The most important building in Minnesota is a mini Michelangelo. The state capitol is modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome, but our version is chalk-white Georgia marble with a statue of four horses pulling a legionnaire in his chariot done up in gold leaf on the roof — it looks like they’re about to fly off and attack Iowa. The capitol was finished in 1906 on the second-tallest hill in St. Paul (the St. Paul Cathedral got the tallest one), for four and a half million dollars (almost $90 million today). It was built by a bunch of newly arrived Catholic immigrants and designed by Cass Gilbert, local boy made good, come back to leave his mark. Gilbert would go on to become one of the country’s first starchitects, designing some of the early skyscrapers in New York and the new Supreme Court building in D.C., but he was an ambitious 35-year-old when he gave St. Paul his modern take on a Roman basilica. His early masterpiece wasn’t just an homage to the original Big Peter, but a state-of-the-art civic palace with swagged-out, techlike electric lighting and telephones, a statement on the power of a rising industrial and agricultural corridor. Gilbert was a true believer in the American experiment, and his government buildings conveyed grand ideas. Our capitol intentionally conjures echoes of ancient toga-swathed Romans discussing the noble virtues of bonae litterae — he wanted you to feel the spirit of serious men exchanging serious ideas in these weird halls inlaid with local kasota stone and Egyptian marble and hung with oil paintings of past governors.1
Admittedly, the spell is momentarily broken by the portrait of former governor/pro wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura. I mean, dark suit, bald head striking but the portrait’s tenuous compositional gravity is shattered by what appears to be a red, white, and blue Jerry Garcia tie.
Cue the spring of 2012: Gilbert’s cathedral is full of Upper Midwesterners with a fondness for beryl cream and off-the-rack department store suits, straining their vowels through a weeks-long argument over how many pull tabs they should allow their citizens to play in order to pay for the most expensive building in our history — a new billion-dollar Vikings stadium. Honestly, the acoustics did add a palpable dignity to these proceedings, even though the proceedings were conducted entirely in our ridiculous Fargo accent. Gilbert must’ve known exactly what it was going to take to make our leaders look noble more than 100 years into the future. He only had one real complaint about how the place turned out: At the last second, they went with a smaller dome than what his plans called for. He always thought it looked a little funny. But seeing it now, despite a little dome envy, our capitol really feels like the last first-rate thing we built.
It’s the day after the NFL draft, and I’m sitting on a stone bench outside the Senate information office on the second floor, just off Gilbert’s famous rotunda, just down from the Senate chamber, thinking about how hard it is to build anything in this day and age. I’ve probably been a one-issue voter (pro-stadium) for more than half my life now. We’ve been in a perpetual stadium crisis, whether it was Norm Green stealing the North Stars in 1993, or Harv and Marv threatening to take the Timberwolves to New Orleans in ’94, or Carl Pohlad’s threat to move the Twins to North Carolina in ’97, or the rumors about Red McCombs dragging the Vikings to San Antonio as soon as he bought them in ’98. For my generation, stadium politics is part of being Minnesotan. It plays into our collective inferiority complex — we all grew up knowing why the L.A. Lakers are called the Lakers, you know? We know exactly where we stand as a television market: right in the middle. We’re the 15th largest, and the NFL likes us because they can get ratings at noon and three o’clock, but it’s too cold here, and dark, and the grass is always greener somewhere, with less snow on it, both for players and owners — and even for us fans, frankly. We have huge abandonment issues.
It’s an election year, which, strangely, means that this spring was supposed to be a do-nothing legislative session. Everybody — Democrats, Republicans, and tea partiers alike — were supposed to be too nervous to take a stand on anything, anxiously hoping to run out the clock by pointing fingers at each other until November. But when the Vikings stadium bill predictably fell apart in some House committee, Roger Goodell got involved. The commissioner grabbed Art Rooney, everybody’s favorite mascot for surrogate paternal authority, and flew into town to hold a joint press conference with our governor and no. 1 Vikings fan Mark Dayton. They made not very carefully veiled threats about the Vikings becoming a “free agent” if something wasn’t done by the end of this session.
Surprisingly, for a provincial capital that despises outsiders, the commissioner’s cameo defibbed the legislative body into action again. It turned out to be a smart move by the commish — acting the heavy on behalf of Zygmunt Wilf, the Vikings owner who’s referred to as either “Zygi” or “the New Jersey billionaire™,” depending on the referrer’s agenda. Goodell makes a much more convincing Dean Wormer than Zygi — and whether you’re pro-stadium or anti-stadium, everybody in America knows it’s nigh on high treason to waste the NFL’s time.
So I’m up here trying to verify this magical PR-generated momentum, waiting to buttonhole anybody — a lobbyist, a politician, another reporter who actually works here on a daily basis — who might be able to tell me what the hell is going on. There’s a Senate Tax Committee hearing scheduled at 3 p.m., but that’s a couple hours away, and in my two-week crash course in at-the-capitol civics, I’ve learned three things:
1. We’re a Mason’s Manual state, not a Robert’s Rules state.
2. Sitting up in the House or Senate gallery with your iPhone, you can learn more about what’s going on down below by following the capitol reporters on Twitter than you can by actually sitting in the gallery.
3. These things never start on time. Ever.
So I’ve got more than a couple hours to cool my heels on the Egyptian marble waiting to corner Somebody P. Anybody.
I’m finally successful in detaining Larry Spooner, the most famous spring legislative session Vikings football fan ever; a 51-year-old dressed in an Adrian Peterson jersey, a purple ball cap, and jorts. Thankfully, Spooner knows more about how this place works than almost anybody who works here. A supervisor at a warehouse for fiber optic equipment, he points out that this is the 46th vacation day he’s taken to support his team here since first coming down in ’97, when the Twins were holding open hearings about slipping out of the Metrodome and into something a little more comfortable. “I just wanted to let them know that it was our turn next,” he says. “And I got sick of media going up to people at the sports bar and asking, ‘Should we use your tax money for a billionaire?’ I mean, what are they gonna say?”
In the intervening years, the Vikings have recognized Spoons’s above-and-beyond level of commitment, and now he gets free parking on game day in Purple Lot 1, and an honorary title: co-chair of the Minnesota Momentum group with former legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant. It’s pretty small comp for deciding to become the avatar for the Vikings fan at the state capitol. Spoons both personally embodies the sports fanatic’s id and serves as a running Twitter joke for stadium opponents inside this dignified, marble place, despite the fact that he’s one of the few to honestly express what the fans actually want — the football team. Everybody else is preoccupied with soberly discussing how many jobs this will or will not bring, or how this money should or could really be going to education, or how the business community sees the NFL as being integral to “Minneapolis’s brand,” but Spoons is a physical reminder that most Vikings fans are only experts on how Harrison Smith should fit into our new defensive backfield.
Like most fans, Spoons just figures the powers that be have to figure something out. It’s obvious he’s not some super-shrewd billionaire developer when he says he believes the new stadium should be 100 percent publicly funded, because watching the Vikings is one of the only things more than 50 percent of us do together on a Sunday. “The average Joe on the street doesn’t know the difference between a bail bond, a Barry Bonds, or a James Bond,” he says about the appropriation bond funding that finances the construction of most sports facilities in this country.
“When it comes to public funding,” Spoons argues, “the popularity of sports makes it its own worst enemy.” Everybody knows what the players are making, he says, and this kind of populist resistance to giving public money to billionaires and millionaires plays especially well in the state of Hubert H. Humphrey. “I don’t know what it is about Zygi in particular,” he says, “maybe because he looks like Groucho Marx?” Spoons loves Zygi — “he’s the best owner we’ve ever had” — and he’s afraid he’s going to sell to somebody from L.A. “Zygi’s a fan,” Spoons says. “I know he’s a Giants fan, and I was pulling for them to win during the Super Bowl just so he would remember the thrill of winning, of having fun.” He bulges his eyes and shakes his head at this sacrilege — the Giants beat us 41-0 in the 2001 NFC Championship Game. “Me, rooting for a New York team in a Super Bowl!”
Spoons realizes his fanatic attachment to the Vikings is spurred by his own weird dad shit. “I didn’t see my dad for five years in the late ’60s because he was a divorced parent,” he says. “I was told he was the bad guy.” But when his stepdad started beating on his mom, he would escape to his real dad’s house and they would watch games together.
You see where this is going?
“Have you seen my van?” he asks. I have not. “You would die! It’s professionally done. If I pull up to an intersection, it fucks it up!” Spoons is speaking in a hoarse whisper now, trying to be mindful of all the dignified reverb on that Egyptian marble. “I met this guy at this auto show, who happened to be the manager of an auto shop. He was a big Packer fan.” Spoons bought a ’97 Astro Van from Van Cargo for $2,500 bucks and entrusted it to the Packer fan’s chop shop for five months. When it was ready, his wife blindfolded him. “And I got a little baked before,” he says, “and fuckin’ A, they took pictures of me when I took the blindfold off and saw it for the first time!” He had spent $30,000 on a purple paint job complete with horns, a 60-inch flat-screen installed in back where the waterbed should be, and vanity plates rocking SPOONS. “I say it’s ‘Vike my ride’ instead of ‘pimp my ride!'” He’s becoming more animated, and keeping that hoarse whisper an actual whisper is becoming more of a strain. “Fuck, it turned out so good, brother!” His face is two shades rosier at this point. “When I pull up to a four-way stop, it fucks it all up!”
From here Spoons lifts off into a dadboner in-real-life diatribe that covers, but is not limited to, the fact that despite having season tickets for the last eight years, he’s only been inside the Dome once; the details of his seven-day rib-cooking process for tailgating (he barbecues 100 pounds spread across 10 Weber grills during every home game); his observations on the difference between Milwaukee season-ticket holders and Green Bay season-ticket holders during his annual pilgrimage to Lambeau (he gets his wife a hotel room while he sleeps in the van for three days); and his excitement level regarding his plans to drive his Purple People Beater to his 41st Ted Nugent concert this summer (“I’m a rocker!”). It culminates with some self-scrutiny of his emotional state at this point in the political process. He just can’t shake the notion that something terrible is going to happen at the last second. “I’m nervously optimistic,” he says. “My gut feels somehow this might be it. But I don’t want to jinx that the Vikings have ripped our hearts out so many times.”
I hear him. I try to be a progressive-minded guy that cares about schools and the arts and the downtrodden and the sick, but sitting there on the bench beneath the capitol rotunda, listening to Spoons’s symposium beneath the statues of long-dead Union generals, I suspected that deep down, something might really be wrong with me. Because the only guy speaking my language here is wearing jean shorts.
So I recognize my purple guilt, but the other side really does seem to be acting far less reasonably on this one. For instance, the afternoon that Roger Goodell was at the capitol, I ran into an old liberal dude upstairs who said he was a card-carrying member of the Occupy Movement. Seemed like a nice, compassionate guy. But when we got down to discussing the endgame of his anti-stadium position, he looked me in the eye and said, “We were Packers fans in the ’60s. We can be Packers fans again.”
Despite the fact that capitol reporting felt like my new boyfriend was insisting we attend his favorite cricket team’s three-week test match in its entirety, after awhile I actually started to get it. I could pick out the players and their stratagems. I defined heroes2 and villains,3 and I no longer felt that I had a magical remote that somehow imprisoned me inside C-SPAN for all of eternity. But man, this was complicated — though interesting-complicated. To understand the stadium landscape is to understand Minnesota.
My heart went out to the hulking, morose, retiring author of the bill in the House, Representative Morrie Lanning. And I laughed at guys like Representative John Kriesel, a guy who lost both his legs in Iraq and consequently has the balls to say things like, “My family doesn’t go to museums or plays — not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Vikings are how we get together.”
I’m burned out on the Senate’s whiny conscience, Senator John Marty, the son of a Lutheran theologian who’s been carrying the anti-corporate, anti-stadium torch for more than a decade now. And I couldn’t take my eyes off Michele Bachmann’s forked tongued former chief of staff, Senator Sean Nienow — dude is basically the Loki of the Senate.
So I knew some of the ground rules going in. We still think we’re pretty special up here: a well-educated, progressive, super passive-aggressive population, with a populist streak that goes beyond even our own customized Democratic Party — the Democratic Farmers and Laborers, or DFL — actually two left-wing parties unified by Hubert Humphrey himself in 1944. We’re talking real Garrison Keillor/Lake Wobegon/ELCA white Scandihoovian mafia shit. We romanticize our working-class roots and traditionally embrace you betcha social values like education and social welfare and not partying, and even more important, we kind of hate rich people. Even our rich people kind of hate rich people: We were a solid blue state for years, and now as our Republicans gain steady success at the polls and we start to bleed a new shade of purple, from a stadium perspective at least, Minnesota Republicans are just as populist, just as against tax money for a billionaire, as our Democrats. And with the tea party? Probably more populist than ever.
And you know who we hate even more than rich people? Rich people from out of town.
Which is basically why Minnesota Golden Gopher football, a perennial laughingstock — at least since our long lost glory days in the ’50s — was able to move out of the Metrodome in 2009 and into their own $300 million football stadium back on campus, while the Vikings, a usually successful franchise in the most wildly successful sports league in the world, were stuck in a place with a Teflon roof that collapsed during a blizzard last season.4
It’s hard to say if the blizzard collapse increased urgency — in fact, it probably decreased urgency. It was a strong visual symbol, but insurance repaired it (for $20 million) and there was an element in the legislature that strongly believed the collapse could provide a legal argument that would require the Vikings to extend their lease by one more year, because they didn’t finish the prior season in the Dome.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a Twins or a Gophers town, this is a Vikings town. But in 2006, after years of breakup threats, our politicians finally felt forced into a corner by one of the most hilariously embarrassing venues in sports — granted, a multi-use venue built in 1982 for $124 million (and initially without air conditioning) that has served its purpose nobly and frugally (two World Series, a Final Four, a Super Bowl, four Stones concerts, and a Billy Graham crusade among the highlights) — and when we finally decided to do something about it we took care of the Gophers first, because they were one of our own. Not the most forward-thinking move, but one that fit in with our standoffish personality. But then, at the end of the session in 2006, the Legislature finally gave the Twins their $500 million baseball stadium, partially because their lease in the dome wasn’t as advantageous as the Vikings’ was, but mostly because they had been threatening us for a longer period of time. So Target Field was a joint venture between Hennepin County (Minneapolis side, not St. Paul) and the Pohlad family. Carl Pohlad basically had the rep as a ruthless, billionaire sonofabitch, held both by the majority of baseball fans — he had threatened contraction in 2001 — and by the majority of the business community. He had screwed over every other rich guy in town with notoriously shrewd last-minute renegotiations for 60 years. But at least he was our ruthless, billionaire sonofabitch. In a karmic twist, Carl passed away in 2009 — he never made it to Opening Day 2010.
And that left the Vikings. In 2005, used-car salesman Red McCombs gave up and flipped them — it was much messier than this, but you get the gist — to Zygi Wilf and his more milquetoast-looking brother Mark for $600 million. After weathering the Love Boat scandal in 2005, and signing Brett Favre in 2009, we kinda sorta started liking Zygi, and he said all the right things about never leaving us, but we still called him the Billionaire from New Jersey? every chance we got. That’s just how we are.
So when Commissioner Goodell came to Minneapolis to hold a press conference with Governor Dayton on April 20, the stage was set for three weeks of the most dramatic voice-vote-without-recommendation committee hearings this state has ever seen. OK. Well, at least the Twins were losing and the NBA playoffs hadn’t begun in earnest yet. I paid attention to an interminable portion of this mess on location (admittedly, some of my time was spent underneath a tent in front of the capitol, where Spoons had parked his van and had the satellite set to the public broadcast), and while Democrats versus Republicans is always the main narrative, you don’t have to pound the Egyptian marble to get that one. So I’ve identified three distinct subplots that were key to why this deal was so complicated.
Labor vs. The Tribes
One of the biggest holdups to this deal is the fact that the Vikings’ lead lobbyist, the hulking Lester Bagley, isn’t particularly well-liked around here. He’s got capitol experience, and his résumé says UCLA and Oxford, but he looks and sounds like he played linebacker for a Division II school in Wisconsin, and that sticks out in a culture run by former student council nerds. Even in impromptu conversation, he hammers down his talking points in his deep, booming voice like he’s Bluetoothed into an internal teleprompter. But lobbyists don’t have to be that poetic, or even likable, really, in order to be effective. They just have to be around, to remind the politicians what it is they’re actually voting on. They’re going to get painted with the villain brush as a matter of course. During the marathon seven-hour debate on the Senate floor, after an amendment that they voted to adopt was about to get un-adopted by a following vote just an hour later, one tea party senator protested with a hoary quote from Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” while Senator Nienow ranted, “There are dark forces wearing $3,000 suits out in that hallway!”
The Vikings do have a $3,000-suit guy or two on their payroll — Larry Redmond, who owns Redmond Associates, one of two big firms retained by the team, is usually looking pretty dapper — but most of the dark forces out in the hallway obviously shop at Macy’s. And the Vikings lobbying team doesn’t come close to touching the number of Indian gaming lobbyists hanging around out there. Minnesota has one of the largest, most vocal, and most organized urban Native American populations in the country: In the ’70s, Minneapolis was the epicenter of Dennis Banks and Russell Means’s American Indian Movement. But the tribes didn’t have real political power until 1988’s Indian Gaming Regulatory Act gave them the right to build casinos. Now they’re the Democratic Party’s no. 2 fund-raiser behind Big Labor (and they have plenty of money left over to pay Republicans, too). The capitol is full of guys on their considerable payroll — and as one lobbyist haunting the hallways told me, “Lobbyists are not employed to get things done, we’re here to make sure things don’t get done — a lobbyist’s job is the preservation of the status quo.”
But the union badly wanted the 7,500 construction jobs a Vikings stadium would bring. And toward the end of the session, they were extremely vocal about this. They bused in hundreds of fully sleeved guys with hard hats and Jared Allen jerseys and picket signs to flood the rotunda and chant “BUILD IT! BUILD IT!” So what could possibly be the tribes’ beef with the hard hats? The only real political mandate at the state level on any Vikings plan was you can build it, but without any of the state’s general fund money (basically the dough used to pay teachers). The solution? Gambling money. But the tribes didn’t want the white man to build a state-run casino, because it would infringe on their monopoly. Their compromise is this strange Rube Goldberg device: electronic pull tabs. Goldman Sachs vouched for the potential earnings from these things, basically iPad-size slot machines that will supposedly be available at any of the 4,000 bars and restaurants featuring real-life old ladies hawking plastic baskets full of regular paper pull tabs. It’s the most adorable plan to fund a stadium by Big Brotherizing Lucky 7s, Cherry Bells, and Pickle Cards I’ve ever heard.
Minneapolis vs. St. Paul
We’re called the Twin Cities because we still go at each other like vicious 9-year-old sisters armed with scissors and an ancient grudge. The heart of every stadium problem begins here. These two squabbling pricks are the reason Metropolitan Stadium was built out in Bloomington, and why we have both Xcel Energy Center for the Wild in St. Paul and the Target Center for the Timberwolves in Minneapolis. Together with their hostile baby brother, the University of Minnesota, they make a perfect storm of sibling rivalry and athletic facility redundancy.
And it was no different this time. The original Wilf Vikings Stadium plan called for it to be built out in Ramsey County (St. Paul side), about a half-hour outside of the city, on an abandoned munitions plant site. The Wilfs loved this because they’re from New Jersey — and developers from Jungleland are born building malls and mixed housing on (formerly) toxic waste sites, right? Everybody discussed this plan like it actually had a chance for about a year, and then abandoned it early in this legislative session, right around the point when everybody realized they would have to build millions of dollars’ worth of highways and freeways, while Minneapolis already has the roads and the civil engineering to accommodate 75,000 people converging every Sunday. This is what always happens. And what makes it even more maddening is that the Minneapolis delegation at the capitol consistently votes against stadium bills, knowing full well that all the rural Democrats are happy to vote for local sales taxes in Minneapolis — and partly because Minneapolis politicians are representing voters who actually believe that there are more important things in life than sports.
Minneapolis’s handsome, blue-eyed, Hold Steady–lovin’ mayor, R.T. Rybak, always seemed reticent to filthy up his hands on previous stadium drives, but this time, at the last minute, he swooped in with a $150 million funding mechanism — the continuation of a convention center sales tax that already paid off a convention center renovation. The mayor was quick to defer credit to the bill’s authors or to the governor — “I’m only a midwife on this one,” he repeated to anybody within earshot. But he delivered seven crucial, super-lefty City Council votes on the strength of a couple of very clever, borderline sneaky clauses: one that skirts a 1997 amendment to the city charter that says Minneapolis will contribute no more than $10 million to any stadium project, and another that folds in an additional $150 million renovation of the city’s biggest white elephant, Target Center. Minneapolis was forced to buy the arena back in ’95, when Harv and Marv were threatening to move the Timberwolves to New Orleans. The catch for the Vikings deal? Target Center is a direct competitor for Springsteen and Justin Bieber concerts with St. Paul’s newer arena, the Xcel Center, which they built to lure an NHL team in 2000. And the Vikings needed St. Paul Democrats to vote for the stadium because of Republican opposition, but the St. Paulites, who are always reluctant to give big sister anything in the first place, felt they were getting doubly screwed on the Target Center deal. So St. Paul was paid off at the last minute with a $2.7 million yearly payment (each year for over 20 years) to benefit their “sports facilities.”
Tea Party Republicans vs Country Club Republicans
In 2010, just like everybody else’s, Minnesota’s statehouse got infected by a new, powerfully dogmatic strain of conservatism: Tea Party Republicans. They hate taxes, on anything, ostensibly because this position adheres to some free-market principle that would help the economy, but a lot of the time they seem to stand on some even higher principle. (They’re addicted to liberty!) So they say a lot of conspiratorial stuff that disparages “big government working with big business.” But Minnesota’s economy is directly tied to the big business headquartered here: Target, Best Buy, Ecolab, General Mills, U.S. Bank. These companies are pro-stadium, and they hired the most expensive, most Don Draper–looking lobbyists to make their point. Unfortunately for them, this new tea party strain of Republicans seemed to be immune to their influence.
The way this played out was a numbers crunch — with the tea partiers out of play, there were even fewer Republican votes for this thing than there would have been normally.5 Old-school pro-business Republicans would be forced to team up with pro-labor DFLers in order to thread the needle through all the committee hearings and ultimately to the Senate and House floor, with the tea partiers and the anti-corporate Dems nipping at their heels the entire way. And when Goodell invoked the specter of an L.A. getaway, the media panicked, and in turn Vikings fans panicked, crashing the capitol party en masse in purple face paint, horned helmets, leather scabbards, and imported Norwegian medallions. Spoons had gone forth and he had multiplied, and by the last week of the session, his Astro van was his Mount Eremos, a place where I could sit in a camp chair and watch the floor debates on his flat-screen and get some instant insane-man-on-the-street perspective outside of the 360-degree bullshit zone inside.
The capitol reporting pool predicted the Republicans could only muster about 17 yes votes out of a 37-vote Republican majority. In the end they produced 15. Twenty-one out of 29 DFLers voted yes.
Ten days before the vote, the stadium plan’s 12-men-on-the-field call happened — the inevitable fatalist Vikings thing that Spoons feared. Momentum had been building, and people started believing that Governor Dayton and the Republican legislature were actually going to get something done in what was supposed to be a do-nothing session. But because this was the governor’s baby — he wore a Christian Ponder jersey at a rally at the Mall of America the Sunday before the big vote — Republican leadership panicked, thinking that the Democratic governor was going to get some credit. So they proposed an unworkable last-minute deal — an unroofed stadium — clearly intended to scuttle the project. While the governor and the Republicans sniped at each other in the paper, I went outside to see what Spoons was thinking.
“Aw, I don’t think it’s that bad,” he said, holding court with some union construction workers underneath a small Vikings tent behind his van. “Maybe it will work!” Outside of the marble cage, Spoons could flail his arms and gesticulate with his plastic Jim Varney face as much as he wanted to. “I mean, anything to get the cranes moving! Anything to get the cranes moving!” I told him that anytime an anti-government Republican refers to his workplace as “a house of ideas,”6 that would be according-to-Hoyle cynical to me. He instantly switched course. “Yeah, you’re right. Somebody told me that Lanning has never looked more depressed. Ah well, it kinda reminds me of Barret Robbins, the guy that did ecstasy before the Super Bowl! Remember him?” I nodded. “Dropping ecstasy the night before the Super Bowl! What are you thinkin? Okay, sure, just one — You can’t take it back once it’s down your throat!”
Honestly, Senator Senjum’s line might be the driest, most Scandinavian joke of all times. I’ve watched his masterpiece 1,000 times trying to find a tell.
At the time, this made perfect sense.
In the end, the barbarians had overrun the gates. Cass Gilbert’s vision of a sober Roman republic was violated with rounds of “Skol Vikings!” after each successful vote was recorded. The purple beast was finally off the couch, filling Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, e-mail boxes, and actual answering machines with sometimes crude, sometimes blunt, sometimes alert-the-FBI-level alarming demands to get this done. After waiting for years, right up until the dome’s lease was up, any leverage the state had ever had was given away, and now with the sports-crazy half of the state finally engaged, the direct glare of public scrutiny was on the capitol. Public statements were garbled, speeches seemed agenda-heavy and disingenuous, appeals for pet projects came off as especially unseemly, and the usual parliamentary games looked like dirty tricks. It wasn’t the capitol’s finest hour.
The nadir in public credibility probably happened a week before the vote, when the Republican majority leader in the House, Kurt Zellers, gamely agreed to be interviewed by Dan Barreiro on KFAN, our sports radio station, and immediately came off like a fibbing asshole. He said, “You know, I’m a Vikings fan. And I may or may not be able to vote for it, but I want to see the bill pass.”
There were layers and layers of doublespeak and silly behavior. The most irritating move was the last-minute electronic vote change. Everybody is looking at the big electronic voting board on the wall — red or green — trying to determine if there’s enough support for an amendment that it might be possible to avoid putting your own ass on the line, and then somebody switches at the last second. It’s a childish game, and it reminded me of that guy in your fantasy football league who’s always trying to sneak in an under-the-gavel bid for Darren Sproles. At least the people engaging in this type of behavior were usually the outliers, the Nienows and the Martys, people obviously willing to do whatever it takes to throw a monkey wrench. And the thing is, at least those guys took a position and seemed to know what they were talking about. The more frustrating enterprise was trying to figure out who was a solid yes. Several legislators went on filibuster-length jags about how they’ve been proudly watching the Vikings since Alan Page and Jim Marshall were meeting each other at the quarterback, or how disappointed they were over the Herschel Walker trade, or that their sixth grader is really pulling for Christian Ponder to be great this season, before transitioning into an inevitable “BUT” and spending 10 more minutes explaining why he or she might be opposed to the deal. And it became obvious that no matter how long this deal was vetted, or how many lawyers or how much staff they have available to them, many of the legislators will never understand how the NFL actually works7 — that a huge part of this deal was about enabling the Vikings to pay a huge signing bonus to, say, Victor Cruz when he’s a free agent in 2013. But it was just as obvious that, informed or not, pro or con, the stadium issue is a personal one for each one of the legislators.8 In fact, most people have an emotional attachment to sports, usually very positive or very negative. But most people aren’t in the position to vote on billion-dollar deals.
During the eight-hour stadium debate on the House floor, there were several amendments that were written to showcase a pet project or just gum up the works. At one point Republican Representative Linda Runbeck introduced an amendment — it failed — that promised that all games would be on “free TV,” blustering, “We have been told that this is the people’s stadium. So far, I’m not very convinced that there is much in it for the average, everyday person.” The average, everyday person probably understands the NFL’s blackout rule more thoroughly than Representative Runbeck’s staff.
One thing I always have wondered about is what the attitude toward the team would be if they weren’t, you know, the Vikings. They’re the worst kind of losers — because they get you to invest your emotions each season before they lose. And there was the occasional crack on the part of a legislator about never winning the big one, but it never goes much beyond that. Vikings fans consider the hypothetical impact of a Super Bowl win on the stadium debate much more than any politician does.
It all reminded me of something Spoons said about pronouns in the rotunda the first time I met him.
“You ever hear the Vikings referred to as — one word — WE? What time do we play? Did we win? GOTCHA. That’s all I gotta say. If you ever in your life referred to them as we” — here he paused to point out that he knows it turns into they when they lose — “but if you ever refer to them as we, GOTCHA. Because we don’t refer to the barbershop as we.”
So after hours of arguing in committee hearings, followed by a closed-door conference committee negotiation with the Vikings (another opportunity for Nienow to suggest a conspiracy), the bill finally passed in the Senate by a football score: 36-30. On that last afternoon, the gallery was full of Vikings fans who just couldn’t contain themselves, emitting a muted whoop and a tentative golf clap before the president of the Senate repeatedly slammed down her gavel, chastising everybody for their breach of decorum. “I appreciate the enthusiasm,” Senator Michelle Fischbach scolded, as everybody was instantly reminded of their first grade teacher, “but take it into the hallway.”
So everybody had to put their heads down and murmur down a couple of flights of stairs. I wonder if those two flights were enough time for everybody to reflect on what they were doing: wearing purple face paint and leather skirts to this gorgeous sausage factory, praying that these politicians would give us the $500 million we wanted.
By the time we made it down to the rotunda level Spoons was crying, and Lester Bagley was getting slapped on the back, and sound bites were being recorded for the six o’clock news. After it was over, it felt downright anticlimactic. Of course Minnesota gave the billionaire from New Jersey $500 million in pull tab money and sales taxes and user fees to keep the Vikings around for another 30 years. We weren’t going to lose the Vikings. But the deal also includes money for the Target Center. The Twins have Target Field. The Wild have Xcel. There’s talk of a Major League Soccer team in the Vikings stadium if the Wilfs will pay for a retractable roof out of pocket.9 All of our stadium issues are solved for the foreseeable future. It feels weird.
Zygi is always talking about getting the Vikings their Bud Grant–era, cold tundra at the old Met homefield advantage back, so he should pay for a roof. And not just out of the goodness of his heart: Some analysts say that of the Wilfs’ $477 million “contribution” — which was increased by $50 million at the last second — between the NFL loan of $200 million and their control over stadium naming rights, which should net them $200 million plus, less than $50 million of the total deal will be actually coming out-of-pocket.
Turns out we’re not so special up here. We just want to be as good as everybody else.
Steve Marsh is a Twin Cities–based writer. He previously wrote about Ricky Rubio for Grantland.