In 2004, Major League Baseball entertained offers to relocate the Montreal Expos (who were actually a good team at one point) to a variety of locations. Eventually, MLB settled on Washington, DC with the lure of a publicly financed ballpark that left little for the owners of the franchise to worry about – at least in terms of what they’d be on the hook for. In the end, the prospect of public financing tanked three city council elections for incumbents and even gave the chance for Marion Barry to make a comeback politically. The change in the city council makeup changed the dynamics of the stadium financing deal, and Washington almost lost the relocated franchise.
DC’s primary elections were held before any vote took place on the stadium deal. Former Mayor Marion Barry won 57% of the vote in his primary, and Vincent Gray took 50%. Political newcomer (at the time) Kwame Brown trounced a fourteen-year incumbent in the district’s at-large seat by 22 points. They focused on a populist message, something fed significantly by the stadium controversy:
In each race, the challengers gained ground by contending that entrenched incumbents had failed to ensure that average families got their share of the city’s expanding economic pie. Barry, in particular, accused the council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) of focusing too much attention on rebuilding downtown and too little on helping the city’s downtrodden.
The victories of Barry, Brown and Gray could have enormous implications for the direction of economic development in the city. All three called for greater emphasis on affordable housing and new development for neighborhoods. And all three say they oppose raising taxes to build a Major League Baseball stadium, a priority for Williams and for baseball officials, who are on the verge of deciding whether to move the Montreal Expos to the Washington region.
Cobb County finds itself in similar circumstances if not identical. Vocal opponents are upset about the financing arrangements, even though it is far more favorable than the DC stadium deal was. The governing body is going ahead with plans to ensure the deal is secured despite opposition. Most importantly, an election is looming where this issue will most certainly raise its head. May isn’t too far off (assuming that’s where primary elections for state and local offices will be set) and the two commissioners facing reelection contests are likely to see even more opposition as a result.
The responses thus far haven’t exactly been endearing from the public officials. From Helen Goreham’s response saying “I would think you’d be pleased…” to Commission Chairman Tim Lee’s response of “I need the .33 mills to make this happen…” (you read that correctly – I and not we need this park bond mill levy). Sentiment like that on the part of public officials doesn’t build a positive relationship with constituents. Yes, we elect them to make decisions on our behalf. No, that doesn’t insulate them from criticism or complaint when those decisions are unacceptable or convoluted.
The political dynamic of this cannot be understated. Recent polling shows Cobb residents support the move but oppose public financing options. Tim Lee owes his seat more to bad opposition than good execution on his part during the last election cycle. The conservative wing in Cobb is not a big fan of Helen Goreham and she will face serious opposition in this election cycle. Should anyone mount a well-organized challenge, she will lose. The aggressive (if somewhat uncouth) efforts of the Tea Party is showing their muscle in the fight and have a legitimate bone to pick with the plan. Likely, the Tea Party will be unsuccessful in stopping the Memorandum of Understanding from passage; they’ll likely harbor resentment for those facing re-election come the May primary.
The Nationals and the Braves have a growing rivalry, and smart public officials would do well to call on the history of the rivals to find a better way forward. I don’t imagine that is going to happen, though, as the “I’m the winner” mentality I previously wrote about will demonstrate. Tim Lee will win this fight with five votes on the line, but his ally in Goreham will probably be off the board come this time next year…and he might face some renewed challenge to his position from a better organized candidate in the next cycle after.