The debate on whether — and where — to build a minor league baseball stadium in Richmond increasingly threatens to become an unearned Republican advantage for the 2017 gubernatorial election. Democratic state party leaders disagree, believing Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones’s plan to build a new baseball stadium in the city’s historic Shockoe Bottom area is a political winner. Former governor Doug Wilder (D) disagrees. As the city’s mayor in 2005, Wilder killed an earlier proposal to build a minor league park in the same location.
Wilder says historic preservation must be the top priority. Jones believes it is economic development.
We stick, instead, to modern Virginia politics, which is best conceptualized on a TV-media market basis. The Central Virginia media-market, centered on Richmond, reaches into four congressional districts. It produces roughly a quarter of the gubernatorial vote. The stadium issue has dominated local news coverage for months. Jones’s handling of the issue has done what seemed impossible: align liberal Democrats in the city with conservative Republicans in the surrounding counties against his proposal. On its current path, we believe the issue will go statewide.
Prone to flooding and built atop old Shockoe Creek, the gritty, underdeveloped area chosen for Jones’s stadium became infamous during the 1800s as the “Wall Street” of slave trading. It is only a short walk down the hill from the State Capitol. The Bottom housed slave auction and jail sites, including one sufficiently notorious as to be labeled “The Devil’s Half-Acre.”
It is a history Virginia has been reluctant to highlight. In 1994, then-Delegate Jones and his political allies pushed to create a state commission to ensure such history didn’t get paved over by real estate developers. His views remained the same until 2013, when he began a concerted push to build a new baseball park in Shockoe.
Why the switch? We believe it stems from a state law long questioned by civic reformers that gives localities such as Richmond the right to create an economic development authority. The authority’s board members are appointed by local elected officials. But as a state law matter, Richmond’s EDA is legally a non-city agency.
Why is this important? In a nutshell, the EDA is not bound by the Richmond City Charter and City Code, creating an alluring legal loophole. The Richmond EDA could award millions of dollars in contracts for the stadium and other facilities without competitive bidding. EDA rules also allow secrecy to protect the identities of subcontractors, lawyers, public relations firms and lobbyists working for the winning main contractors.
Lord Acton warned years ago that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Central Virginia voters are increasingly upset at what they see in the news. What happens when voters statewide begin to wonder what is happening in Richmond? Given the super-charged partisan political atmosphere in Virginia and elsewhere, it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind will blow.
We concede that reasonable people can reasonably disagree over whether Wilder or Jones is right. But those pushing for a Shockoe stadium likewise have to concede that without the EDA law, Mayor Jones would be far less enthusiastic about his proposal. If a competitive bid process had to be used, his plan probably would be DOA.
Passions are building on all sides. Mayor Jones is the head of the Democratic Party of Virginia . He has not denied reports of using a “racist” comment about opponents of his stadium plan.
Unless the stadium proposal is pulled, legislation that would reform the EDA law could become a hot topic in the 2015 General Assembly session. Already, some Republicans are rumbling about changing the law. That could put Democrats in the position of voting against the reforms or repudiating Jones, their party chairman who was picked for the job by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Democrats are betting Jones will succeed. Like it or not, politics is, in good part, perception. It seems to us the kind of high-risk, low-reward political wager that seldom works.