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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT
My Career in Politics
By Tom Goldstein
On November 13, 1997, the Minnesota House of Representatives rejected the Minnesota Twins demand for a publicly financed outdoor stadium by a resounding 8447 margin. Almost nine years later, after a multi-year, multi-million dollar lobbying and PR campaign by the Twinsand several versions of increasingly convoluted funding schemesthe same legislative body, albeit with a vastly different makeup, approved a Twins stadium bill by a 7161 vote. It then went to the Minnesota Senate, where it squeaked by on a 3432 vote. And when Governor Tim Pawlenty signed the bill into law, the Twins had the financing mechanisma dedicated .15 percent sales tax increase in Hennepin County (Minneapolis)they needed to build what likely will become a $600 million-plus stadium project once infrastructure, transportation, and environmental mitigation costs are factored in. Five months after this decision, I am still unsure how to react.
There is certainly anger. In a state that three years ago shaved more than $5 billion from its annual budget at the behest of a "no new taxes" Republican governor, it seems implausible that Democrats in the Minnesota Senate would be the swing votes that found a way to fund a new baseball stadium but virtually nothing else during the past legislative session. Yet twenty-two Democratic senators, one of whom had spent many years directing a coalition of social service agencies dramatically impacted by the governor's 2003 budget cuts, voted yes.
And there is indignation. Not just for the politicians, but for a supplicant media that saw only one story year after year: would the Twins' stadium bill pass this time around? Almost never was the question asked if the stadium bill should pass, or whether the Twins had even made a case for public support. Instead, the local newspapers, especially the Minneapolis Star Tribune, found something of merit in virtually every stadium bill proposed at the Capitol. One Star Tribune editorial writer in particular was given free rein to continually harangue the public with all sorts of dire warnings about what would happen to the quality of life in Minnesota if the Twins departed (as if that was ever a realistic threat) or, alternatively, how passing a stadium bill would only cost taxpayers in Hennepin County a mere three cents on a $20 purchase, as if that alone justified the public picking up the tab for billionaire Twins owner Carl Pohlad who, with a reported net worth of $2.8 billion, is the seventy-eighth richest man in the country.
But there is also sadness. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies that were at stake every year, there was rarely a substantive discussion about the merits of a particular stadium proposal or why it was that the Twins themselves couldn't fund a stadium on their own. An abundance of lawyers (and several prosecutors) serve in the state legislature, yet there was virtually no scrutiny of the Twins finances nor of the incredibly favorable language that the Twins' lobbyists got written into bill after bill. Somehow, because it was a baseball stadium, whatever the Twins wanted was seen as reasonable. One legislator, a banker by trade, inquired at a committee hearing if the Twins were making any money. Told by team president Jerry Bell that the team ended up in the red every year, the legislator had no further questions.
What I found especially frustrating was witnessing the phalanx of lobbyists, public officials, PR firms, labor unions, bar and restaurant owners, and any other group that stood to benefit from the construction and operation of a new baseball stadium in the Twin Cities march upon the Capitol every year and be welcomed with open arms, yet those who stood to gain nothing by advocating for the public interest were essentially ignored. One could present legislators with mountains of data about how a new stadium didn't guarantee a winning team, how attendance in many new facilities had plummeted just a few years after opening, or how ticket prices skyrocketed in a new ballparkbut the personal appeals, public testimony, and fact sheets offered by private citizens like myself meant little against the paid influence that the Twins were able to bring to the legislature year after year.
Beyond the Twins' huge financial advantage, they also benefitted from a special political gift handed them by former governor Arne Carlson before he left office. When Carl Pohlad triggered an escape clause in the Twins' lease that allowed the team to vacate the Metrodomebut then failed to win funding for a new stadium at the 1997 special sessionthe Twins suddenly found themselves in a vulnerable spot: they had no agreement beyond the 1998 season. This appeared to provide the state with substantial negotiating leverage, perhaps enough to broker a long-term deal that would bind the Twins to the Dome for another five years, if not longer. Instead, the governor's man in charge at the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission skipped the negotiations, granted the team a favorable three-year lease extension, and thus gave the Twins a guaranteed bargaining chip in future legislative sessions.
Of course, it didn't hurt the Twins' efforts that whenever bills for stadium funding were before the state legislature, the media rarely paid attention to those in opposition. Every year the media would quote essentially the same Twins officials and pro-stadium legislators in the news, yet when it came to the opponents, reporters always wanted to speak to a "fresh face." As a result, several individuals got their fifteen seconds of fame, but it merely reinforced the media-generated perception that those citizens who were against public funding were perhaps a little bit wacky rather than a disparate coalition of committed activists. On several occasions I submitted opinion pieces to the Minneapolis newspaper in opposition to various Twins' funding schemes, only to be ignored. After half a dozen rejections I stopped trying.
However, it should also be noted that apart from the overwhelming public opposition that materialized during the 1997 legislative special session (so many angry citizens inundated the Capitol switchboard with phone calls that the system shut down), and a well-organized coalition to defeat a sales tax referendum in 1999 in St. Paul, there was rarely a cohesive effort to counter the Twins annual stadium push. That the team took nine years to finally pass a stadium-financing bill was more a function of partisan gridlock, an incredibly inept lobbying strategy for much of the time, and a handful of powerful state legislators who managed to delay and bottle up ill-conceived legislation at crucial points in the process.
There was also the issue of stadium "fatigue." Even though public opinion polls a week before the final legislative vote showed two-thirds of Minnesotans opposed to spending public money to build a new stadium, legislators had heard enough. Nine years of disproportionate attention to stadium bills and a growing weariness of the Twins unabated lobbying efforts persuaded a majority of them to cry uncle. So they did.
As I look back on seven years as an ardent opponent of public funding for sports stadiums, I am left to ponder what I learned from the experience. As a practical matter, I gained expertise in how to lobby public officials, how to give compelling testimony at a legislative hearing, and how to orchestrate a successful press conference. I also learned that you can't take the process too personally, because it's much easier to loathe someone else than it is to persuade him or her on the merits of your cause.
The most informative lesson, however, was the most disheartening one: simply put, there is an enormous leadership vacuum among politicians these days. State officeholders include brilliant scholars, successful business people, experienced teachers and professors, accomplished attorneys, skilled farmers, former small-town mayorsand almost none of them could be counted on to treat legislation about a baseball stadium with the same seriousness and thoughtfulness they devoted to a whole myriad of issues that might have involved one-tenth the cost. They refused to see the issue as one of social justice, of the haves versus the have nots, because it was much easier to just say, "Hey, I don't want to lose the Twins," than confront the distortions and mistruths that the team regularly put forward. So legislators would rarely vote yes or no based on any personal conviction.
Instead, the decisive issue was simply whether or not they believed there was political cover for their actions. For a political insider, this probably comes as no surprise. For a political newcomer, the gutless behavior never ceased to rankle me.
In the end, though, the question I always ask myself is this: was it worth it? In 1997, I watched in admiration as a dogged champion of the people, the Rev. Ricky Rask, served as a lightning rod for public opposition to a Twins stadiumbut it never occurred to me that it was my job to get involved. I had a young son to raise, a business to runlet somebody else fight this battle. In the spring of 1999, however, St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, a teflon-slick politician trying to salvage his political career (he'd just lost the governor's race to Jesse Ventura), decided to lure the Twins to my city's downtown with a publicly funded outdoor stadium. At that point, I felt like I had no choice. Coleman had already engaged in several public giveaways to his crony businessmen friends; I was damned if he was going to do the same thing for the Twins. So I decided to do something about itand kept doing it for another seven years.
And that, I guess, is the simple lesson here: if you care about your hometown, if you care about your community, whether it's business development, the environment, mass transit, preserving a way of lifeor just trying to stop a billionaire from fleecing the publicget involved. It might have inspired more people if this cause had been about saving an old ballpark, but we don't always get to choose our battles. Often as not, someone else chooses them for us. And then the choice is clear: fight or capitulate. I'm a fighter.
TOM GOLDSTEIN is a graduate of the William Mitchell College of Law. Last November, he was elected to a four-year term as a member of the St. Paul School Board.
This column first appeared in EFQ 23:4,
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