By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
One might expect Mark H. Tuohey, the man at the center of the District's negotiations over a new baseball stadium, to be discouraged, resigned and bowed by the political battle that has put the future of the project in limbo. But these days, the head of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission sounds like the most confident person at the District building.
"It's going to get done," Tuohey said recently over lunch at a downtown steakhouse. "People said we were not going to get the team, but I said we would, and we got it. People said we were not going to get RFK [Stadium] renovated on time, but we did. And people said we wouldn't get the lease finished, but this will get done, too."
Statements such as these have led some at the District building to sarcastically refer to Tuohey, 59, as the most optimistic man in town. But come this week, Tuohey, who has been the city's lead negotiator with Major League Baseball, said he expects to have a new deal all but finished and D.C. Council support locked up for a vote on the critical stadium lease early next month.
There are recent signs that he might be right. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said last week that she could guarantee council support for the lease if Tuohey and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) could meet 10 provisions related to capping stadium costs and winning other advantages for the city from baseball.
To Tuohey, who works for the commission pro bono, the messy debate has been unfortunate but expected, typical vetting that comes when millions of public dollars are at stake.
"When you have public financing of sports facilities in any measure, there is going to be controversy," he said. "It's going to generate what I consider is healthy public debate and criticism and divergent views."
To others, including several D.C. Council members, Tuohey has been part of the problem. They describe him as a likable and committed chairman whose inexperience negotiating was exploited by baseball's Jerry Reinsdorf, the powerful Chicago White Sox owner.
Not only did the city's negotiating team agree to pay for the stadium and all cost overruns, but it even threw in the kitchen appliances, a concession that drew chuckles in baseball circles, according to MLB sources.
"Did they take a hard enough line? The answer is no," council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said of Tuohey and the city's other negotiators. "When were we going to say to baseball, 'Okay, we're going to walk'? It's always, 'Here's the best deal we could get. We worked hard for it.' It's like they're always putting a happy face on it."
Tuohey bristles at such criticism, pointing to baseball's concession last month to a payment of $20 million that had not been included in the original stadium agreement in 2004.
"Is Jerry Reinsdorf a more able negotiator than I am? Yes, he's probably been better," Tuohey said. "But we got two things that are unprecedented -- the $20 million and a non-relocation agreement in which we have a lien on the team."
Tuohey, a partner at the law firm Vinson & Elkins, was tapped by Williams in late 2003 to take over a sports commission whose previous chairman and executive director resigned in the wake of allegations of misspending and other financial problems at the agency.
The stadium lease negotiations were supposed to begin last spring and wrap up well before the Washington Nationals' inaugural season ended in October. But the process dragged on through the fall.
Part of the problem, Tuohey said, was that baseball at one point had promised to name a team owner for the Nationals who would sit in on the negotiations. But that never happened.
Instead, Reinsdorf and Nationals President Tony Tavares handled the negotiations, along with teams of lawyers from the city and baseball. Williams also sent several high-level aides to the table to join Tuohey and other city financial officials.
To Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), a stadium supporter, the large negotiating team compromised the city's position because the team had trouble reaching consensus.
"I have a feeling Mark might have been better off if he was left to do his own negotiating than to constantly have whoever's turn it was from the mayor's office to be the baseball person get involved," Ambrose said.
But David A. Catania (I-At Large), a stadium opponent, noted that the negotiating team was inexperienced and had never bargained with a professional sports league.
"We need a group more capable and experienced," said Catania, who last week brought in stadium consultants from Chicago to meet with the council. "That's what's been missing from the whole process. We've had no one negotiating the stadium deal with any kind of experience. It's such an amateur hour."
William N. Hall, a sports commission board member who worked closely with Tuohey, said the city's hard line over key issues, such as who would control the development rights, delayed the process.
To the council, however, the lease appeared to be a clear victory for baseball. At a public hearing in December, Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) grilled Tuohey about who would pay for cost overruns on the project, now estimated to cost $667 million, up from the $535 million budget approved last year.
"Don't worry. It'll get done," Tuohey told her.
"By whom?" Schwartz demanded. "We can't rely on a buddy from heaven. I want to see proof."
Some council members were put off by what they viewed as Tuohey's arrogance. Favoring pin-striped suits, cuff links and monogrammed cuffs, Tuohey projects an image of power, and he's hardly cowed by District politicians. He's representing Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who is under investigation in the case against lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In recent weeks, Williams has asked Stephen Goldsmith, head of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., to talk with council members and try to help resolve their concerns. A former mayor of Indianapolis, Goldsmith has experience in sports stadiums, having negotiated a new basketball arena in that city.
But Tuohey is still roaming the District building, working long hours on the stadium deal.
"Things might not have occurred as quickly as projected," Hall said. "But in terms of Mark's overall enthusiasm in getting it done, the fact is that it's gotten done, and it's getting done."
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.