D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has made fast friends of Washington’s sports elite in her first year in office.
She was an early backer of the region’s Olympic bid. She committed $150 million plus tax breaks for a new stadium for the D.C. United soccer team, and she offered $50 million and a plot of a land for a new Washington Wizards practice facility in Southeast.
But she’s had a decidedly tougher time making headway in bringing home her city’s beloved professional football team, which decamped to nearby Prince George’s County in Maryland 19 years ago.
For all the talk about building a new Redskins stadium on the site of its former one, RFK Stadium, Bowser (D) has never met team owner Daniel Snyder. City officials said he hasn’t even returned their telephone calls.
That didn’t change Sunday, even after Bowser and a hand-picked crowd of two dozen staffers, community leaders and supporters piled into a FedEx Field luxury suite provided by the team for its playoff matchup with the Green Bay Packers.
Sipping beer from a plastic cup and intermittently tuned into the game, Bowser cheered as the club took an early lead and chatted with guests in the heated suite while the teams exchanged scores.
As Packers ball carriers dodged one Redskins defender after another in the second half she scowled and began working through a cup of coffee plucked from the spread of chicken wings, sodas and hot dogs.
“They can’t tackle. They can’t tackle. They can’t tackle,” she said.
When fans in the stands outside began trudging toward the exits she suggested the stadium had something to do with it.
“You know why they’re leaving early — because it’s such a long drive,” she said.
Her pursuit of Snyder and his team is a complicated one. She won’t say the club’s name because she considers it offensive to Native Americans.
While friends in the suite wore team jerseys Bowser brought just one piece of garb, a carefully chosen burgundy-and-gold ball cap that said only “Washington” on the front. She said her unhappiness with the name did not conflict with her desire to bring football back.
“My view is that major cities have certain things and major sports teams are one of them,” Bowser said the week preceding the game. “The arts are another. Great parks and recreation are another. Great schools and libraries are another…[Sports] are part of our economic engine that allows me to invest in other things, like affordable housing and ending homelessness.”
Besides, Bowser said her economic development efforts extend beyond sports. She backed $60 million in incentives to keep consulting giant the Advisory Board Co. in town and offered $3.6 million to grocery chain Safeway, which had blocked redevelopment of the Skyland Shopping Center in Southeast.
Critics on the D.C. Council have panned her negotiations with businesses, likening the deals to corporate welfare. Officials in Virginia quietly scoffed at the deal for the Wizards facility, the cost of which D.C. taxpayers will pay more than 90 percent.
If she makes a deal with Snyder, who recently hired architect Bjarke Ingels Group to design a new stadium, it will mark a hat trick of sorts: subsidies to United owner Erick Thohir (Forbes-estimated net worth of $860 million), Wizards owner Ted Leonsis ($1 billion) and Dan Snyder ($2.1 billion).
“I don’t want to pay one penny more than I have to for anything, in my personal life or in this life,” she said. “So if I present to somebody a deal that includes incentives for a business owner, believe me I’ve only done it because that’s what it takes to get us there.”
Bowser is not such a zealous sports fan that she can name many of the local players but she touts D.C. as the country’s #sportscapital on social media, aggressively pursued the Olympics and sometimes takes business meetings at the Verizon Center during basketball and hockey games.
In 2018, when she will be up for re-election, Bowser will host Major League Baseball’s All Star Game and plans to cut the ribbon on both the United stadium and the Wizards facility. Though Snyder didn’t show Sunday, Redskins President Bruce Allen had called her staff to donate the tickets and a team official visited the suite to thank them for attending. The team declined
to comment through a spokesman.
But Bowser has not made the same in-roads with the Redskins as her chief competitor, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has palled around in Redskins gear with Snyder on sidelines of training camp in Richmond and received a $25,000 campaign donation from him. Sitting in the suite beside Bowser’s Sunday afternoon, separated by a panel of glass, was McAuliffe’s secretary of commerce and trade, Maurice Jones.
McAuliffe is also the rare locally elected Democrat who does not speak ill of the name, which many Native American groups consider a racist slur. Bowser says the name needs to change for the team to return to D.C. and for now she is counting on larger cultural and political influences to make the point moot.
“I think the forces around that issue are moving in that direction,” she said.
D.C. would also have to contend with Prince George’s. County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who also was at the game Sunday and remains committed to keeping the team. Thomas Himler, Baker’s deputy chief administrative officer, said the team is one of the jurisdiction’s biggest commercial tax payers.
“We definitely want them to stay in the county. They are a major attraction for the county and a major asset for the county,” Himler said.
Himler said there had not been any discussions about the team buying out its lease and that he wasn’t sure if the county had a better chance of keeping the team at FedEx or a new location.
“I’m not sure the team knows. They’re still exploring options,” he said.
Longtime Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, who died in 1997, wanted to build a new stadium for the team in D.C. but started looking elsewhere after lengthy negotiations broke down with then-mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and federal officials, who control the land beneath RFK.
In an interview Pratt said she didn’t have trouble reaching Cooke but that their interactions were laden with “offensive” details, such as the Confederate memorabilia in his home and the time she says he patted her on the behind following a positive meeting. (Cooke said before he died that he patted her back.)
Pratt’s private sector experience was touted when she entered office in 1991, but she has been roundly criticized since then for allowing the team to leave. She said she thinks women – even today — are at a disadvantage negotiating in the still male-dominated world of pro sports.
“The world has changed dramatically but I do think there is the notion that women don’t get the importance of this and I think there is an underlying prejudice in that,” Pratt said.
Pratt said that although her family was season ticket holders, many stakeholders “don’t perceive these issues as mattering to [women]. I would have reporters peppering me about if I really understood football. But I was really a fan.”
Bowser dismisses her gender as a handicap but has begun to toughen her early stadium comments. Even though the team’s current lease doesn’t expire until 2027 the District is studying the RFK land and she expects to put the area to productive use as soon as United leaves in 2018.
“When we reach our decision point we are going to do it with or without the team. So that decision for us is when the D.C. United plays its last game there they will move into a new stadium,” she said. “I think we will have every discussion that we need but if they don’t want to be at RFK, then we will move on without them.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz