Linda W. Cropp had always wanted baseball. But with less than a week before the D.C. Council was scheduled to vote on a plan to build a ballpark, the council chairman could see things falling apart.
The mayor had increased taxes on business in his stadium proposal, and angry executives were swarming city hall. A Neiman Marcus vice president flew all the way from Dallas, marched into Cropp's fifth-floor office and threatened to pull out of Mazza Gallerie. Others packed a first-floor committee room, where a shouting match erupted between two council colleagues. Cropp's phone lighted up with frantic calls from council members saying they would have to vote no.
By the end of that awful day, the council was poised to snuff out Washington's baseball dream. Only Cropp could see it coming, because only Cropp knew that the mayor had lost her, too.
"I'm very good at counting votes," she said in an interview. "And it was clear to me there were not the votes there to bring baseball to the city."
Cropp, a low-key leader skilled at the quiet art of compromise, began the search for consensus. But this time, Cropp found herself on unfamiliar terrain.
The mayor refused to listen to her concerns, saying any change in the stadium legislation would jeopardize an agreement to bring the Montreal Expos to Washington. Faced with escalating cost estimates, a splintering base of support and an unresponsive mayor, Cropp took the unusual step of publicly denouncing his plan to build a ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront. She championed a much cheaper site, near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
Instead of forcing the mayor to the bargaining table, however, Cropp's Nov. 5 news conference sparked panic among baseball supporters. Baseball officials had already rejected RFK. Cropp was trying to rescue baseball, but now she was accused of trying to kill it.
As she backpedaled and grasped desperately at alternatives, Cropp acknowledges that her behavior has seemed "out of character" and perhaps a little "harebrained." But during two lengthy interviews, Cropp said she has had a legitimate goal: to avoid a stadium deal that saddles the city with spiraling debt and taxes.
"I was never trying to stop baseball," Cropp said. "But I've been saying for two years if the business community says this is harmful to my business, I will not support it. . . . Contrary to how I've been vilified, if I had not raised the issue, the mayor would not have even known there was a problem."
The strain of the past 11 days has clearly taken a toll on Cropp. At 57, the Democrat is the District's longest-serving elected official. As council chairman, she is second in power and influence only to the mayor. But Cropp has never been under such intense scrutiny. Unlike education, health care and housing -- issues that she said "really, seriously impact the lives of people" -- baseball, she has been amazed to find, has made Washington a little crazy.
At midweek, Cropp looked stressed-out and exhausted as she sat in her wood-paneled office, a formal space she has redecorated in soothing creams and blues. Her usually meticulous lipstick had faded. Her eyes were red. And her voice grew tight with emotion as she recalled a pair of unfamiliar reporters who disdainfully rolled their eyes while peppering her with skeptical questions.
"They kept saying: 'What are you talking about? That makes no sense to me,' " Cropp said. "Just because they don't understand it, am I supposed to stop? I have to keep doing what I think is right."
What Cropp thinks is right seems to have changed dramatically since Sept. 29, when she stood shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and cheered Major League Baseball's return to the nation's capital. Her promise to build a stadium was critical to baseball's return. So her apparent transformation from booster to bomb thrower puzzled even longtime admirers and fueled speculation that Cropp is staking out a more popular position on the stadium to run for mayor.
Her confrontational tactics also bewildered some of her colleagues. A genteel conciliator, Cropp encourages council members to hammer out differences behind closed doors rather than in open session. She persuaded one incumbent this year not to challenge another for an at-large seat, in part to avoid a protracted public feud.
Yet, in recent days, this soft-spoken insider has blindsided the mayor and her colleagues by pushing for a stadium at RFK; abandoned that plan after talking with a senior baseball official; switched her support back to the Anacostia waterfront site on condition Williams and the council consider a proposal to build the stadium with private funds; and blocked a vote on the mayor's bill even though, by then, it had the votes to pass.
"I can't quite understand the flip-flopping. That's what is confusing a lot of folks who have known her for a long time," said Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, who supports the mayor's plan. "This is totally out of character with the Linda Cropp image that's been built up over all these years."
One council member described Cropp's decision to pull the baseball bill from Tuesday's agenda as particularly "un-Linda-like." But Cropp said she played "hardball" only after the mayor's allies rejected her request to take the bill off the fast track.
"I thought: Do you keep doing what you believe in? Or are you a good girl and play nice?" Cropp recalled. "And I decided, no, it's too much at stake for the city. . . . I control the agenda, and I'm going to pull it."
Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who is considering his own run for mayor, called Cropp's behavior inexplicable except in the context of mayoral politics. But Cropp's oldest associates don't buy it. There is a movement to recruit her for the 2006 campaign, but Cropp has told friends that she and her husband are ready to retire to Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Friends say it's more likely that Cropp is trying to craft a package with broad support. Three of the mayor's seven votes belong to lame-duck council members who will be gone in January. If neither business nor community activists are happy with the stadium deal, they said, Cropp knows it could get mired in politics.
"Linda is trying to bring everyone around to a comfort level with whatever gets passed," said Ted Trabue, a Pepco vice president and Cropp's former chief of staff.
By littering her remarks to the media with explicit digs at Mayor Williams, Cropp probably fed rumors that she's gearing up to run for his job. The chairman is furious with Williams for spending 11 days in Asia when he could have been rallying support for baseball. In early October, "when people seemed as if they misunderstood about the funding," Cropp offered to join Williams at community meetings and on cable TV to explain the financing package.
Williams agreed at first, Cropp said. But he ventured out only once and then flew to China.
Soon, business support was faltering. Cropp thought the city could go to Major League Baseball and ask it to switch to the RFK site. Baseball said no. So, less than 24 hours before the council's scheduled vote, Cropp kept a meeting with lawyers Fred Cooke and Richard Gross, two old friends who laid out a plan for raising $350 million from private investors.
Cropp was thrilled. "Now I have a real viable alternative. Better than the RFK site! I was like, 'Oh, thank you, God!' I was on cloud nine, thinking, boy, does this solve everyone's problem."
But when she presented it to her colleagues, they dismissed it as "half-baked." The mayor angrily accused her of trying to dole out a "sole-source" stadium contract "in the dark of night." By day's end, even Cropp acknowledged that the plan might not make sense.
Still, she had accomplished something important: The vote was delayed. She had the mayor's attention. And when the council votes on the baseball bill, there is likely to be an amendment requiring city officials to look for ways to replace the business taxes with private funds.
"It may not pan out, " Cropp said. "But at least we have gone into it looking at all options."
For some people, that may be enough. Over the past few days, Cropp has received dozens of calls and e-mails, many from people who will never vote for her again. But others call her a hero and thank her for making them feel as if someone is listening.