For three months, debate raged over D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's financial blueprint for bringing baseball back to the nation's capital. Critics pilloried Williams, accusing him of caring more about baseball than crumbling city schools. Even baseball boosters griped about the mayor's performance, saying he did a lousy job of selling the plan to a skeptical public.
But last month, when the D.C. Council finally approved the baseball legislation 7 to 6, it handed Williams one of the most important political victories of his six-year tenure as mayor.
"Nobody's going to call him Landslide Tony. But this is his legacy," said longtime baseball booster Robert Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "He balanced the budget. He got the city out from under the financial control board. And he brought baseball to the city."
As he signed the stadium legislation last Thursday, Williams (D) called it "one of my proudest days as mayor."
"It's a great day in our city," he said. "Maybe I could have done a few things differently, but I never regretted what I did. [Baseball] is not good just psychologically for the city, but it's good for the city economically. I really, really believe that."
The stadium battle is, however, far from over. The debate highlighted intense divisions over priorities in the city, as well as frustration with the mayor's distant, uncommunicative leadership style. Stadium opponents say they will make it an issue in the 2006 mayoral campaign. And former mayor Marion Barry vows to disrupt the deal now that he and two other newly elected stadium opponents have taken their seats on the D.C. Council.
"I'm going to do everything I can to make sure this stadium never gets built with public financing. This is the biggest sellout in the history of Washington, D.C.," said Barry (D-Ward 8), adding that he plans to organize boycotts and picket lines when the newly christened Washington Nationals start playing at their temporary home at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in April.
Barry noted that Williams must return to the council to seek approval for construction contracts and revenue bonds. Barry said he, for one, plans to vote no.
Last month's council vote "is just the first inning," Barry said. "We got eight more to go."
Williams acknowledges that baseball is a double-edged sword politically.
Baseball fans are thrilled by the prospect of rooting for a home team for the first time in 33 years. But a Washington Post poll found that 69 percent of District voters are opposed to using public funds to build a stadium. Anti-stadium activists argue that the city should raise taxes for more important priorities, such as rebuilding schools and reopening the shuttered public hospital.
"The real question is whether the 70 percent of D.C. residents who oppose public financing will take that out on council members who vote for this bill," said Ed Lazere, a leader of the city's anti-stadium movement.
At least five of the council's 13 members are considering running for mayor in 2006; several others face reelection. Williams has yet to decide whether he will seek a third term. Angling for political advantage among potential mayoral contenders has been fierce.
Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) has taken every opportunity to publicly attack the mayor's deal as a giveaway to wealthy baseball owners. He has often been joined by council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).
Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), meanwhile, stood behind the mayor, working hard to make the stadium package more palatable to city businesses, which will foot much of the bill.
Orange expects to bring in a large stash of cash, from a community investment fund created by the stadium legislation, to study construction of a new hospital in his ward, as well as buy school computers. "I really believe once I get out there and explain the situation, once those projects really start to materialize, people will begin to see the light," Orange said.
Between those extremes is council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large), who helped lure baseball to the city this summer, but was excoriated by baseball boosters after she put the brakes on the package in early November, calling it too expensive.
Cropp has been accused of pandering to growing anti-stadium sentiment. But she later guided the bill through the council and ultimately voted for it. In the end, business leaders applauded her efforts, but Lazere said hard-core stadium opponents "probably are not satisfied with what she's doing."
Whatever the immediate political fallout, the terrain could shift dramatically this fall if the Nationals by some miracle turn out to be a winning team, according to City Hall insiders.
"A winner has a thousand mothers," said Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO. If the Nats win the pennant, he said, "I bet Marion Barry will have his playoff tickets."