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Pick a Mayor Smart Enough to Resist the NFL Crowd

March 11, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

"Aren't you all glad we didn't build a museum?"

--Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, addressing the city's Jan. 29 rally for the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens.


A month from now Los Angeles voters will go to the polls to choose our city's next mayor. Having interviewed the six major candidates, I can say one good thing about all of them: None is likely to ever say anything as idiotic as Baltimore's mayor did after that city's team won the Super Bowl.

Which is not to say a couple of our local candidates aren't naive enough to be maneuvered into such an embarrassing pronouncement. After all, the gang of shysters, over-aged jocks and marketing hustlers who run the National Football League are adept at hoodwinking naive politicians who think a pro football team is all that's needed to make a city great.

More on that later. For now, it is encouraging to note that Los Angeles' loss of two NFL teams during outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan's tenure is hardly mentioned in the campaign to succeed him.

I was once asked, in all seriousness, by the mayor of a major U.S. city why Riordan wasn't recalled after "losing" pro football. As hard as it is for out-of-towners to believe, Angelenos couldn't care less that the Rams and Raiders are now based in St. Louis and Oakland. Local voters would rather know what our mayoral candidates will do to push along reform of the police department, to help build badly needed schools and housing or to manage the expansions of the busiest airport and harbor on the West Coast.

Indeed, in contrast to the cliched image of this city as La-La Land, Angelenos are very serious about the problems that affect the quality of life here in the nation's second-largest city. They care more about whether the new mayor can help solve those problems than whether he or she gets them an occasional ticket to watch grown men play a boy's game.

But because the future of pro football in Los Angeles isn't an issue in the campaign doesn't mean it shouldn't lurk in the back of our minds, like the distant stench of a landfill.

Because as long as there is no NFL team in Los Angeles, there will be NFL teams threatening to move here. Mostly, those threats will be a ploy to get new stadiums or other sweet deals underwritten by taxpayers in their hometowns. But as long as that threat exists, there is the chance that some doltish pol like Baltimore's Mayor O'Malley could be duped into making a rotten deal with the NFL. (In that city's case, taxpayers shelled out more than $200 million to build the Ravens a new stadium.)

The two candidates that worry me the most in this regard are otherwise capable and competent men in their respective fields, U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) and businessman Steve Soboroff.

Becerra is the only candidate who says he'd be willing to use tax money to bring an NFL team to the city, but only if he is "guaranteed a return on the city's investment." If Becerra thinks you get guarantees from the NFL, he should talk to officials in Irwindale, where Raiders' owner Al Davis walked off with $10 million in city funds after finking out on a 1987 deal to build his team a stadium there.

Soboroff takes credit for being one of the prime movers behind the Staples Center, the new downtown arena where our pro basketball and hockey teams play. He blames political opposition for the fact that the city doesn't also have a new football stadium nearby. But if Soboroff thinks that NFL football would assure the kind of financial success that the Staples Center has experienced, let him talk to folks in San Diego. Taxpayers there have been shelling out thousands of dollars to buy unsold tickets from a lousy Chargers team--part of the deal that kept it from bolting town a few years ago.

Any politician who thinks a city can get a good deal from the NFL is a sucker waiting to be taken.

So far the only mayoral candidate who says flat out that he won't spend a cent to get an NFL team here is City Councilman Joel Wachs, who also led the effort to limit the use of taxpayer subsidies to build Staples. Before the April 10 primary, all of L.A.'s mayoral candidates should be prodded to make the same pledge--not just to get it on the record, but to send a message to the many NFL owners and executives who will be passing through town in the next few weeks to testify in Superior Court. That's where Al Davis has filed a complex lawsuit against the NFL claiming it conspired to drive him out of town in 1995, and demanding roughly $1 billion in damages. A key legal issue to be determined is whether the NFL or the Raiders "own" the L.A. market.

I'm confident most Angelenos don't think anybody "owns" their town--least of all the NFL, which needs L.A. a lot more than we need it. All the mayoral candidates need to keep repeating that mantra between now and election day.

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