"Secret, shiny" stadium deal impacts RVA mayor’s race

There’s a new "S" word in local politics, and it has five letters instead of four: "shiny."

In the race for Richmond mayor, more than one candidate has been saying that economic development requires more than just "shiny projects" like a new baseball stadium. (City Council member Jon Baliles claims credit for using it first in this race, although he would probably admit the phrase is widespread.) But it’s just such a stadium project, however shiny, that is playing a major role as the election looms.

One of the top candidates, Jack Berry, until recently headed a non-profit called Venture Richmond. This economic development organization supported current Mayor Dwight Jones' failed plan for a new baseball stadium in the city's historic Shockoe Bottom area. Berry's instrumental role in providing this support and distrust in some quarters for his pro-development group -- some critics call it "Vulture Richmond" -- have some voters worrying about Berry’s priorities. (In their defense, Berry and his group also are largely responsible for a number of wildly popular projects like the Richmond Folk Festival.)

The noise around this issue got louder earlier this month when the city announced a deal between Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the local minor league team, the Flying Squirrels (one of the best names in baseball) for a new ballpark.

Never one to pass up a chance to grandstand, mayoral candidate Joe Morrissey immediately held a press conference to criticize the deal. We don’t know how much the city will contribute, if anything, to the deal, but Morrissey went ahead and assumed the worst; the current front-runner argued that he was the only candidate who has consistently opposed using tax money to fund sports facilities. (He's been the race’s most vocal critic of the city's deal with the Washington Redskins for a training facility, although he somewhat exaggerates the details.)

Then a funny thing happened: Levar Stoney, one of Morrissey's opponents in the race, crashed the press conference. He suggested that the city might not have to pay that much in the deal: "if it gets the city out of the baseball business," he said, "I'm all for it." But one of the reasons he was for it, he eventually revealed, was that he was in on the negotiations.

Stoney used to work for Governor Terry McAuliffe as Secretary of the Commonwealth, already a kind of catch-all job with a variety of responsibilities. Apparently McAuliffe asked Stoney to work with the city to help keep baseball in central Virginia. After he stepped down from his post to run for Mayor, Stoney kept a hand in the negotiations “as a private citizen.”

The news resulted in a round-robin of attacks among the Berry, Stoney, and Morrissey campaigns. Berry argued that Stoney "failed to remove himself or even disclose his involvement after announcing his intention to run for mayor, meanwhile working to influence the outcome behind closed doors." Stoney hit back on Berry’s support for the earlier stadium proposal. Both candidates claimed Morrissey was showboating by calling for a referendum on the matter. Meanwhile, Morrissey's campaign joined in the criticism of Stoney's "secret meetings," and has taken to calling the other candidate "Shockoe Bottom Baseball Berry."

It’s hard to know what to make of these developments. Stoney was originally doing his job, and might even deserve some credit for following through on the project even after he no longer had any professional obligation to do so. Still, his involvement feeds Morrissey's narrative about "shiny sports complexes" and "secret deals," and also raises legitimate concerns about Stoney's commitment to transparency.

This is a problem for a candidate with such strong ties to the Governor, cozy relationships with the city's Democratic Party establishment (Morrissey complained that the local Democratic endorsement for Stoney was a fait accompli), and financial support from a lot of powerful interests outside the city. Not to mention that probably the biggest failing of the current administration is insularity and a lack of communication. (For example, you could argue that Mayor Jones' stadium plan failed in part because he didn’t curry the support of necessary players like the City Council.)

Stoney's in a bad spot here. Without details on the latest stadium proposal, it's hard to know if the city really WILL be "getting out of the baseball business." (Stadium deals with public financing are almost always bad deals for taxpayers.) It’s also probably unfair to criticize the negotiations as "secret" if the city and state were essentially helping private parties -- VCU and the Squirrels -- negotiate a deal; not every stage of a private development arrangement requires, or maybe even should have, public input. It's especially hard to call it secret when the negotiations (although not Stoney's role) were announced back in April.

In the end, this "shiny project" has actually done little to [ahem] shed light on this race. And Levar Stoney, for one, may wish that this deal had been announced a little later... like on November 9.