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Five More Questions: GOP Sen. Roger Chamberlain: We got ‘rolled’ by the Vikings

Any chance of a stadium deal do-over? Nope, a longtime critic of the plan says. “The reality, especially in an election year, is that most people want this to go away.”

Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain distinguished himself from the legislative pack by being one of the very few elected officials making sustained criticism of the rush to concede to the NFL’s standard, taxpayer-heavy paradigm for stadium financing.
Courtesy of Senate Media Services

Editor’s note: Five More Questions is an occasional series by Brian Lambert that follows up on people and events in the news.

As for the Vikings stadium deal, realists will say it’s all over but the shouting, and that even shouting isn’t worth your time. It is what it is and it is done.

The team, the governor and the Minnesota Sports Facility Authorities have all assured the public the stadium will begin construction this November … under the terms of the deal negotiated by them.

It’s an arrangement that obligates Minnesota (and Minneapolis) taxpayers to a $498 million “contribution,” as the principals like to describe it, and allows the team owners, the Wilf family of New Jersey, to use a loan from the NFL and revenue from the stadium itself to cover more than 90 percent of their … “contribution.” (The precise details of the NFL loan — such as the interest rate and duration —are not publicly known.)

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But before the history of the agreement is re-written, we sought out second-term Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain. He represents a chunk of the north metro that includes North Oaks, Dellwood, Lino Lakes and a slice of White Bear Lake.

Chamberlain distinguished himself from the legislative pack by being one of the very few elected officials making sustained criticism of the rush to concede to the NFL’s standard, taxpayer-heavy paradigm for stadium financing.

We met in a North Oaks coffee shop, and I posed these five questions to Chamberlain:

MP: From time to time we still hear fiery vows to somehow re-litigate this deal in terms more favorable to taxpayers. Is that just empty bluster, or do you see a possibility of legislative action in the next session?

Sen. Roger Chamberlain: Well, my personal opinion is we should take the whole thing down to the studs and do it right. And we should do it because it’s a mess the way it is. We’re tapping general funds [one-time cigarette tax money and revenue from closing business loopholes] to pay for it. Those of us who were opposed to this believe that is the right thing to do.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings
Chamberlain on stadium deal: “My personal opinion is we should take the whole thing down to the studs and do it right.”

But the reality, especially in an election year, is that most people want this to go away, be settled and the ink to dry. They don’t want lawsuits flying around. Their attitude is: “Build the stadium and let’s move on.”

The thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. The San Francisco 49ers have a model that doesn’t rely as heavily on taxpayers. [The stadium authority there will recapture the lion’s share of naming rights and seat license revenue.] Atlanta has a better plan for its new stadium.

5 More QuestionsMP: But in an election year, wouldn’t a drive to reclaim the naming-rights money and the personal-seat-license cash for the taxpayer end of the deal have populist appeal?

Chamberlain: Well, that’s an interesting point. But you’d still have to get it through the committees to change that piece of it. And that would be tough. Sen. [Julie] Rosen wants to run for governor, and she certainly doesn’t want this thing opened up again. And the Wilfs have made it clear that that money is theirs, and my guess is the NFL would object as well.

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MP: The NFL’s influence over this deal seems to have been pretty substantial. Nevermind the commissioner, Roger Goodell, flying into town and all the local folks trying to squeeze into the same photo-op with him. What I always thought remarkable was that the threat of the Vikings moving to Los Angeles was accepted as an inevitability by the governor and other legislators.

You were in meetings with some of these people — what conclusive evidence did they ever have to believe that the NFL would move the team?

Chamberlain: They had no conclusive evidence. We, on the other hand, had much more conclusive evidence that there was no chance in hell they were going to move it. I mean here’s Los Angeles, the second-biggest city and TV market in the country, and Oakland [Raiders] left. And there was clearly no appetite in California for a new taxpayer-subsidized stadium, and it would cost the Wilfs a lot just to get the team out there.

But as you know, Gov. Dayton said he didn’t like the deal but was resigned to it because, “This is the way these things are done.” He accepted what the league was saying. And by that time, the deal had been sweetened to cover the Xcel in St. Paul, and there was the big push from construction unions and quite a few big-time corporate leaders.

All that gave Dayton some leverage. He was the governor. And on our side we had some people who kind of wanted to hang out with the cool kids, so they went along with it, too.

MP: You’re in politics. You know the crazy places irrational thinking can take people. Did you ever have a conversation with colleagues about how the emotional attachment people have to football — and the specter of losing a football team — was driving this incredibly expensive deal? I mean, the thought of being held responsible for “losing the Vikings” seemed to terrify politicians.

Chamberlain: It is crazy. But no, nobody ever sat down and talked about it in that way. Maybe because we had people driving this thing from inside our leadership caucus.

I was assistant majority leader in the second half of this thing. I talked to [then Senate Majority Leader Dave] Senjem face to face. I talked to the governor face to face. And I learned the hard way that that doesn’t mean anything. In fact, it meant nothing.

There would be other meetings where we wouldn’t be invited. We would be told, “Well, we have this task force and this is the way this is going to go.”

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I think [leadership] was determined not to change anything about the deal before they came to the Legislature. I think they waited until after caucus time to stick their necks out. Because at caucus time, people were really upset about it. They sure were on our side of the aisle, and Democrats were, too. So [leadership] waited until March, then they called it a “crisis” and something we had to get done.

But they would never set down with [those of] us [who opposed the deal] and discuss it. Leadership, the Vikings, Julie Rosen and the authors of the bill knew what they wanted when they came in. They were never interested in changing what they had.

And I’ll tell you something. Before the 2012 session, we did a whip count of our caucus on the issues we wanted to deal with, right? Dead last was the stadium. But we had someone on the leadership team who said, “Let’s not tell the members about this.”

Worse was that they didn’t have anyone on that task force representing the 70 percent of the people who opposed the deal. They tried to insult me by saying, “You know, Sen. Chamberlain, we had a task force and nobody said anything.” And I said, “Well that’s because you never asked any of the people who don’t want to pay for it. Apparently you missed them.”

gydesen
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Chamberlain: “They saw a target. They’re smart, they’re tough, they’re savvy and they found some saps up here who could be rolled and they rolled them.”

But you have to give the Vikings credit. They locked up every print media and every broadcast media in town. Even our conservative stations didn’t do much with it, because the Vikings were running ads. They had people locked up.

MP: Let me ask you this: As a Republican with, I’m assuming, a pro-business affinity, don’t you have at least a kind of grudging admiration for what the Wilfs pulled off here? I mean, out of almost a billion dollars, they’ll put in somewhere around $20 million to $30 million of their own money and accrue an equity bonanza. That’s pretty sweet.

Chamberlain:  Well, that’s a great question. But I’ll add one caveat. Am I pro-business? Yes, but I’m more pro-doing what’s right. Am I always on the side of the Chamber [of Commerce]? Heck no. The Chamber comes in sometimes and says, “We need you to vote this way”, and we will say, collectively, “No. It’s a bad vote. It’s a bad bill. It’s a bad thing.” The Business Partnership, the same thing.

And those two organizations are complicit in this whole stadium debacle. So, as for me, if they have something good that comes up, I’ll support it. But in this thing, you see them representing their interests.

As for the Wilfs and a grudging admiration? I do. I really do. They saw a target. They’re smart, they’re tough, they’re savvy and they found some saps up here who could be rolled and they rolled them.

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The Wilfs were a very tight operation. As I said, they had the media locked up and they had leadership locked up. They got leadership elected, I have no doubt. Senjem was elected for gaming, and once he’s in that spot, they have a clear run. After that, they set it up and got the bill done the old-fashioned way. They made promises to the Democrats for the Xcel and hoped Republicans [like Senjem in Rochester] would go for it for civic centers and whatever else.

They did it right. They did it tough. They played the L.A. card. They had a few hundred Vikings fans down [at the Capitol] and created this aura of a huge populist uprising if they didn’t get a stadium.

 So was it brilliant and crafty? Absolutely. But it’s always easier when you first get leadership on board ignoring those of us who represented the 70 percent opposed to it.