With the clock running out for Gov. Terry McAuliffe to strike a deal for a new Washington Redskins stadium in Northern Virginia, both Democrats running to succeed him signaled this week that they’d take a tougher line on the team’s controversial name.
McAuliffe long has said the team’s name is a private matter and has pressed hard to woo the Redskins to a stadium site in Virginia, most likely in Loudoun County.
As Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello compete in a hard-fought Democratic primary centered on who can muster the strongest progressive bona fides to fight President Donald Trump and oppose bigotry, both gubernatorial hopefuls took tougher lines when asked their positions on the moniker critics see as offensive to Native Americans.
Perriello’s campaign said he opposes the name, a position that sets his insurgent candidacy apart from the rest of the gubernatorial field.
“Tom has long supported Washington’s football tradition but believes that it’s high time the name be changed,” Perriello spokesman Remi Yamamoto said in a statement.
Northam, a McAuliffe ally backed by the Democratic establishment, said the name ultimately is for the team to decide, while making clear that he personally doesn’t like it.
“As a business owner, I wouldn’t name my practice anything offensive, and if I owned a football team, I would apply the same principle,” Northam said in a statement.
“We’ve seen another team in the region provide an example when the Bullets changed their name to the Wizards after (then-owner) Abe Pollin determined the name was no longer appropriate. So I believe the team needs to make that determination.”
All three Republican candidates for governor — former Republican National Committee chairman and political consultant Ed Gillespie, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner of Virginia Beach — said they’d leave the name alone.
Gillespie, the front-runner in the GOP primary, would let the Redskins decide their own name as a “private Virginia company,” Gillespie spokeswoman Abbi Sigler said in a statement.
Stewart said in an interview: “When I’m governor, we’re not going to give them any heat at all on their name. I support keeping the name just the way it is.”
Wagner, who called the name debate “contrived,” said: “My stepfather was a Choctaw Indian and the biggest Redskins fan I’ve ever known.”
With a major economic development project on the line, McAuliffe largely has side-stepped the name issue — a position that made him something of an outlier among Democrats but aligned with his focus on boosting the state’s fortunes with big economic development projects.
If, as expected, a stadium deal doesn’t come together by the time McAuliffe leaves office in January, it will fall to his successor to decide how to negotiate with the team in the hopes of beating out Maryland and Washington.
Both parties will choose their nominees in June 13 primaries, and the General Assembly, which may have to sign off, depending on the project specifics, won’t reconvene for regular business until early next year just before the new governor takes office.
The Redskins — hoping to have a new stadium ready by the time their lease at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., expires after 2026 — declined to comment on how the election of a new governor might affect the ongoing talks.
Attitudes toward the name already have influenced the search for a new stadium location. Former President Barack Obama’s administration made clear it would block a new stadium at the RFK Stadium site in Washington over objections to the team’s name. Trump’s arrival in Washington and his trademark disdain for political correctness have put the RFK site back on the table.
The name controversy has faded from its peak fervor, when Democrats at multiple levels of government were denouncing it. A Washington Post poll released a year ago found that nine out of 10 Native Americans were not offended by the name, a data point that seemed to suck the air out of what had been a contentious national debate.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, supports the name, and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has backed off her opposition in the hopes of drawing the next stadium back into the city.
In addition to losing out on a potential stadium, alienating the Redskins organization also could mean the loss of campaign contributions.
Dwight C. Schar, a Northern Virginia homebuilder and part-owner of the Redskins, has contributed $125,000 to Gillespie, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Schar has a history of donating to Virginia politicians from both parties, including McAuliffe.
Redskins owner Dan Snyder has contributed $100,000 to McAuliffe, but he also donated in support of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 Republican presidential bid.
Former Virginia Gov. and U.S. Sen. George Allen, the son of a former Redskins coach and brother of the team’s current president, Bruce Allen, is backing Gillespie.
McAuliffe has lobbied the team heavily to bring its new facility to Virginia and says the state already is home to the team’s headquarters and training camp. Talks haven’t progressed to the point where specific stadium financing or incentive details might emerge, but McAuliffe has said he doesn’t favor using public money for a stadium.
Skeptical of subsidies
Most gubernatorial candidates said they, too, would be wary of taxpayer-funded stadium incentives.
Perriello’s campaign said he would “welcome new business growth” but would focus resources on existing Virginia businesses.
“The idea of having a professional sports team in Virginia is an interesting prospect, but Tom will reserve judgment until he gets all the details,” Yamamoto said. “He is concerned that public stadium subsidies have often led to poor returns on investment for taxpayers.”
Northam said he would “continue efforts to aggressively pursue a deal” without using taxpayer money.
“I oppose public subsidies because all too often the return on investment for Virginia is never realized, and their practicality is moot as they would never make it through the General Assembly,” Northam said.
Wagner, who repeatedly has said the state lacks money for critical investments in infrastructure and education, said the Redskins “have enough money.”
“I see no reason why they taxpayers ought to subsidize billionaires,” Wagner said.
Gillespie’s campaign didn’t rule out the possibility of financial incentives.
“He is skeptical of public subsidies for professional stadiums, but if we can generate jobs and revenue with no loss to the taxpayers, Ed would love to see the Redskins play in Virginia,” Sigler said.
Stewart said he would “definitely” consider using money from the state’s deal-closing fund if it meant getting a stadium in Virginia.
“I’m a big fan of the NFL,” Stewart said.
Staff writer Michael Phillips contributed to this report.