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Cropp the unifier becomes the divider


WASHINGTON - D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp seems an unlikely target for sports radio rage, what with her coordinating necklace-earring sets and quiet reputation for consensus-building.

But yesterday, the genteel sponsor of what is now being called "the killer amendment" - a measure that threatens to drive Major League Baseball from the District after the city has gone for more than three decades without a team - predicted her newfound fame among drive-time DJs and sports fans.

"I suspect I'm going to be tarred and feathered and vilified by all of sports media and sports radio," she told reporters, "because their job is to bring sports here."

And, sure enough, the vilification began on cue.

"I'm embarrassed to say I live in Washington right now, and Linda Cropp to me is the face on that embarrassment," said Marc Sterne, the baseball reporter for WTEM Sportstalk 980, an AM station that has been chronicling the ups and downs of the District's baseball bid. "People are going to tell me, 'Oh, you're from the place that screwed up baseball,' and for me, Linda Cropp is going to be the reason why."

Cropp, one of the longest-serving members of the D.C. Council, surprised District leaders late Tuesday night by turning against a deal for a publicly financed stadium that she had appeared to support, proposing instead an amendment that would require half the ballpark to be paid for with private funding. The amendment has sunk the city's chances for baseball into crisis and turned Cropp into the sports villain du jour.

Though the Democrat is known as a back-room negotiator who usually seeks out allies before she speaks, the scene on the dais Tuesday night seemed to some out of character - a methodical politician inventing a position at the spur of the moment.

"She hadn't consulted anybody," said D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, who opposed the stadium package. "And that's completely out of character."

Still, some argue Cropp was true to her reputation for compromise deals. The 11th-hour amendment, after all, annoyed both sides of the evenly divided council - it didn't quite obliterate the future stadium, and it didn't quite rescue it, either.

Cropp said her late-night move took even her by surprise, but she seemed to warm to her defiance by yesterday afternoon, stating flatly: "I'm willing to let baseball walk."

Yesterday, Cropp's critics were hitting the airwaves in audible irritation.

"My colleagues who oppose this [stadium deal] want to rant and rave and say it's costing the taxpayers $500 million," D.C. Council member Jack Evans, a supporter of the deal, told WAMU, Washington's National Public Radio affiliate. "This will not affect the taxpayers in any way, shape or form."

Talk among District insiders revolves around whether Cropp is positioning herself for a run for mayor in 2006. Three city council members who supported a deal for a privately financed stadium failed to win re-election this year. The proposal, staunchly backed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, was unpopular among many working-class residents of the city as a drain on public funds, a project that would benefit suburban lawyers and lobbyists in expensive skyboxes instead of the people who live here.

To some, Cropp's refusal to back the plan speaks to her history with those voters. Cropp's defenders recall how she fought to bring the city back from the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s and call fiscal responsibility one of her hallmarks.

"She's not someone who chases headlines - there's not a lot of ego there," said Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor who has lobbied with Cropp on District voting rights issues. "She's interested in taking care of her city, and I think she feels very strongly that Washingtonians get a fair deal out of this."

Raskin said Cropp is mindful of the dynamics unique to Washington.

"Imagine what it's like being the chairman of the city council in a city where you have some of the richest and most powerful people on Earth and then some of the poorest and most desperate people on Earth," he said. "She sees the resources available to people with a lot of power in America and she sees how poor people have to live and so she has to reconcile those contradictions in her daily legislative business."

Cropp, 57, whose husband, Dwight Cropp, was a longtime aide to former Mayor Marion Barry, got her start on the District school board. She ran for city council in her blue-collar northwest neighborhood in 1991, and worked her way up to council chairman six years later. The mother of two grown children - her son is a Giant supermarket manager in the District, and her daughter works in an emergency room - takes pride in her independent thinking. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that her friends know her 5-year-old grandson's nickname for her: "Be-Free."

Although Cropp was cheerleading for the deal initially - even singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with fellow supporters when the city announced it was poised to take over the Montreal Expos franchise - Cropp said she never agreed to "baseball at any cost."

Those who have worked with Cropp say hers is a polite style of political jujitsu. Her grasp of parliamentary maneuvers can cleverly undo her opposition, and her ability to stay cool amid city squabbling has protected her in the council's top job.

"She's got a very, very nice manner about her, but she's one of the best politicians I've ever seen and she can cut you off at the knees and do it very smoothly," said D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson. "She's a very shrewd politician."

Others see her as a politician ever in control of her emotions.

Former aide Ted Trabue recalls planning a disastrous fund-raiser for Cropp when she first came into office. He held it the same night of another big event, it rained and no one could find the venue. The event ultimately lost money instead of raising it.

But Cropp didn't explode. She didn't scream. She also didn't speak to him for three days. "When she finally did, she said in a very calm tone, 'I know you'll make it right,'" Trabue said. "She probably has very low blood pressure."

Perhaps. It'd probably help, though, to stay away from sports radio.

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