Motley Crew

The nascent effort to derail plans for a new stadium runs the length of the political spectrum

As evidenced by all the kvetching on talk radio and in letters to the editor, opposition to public funding for a new downtown baseball stadium appears widespread and vocal. The basic premise is hard for many to support: Rich owners want a public subsidy to build a new facility to help pay for rich players, who play in front of fans who, increasingly, are either relatively rich or get free tickets from work -- or from somebody else's work, or from their uncle or a neighbor. With infield loge seats going for 34 bucks, fewer and fewer fans are paying out of their own pockets.

Couple that with the Cardinals' claim that only 7 percent of the their 3.3 million fans live in the city of St. Louis, and it looks like fertile ground for a resistance movement, at least within the city limits. All the riled citizens need is a leader to show them the way to the Bastille. So who will lead the city's rabble against the aristocrats?

Egad, it's Z. Dwight Billingsly. And right behind him is Michael Chance.

To be fair, Dwight's no dummy; neither is Michael. But they are both city-dwelling Republicans. Let's face it -- if the Republicans held a parade in the city, they might not need a permit. A minivan might preclude the need for a second vehicle. Even Billingsly admits that his effort to block the stadium by forcing a public vote hasn't, well, caught fire.

"While the public says they don't like this thing, it's been hard to build up a lot of momentum organizationally for this," says Billingsly. "Republicans don't have a comprehensive infrastructure in St. Louis, so it's been real slow going."

Comprehensive infrastructure? Yeah, Ald. Fred Heitert(R-12th), the only Republican of the city's 28 aldermen, isn't exactly Boss Tweed.

It's hard to blame Billingsly or Chance for the lack of movement. Billingsly, who opposed the building of a domed stadium when he was the city's deputy comptroller under Virvus Jones, has lost two elections in the last year. That's just about a normal year for Z. Dwight, who periodically runs for office no matter the odds. Chance won in his first election attempt, the March Republican mayoral primary, but lost to Francis Slay in the April general election. Slay got 88 percent of the vote.

Billingsly and Chance admit their recent electoral routs have diverted them from working 24-7 on the petition to block the stadium. But even as the petition languishes in the horse latitudes, help appears to be on the way. Jeanette Mott Oxford is the new "first chair" of the effort, dubbed the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums. Oxford isn't someone you'd suspect of being in the same book club as Billingsly and Chance. She's liberal, she's a Democrat and she's a lesbian. More important, she's shown she knows how to run an effective campaign.

In March, South Sider Oxford lost by 64 votes to Russ Carnahan in the Democratic primary for the 59th state House district. That she finished so close to the late Gov. Mel Carnahan's son shows the effectiveness of her political skills; that she's joined forces with Billingsly and Chance should make Cardinals president Mark Lamping nervous. The stadium is serving as a shotgun in the wedding of varying political forces, coupling conservative Republicans and anti-corporate-welfare leftists. For the Republican instigators of the petition, the influx of libertarians, Green Party members and liberal Democrats is good news.

"We may be approaching this from different perspectives, different angles, but the thing we have in common is that we all agree that what has been proposed so far as the financing scheme for a new baseball stadium is just a bad deal all the way around," says Chance. "It will do nothing but hurt the financial well-being of the city of St. Louis, let alone the county and state."

Billingsly based the wording of the petition on a successful effort in Minneapolis, where voters blocked a new stadium in 1997. In San Francisco, the public voted five times to reject stadium proposals. Finally Pac Bell Park was built with about $20 million in public funds for infrastructure work. The Cardinal owners first asked that two-thirds of a $370 million ballpark be publicly financed. Supposedly the owners have budged a bit on that, but nothing's official.

The petition would prohibit anything more than a $1 million subsidy for any new "professional sports facilities." Depending on when the necessary 10,000 signatures are collected and verified, the issue could be on a city ballot by November.

"I'm willing to believe that people in St. Louis are going to be as skeptical as people in Minneapolis," says Billingsly, who refers to the new mayor as "Francis 'Giveaway' Slay." Billingsly says the owners "want to get the deal done in secret. They don't want to defend the economics."

Oxford agrees. "Despite overwhelming public opposition, they're going to go ahead and do this unless we get something together that's very public and there's organized opposition," says Oxford, who notes that the growing coalition also includes Libertarians, independents and even a few anarchists. "The common ground is that we believe public funding is not the mechanism by which to do work on ballparks."

As for the Mound City public, despite all the static, there's been no rush to block the ballpark proposal. In the next couple of months, outside libraries, post offices and coffeehouses, an unlikely alliance of the left and right will see whether people care enough to sign the petition. Later, maybe, they'll have a chance to show up at the polls. For all those bellyachers, it's time to put up or shut up.

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