The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Key Virginia senators raise doubts about Commanders stadium bill

Virginia state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) said he has lost confidence in the Washington Commanders and would not vote for a bill to bring a stadium to the state. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Two key state senators on Wednesday separately raised doubts about legislation meant to lure the Washington Commanders football team to Virginia with a new, taxpayer-supported stadium, signaling that the effort could be in trouble when the General Assembly returns to the Capitol next week.

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), for years one of the team’s most ardent boosters in Richmond, announced that he will not vote for a stadium bill — in part because he has lost “confidence in the Washington Commanders as a viable NFL franchise.”

His concerns were rooted chiefly in the team’s on-field woes, diminished fan base and abandonment of its original name, which the team dumped amid criticism that it was a racial slur but the senator supported as a historic and storied National Football League brand.

Separately, Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford), part of a team of legislators working to hash out differences in rival House and Senate stadium bills and rein in the cost to taxpayers to below $300 million, said controversies surrounding Commanders owner Daniel Snyder threaten to sink the legislation. Snyder has been accused of sexual misconduct and financial improprieties — allegations he denies.

“Most people would like to have the team here. The question that still remains is whether or not there is any political will to move forward this year given some of the difficulties surrounding the owner,” Newman said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I’ve heard from a number of fellow senators who are concerned.”

Commanders team president Jason Wright said in a statement: “We are incredibly eager to continue our work with legislative leaders in Virginia and other jurisdictions. The bill being crafted in the Virginia General Assembly would pave the way for us to engage in meaningful discussions with state and local leaders in the Commonwealth on their economic development goals and how our new venue can dramatically support those objectives.”

Some members of the General Assembly remained upbeat about the plan’s prospects, although Del. Barry D. Knight (R-Virginia Beach), who sponsored the bill in the House, declined to comment, and Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who carried it in the Senate, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I feel very confident that we still have a majority in both chambers to pass the legislation,” said Del. Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William), who said the project would bring “an economic infusion into the commonwealth of Virginia for many years to come.”

“This is not about what we can do for the Commanders — this is about Virginians finally getting a team,” said Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico). “Virginia fans deserve to reap all the benefits of a team and hope that this will be the first of more to come.”

The Commanders are contractually obligated to play at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., until 2027, after which they could stay or seek another home. The team has been shopping for a new home for years in Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

Snyder wants to build not just a new stadium but a vast commercial and residential complex that supporters call a “mini-city,” including a convention center, concert venue, hotels, restaurants and housing. A pair of bills introduced in Virginia’s General Assembly this year would create a stadium authority to oversee construction and financing of the project, allowing the team to collect a share of state tax revenue generated by the stadium and the more expansive commercial development to finance construction of the stadium.

The effort initially appeared to have broad support, with Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) giving it a shout-out in his first speech to the General Assembly. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates and the Democratic-led Senate passed separate bills in February by wide, bipartisan margins.

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But there were concerns about the amount of tax revenue the state would forfeit, initially estimated at $1 billion. In March, negotiators trying to iron out differences in the bills said they would cap the cost at $350 million. They failed to reach a compromise before the legislature wrapped up its regular session that month, so the legislation rolled into a special session called primarily to complete work on the state budget.

Little information on the stadium bills emerged from negotiations since then, but on Wednesday, Newman said they plan to lower the cap again, to under $300 million. He also said he expects the compromise bill to let the team have a share of revenue generated only from the stadium, not from the broader commercial development. Without that provision, Newman predicted the bills will die in conference committee, meaning they will not come before the House and Senate for a vote next week.

Newman said negotiators have made “good progress” toward ensuring the stadium bill would make solid financial sense for the commonwealth. But as negotiators have focused on the financials, Newman noted, questions about Snyder have been raised.

The Commanders and Snyder have been embroiled in scandal for much of the past two years with the allegations of sexual misconduct and financial impropriety, which have prompted investigations by the NFL and Congress, as well as possibly the Federal Trade Commission. Last month, attorneys general Karl A. Racine of D.C. and Jason S. Miyares of Virginia launched their own probes of the team and Snyder.

Petersen and Newman voiced concerns about the bill following reports this week that the Commanders had acquired the right to purchase 200 acres in Prince William County for the project. Leaked a little more than a week before the General Assembly has its last chance to vote on the stadium bill June 1, the disclosure could have been intended to pull the measure over the finish line.

But it had the opposite effect for Petersen, who in his statement objected to the Woodbridge site, near the Potomac Mills shopping center and 23 miles from the U.S. Capitol building, as “too far removed from an urban setting, unlike Nats Park at the Navy Yard, which will make it solely dependent on vehicle traffic for access.”

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Petersen said his more serious concern was the team’s diminished stature on the field and in the community — this from a die-hard fan who in 2014 co-founded the legislature’s “Redskins Pride Caucus” to defend the team’s original name.

“That team defined our community for multiple generations,” he wrote.The Washington Commanders are not that team. They have no history, no tradition and no fan base. I do not consider them an appropriate economic partner for the Commonwealth of Virginia, because I don’t think they have the community support to survive.”

Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.