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Ted Leonsis’s Suburban Dreams Are Drowning In Glenn Youngkin’s Big Fat Mouth

Glenn Youngkin and Ted Leonsis
Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Republican Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin needs the help of a statehouse controlled by Democrats in order to advance his handshake deal with messianic Lego-haired billionaire Ted Leonsis to bring the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards to a new development in Alexandria. That's the only way it happens: Youngkin is term-limited and will be out of office in 2026; even if Republicans gain control of the House of Delegates next year, there is not another state Senate election until 2027. Youngkin needs a funding bill to come out of one of those chambers, and then he needs that bill to be approved by the other chamber, or this Hail Mary of a legacy-making expenditure of public funds will be doomed.

There's some urgency for Leonsis here as well. In support of the Alexandria development, Leonsis can pay off $30 million of bonds, issued to fund 2007 arena renovations, in order to trigger an escape from the lease at his teams' drab-but-fine arena in downtown Washington, D.C. That lease, which otherwise would run through 2047, can be terminated in 2027, putting the Wizards and Capitals on the appropriate relocation timeline for their big dumb suburban project. Notably, this trigger has not yet been pulled: Leonsis—who founded and controls Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the two teams—is making a lot of noise about paying his way out of the lease, but obviously he cannot until public funding is secured for construction at Potomac Yard. Meanwhile, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser indicated Monday that she intends to enforce Monumental's lease in downtown D.C., saying that she has "no intention" of accepting or facilitating or otherwise participating in an early repayment of the bonds, and using the phrase "legal strategy" while cagily declining to explain exactly how the city might fight to prevent Monumental from moving out.

History has shown us that there is basically nothing that a municipality can do to keep its team once an owner has made up his mind to fleece some other pool of suckers. However much and however justifiably she might rage against this process, Bowser is not going to prevent Leonsis from taking his beloved hockey team and his overpoweringly fecal basketball team to Virginia. But there is every indication that getting Virginia to participate in this process will not be so straightforward. State Democrats are disinclined to help Youngkin build a publicly funded monument to his own political ambitions, unless they can extract concessions from the bargain.

On Monday, for example, the House of Delegates passed a bill establishing the framework for legalizing the sale of marijuana, and the Senate is expected to pass its own version of this bill Tuesday. Youngkin, a moron, has opposed this measure and has both the veto and the allies to sustain it, but proponents of legalization indicated that Youngkin's financing proposal is not likely to gain traction in the appropriations process so long as he's acting as a one-man roadblock to Democratic legislative priorities. Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, asked whether the arena public financing deal is dead, said Monday that Youngkin will have to relent on this and other issues "for the patient to get off the surgery table here."

The chair of the Senate finance committee, Louise Lucas, was more direct. Lucas exercised her authority to drop the bill entirely from the upcoming session's docket Sunday; on Monday she described Youngkin's plan as too risky and "not viable." "The more we use the commonwealth’s moral obligation for private development," she said in comments at the open of Monday's committee meetings, "the more risk we place on not being able to finance actual services for higher education, public safety, health services, and natural resources.” Lucas, who in her current role can pocket veto Youngkin's ambitions pretty much all the way to hell, sees the deal as dead.

It's a good bet that Youngkin never would've announced this deal with Leonsis—certainly he wouldn't have staged a big showy ceremony at a dreary disused rail yard—if he hadn't at one point had a lot of confidence that Virginia Democrats would support the project. So what happened to blow up the bipartisan good feelings? Youngkin recently participated in a mock GOP presidential nominating convention and delivered a speech accusing Democrats of working to oppose "a strong America" and of abandoning "the very foundations that made America exceptional." Then the big droopy idiot posted video of his remarks on Twitter, where they were spotted by, yes, Louise Lucas, who, again, is chair of the all-important Senate finance committee.

This did not please Lucas, who fired back with a tweet of her own, referring to the Potomac Yard project as "the Glenn Dome" and expressing incredulity at Youngkin having made these remarks while actively engaging Democrats for cooperation on a signature bill. Now Lucas is positioning herself as The People's Champ on this issue: Monday morning she tweeted again, this time expressing skepticism of any proposed deal with Leonsis: "As I said this morning in committee—if Monumental Sports will renege on its agreement with DC why would we ever believe they would not do the same to us?" This is going to do so much more for Lucas's public profile than would ushering along a deal to subsidize with public funds the grand ambitions of a loser of a governor and a gasbag of a billionaire.

None of this means the Potomac Yard deal is fully dead. Those who count on coherent priorities and well-meaning elected officials to slow the designs of unaccountable billionaires should, for their own safety, be kept away from scissors. But there's every reason to believe this agreement was less suited for primetime than its principals may have assumed. And Bowser is still dangling half a billion in public renovation funds at Monumental's downtown arena, something she reiterated in an op-ed published Friday in the Washington Post. Leonsis, in an interview last week with ABC 7 News reporter Christian Flores, acknowledged that he has not yet tossed his cap over the wall. "That's kind of the beauty of the situation that we're in," he said with a chuckle, when asked what he'll do if Virginia rejects Youngkin's proposal. "I have a building, that I own, and we would just play here." Leonsis hasn't signed anything, he hasn't paid off any bonds, he hasn't committed anything beyond the time it took to deliver remarks at Youngkin's big announcement ceremony. Hilariously, both Youngkin and Bowser are now counting upon Leonsis's readiness to back out of an agreement.

If there's a lesson in all this chaos, it's in the advisability of making a political football of an expensive project, the completion of which will absolutely require cross-aisle cooperation. If he intends to see this through, Youngkin has a lot of work ahead of him, some shit to eat, a compressed timeline, and the pressure of a harsh and brightening spotlight. A person dealing with so much workplace pressure might consider this an appropriate time to smoke an occasional bob. Alas.

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