D.C. hopes Cooke will return home as he did after Va. flirtation


WASHINGTON -- Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke's new flirtation with Maryland comes after a long, tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship with the District of Columbia that has already survived a serious affair with Virginia.

Even as Mr. Cooke claims that he is fed up with the political and bureaucratic headaches of trying to win both city and federal approval to build a new football stadium in Washington, leaders are hopeful he will come home again once he learns that the proposed Laurel site has its difficulties, too.

"They rebuffed me, but it doesn't mean they don't love me any more. Mr. Cooke wants to be in the district, I know that for sure," said George W. Brown, assistant city administrator for economic development.

Mr. Brown tried and failed Wednesday to get Mr. Cooke to resume negotiations that he says are within 30 days of completing a deal for a new 78,600-seat facility next to the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the Redskins' current home. But he and other city officials are encouraged by the opposition to the Laurel site of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a candidate to succeed Mr. Schaefer in 1995.

"He'll find there are no panaceas," Mr. Brown predicted of the Redskins owner, who made a similar discovery last year when the citizens of Alexandria, Va., overwhelmingly rejected his overtures to build a stadium there. But prospects for another reconciliation between Mr. Cooke and the city are threatened by a huge and apparently growing personality conflict between the irascible, 81-year-old billionaire and Washington's outspoken mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly.

The two have not gotten along well since they first started negotiating shortly after she took office in 1991. Mr. Cooke complained at one point that she had gone back on her word, changing the terms of a possible deal; she later charged in a television interview that he had patted her behind during one meeting.

"I just don't think he likes dealing with women in positions of authority," said Paul Costello, former press secretary to the mayor.

Mr. Cooke says that Mayor Kelly is now refusing to speak to him.

He told Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. yesterday that Mrs. Kelly wouldn't take his call on Tuesday.

City officials sympathetic to Mr. Cooke note that, although the mayor was out of the office Tuesday celebrating her wedding anniversary, she found time to greet New York Mayor-elect Rudolf Giuliani, who was in Washington making courtesy calls.

The mayor's office insists that she is very anxious to talk with Mr. Cooke and has arranged a meeting Monday with City Council Chairman David A. Clarke to determine how best to proceed. "They are both obviously very stubborn, very strong-willed people," Mark Plotkin, a political analyst for D.C. radio station WAMU, said of the mayor and the team owner. "Unfortunately, this has gotten personal and that's too bad."

Few doubt that Mr. Cooke would move the team to Laurel if he could quickly break ground for a stadium that would be built according to his terms and provide a grander, more profitable home for his team.

After five years of trying in Washington, Mr. Cooke has clearly lost patience with a bureaucratic approval process that is made many times more complicated than it would be elsewhere because of interference from Congress and federal agencies, which oversee use of the land.

The proposed Jack Kent Cooke stadium "is to be his signature accomplishment," noted City Council Member John Ray. "And at 81, time is not on his side."

Following the sour start of his dealings with Mayor Kelly, Mr. Cooke began to stray in the spring of 1992 when he signed a letter of intent with Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder for a stadium in Alexandria.

But neither he nor Mr. Wilder had undertaken the necessary political spadework to guarantee the support of the facility's new neighbors or the Virginia legislature, which insisted that he scale back his proposal. The romance flagged.

Mr. Cooke resumed his talks with Washington officials, and in December of last year signed a deal for a new stadium next to RFK Stadium, where the Redskins have played for three decades. The team owner agreed to spend $206 million to build the new facility, which would become city property after 30 years.

The deal seemed on track on Feb. 5 when Mr. Cooke and city officials signed a memorandum of understanding formalizing the December agreement. But little has happened since, and Mr. Cooke's hopes of having a new stadium ready for the 1995 season have died.

Mr. Cooke's chief goal as he avidly courts Maryland officials is to cut a ribbon on a new stadium in time to kick off the 1996 season.

Divisions within the D.C. government over the proposed stadium and conflicts over who should pay for the cleanup of environmental contamination and new roads slowed the process. A drive in Congress to force Mr. Cooke to change the Redskins name because it offends American Indians threatened to halt the entire project.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the district in the House of Representatives, said she smelled trouble with the stadium deal when neither Mr. Cooke nor his representatives showed up for a hearing last month before a subcommittee that must approve the proposal.

"That's very unusual for someone who wants something from Congress," noted Mrs. Norton. "And, of course, it irked the committee, but I don't think it necessarily doomed the project."

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