On Democracy, and Leon Andrews for Ward 4 DC Council

Tomorrow, I’m voting for Leon Andrews for Ward 4 DC Council. There are plenty of good reasons why, and I’ll come back some of those.

The election comes down to two questions, one easy to answer, one more difficult.

The first question is whether you believe the Mayor is so consistently right on what is best for Ward 4, that she might as well be our Council member too. Electing Brandon Todd is essentially electing Muriel Bowser back into her old seat, as though she never left it to run for Mayor. Except she is Mayor.

Mayors will endorse candidates, even if I find that distasteful it is unavoidable. But this is different than in most cases, including in Ward 8, where LaRuby May appears to have a solid career and other qualifications on her resume. Todd’s answers to some basic questions from my fellow KSDA neighbors betrayed precious little knowledge of the job – he had no answer for how he would pay for his aging-in-place policy, or even why he was running for the office other than to win it. He has still yet to respond to a list of basic yes-or-no questions on his positions in a follow-up to that interview. When asked why he hadn’t been involved in Kennedy Street developments, he said he hadn’t gotten to it as he’d only been running for the office for 6 months, and had been working hard for Mayor Bowser’s election prior to that. I have a job too, and it has nothing to do with this, but I somehow find the time to try to help build my community.

Todd says he’ll ‘have the Mayor’s ear’ when in office, but isn’t it more likely to be the other way around? Won’t she be calling him to give marching orders, instead of him calling her to demand she deliver on our needs? We need our Council member to be independent of the Mayor, or we’ll never be fully guaranteed of having our interests defended.

The second question is more difficult. Who is the viable alternative? It took me until two hours before election day to decide who to vote for, and I’ve actually been paying a bit of attention. I can not imagine what the few percent of eligible votes who will show up tomorrow are going by. Leon Andrews has never run for office, so he is building his brand from scratch. Renee Bowser is further left than I am, but she’d certainly be a fighter for us. Dwayne Toliver is more centrist and has good ideas, but his campaign does not seem deep enough to have any chance.

These and especially the lesser known candidates did us no service either, putting their own unlikely ambitions before those of the Ward, refusing to coalesce around a unified opposition to surrendering Ward 4’s independence. With the exception of Doug Sloan, who withdrew to back Andrews, I don’t even know why most of this field is running. Many have run and lost handily several times already, and with little support from anyone but themselves. The few dozen or hundred votes they take from the other serious candidates prove nothing in our undemocratic plurality-takes-all system.

This election and the one in Ward 8 demonstrate how, now more than ever, we need instant runoff voting, so that the last choice candidate of the majority of voters doesn’t end up winning with 35% of the vote. I have followed ours closely enough to notice that the Washington Post and City Paper have published nothing other than empty, lazy praise (Post) and snide, nihilistic prose (City Paper) about only one candidate, the Mayor’s. They’re not helping either.

As such, my  best answer to the second question: Leon Andrews is the best alternative. Leon is a good family man, with three daughters and a smart and skilled wife (I only trust male politicians with such impressive spouses). Leon himself has a PhD in urban planning from University of Michigan, and he works at a respected institution on urban policy. He is smart, open minded, independent, and thus, qualified for the job. He has good ideas about smart growth and supports most of our priorities for Kennedy Street. He is opposed to the $140 million giveaway to DC United, and giving up the independence of the attorney general, two bad ideas that the Mayor hopes Brandon Todd will support her on. He cares about education because he has three daughters with no neighborhood middle school, which is an unacceptable legacy of the previous occupant of that seat.

My first choice for this job was AJ Cooper – I spoke at his campaign kick-off at an empty lot on Kennedy Street NW. He died unexpectedly shortly after announcing – we were supposed to have a campaign meeting at his house the night he died. AJ had the charisma and polish of a teen television star (he was one). I, as well as many of his other backers, were sent scattered by his death and never really recovered enough to find a successor to his cause. AJ was a natural in many ways, and probably had a great future in politics ahead of him. In failing to build a coalition for an independent voice, I feel like I’ve failed AJ’s legacy. I hope to do him better in the future.

But, late as it is, Leon Andrews deserves my support He is new to politics. He talks with the passion of a guy with a big heart and an open mind.He wants to bring to DC his experience from other cities – a novel position for any candidate for office in America. Leon came to a KSDA meeting after learning of the passing of an elderly neighbor, and was taking it hard but still thought it important to be there with us to talk about the future.

Most importantly, he’s just a normal, good, smart person. He doesn’t have the machine of anonymous donors backing him from PO Boxes in Pennsylvania and Florida. I am confident he would put our interests before those PO Boxes.

Six reasons DC taxpayer money shouldn’t buy some rich guy a stadium

I’m sure there are more.

DC’s lameduck Council, with the full support of the lameduck Mayor Gray and Mayor-elect Bowser, have agreed to borrow up to $140 million ($200 million counting tax giveaways) so the foreign billionaire who owns the DC United soccer team can build a private stadium for his private franchise land we all buy for him. Happy New Year, Washingtonians!

If you suspect we are being had, fear not, the DC government has an incomprehensible 400-page report to hand you to prove how smart they are. Hopefully they are smarter than the consultants who wrote it, who managed to botch the only important question in it – how much economic activity will the stadium generate? They were off by only about 200%.

So yes, like nearly all publicly-funded stadiums, this is a bad deal. And you don’t even have to be indifferent to Major League Soccer to see this. It’s in the data. Stanford Economist Rodger Noll has basically debunked all of these deals for some pretty straightforward reasons, which he supports with solid research:

  1. The economic benefits of stadiums are usually inflated, or just made up. Economic outcomes are notoriously hard to predict, and in this case, the initial estimate that the economic consultants gave was $70 million too high. The revised number is about $30 million, with an estimate that the stadium may pay itself off after 30 years. Bet you $30 million DC United wants another stadium before that happens. Either way, that’s a loss to the city in economic terms.
  2. Most stadiums are empty most of the time. When they’re empty, they are giant empty swathes of land that are generating no economic benefit to anyone. Football stadiums are the worst – they usually host 10 games plus about as many concerts and other events in any given year. A new DC United would host 20 matches or so, plus other events. But the fact that the taxpayer-funded, privately-owned Washington Nationals stadium is just down the street would limit the potential for these kinds of events, wouldn’t you say? And the DC Council is already talking about building the oblong football team a new stadium too. How many outdoor venues with lousy acoustics can Bon Jovi fill in one city every year?
  3. Costs are almost always more than estimates. The baseball stadium was over budget by about $140 million. Even the cost estimated for buying this land for DC United is under question – think the owners (developers Akridge) are going to let go of the one piece of land under consideration?
  4. Those who benefit also donate to the campaign funds of those who make decisions. No shit.
  5. Most stadiums are designed to make money for their operators, and certainly not for the cities that surround them. We have a great example of this in FedEx Field, home of the oblong football team, which is conveniently located somewhere off a highway in some cheap marshy woodlands in Prince George’s County, in a biblical sea of parking lots. Not a lot of additional spending going on here – you pay Dan Snyder to park, you pay him to get it, you pay him to eat and drink, then you wait in your car to go home. DC United’s stadium should be better served by surrounding restaurants, but not because the stadium developer actually wants them there. Every beer sold outside is one that could be sold inside. Ever wonder why no stadium allows you to leave and come back in anymore? It’s not because of security.
  6. Just because people spend money on sports, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have spent it. Part of the whole farce is this assumption that people come in to the city for a match, spend money at bars or restaurants as well as the stadium, then return to their homes in other jurisdictions. Well, what’s to say they wouldn’t have gone downtown that day anyway? DC is a huge draw for tourists, diners, theatergoers, and the like. Do they need a somewhat better soccer stadium to help them decide how to spend their money?

Why do teams want new stadiums? Two reasons. Elite seating, and designs that facilitate more spending from everyone else. Elite seating is the high-margin earner of the stadium itself, and are attractive only to an elite crowd of buyer. And design is more about the placement of concessions and the ability of fans to spend money on food, souvenirs, and other novelties for every spare second of their stay. Stadium designers get better at this stuff every year, and they’ve gotten a lot better since RFK Stadium, the current DC United home, was built.

There are stadiums that work for cities. This isn’t one.

Noll has some criteria for a stadium that may pay off, even potentially enough to be worth taxpayer subsidy. By and large, these are:

  1. Located downtown, ideally with little or no parking available, so people have to ride public transport and spend money en route to and from
  2. Are unique gathering assets in the city – perhaps the city has no other convention center or large theatre that could hold events of similar size
  3. Host as many games as possible, ideally both a hockey and a basketball team. These two sports will cover at least 100 events per year, five times more than soccer and ten times more than football.

By these metrics, DC United’s stadium will fall far short, and will be another giveaway to corporate developers and a sop to the jingoism of the government. Which is surprising, because I can’t imagine enough people were even aware that we had a soccer team to be inspired to support or oppose the deal.

One writer even demonstrated that buying DC United would be cheaper for the taxpayer than building them a stadium. My fellow advocates have been pushing the DC government to spend a few million cleaning up our somewhat dilapidated commercial streetscape on Kennedy Street NW, which will soon host dozens of locally-owned, locally-serving businesses. For the money we’re going to spend on this stadium, we could have bought market rate three-bedroom apartments for 650 homeless families in the District.