to speculate on the grand shifts at city hall. D.C. had the potential for three elected-official Jag owners: Schwartz, Cropp, and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.—but Barry’s sweet ride soured last year.
So the car exchange goes as follows:
Brazil’s Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer will be replaced by Kwame Brown’s U.S. Mail truck.
Chavous’ prized Mercedes will be replaced by Vincent C. Gray’s Honda Accord.
And Allen’s Nissan Altima will be replaced with Mayor-for-Life Barry’s Mercedes 190E.
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