D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp positioned herself as a champion of District residents late last year when she demanded that Mayor Anthony A. Williams find private financing to help build a baseball stadium.
Cropp said she was uncomfortable with the mayor's proposal to use mostly public funds for the $535 million project. Last week, however, Cropp's search for private money met a quiet demise.
After reviewing eight offers from private companies, city leaders in recent months eliminated all but the one from Deutsche Bank. But Cropp (D) said last week that she would not bring the Deutsche Bank proposal forward for a vote because it has little support on the council.
Cropp expressed few regrets about her ballpark financing efforts in a recent interview.
"You've got to try for private financing because if you don't, you're definitely not going to get anything," Cropp said, sitting in her wood-paneled corner office at city hall. "All in all, I am thrilled in hindsight with the position I had taken. What I hear from citizens is a round of applause. Citizens come up to me and say, 'Thank you.' They're thrilled."
Some residents, however, have mixed views.
"It's a big disappointment," said Veronica Raglin, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 6. "She should have been stronger or not gotten into the fight."
But Grace J. Lewis, who heads the North Michigan Park Civic Association, said that the end of private financing "should not have an adverse reaction on people's feelings toward [Cropp]. She did what she could and left the door open [for private money]. Nothing was on the table to meet the council's expectations . . . and we have to move forward."
Many city leaders and activists viewed her position in the stadium debate as a sign that Cropp, long considered a coalition builder, was staking her independence from Williams (D) in preparation for a mayoral bid. Some accused her of using the issue to grandstand for potential voters.
Although Cropp is deliberating whether to enter the race, Ron Lester, who has conducted opinion polls of likely D.C. voters, said the stadium debate has raised her profile and approval rating.
Williams still can choose to enter into a private financing agreement with Deutsche Bank, but that is unlikely, aides said.
"Nobody is as closely associated with private financing as she is," Lester said. "However, she will be evaluated ultimately on how the [financing] deal turns out. If they find a good private plan, it's a win-win for Linda Cropp. But if it ends up, say, 70 percent public money and 30 percent private, people may be disappointed."
Potential rivals to Cropp are seizing on that point. Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who recently entered the mayor's race, voted repeatedly against the stadium and said Cropp not should have allowed the project to move forward until private financing was in place.
"We should have stuck to our guns and gotten real private financing -- a contribution from the [team] owners," Fenty said. "It was obvious when we voted that there would not be any real private financing. It was just thrown out there almost as a way to fool people."
Last fall, Cropp shocked Williams when she expressed that she was uncomfortable with the public financing deal.
At the time, No D.C. Taxes for Baseball -- a vocal, if relatively small, coalition of school, housing, environmental and health care activists -- was protesting public financing of a stadium.
Behind the scenes, some business leaders were complaining to Cropp that the gross-receipts tax that Williams had proposed to help pay for the stadium was too steep.
Cropp acted. First, she got Major League Baseball to agree to remove a condition that would have required the city to pay a multimillion-dollar penalty if the stadium were delayed a year past its March 2008 opening date.
Business leaders said they feared that penalty fees probably would have been passed on to them through the gross-receipts tax.
"Not too many people seem to think it will be built on time," Cropp said of the stadium, to be constructed on the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast Washington. "It was important not to give baseball a blank check. . . . And those who will pay the predominant share, the business community, are pleased, extremely pleased."
Robert A. Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and Barbara B. Lang, head of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, give Cropp credit for reducing some of the city's liability.
"What Linda did had a good effect in backing Major League Baseball off a couple of details in the original agreement," Peck said.
Cropp initially insisted that the mayor find at least $140 million in private financing -- enough to cover half the cost of the ballpark structure. (Additional costs, including those for land and for building infrastructure, will be paid by the city.)
Baseball officials balked, threatening to kill the deal.
In the final days before the Dec. 31 deadline, Cropp relented. She agreed to a compromise that required the mayor to seek private funding but ensured in the legislation that the ballpark would be built even if private contributions were not found.
"Ultimately, she decided that bringing baseball back to Washington was more important than truly finding a public-private partnership," said Ed Lazere, another co-leader of No D.C. Taxes for Baseball.
In December, Cropp said that private financing offers were pouring in to city hall and that she was confident a feasible one would be found.
"I had no idea how this would turn out," Cropp said. "I just wanted to do the right thing for the city, and I still believe I did the right thing."
If she runs for mayor, she added, "given what I've heard from citizens all over, I believe I have a good opportunity to be successful."