RVA stadium battle is also about legislative power

The big issue in Richmond politics these days: squirrels. Flying ones.

A short recap: late last year, Mayor Dwight Jones introduced a plan to create a publicly-funded minor league ballpark in the historic Shockoe Bottom district in downtown Richmond. The Flying Squirrels, a double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, plays in a somewhat-decrepit stadium elsewhere in the city. He tied the plan to the development of both the Shockoe area around the stadium, and the Boulevard site where the current stadium stands. Ostensibly to gather further support for the plan, he threw in a museum commemorating historic slave sites in Shockoe.

The big problem: to get the plan passed, the mayor needed at least a majority of the City Council to support it. And he didn't have the votes. So he had to withdraw the plan, supposedly for re-tooling. It was a huge political defeat for the Mayor. He staked his entire second term on this proposal, and he doesn't seem to have a Plan B (although according to Paul Goldman, he's crafting a plan to get the 5th City Council vote he needs).

Now a private developer has introduced a new plan to build a stadium at the original Boulevard site, using private funding. (Although also including lots of tax dollars through incentives and paybacks. Nothing in stadium financing is ever entirely private.) This makes it even harder for the mayor's plan to go forward.

As I told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month, the stadium battle presents a political opportunity for City Council members looking to distinguish themselves. Both the First District's Jon Baliles and Council President Charles Samuels seem to be using their opposition to the mayor's proposal to build a bigger profile in the city. (To be fair, they may also think it's a bad idea. Not everyone in politics is a Frank Underwood.) Today, Baliles continued to outflank Jones by suggesting that, in a separate deal, the city buy some Shockoe land for future development.

Richmond's government is relatively new; the city only went to a "strong-mayor" model, with a separately elected Council and mayor, in 2005. The rules for power-sharing among branches are not well-developed, especially because Doug Wilder's rocky term as Mayor did not really establish any precedents. This means that entrepreneurial legislators like Baliles can seize the initiative from the supposedly more powerful Administration, particularly if the head of that Administration doesn't line up either Council votes or public support for their chief policies.

So while we're walking the usual terrain for urban politics - development and more development -- we're also watching two branches of government fighting for the upper hand. It might be fun to watch if you're not on the hook for the resulting tax bill.