In the 30-year history of D.C. home rule, Sept. 29, 2004, will go down as a day of unsurpassed exploitation of the District of Columbia. Let us count the ways.
First, as D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton aptly noted during floor debate on Wednesday afternoon, the House of Representatives sank to a new low in its attempts to do low-down, dirty, mean things to the people of this city when it voted to repeal all of the city's gun safety laws.
Second, by sundown, the District's own leaders -- hellbent on bringing baseball back to Washington -- cut a deal that may enter the annals of American history as the greatest land grab since Manhattan Island was bought for $24.
Seldom have so many non-Washingtonians come together on any given day to take advantage of the nation's capital.
Let us first explore baseball. A stipulation: As a lifelong baseball fan, going back to Griffith Stadium and the days of manager Bucky Harris, with Mickey Vernon on first base, Eddie Yost on third and Sam Dente at shortstop, I'm glad to see the national pastime return.
Another point: I have enormous personal and professional respect for Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, who helped the city get another baseball franchise. He did the best he could with what he had to work with.
But to call what went on between Major League Baseball and the city's leaders a "negotiation" is tantamount to describing a football game between the 2004 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the Little Sisters of the Poor as a contest.
Major League Baseball, which owns the money-losing Montreal Expos, has been trying for two years to dump that last-place team. A relieved baseball commissioner Bud Selig put it this way: "This was a team owned by baseball that we were anxious to get rid of." So they shopped the Expos, and Washington's leaders, devoured by desire for baseball, outbid the competition.
Today Major League Baseball owners are in hog heaven.
And why not? The new franchise owners will get a brand-new, $440 million, 41,000-seat stadium with the city picking up most of the construction costs. The owners get to keep all the money from tickets, concessions and merchandise sales -- the city gets the taxes -- and the owners don't have to share any of the game-day revenue from the stadium's 1,100-car parking garage. Yep, they'll have to pay rent on the stadium -- $3.5 million in the first year, rising to $5.5 million in the fifth year, with small percentage increases thereafter. But the owners get naming rights to the stadium, which may be worth another $2.5 million a year.
And here's what makes the owners happier than pigs in slop: They are going to put the Expos franchise up for sale. Yup. The struggling team they bought two years ago for $120 million will be sold to the highest bidder. They expect to rake in more than $300 million. One more thing: D.C. leaders don't have a legal say in who gets to own the team or the conditions under which the sale is made.
But shucks, Major League Baseball couldn't have done it without Washington's business community, which is going to foot most of the bill for the new stadium. The city's largest businesses have agreed to be taxed to the tune of $21 million to $24 million annually to help pay the debt on 30-year bonds that will finance the stadium's construction.
"We're talking numbers that for a lot of the larger [businesses], at least, are not going to break the bank," said Bob Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. That's for sure.
According to city officials, only businesses grossing more than $3 million a year will be affected by the new tax. The smallest would probably pay about $2,500 a year and the largest about $28,000. Chump change.
Now, suppose city leaders had screwed up their courage and asked these same dedicated corporate citizens to accept a special tax that generated $200 million (less than half the amount raised for baseball) to fix crumbling schools or provide child care or to build a model facility to rehabilitate troubled youth? City Hall, of course, would do no such thing. But if it did ask, it would get nothing in return but threats to pull up stakes and leave town.
Without question, baseball owners chose the right host city in which to recoup their losses.
Unless the D.C. Council balks, which it won't, the deal's done. Now comes the sales pitch, heralding the stupendous, spellbinding economic benefits of a team and a new stadium. But don't hold your breath waiting for the good times to roll. It will be years before the new stadium's gates open. By that time, the deal-cutters will have pocketed the booty and been long gone.
Not so with the House of Representatives, which will still be around to torment and humiliate the District.
It's hard to see how a future House could be any more malicious than the 198 Republicans and 52 Democrats who banded together on Wednesday to ram through a bill that, according to Del. Norton, makes it possible for D.C. residents, including children under 18, to own semiautomatic assault weapons. That legislative abomination would end all gun registration, and allow:
* Fully loaded handguns and semiautomatic weapons to be kept within reach of children.
* Gun owners to withhold notification from the police if their guns are lost or stolen.
* Chronic alcoholics or those who have negligently killed someone with a gun to carry guns.
It mattered not to those arrogant, insufferable hypocrites on the Hill that they won't let visitors enter their Capitol building without passing through metal detectors or that cars and buses are stopped for weapons inspections at checkpoints around the Capitol. Even as a callous and cynical House majority acted to make D.C. neighborhoods into armed camps and killing fields, those same members legislated behind a protective barrier of armed cops fiercely enforcing Capitol Hill's no-gun zone.
No doubt about it: Major League Baseball and the House of Representatives had their way with the District this week. Yet on Wednesday evening, Mayor Anthony Williams, adorned in a red baseball cap, proclaimed himself "elated." He should have been wearing a black armband. Maybe it's because he gets a luxury suite out of the deal.
Never thought I'd live to say this, but, if only Marion Barry were 20 years younger. . . .