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Key Democratic lawmakers object to Redskins stadium on federal land

From left, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Virginia State Del. Kaye Kory (D) in 2015. McCollum is objecting to the possibility that a Washington Redskins stadium might be located on public land in the District, a proposal Norton is involved in discussing. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Two key lawmakers — the incoming chairman of a House panel and the ranking Democratic senator directing the Interior Department’s spending — said they are firmly opposed to rushing through any legislation that could pave the way for a Washington Redskins stadium on federal land.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who will lead the Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies next year, spoke out after The Washington Post reported Friday on an effort by the team, D.C. officials and congressional Republicans to insert language in a sweeping year-end spending bill that could clear a crucial obstacle to building a new facility on the site of the existing RFK Stadium.

In an interview Monday, McCollum raised two objections — to the potential long-term private use of federal land without a thorough public process and to the team’s name, which she called a “racial slur.”

Redskins, D.C. working with Congress to slip stadium provision into spending bill

“That’s not something the federal government should be condoning, encouraging or be a part of,” said McCollum, a co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. “Is it because there are no tribes here that it’s okay — they really don’t exist; we can pretend that this doesn’t mean anything? It means a great deal to young Native American children, that means a great deal to Native American veterans. It means a great deal to me.”

Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), the ranking Democrat on the corresponding Senate Appropriations subcommittee, said Tuesday that he, too, would “fully oppose” any effort to slip a stadium-related provision in the year-end bill.

That, he said in a written statement, “would send a terrible message that Congress supports the Washington football team’s racist name, as well as having potentially lasting and damaging implications for how Congress handles public lands.”

Udall’s father, Stewart L. Udall, played a key role in an earlier episode of the team’s history: As interior secretary during the Kennedy administration, the elder Udall demanded that then-Redskins owner George Preston Marshall integrate his all-white team, the last in the National Football League, if he wanted to occupy the brand-new RFK Stadium. Marshall agreed under pressure.

“Congress should not give our stamp of approval to these ugly and derogatory stereotypes and slurs of Indigenous peoples,” his son said of the team’s name Tuesday.

The remarks from McCollum and Udall highlight the stakes for the team and city officials who are moving quickly, hoping to make a stadium the centerpiece of a new commercial and residential development on the banks of the Anacostia River east of Capitol Hill. In addition, they threaten a parallel effort to locate the stadium on a federal tract in Maryland that would also require congressional review.

McCollum’s opposition also demonstrates why there is a last-minute push to insert a D.C. stadium provision in must-pass legislation this year before Democrats — many of whom share McCollum’s opinion about the team name — take over the House majority in January.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said Monday that he is working to include a provision dealing with the RFK site in any year-end legislative package.

According to four D.C. and federal officials familiar with the talks, language under discussion as recently as last week surrounded a 99-year extension of the current D.C. lease on the federal site, which runs through 2038. The legislation would also remove restrictions on the use of the land that dictate “stadium purposes” or “recreational facilities, open space, or public outdoor recreation opportunities” only.

That language goes further than a bill introduced last year by House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and heard by Bishop’s committee that would extend the lease by 50 years without changing the use restrictions.

Responding to McCollum’s remarks Tuesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said that “anybody who would try to keep control of RFK from the residents of the District is misguided” and noted that the current push is more than two years in the making.

“We have at this point a stadium that’s no longer being used, a sea of parking, and we want to make sure that we extend the lease to at least 99 years and that we are able to use it not just for sports and entertainment,” she said.

Bishop, who is an outspoken advocate of handing control of federal land to state and local governments, said he did not think that D.C. officials were going far enough in seeking a lease extension. It would be better, he said, to convey the land outright to the city.

“What they’re asking for is really short of what I want to give them,” he said. “There’s no reason under God’s green earth that the federal government should have RFK Stadium. There’s no reason why we had it in the first place, and the city needs it. Whether they have a long lease extension or a short lease extension, it’s still a lease extension, and they should just take the entire dang thing.”

But that is the sort of talk that makes McCollum and other Democrats blanch when talking about public lands, aside from the matter of the team’s name.

“This is a radical change, and it needs to really be examined and looked at,” McCollum said of any long-term lease. “I mean, what’s the value of the property? If it goes to D.C. and they’re going to turn around and lease and make money on it, we have to make sure that the federal taxpayer is whole on this.”

“I’m not opposed to D.C. doing great things in the community here,” she added. “But we need to make sure that we follow a process, that we don’t open ourselves up to somebody saying, ‘Well, you did this for D.C., why can’t you do it for this group over here?’ ”

What remains unclear is whether there will even be the sort of sweeping year-end package that Bishop and others are hoping to use as a vehicle for an RFK provision. President Trump and top Democratic congressional leaders held a testy meeting Tuesday that ended in threats of a government shutdown from Trump over border wall funding — leaving grave doubts that Congress will be able to pass anything substantive before year’s end.

In addition to looking at the RFK site, Maryland state officials are proposing to locate the stadium on a 300-acre federal site in Oxon Cove, across the Capital Beltway from the MGM National Harbor casino. The state signed a memorandum of understanding with the Interior Department last year that represents a first step toward gaining control of the site.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said Tuesday that “Congress would have to have some role in the process, but not nearly as much as what they have to do in D.C.,” acknowledging that the state is continuing to work to gain control of the site.

In the new Congress, McCollum said, Democrats will keep a close eye on matters dealing with public lands generally and on the Redskins’ plans specifically — and those concerns could jeopardize plans to locate the stadium on the D.C. or Maryland sites.

“This is federal money,” she said. “This is D.C. money that eventually will be involved. And this is a very wealthy individual [Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder] who isn’t in this except to win football games and make some money. . . . We need to do our job. We need to do it right. We need to have a public discussion about this.”

Rachel Chason and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this article.

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