Reeling and Dealing on Stadium
Council Compromise Emerges From a Game of Brinksmanship Gone Bad

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.

"Sometimes the goal posts move. Sometimes the goal posts are hidden. Sometimes the ball is hidden," the mayor complained to reporters late Tuesday afternoon.

But the swing voters said Williams never directly addressed their problems with the deal until immediately after they voted to kill it.

"There's an arrogance on the part of Major League Baseball: 'We deigned to give you a team, so just be grateful.' And, unfortunately, the mayor thinks we should just be grateful," Schwartz said yesterday. "His people wanted to talk you into it, not take your concerns into consideration."

When they arrived for the final showdown Tuesday at the John A. Wilson Building, the position of the mayor, his aides and allies hadn't changed that much, the swing voters said. They wanted to push the lease agreement through. The swing voters arrived ready to tinker. Cropp, who has based her campaign to replace the retiring Williams on her ability to lead, was in the middle.

At a closed-door breakfast meeting, Cropp proposed to postpone a vote on the lease and instead present the council with a compromise that would firmly cap spending at $611 million. But when it came time to vote on the motion to postpone, three of the five solid baseball boosters -- Evans, Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) -- joined stadium opponents in voting no.

That forced the council to consider the lease deal, though a majority appeared to be against it. Evans and the others were gambling that at least two no voters would, under pressure, join the baseball boosters to form a seven-member majority for the plan. But that didn't happen.

As debate spiraled down an ugly path, Schwartz and Evans bickered sotto voce about the wisdom of pushing Cropp's compromise bill.

"You can't bring yourself, let alone others,'' Evans sniped at Schwartz, who had not yet committed to vote for the lease, even with the spending cap.

"Jack, Jack, you'll be responsible for losing baseball, not me, brother,'' Schwartz shot back.

Soon after, the council again disappeared behind closed doors. But two hours of horse-trading brought them no closer to agreement.

In the end, Cropp threw up her hands, the council voted and the deal failed. Minutes later, City Administrator Robert C. Bobb sidled up to Barry with word that Williams would do whatever was necessary to piece things back together. Bobb, Barry, Brown and Schwartz wrote the final deal in ballpoint pen in the council chamber.

"At one point, I just said, 'Whatever they're voting on, we'll figure it out later,' " Williams said. "It wasn't a pretty landing, but we brought the thing in."

Staff writer Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company