Former D.C. Council member John Ray has been hired by Major League Baseball to lobby current council members in an effort to smooth over bruised relations and ensure that a plan to build a new stadium for the Washington Nationals is not derailed.
Ray, who served on the council for 18 years before leaving in 1997, has been meeting with council members for the past two weeks. He has asked them how Major League Baseball can work with the city and provide benefits to city residents, members said.
John Ray, who served on the D.C. Council for 18 years, will try to smooth relations.
"He wanted to know how we thought baseball could make it work and what they could do in the community," said Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who joined the council in January and has expressed concerns about the plans to provide significant public funds for the $535 million stadium project.
Baseball sources said baseball and its teams regularly hire lobbyists to work with municipalities when they are building stadiums. Baseball also has a significant presence on Capitol Hill. But Ray's involvement could be even more critical in Washington, where the council was sharply divided on the stadium plan last fall before approving it on a vote of 7 to 6.
Tony Tavares, president of the Nationals, said, "My sense is that [Major League Baseball] understood there was criticism of the relationship with the council when this deal got started, and they figured this might be a good way to make sure that it isn't rocky in the future."
Gray and two other new members -- Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) -- replaced three members who had voted in favor of the stadium. Like Gray, Barry and Brown have expressed opposition to public funding. The 13-member council now has just three members -- Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) -- who have solidly supported the stadium.
The council is expected to vote on several baseball issues in the coming year, including private financing plans and all construction contracts worth more than $1 million.
Council members said they asked Ray for commitments from baseball, including more free tickets for disadvantaged youths, upgrades to community centers and athletic facilities in their wards and agreements to hire city residents and minority contractors for stadium jobs.
Orange said he asked that baseball, which owns the Nationals, appoint an African American as team president.
"It was gratifying to know that someone local was representing baseball, and now I know who to call," Orange said of Ray. "I got the impression that he was here to find out if there were any outstanding issues and to let us know the doors of communication are open."
During the contentious stadium debate in the fall, Major League Baseball pledged $100,000 to renovate the athletic fields of the Fort Greble community center in Ward 8. But documents from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission state that the renovation will cost $275,000.
Sports commission officials said they have the rest of the money needed for the project from federal grants and other sources. But some council members said baseball needs to provide more money for that project and others.
"Baseball needs to step up. We're interested in making sure they keep their commitment to take care of the fields," Brown said. "We're not talking about a lot of money here."
Tina Ang, Ray's colleague at the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, also is lobbying the council. She used to work for the council's budget office. Neither Ray nor Ang returned several messages left with their office.
Not everyone is happy that Ray is involved. Evans said that Ray's presence could become a political issue in itself because of his long history with the council.
"I don't need help" promoting baseball, said Evans, who is scheduled to meet with Ray today. "I need people to stay out of here."
Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said he remains opposed to public funding of a ballpark but added he was pleased that Ray sought him out for a meeting last week.
"It does not matter if my mom came in. I'm not going to vote for public funding," Fenty said. "But the point is that the approach of meeting with everybody and not thinking this has to be contentious is the right approach."
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.