Reeling and Dealing on Stadium

D.C. Council members David A. Catania, left, and Vincent B. Orange Sr. listen to debate on the stadium lease, which was approved early yesterday.
D.C. Council members David A. Catania, left, and Vincent B. Orange Sr. listen to debate on the stadium lease, which was approved early yesterday. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 9, 2006

By the time Marion Barry, who once swore that the District would build a ballpark over his dead body, put on a bright-red Washington Nationals cap, it should have been clear that he was ready to make a deal.

But D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has never been known for his horse-trading skills. After weeks of squabbling over a critical piece of the baseball stadium project and several hours of council debate, Williams (D) still hadn't figured out late Tuesday how to satisfy the former mayor. Nor had he won over any of the other swing voters on the D.C. Council who repeatedly intoned that they were ready to secure the future of Major League Baseball in the nation's capital, just not at any price.

And so, in one of the most chaotic moments in the District's political history, the council voted down the baseball deal. Which left it staring into the abyss of potentially losing the Washington Nationals, the city's first ballclub in more than 30 years. Four hours later, a compromise was forged, and the council voted yes.

Yesterday, both supporters and critics of the stadium project took credit for the outcome, painting a day of misunderstanding, miscommunication and lost opportunities as calculated legislative strategy.

"I always felt it would resurrect itself," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a baseball booster who had for weeks urged Williams and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) to challenge the council to make a decision. The negative vote "was the catalyst," Evans said. "It made people realize, 'Oh, my God, this really is slipping away.' "

But Barry (D-Ward 8) and three other council members who switched their votes from no to yes over the course of Tuesday's marathon session argued that they had won a complicated game of chicken. In the end, they said, they forced the mayor and his allies on the council to meet their demands for a firm cap on stadium spending and to win back from MLB officials millions of dollars in development rights on land around the riverfront stadium.

"They thought we were kidding. They thought we were wishy-washy. But we were not going to back down," Barry said.

Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), one of three freshman council members who campaigned against public stadium financing but voted for the deal, echoed that assessment.

"They thought we would all give in. They thought they could roll over us," Brown said. "Well, they wanted to force a vote. And that forced vote was no."

It was unclear yesterday exactly what Barry, Brown and the other swing voters -- Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) -- had accomplished. Brown argued their tactics ultimately would save the city as much as $170 million. But the mayor's allies said the quartet had succeeded mainly in getting limits on spending already proposed by the mayor written explicitly into law.

Whether the compromise promises genuine savings or merely provided cover for the no voters to switch to yes, it turned the tide. What remains somewhat baffling is why it took so long for Williams and his team to patch it together.

Williams blamed council members, never an easy bunch to manage, for failing to articulate their needs.

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