Hansen's California donation opens eyes in Seattle

We may have learned enough to deal more carefully with the hedge fund manager's basketball arena plan. Maybe.
Crosscut archive image.

Chris Hansen, left, with Mayor Mike McGinn during a press event.

We may have learned enough to deal more carefully with the hedge fund manager's basketball arena plan. Maybe.

In the wake of the revelation that SoDo arena-backer Chris Hansen made an improper, secret $100,000 donation to a group trying to stop Sacramento from building a new NBA arena, the veil has lifted from what Crosscut founder David Brewster told The Seattle Times was a "mass civic delusion." That delusion was built on a carefully crafted message for a gullible crowd: that Hansen, a multi-millionaire investor, was a nice guy trying to do something good for his hometown, Seattle. Just a good Catholic kid from the Rainier Valley who wanted to relive the dreams of 1979's championship glory.

Evidence that it was a delusion is abundant. First, it's sports, which is built on delusions, dreams and inflated expectations, especially sports in Seattle. People get rich by stirring up the fever dreams of fans, me included. Second, many people suspended judgment because Hansen seemed like a really nice guy. He's certainly a charmer, a super salesman who told us what we wanted to hear: We could get the Sonics back essentially for nothing. He promised to heal an old wound and boost the economy and not leave the taxpayers on the hook. Those offered all the essential ingredients of a good deal, or a successful con.

When Hansen was named Seattle Magazine's "Person of 2012," I wrote a profile of him noting both our infatuation and the irony of it. In the months following Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Seattle, our new civic hero was a hedge fund millionaire from San Francisco. And the mayor, Mike McGinn, who has campaigned so hard to help the "little guys" — the maids and the grocery clerks —and who is standing up to Whole Foods and hotels, has been Hansen's chief Seattle enabler. It was McGinn who unveiled the arena proposal in a dramatic press conference, McGinn who did the heavy lifting in negotiating with Hansen, McGinn who had Sonics fans flocking to his own banner during the primary campaign. And it was Chris Hansen who was getting the benefit of Seattle and King County's largess, Chris Hansen who was deemed more worthy than Whole Foods. And the city council went along. As did the county executive, Dow Constantine. And the county council.

The power of Hansen's Pied Piper-ing was amazing. Hansen even convinced many in Seattle that it was OK to do to Sacramento what Oklahoma City had done to Seattle in stealing a franchise outright. Those who showed a bit of conscience about it were reminded that this was just the way the NBA plays, a kind of ugly ball not for the weak-stomached. So, folks tamped down any sense of guilt at the process.

The problem now is that Hansen's narrative has been exposed. It turns out he's not more moral than other sports franchise owners, perhaps worse. He didn't admit what he had done, until he was outed. He didn't apologize, until he had to. He didn't even tell his partners about it, or so he says.

Hansen has yet to join the exclusive club of NBA owners, and his Sacramento problem might make that harder. Or, the fiasco might be his screen test. On an NBA website blog, a writer accused Hansen of searching "hard for new lows in league skullduggery." New lows is not what you want to be setting in a conversation about the NBA's ethics.

City council member Bruce Harrell, who still supports Hansen's SoDo Arena, said something about it that is valuable to remember. He told The Times, "We knew this was a business deal and we knew that for Hansen it was a profit-making enterprise. He's a very likable, very approachable guy, but he did not amass his fortune by being a nice guy."

The whole deal sailed through "nice" Seattle precisely because we thought Hansen was one of us, but Harrell, who has experience in the worlds of sports, law and corporate and financial success, is absolutely correct. You don't get to be as rich as Chris Hansen in the hedge fund business by being a nice guy. In fact, you don't get that rich in any business being one. Seattle wasn't built by nice guys, be they Bill Gates, Howard Schultz, Bill Boeing or Jeff Bezos. That's another of Seattle's ongoing self-delusions, a tendency to downplay the dark side of our local heroes — labor practices, bribery, monopolistic behavior, whatever. Nice personas can be effective tools, but that's about it.

The Sonics arena deal seemed to be a settled issue as far as the mayoral campaign was concerned: Both candidates support it, so does the city council. The Hansen blow-up puts egg on faces of all but the skeptics (Richard Conlin and Nick Licata). McGinn has said that he's pleased that Hansen called him personally to apologize. Murray issued a statement expressing "disappointment" in Hansen's behavior but saying, in essence, full speed ahead. He's probably not going to go anti-arena, unless the polls suggest otherwise.

It's only two weeks since the primary, and the candidate the Hansen debacle makes you think of most is Peter Steinbrueck, who could be drinking a big, strong cup of I Told You So right now. He's had a better political week than either of the two finalists. It was Steinbrueck who warned throughout his campaign that Hansen wasn't who he said he was and that the secret, backroom dealing with the mayor was wrong. It was Steinbrueck who argued about the lack of transparency. Even the Seattle Times editorial board is singing the song of Steinbrueck these days. A recent editorial, headlined "Ed Murray should channel Peter Steinbrueck on Seattle’s industrial interests," urged Murray to adopt Steinbrueck's commitment to blue-collar Seattle, port jobs and the industries that could be threatened by expanding the SoDo sports complex further into the freight corridors and industrial zone.

The bad news is that Steinbrueck lost in the primary, but his concerns live on and neither candidate seems well positioned to take up the serious mantle of challenging the status quo. For one thing, the mayor is the status quo and Ed Murray is selling himself as the second coming of an older, more established status quo. Hansen's council allies on the arena deal don't want to make themselves or Murray look foolish, so they will make noises about watchdogging things better. Burgess has a chance to shine, as when he ran for mayor he argued that he took the mayor's arena deal with Hansen and made it better. He's also a politician who's made his name as an ethics watchdog. Now he has to convince people he's made the deal iron-clad and protect his man Murray. With Hansen, Burgess and the council must now know they've got their hands full. McGinn will have to do the same convincing about an iron-clad deal —he's wedded to Hansen now.

But, no one seems ready to run for the daylight of a huge re-think of the whole scheme. Let's hope someone does, because while it's a good thing that our fantasies about who Chris Hansen is have been popped by his  apparent ruthlessness, his revenge-seeking, or his lack of judgment, we also have to d eal with the reality of what is best for the city and the use of its credit, its tax dollars, its goodwill —and yes, its street right of ways. The arena must be based on what is in the full, practical self-interest of the city, negotiated by people with their eyes open. Hansen has failed to impress the NBA, and he may have alienated them; he's been a sore loser with the city of Sacramento after trying to screw them over, and he's facing civil penalties for secret campaign donations in California. Is this the guy you want to hand the keys of the city to?

The best you can say is that more eyes are open now. At least, let's hope so.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.