The trial of the Sonics had a few revelations this week, though no clear indication of which way it will come out. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was the way heavy political lifting is done these days. It takes on the form of backstage public-private partnerships, with lawfirms doing a lot of the work and strategizing, so that elected officials have some distance and deniability if it doesn't work. This is not shocking news, but we did get some rare specifics.
Art Thiel's incisive Saturday column nails the key revelation, coming from that shrewd veteran of nabbing major league sports teams, former Sen. Slade Gorton. At a Dec. 17 meeting of the major political leaders (Gov. Gregoire, Speaker Chopp, County Executive Sims, and Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis) and the major orchestrators of the local effort to force the Oklahoma City group to sell the team, it seems likely that an understanding was reached of how to pull off this complicated deal. Mayor Nickels, to his credit, became the visible front man for the effort. It looks as if Speaker Frank Chopp later peeled off from the deal, as is his wont, leaving the effort stranded on the shores of the Legislature. Gov. Gregoire apparently was too politically nervous to provide much leadership, and Sims (who once favord knocking down KeyArena) stayed aloof.
Given the political vulnerabilities and rivalries in that room, it made sense for the effort to be led by the group Gorton had helped pull together: former Safeco head Mike McGavick (also former chief of staff to Gorton), Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, master dealmeister Matt Griffin, and Gorton. Probably few foresaw that this concerted effort might end up exposed in court, where the Sonics owners are trying to demonstrate that the City participated in this complicated scheme "a poisoned well," in one memorable phrase) to litigate the Oklahoma City group into selling the team and leaving town. We'll learn soon how many circuit-breakers of plausible deniability the politicians inserted.
Thiel quotes the icy analysis of Gorton about all this:Assessing the gathering of the state's top chancellors, Gorton wrote: "Not one of them has a stake in the Sonics' loss or retention at the present time. None of them can be effectively blamed for a loss which, to the extent that if blame can be laid at anyone's feet, belongs to (former owner) Howard Schultz. Nor does any one of them see much personal glory in a win on our terms except for the mayor, who will deserve credit for any success. He owns KeyArena and the Center and sees the viability largely dependent on the presence of the Sonics."
That's a pithy summation of the lack of political leadership these days, made more blatant by the toxic politics of pro sports when the voters are so hostile to anyone who spends taxpayer money on a team. It also helps explain the style of Mayor Nickels and Deputy Mayor Ceis, drawn to the big players (developers, universities, law firms) who can get things done and run political interference. If the deal works, the politicians take credit. If it explodes, they have deniability. Or at least they did before emails became the main evidence in trials.
One other revelation caught my eye, and that's the report that Wally Walker, ex-Sonics president, tried to convince Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to back a Bellevue site for a new arena. Ballmer nixed that deal, confirming reports that Microsoft is so worried about traffic congestion on the Eastside that it vetoed any Bellevue site.
That, in turn, may have been the real killer of plans to save the Sonics. Had there been a Bellevue site (rather than the unlikely Renton site), the Oklahoma City group might have gotten somewhere with the Legislature and loosened up some big local money for naming rights and other concessions. With no plausible site for a new arena, the Okies were stuck with KeyArena and Seattle politicians — both deal breakers. We were headed to the ignominious revelations in Judge Marsha Pechman's courtroom.