In Portland, Oregon, professional baseball has become the latest casualty in a two-year-long battle with the local sports franchise bosses over whether the Rose City would become the latest locale to pay for a massive, publicly funded stadium. The people said no so the owners shamefully sold the minor league Portland Beavers to an out of state buyer.
Greed may have killed baseball in Portland. But these aren’t just any ordinary owners. They’re Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his 30-something son Merritt who parachuted into Portland in 2007. The son is 80 percent owner while the father—the Bush cabinet official who infamously flung a 3-page TARP proposal in front of Congress that was “non-reviewable...by any court of law or any administrative agency”—holds the rest.
The Paulsons still hold sway over the Portland Timbers soccer team, but they’ve sold the baseball Beavers—to a group led by San Diego Padres owner Jeff Moorad. The local media didn’t blame the Paulsons for selling out baseball from the city, but the people of Portland for not supporting the socializing of stadium debt. John Canzano, the lead sports columnist for the Oregonian, ranted that city leaders “sat in the shadows, shrugging at one another, afraid to ask Portland to act like a major city…What kind of city does Portland want to be?”
Put simply, it’s a city that should be emulated across a country that has been soaked by public-funding stadium scams. Canzano’s yipping aside, the real story about how the city turned the Paulsons back, should be shouted from the hills.
In the Rose City, citizens banded together and stopped the shakedown. When boosters tried to foist the baseball stadium on the working-class neighborhood of Lents, residents across the political spectrum formed Friends of Lents, a group that heckled Paulson Jr. at public meetings and eventually scuttled the absurd proposal to divert already allocated scarce urban renewal funds to multi-millionaires.
After the citizens of Lents turned them back, Portland Mayor Sam Adams suggested tearing down the Memorial Coliseum, but war vets protested vociferously alongside angry architects who wanted to preserve the building’s unique glass frame as a “modernist marvel.” (Architects of Portland, unite! You have nothing to lose but your pocket protectors!). Then the Paulsons attempted to put the baseball team in suburban Beaverton where community organizers, local business owners, and elected officials turned them away.
As the process unfolded, Merritt Paulson changed his company’s name from Shortstop LLC to Peregrine LLC. If you’re not an ornithologist you should know that the peregrine falcon is a cosmopolitan bird of prey that swoops in and feasts on unsuspecting everyday birds like ducks and pigeons. Fortunately for Portland, activists have refused to play the role of sitting ducks.
What’s more, activists accomplished this in the face of unflinching pro-Paulson boosterism from the local newspaper, the Oregonian. While Merritt Paulson challenged critics “to find a better deal out there for the city,” the Oregonian chastised those who took up the challenge as “shortsighted.” The editorial board wrote condescendingly, “Portlanders have a bad habit of thinking small.” Even with the mainstream mass-media deck stacked against them, activists, their allies, and the independent media, pressed ahead, ultimately reducing the Paulsons’ audacious $85 million ask to $11.9 million in city loans that that will be repaid through a “spectator fund” comprised of parking and ticket revenue from NBA and MLS games. This money will go toward the new soccer stadium only as the baseball team is now tragically gone.
That’s not to say it was a total victory. Taxpayers are still doling out nearly $12 million to the super-rich rather than putting that revenue toward social services, mass transit, or the dilapidated infrastructure. In Portland, the Sellwood Bridge recently earned a National Bridge Inventory safety rating of two (out of one hundred), while the I-35W bridge that collapsed in 2007 scored a fifty. The true cost of such priorities was seen in Minneapolis/St. Paul in 2008, when the Mississippi River bridge collapsed the same week a $300 million public stadium was due to break ground.
Portland did not have to lose its baseball team. The Paulsons didn’t need the taxpayer to become their sugar daddy when Daddy Paulson is worth $700 million. And thanks to a loophole in the tax code, Paulson saved a whopping $100 million when he moved from Goldman Sachs to head the Treasury Department in 2006. By simply scoring a “certificate of divestiture” from the Office of Government Ethics, Paulson was free to sell off his 3.23 million Goldman shares—valued at approximately $484 million—without paying a penny of taxes. This gargantuan tax break alone would have covered the entire stadium-building scheme from start to finish without any public financing whatsoever. Clearly, they could have afforded land for their stadium-building venture, but going this route would have meant paying for the project themselves. That would have meant breaking the unwritten code of domino theory in owner-land. If you pay your own way, others might be pushed to do the same.
The Paulsons sold the Beavers down the Willamette River and out of Portland. We have to raise more options than either forking over tax dollars to aristocrats or losing the team. It’s time to start looking at what it would mean to press for public ownership if billionaires won’t play ball. What better city to start with than Portland? And who better to start with, than the Paulsons?
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner). Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]