A little over a month ago, District Mayor Anthony A. Williams stood onstage at the City Museum, surrounded by D.C. Council leaders, awash in the joyous noise of a crowd welcoming baseball back to the nation's capital for the first time in more than 30 years.
Since that day, Williams (D) has acted as if getting the council to agree to pay for a ballpark was virtually a done deal, the mayor's critics -- and even some of his supporters -- contend.
The mayor showed up at just one community meeting to sell his stadium financing package. Then he left on an 11-day mission to Asia. And when he returned to Washington, he brushed off a growing chorus of complaints from council members, business leaders and even the council chairman about the plan's costs.
Council members say that Williams never personally engaged in the stadium debate even as it became increasingly clear that the package was in trouble. And yesterday, the mayor's baseball dreams seemed in danger of unraveling as Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) announced that she would withdraw her support and introduce an alternate plan to build the ballpark near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium rather than on the Anacostia waterfront.
Much was unclear yesterday. Baseball officials declined to say whether the RFK site would be a deal-breaker. A majority of council members praised Cropp for trying to address their concerns about Williams's stadium plan, but they declined to say with certainty that they would vote for her proposal when it comes before them Tuesday.
And the mayor held out hope that he could muster the votes to defeat Cropp's plan, though he admitted "it's an uphill struggle."
What was clear, several council members and neighborhood activists said, was that Williams had failed yet again to reach out to people and sell them on his vision for the city. Some compared the mayor's tepid lobbying for the stadium package to his lackluster and futile efforts to persuade the council this spring to let him take over the city's troubled public school system.
On baseball, "He sort of sat back and said, 'Take it or leave it.' And that's not constructive," said council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who supports Cropp's plan. "I don't want to be one of those people that loses baseball, but I'm also not going to bankrupt the city and put us in jeopardy, either."
At a news conference yesterday, Williams warned that Cropp's plan to change the stadium site would "blow the thing up" and cause baseball officials to start looking for a new home, perhaps in Northern Virginia, for the former Montreal Expos. Williams vowed to fight back by arguing his case directly to city residents in a rare televised address to be broadcast Monday night on District cable.
But Cropp scoffed at the notion that the mayor could rally support just by talking on TV.
"I've been addressing the community for the past several weeks. I've been personally going out into the community. And I didn't do it on cable," Cropp said in an interview. "I've been there talking to the people, not just preaching to them and saying what the plan is, but giving them an opportunity to talk back to me."
The mayor has argued that his stadium package would be economically beneficial for the city by revitalizing a blighted swath of Southeast Washington near the Capitol. He did so again yesterday, saying a waterfront stadium would "ignite development that's already happening" in the area, "allowing it to gather strength and velocity." At the RFK site, the benefits would be far less tangible, he said, because there is no development: "You're basically starting from scratch."
But the RFK location would be substantially cheaper because the federal government already owns the land, Cropp said. And in recent days, cost has become a huge issue.
Under the mayor's original proposal, the ballpark would have been funded through lease payments from the team, sales tax collected at the stadium and a gross-receipts tax on city businesses of about $24 million a year. But ministers, labor and community groups attacked the mayor for raising taxes to pay for a stadium when schools, libraries and recreation centers are in shambles.
Williams responded by throwing together a vague proposal for a $400 million community investment fund. Some ministers and labor leaders embraced it, but other stadium critics wondered where the money would come from.
Later, Williams said he would pay for the community fund in part by increasing the gross-receipts tax to $26 million a year. But that worried business leaders -- including some of the mayor's strongest allies in the quest for baseball. They appealed to Cropp, who was also hearing complaints from her council colleagues.
This week, Cropp said she met with Williams "two or three times" and warned him that she was thinking about moving the stadium to the site near RFK. Williams suggested a compromise that would establish that location as a fallback if the Southeast site proved too expensive. Cropp said she would consider it and asked the mayor to put it in writing.
"I never heard back again," she said. "I don't think the executive branch took concerns I raised seriously."