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Marc Fisher

Mayor Shares Blame for Eleventh-Hour Betrayal

By Marc Fisher
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; 11:30 AM

Linda Cropp's late-night bombshell eviscerating the deal with Major League Baseball immediately restores Washington's status as America's laughingstock.

But the chairman of the D.C. Council did not kill baseball all by herself. She had at least ten helpers in her underhanded campaign to turn Washington into the first city to win a sports franchise and chase it out of town before a game was ever played. Nine other council members voted for Cropp's cynical amendment that pulled the welcome mat out from under the Washington Nationals. And the mayor who failed utterly to sell his deal must also share the blame.

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We should have seen Cropp's eleventh-hour betrayal coming. Despite having spent all day and all evening speaking and voting as if she were going to honor the deal that the city had struck with baseball, Cropp obviously relished the role of spoiler. At 9:47 p.m., with celebrations of baseball's return already beginning and headlines capturing the joy already being written, Cropp nuked the deal. Her amendment requiring that half of the cost of the stadium be paid by private financiers instantly negated the sole reason baseball had decided to come here -- the city was going to build the team a ballpark.

Less than an hour later, the vote was 10 to 3 for Cropp's amendment, with only Jack Evans, Harold Brazil and Vincent B. Orange Sr. standing up for the deal. The rest of the council will say that they sought only to save the city from a bad economic deal, but last night's switcheroo is thick in subtexts. Beneath the surface concerns, this was about payback. Some council members longed to strike out against a mayor who has spent six years neglecting them and operating on his own. Some saw the popular movement against the stadium deal as evidence that baseball had become a symbol of the elite, mostly white power structure that is perceived in much of black Washington as antagonistic to the District's black population. And some on the council who harbor ambitions for higher office saw an anti-baseball vote as a way to align themselves with those voters who are frightened by the wave of change that is sweeping the city.

Now, Cropp expects to capitalize on the revulsion of baseball fans and ride the joy of the anti-baseball crowd straight into the mayor's office. After all, she'll remind voters, she's the one who stood up against the lords of baseball, the mostly suburban fans and the city's forces of development and growth.

But as much as Cropp is the proximate cause of the Nationals' departure -- and let's not fool ourselves, the team cannot be sold without a new stadium and there is no longer any stadium -- Mayor Anthony A. Williams must also be seen as having gutted his own deal. Instead of selling the agreement to a properly skeptical public, instead of bringing Cropp and the rest of the council along at every step of the negotiations, Williams spent week after week gallivanting around the globe on his own unchecked ego adventure.

Last night, as the deal collapsed before his eyes, the mayor sat in the audience of the council chambers, alone, silent, staring into the chaos as his dream dissolved. Last-minute lobbying -- what's that? Working the room -- goodness, that would involve speaking to people! Tony Williams was, at the end, what he has been throughout his ever-promising but often-disappointing mayoralty: a man unto himself.

Last night's broken deal means that instead of going down in history as the mayor who revived a damaged and declining city, Williams will be lumped -- unjustly -- with Marion Barry, as a mayor who failed his constituents and gave the nation solid reason to cackle at our root incompetence.

This city is pathologically averse to change, captive to deep anxieties about race, class and the urban-suburban and District-federal divides. Baseball was an opportunity to rise above those strains, to reach for world-class status, to lure suburbanites back into a view of Washington as the center, a place of pride.

Baseball never wanted to come here, as Evans, the Ward 2 Democrat who was to the end the body's solitary profile in courage, repeatedly reminded his colleagues. The District's job was quite simple: Prove baseball and assorted other doubters wrong.

A deal is a deal. Ah, you say the council should be able to inspect and judge any deal that comes before it. But the mayor's job was to keep the council in the loop and with the program at every stage of the process. And the council members knew, as Evans reminded them at every turn, that however greedy and voracious baseball's owners may be, what brought us a team was one simple promise: We will build a new stadium.

And now we won't. Private financing is just code for "go away." The only investor who would pump millions into a stadium he would neither own nor control is the owner of the team, and this team cannot be sold without a stadium.

A city that is synonymous with struggle once again aims, fires and hits nothing but itself.

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