Selig Plays Hardball on Stadium Deals
"It's the same thing, isn't it?" said Klauser.
Selig envisioned a grand ballpark near the Brewers' previous home, Milwaukee County Stadium, three miles west of downtown. At first, when Selig said he was offering to pay for the ballpark, few questioned his right to choose the location. But after he asked for public support, civic leaders began to debate whether the stadium might be better off downtown. They looked at cities such as Baltimore and Cleveland, which had used new stadiums as the centerpieces for urban renewal.
Selig said he initially favored a downtown park but no adequate site was available. Brewers fans were accustomed to tailgating and came from outlying areas, he and his supporters said; they would be resistant to driving all the way into the city.
Gary Grunau, a prominent developer who helped create the Milwaukee Riverwalk System and advocate for a downtown site, believed Selig was more concerned about the revenue he stood to lose.
"I think he wanted a controlled situation where he had the parking, he had the restaurants, and he had everything else," said Grunau.
Selig drew much of his strength from local businessmen. One was Robert Kahlor, then chairman of Journal Communications Inc., which owned the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel (the newspapers merged in 1995), as well as WTMJ, which carried the Brewers' games.
Kahlor more than just supported the ballpark. Thompson appointed him to chair a stadium task force. According to records filed with the Wisconsin Ethics Board, Kahlor was also one of four registered lobbyists who worked on the stadium issue for Journal Communications Inc.
Inside the newspapers, reporters and editorial writers felt constrained. "We were totally compromised at that point," said Sue Ryon, deputy editor of the Milwaukee Journal's editorial page, then the lead editorial writer on the stadium issue. "We had no credibility. Anything we said, it was, 'Well, who can believe them? Look at the position they're in?' We felt as a newspaper, as an editorial board, handcuffed, and that was pretty much from the beginning."
Kahlor, who has since retired, declined to comment.
Selig's view of where the stadium should go came to dominate the Wisconsin media. He gained the ear of Charlie Sykes, a conservative radio personality with enormous influence across the state, who played on fears that the Brewers would leave town if the stadium wasn't built. Sykes said he regrets his role. The public, he said, "was basically a spectator in this deal." And the deal he sold on Selig's behalf, he said, "turned out to be not real."
"I used up a lot of my credibility with my audience, and to be a conservative pushing a tax increase is a difficult thing," said Sykes. "I think I made an exception to the principle that you don't raise taxes for corporate welfare."
Thompson and Selig signed a memorandum of understanding to build a $250 million ballpark on the Selig-endorsed site. The Brewers would contribute $90 million. The rest would come from revenue bonds funded by a 0.1-percent local sales tax levied in five counties surrounding the stadium. The tax would have to be approved by the state legislature.
The bill was "arguably the most heavily lobbied issue in the history of Wisconsin," said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. It represented "a confluence of baseball, politics, money and the major players in the state. I think it really marked in many ways the change of Wisconsin politics, the start of big money in Wisconsin politics. It was a kind of seminal moment."
State records show that at least 48 registered lobbyists worked in support of the stadium bill. They billed a combined 4,900.2 hours for a total cost of $638,930.08 -- most of it spent during the two-month period in September and October 1995, before the bill came to a vote.
After passing the state assembly, the senate debated the stadium bill into the pre-dawn of Oct. 6, 1995. Wisconsin Act 56 lost once, 16-15. The bill's proponents moved for reconsideration. After a brief caucus, the Senate reconvened and the bill lost again, by the same margin.
Selig paced the halls, enraged, until he was finally escorted into the office of the assembly speaker, David Prosser Jr. It was now near 4 a.m. One of Selig's aides approached Norquist, the Milwaukee mayor.
"Bud wants to see you," Norquist was told.
Norquist hoped Selig might be ready to cut a deal on a downtown ballpark to break the logjam. Instead, Selig lit into him.
"You're the one who's going to be held responsible for this!" Selig yelled, according to Norquist. "You killed baseball in Milwaukee!"
"Whatever anyone thinks, you're ripping the people off!" Norquist screamed back.
Selig confirmed the exchange. He said he was angry because he had been told by lawmakers that Norquist had secretly been trying to kill the deal.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company