“I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that,” Seattle city council member Lorena González said after council president Bruce Harrell made yet another clunky sports analogy during yesterday’s Sonics arena vote. This time—after first quipping earlier in the hearing about “batting averages” and “being on deck”—Harrell told González, “you’re in the fourth quarter…almost in overtime.”
“Despite the subject, I commit to not using a sports analogy,” González had quipped herself.
With González's vote in the balance, the council was now split, 4-4: Harrell, along with council members Tim Burgess, Rob Johnson, and Mike O’Brien, were in favor of granting billionaire investor Chris Hansen a street vacation in SoDo on Occidental Avenue South so Hansen’s Arena Co. could go forward with construction of a new basketball arena. Sally Bagshaw, Lisa Herbold, Debora Juarez, and Kshama Sawant were against it.
Juarez and Sawant had only just revealed their no votes in real time on the council dais moments before. Not even Bagshaw nor Herbold, who had been lobbying for weeks against the deal, knew how their colleagues planned to vote. In fact, Bagshaw— after making her arguments that approving the street closure would surrender any “leverage” the city had to protect maritime workers, noted there was no NBA team on the way, “pitted sports against family wage jobs,” and overlooked city owned land at KeyArena—worried that she was about to be on the losing end of an 8-1 vote.
But then, in a council chambers packed with Sonics fans in Sonics jerseys, it all came down to at-large city council member González’s vote. The Sonics saga all began, by the way, during the mayor Greg Nickels’s administration way back in 2008 when the city sued Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett to prevent him from breaking his KeyArena lease and moving the Sonics (along with first round draft pick Kevin Durant) to OKC.
González is an attorney, and like a judge reading an opinion, backing into a final decision with rhetorical loop-dee-loops… “I cannot say I would have voted in favor of the 2012 memorandum of understanding [for the arena], but the decision in front of us today is not a rehashing of the memorandum of understanding, but a land use decision…”... she ultimately landed on no. “I’ve always been a skeptic of the use of public dollars to finance a private capital venture," she said, "and I believe it’s in the city’s best interest to protect the jobs we know we have rather than sell the street for hypothetical jobs that are contingent on a hypothetical team.”
Herbold’s jaw visibly dropped; go to the video tape. (How’s that for a sports analogy? And at least I’ve got the right sport.)
Earlier in the hearing, Herbold had floated a poison pill amendment mandating that the council only grant Hansen the street vacation if he secured an NBA team. “The public benefit is getting the Sonics back,” Herbold reasoned. In (what turned out to be) a misleading sign that the street vacation was a done deal, Herbold’s amendment failed 6-3; only Bagshaw and Juarez supported her. But when it came time for the vote on the legislation itself, both Sawant and Juarez joined Bagshaw and Herbold and came out against the deal. Sawant condemned “big developers who want to redevelop the industrial core of Seattle…who are slowly squeezing out our working waterfront” and criticized corporate sports like the NBA for being “barons who own our professional sports teams [and] are allowed to have monopoly control over entertainment for millions of ordinary working people who are sports fans” while she hailed the maritime labor movement. A prominent argument against a Sonics arena in SoDo has come from the maritime industry which says the traffic from a three-stadium arena district and the gentrification that comes with glitzy sports development will kill the industrial sector in SoDo. Likewise, Juarez said she preferred to vote for an existing port over a “nonexistent” NBA team.
And then after a few yes vote speeches from Johnson (he pointed out that the site was not in an industrial zone and that “we’re talking about one block in a city where we’ve got 30 percent of our land mass for roadway infrastructure”) and O’Brien (he said he believed “the public benefit that’s being provided by Arena Co. is an excellent public benefit”), González took the mike and cast the deciding vote. “I don’t believe the traffic issues have been dealt with,” she concluded, “and I’m going to be voting no” to audible devastated nos—and cheers from maritime labor.
Thanks to the order of the speeches and the choreography of the voting, the afternoon drama fell to González. And certainly, González's show stopping vote came with some storylines. Wasn’t she supposed to be the mayor’s go-to on the city council? She used to be mayor Ed Murray’s legal counsel; Murray (like any incumbent mayor, I guess) was for the potential NBA deal. (Mayor Mike McGinn before Murray was the architect of the Hansen-NBA deal back in 2012.) And despite González’s lefty social justice cred, she has mainstream, establishment ambition. Does she want to be remembered as the council member who sank the Sonics?
The other storyline: The three powerhouse lefties on the council—González, Herbold, and Sawant, who often seem to be jockeying for leadership of the left wing bloc—had finally aligned. Was this the start of something new? (Of course, the fact that the five women on the council had outvoted the four men—over a sports arena—was hardly lost on the testosterone feed that is twitter. Social media quickly went berserk.)
But the real storyline is this: A debate over funding sports arenas has traumatized Seattle for decades. Back in 1995, the King County council overruled the public and voted to tax the public to build Safeco. The sour taste led to a populist backlash (only in Seattle would a populist backlash side against pro sports) which, in turn, led to the election of council member Nick Licata in 1997; Licata had been a citizen activist against the Safeco tax. In the mid-2000s, when nerdy Licata was city council president, he led a fight to stop a $200 million Sonics bailout (he infamously told Sports Illustrated the Sonics didn’t bring any cultural value to the city). The public was with him at least when it came to funding sports arenas. That fall the public passed I-91, which stated that Seattle couldn’t spend tax dollars on teams unless the investments yielded a profit.
The 2012 Hansen deal came with supposed guarantees that kept the city in sync with I-91, but Licata remained skeptical and was just one of two votes against the Hansen deal in 2012.
Yesterday, Licata and the anti-stadium movement finally got the last word as Licata’s longtime aide, and now council member herself, Herbold, heading up a majority council bloc against the SoDo arena, carried the day.
Harrell had been referring to Herbold’s failed amendment—and then her two subsequent passing amendments, one to guarantee public use of a plaza in front of the arena and one granting nearby stairway access, when he made his “batting average” analogy. “Two thirds is a great batting average, so you’re doing well,” Harrell had said. Perhaps he didn't realize how well Herbold was actually doing as she executed the long game that her former boss Licata—who was texting with Herbold during the vote—had set in motion years ago.
As for Mayor Murray: A pivotal Seattle Times story revealed on Sunday before the vote that the council wasn’t originally even going to take up the street vacation this year, but Murray pressured transportation chair Mike O’Brien into forcing the issue—with a super weird quote about being “supportive… when his [O'Brien's] good friend Mike McGinn was mayor.” After the vote on Monday, Murray lashed out again.
“The city’s past actions contributed to the Sonics leaving Seattle. Today’s council vote makes it less likely that the NBA will return to the city of Seattle,” he said in a morbid and petulant statement.