Politics

Marc Caputo: Why Dolphins owner Stephen Ross — not House Speaker Will Weatherford — owns stadium-deal death

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Success has many fathers in the Florida Legislature. The Miami Dolphins stadium deal is an orphan.

And it will probably stay that way, ironically, thanks to the man who wanted it most: Stephen Ross, the Dolphins’ owner.

When the plan to use up to $380 million in taxpayer money to subsidize stadium upgrades died Friday, Ross sent out a threatening-sounding statement that bashed House Speaker Will Weatherford, essentially accused him of lying and stopped just short of promising to campaign against him.

“I am certain this decision will follow Speaker Weatherford for many years to come,” Ross said in the statement.

“I will look to play an important role in fixing the dysfunction in Tallahassee and will continue to work to create good jobs in Miami-Dade and throughout South Florida.”

Just before the statement came out, I asked Weatherford what his reaction would be if Ross or his supporters threatened to spend money against him.

“Oh, wow,” Weatherford said in a voice that sounded anything but surprised or worried. “Good for them.”

Are you scared?

“No,” Weatherford smiled.

Coming from a billionaire and major Republican financier (Ross probably helped contribute and raise about $3 million to help Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign), Ross’ statement can’t be ignored.

But it was stupid.

Now the support the Dolphins had in the GOP-led Legislature has been damaged. Lawmakers don’t like it when special interests try to bigfoot them.

“Well, there are other billionaires,” quipped Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

Ross has made the Dolphins’ stadium effort politically personal.

House Republicans won’t support a measure that appears to undermine the honor of their speaker or institution. And Republicans in the more-moderate Senate, where support was once strong for the Dolphins’ plan, will be less inclined to back a bill that seems to challenge the conservative House and needlessly takes on a rising star of the party.

If Ross wants another shot, he needs to apologize to Weatherford and the House.

Already, though, he has shown little willingness to play by the rules of Tallahassee.

Heading into the session, Ross needed to do things the rich and powerful hate to do: Ask, beg, plead.

And he didn’t, especially when it came to the Miami-Dade delegation’s Republicans, a majority of whom opposed the measure. That’s a recipe for failure.

Ross needed to spend time with two key players who did more to kill the deal than Weatherford: Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Trujillo and New Port Richey Republican Rep. Richard Corcoran, who is slated to become House speaker in about four years and is a master of behind-the-scenes political assassination.

“Ross wrote them off at his peril,” one veteran lobbyist, familiar with the details of the deal, said on condition of anonymity.

“If you don’t have Richard Corcoran on your side, you at least need him to not work against you,” the lobbyist said. “Carlos is Richard’s guy. And Carlos was against this. Ross didn’t reach out. He didn’t do the care and feeding you need to do in a situation like this.”

It was the same story in Miami-Dade.

A few select interviews aside, Ross generally hid from public view, perhaps at his waterfront mansion in Palm Beach, where he held a fundraiser for Romney. It’s also the same county where Romney was caught on video at a high-dollar fundraiser suggesting that 47 percent of taxpayers were moochers and would vote for Obama because they want government handouts.

That’s right. Ross underwrote the campaign of a guy who bashed Obama for being a collectivist supporter of wealth distribution and government spending.

Remember when the Romney campaign savaged Obama for saying, “You didn’t build that” (a reference to how business owners rely on the public treasury)?

Months later, the billionaire Ross wanted some collectivist wealth distribution to help upgrade his stadium and make the value of his club far higher.

The tea party was aghast. The Republican and Democratic parties of Miami-Dade opposed the measure.

Handouts for rich

Billionaires asking for taxpayer handouts are tough to fathom. So is this fact: At the same time the Dolphins’ owner wanted public money for his stadium, he was in talks to buy . . . a bank!

Ross literally has enough money to purchase a place that stores money, has ATMs and makes loans.

Ross could hire the best lobbyists and spokesmen money can buy, but in the end he needed to do his own speaking and his own lobbying to explain himself.

He never did. He never could explain why one of his employees suggested it would be “unwise” for Ross to use his personal billions to retrofit his own stadium.

Some other sports clubs didn’t have as tough a time, however. The Legislature signed off on a deal to help publicly finance spring-training baseball facilities.

But the Dolphins deal was different. It’s haunted by the Miami Marlins deal.

For years, the Marlins tried and failed to get legislative approval for a new stadium. It failed time and again.

In 2006, for instance, West Miami Rep. Marco Rubio stood at the speaker’s rostrum just before midnight asking then-House Speaker Allan Bense to bring up a Marlins bill. Bense shook his head. The session ended.

Seven years later, a similar scene played out with Weatherford as Hialeah Rep. Eddy Gonzalez pleaded for the Dolphins.

Oh, yeah. Weatherford is Bense’s son-in-law. Killing Miami-Dade stadium deals runs in the family.

The Marlins set the bar for pro-sports stadium deals in the Legislature.

When a frustrated Miami-Dade County Commission decided to go it alone and steer tax money to the ballclub, the political fallout helped lead to the recall of the county mayor and a commissioner. Norman Braman, a billionaire car dealer and former NFL team owner himself, helped fund opposition to the Marlins and then the Dolphins deal.

But unlike the Marlins, the Dolphins have built up a store of goodwill in Miami and Florida. It is an iconic club. It does great charity work. Anyone who works for the Dolphins or owns it has a real stake in the community.

The Dolphins’ plan would have used hotel bed taxes paid by tourists and a type of state sales-tax subsidy, but it differed completely from the Marlins deal in this regard: Citizens would have voted on the core of the proposal.

But Ross clearly didn’t like all this direct-democracy stuff.

In the few interviews he gave (never with the political reporters of the Capitol press corps), he expressed discomfort with the fact that the public would have a say over public money. He said at one point that he “absolutely” wished the public had no say.

A secret deal?

Ross said in his public statement on Friday that Weatherford secretly promised a vote of the House. Weatherford denied it.

By the time the Senate bill reached the House, it took a two-thirds vote to pass. House leaders say the votes weren’t there. The Dolphins say they were.

Regardless of who’s telling the truth, it’s hardly a tear-jerker: Billionaire pouts that a politician misled him over a clandestine out-of-the-sunshine deal to help steer public money to his stadium. This is the same House that balked at expanding Medicaid to cover more than 1 million Floridians.

Ross and his team never mentioned this alleged Weatherford promise on Monday when the billionaire watched the full Senate approve the plan before it was sent to the death chamber of the Florida House.

At the time, Hialeah Republican Sen. Rene Garcia was one of the few voices of opposition. Garcia inveighed against the fact that the deal did almost nothing to help the little guy in his district but benefited the billionaire.

Ross didn’t want to talk about it as his handlers tried to shield him from spending more than a few minutes with the press.

“I want this to be my legacy for Miami-Dade County,” Ross said.

How do you feel about the fact that Garcia called you out for wanting public money as a billionaire?

“It’s not true,” Ross said. “So what are you going to say?”

Well, you can start with the truth.

No amount of money could hide that or the fact that, in the end, Ross has the parental rights to his own failure in Tallahassee.

Read more Marc Caputo stories from the Miami Herald

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