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Powerful Va. senator keeps everyone guessing as clock ticks on arena

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RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s plan to lure the Washington Capitals and Wizards across the Potomac to Northern Virginia is back where it began — behind closed doors, in the hands of a few powerful figures.

But this time, the Republican governor and the billionaire team owner who secretly negotiated an arena deal late last year do not have seats at the table. Chief among those who do: Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), a relentless Youngkin antagonist who hails from a poorer part of the state and expresses grave doubts about the $2 billion arena for Alexandria’s Potomac Yard.

Lucas, who rose to a powerful position this year as chairwoman of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, has blasted what she’s labeled the “Glenn Dome” as a gift to team owner Ted Leonsis and a threat to state finances. As the plan enters its next phase — at the mercy of a small conference committee called to hash out the state budget — all eyes are on an intense game of chicken between Lucas and Youngkin. The governor has hinted he might veto unrelated bills if the arena plan goes down.

The wild card in their standoff is House Speaker Don L. Scott Jr., another Portsmouth Democrat who considers Lucas a mentor but struck up an unlikely friendship this year with the governor. He says he understands Lucas’s skepticism but thinks the arena is worth considering.

Adding to the intrigue: It’s not entirely clear, even to Senate colleagues, if Lucas really wants to kill the arena or is merely trying to drive the hardest possible bargain with Youngkin for Democratic priorities related to highway tolls, marijuana and minimum wage.

Lucas declined to speak at length to The Washington Post about her intentions.

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Youngkin’s office declined to make him available for an interview but said in a written statement that he continues to work with all parties, including Lucas.

“My relationship with Sen. Lucas is underpinned by my respect for her and our shared desire to move Virginia forward,” Youngkin wrote.

Time is running out on a General Assembly session scheduled to wrap up Saturday. The House version of the budget contains language authorizing the arena; the Senate’s, thanks to Lucas, does not. Such differences will be reconciled in committee, with six lawmakers picked by Lucas on the Senate negotiating team and six picked by Scott for his chamber.

Even if the full House and Senate ultimately agree to a budget bill without arena language, Youngkin still has a path forward. He could insert arena language in a budget amendment, forcing a floor vote on the plan at the legislature’s April 17 “veto session.” Or the governor could call a special session to consider a new arena bill.

But it’s far from certain that he has enough support from legislators on both sides of the aisle to approve the project. The Northern Virginia delegation — like legislators across the state — seem split, with some embracing it as an economic development win and others sharing Lucas’s concerns.

How the drama plays out could shape Youngkin’s political trajectory as much as Alexandria’s landscape. Delivering a major development deal that draws two major professional sports teams to a state with none would constitute a legacy-making coup for the Republican, who cannot run for reelection next year because Virginia bans its governors from serving back-to-back terms.

Failure to pull it off, however, could reshape the former private equity chief’s image from rising Republican star to flash in the pan — just as last November’s elections, when Youngkin’s party lost control of the House and didn’t flip the Senate, killed the buzz about his long-teased 2024 presidential ambitions.

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A Youngkin-Lucas showdown

With great fanfare in December, Youngkin and Leonsis announced a handshake deal to build an arena for the teams, which now play at Capital One Arena in the District.

Early on, Lucas wrote on X that she might play ball in exchange for lowering highway tunnel tolls in her part of the state and establishing a legal marketplace for marijuana. Other Democrats wanted Metro transit system funding, affordable housing and a higher minimum wage.

Lucas’s tone has grown harsher, with warnings that the project could jeopardize the state’s prized AAA bond rating and leave taxpayers on the hook for $1.5 billion in bonds if it fails.

Lucas made it clear that Hampton Roads toll relief alone would not win her over after news broke last week that the governor had offered Lucas and Scott a stunning $322 million for that purpose in exchange for arena support — well above the $92 million that Lucas included for tolls in the Senate budget.

In a brief interview with The Washington Post outside the Senate chamber Friday, Lucas said the governor’s offer had come a month ago — “old news,” she said.

“My position hasn’t changed,” she said. “I still don’t think [the arena] is a good idea for the state. To think that I would cave when this [toll relief] just really takes care of just a few people. … I need more people to be helped by whatever we do.”

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Richmond has been bracing for a Lucas-Youngkin showdown since the Republican moved into the Executive Mansion two years ago.

A combative former shipyard worker — Lucas once nearly came to blows with another female Democrat on the Senate floor and belittled a Republican leader with a cutting fashion critique — she routinely targeted the new governor on what was then Twitter.

By contrast, Youngkin, who made a personal fortune in the cutthroat but mannerly world of private equity, made a show of giving Lucas one of his signature red vests even as he pushed culture-war issues that enraged her.

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While the governor tries to build relationships to sell the deal in the Capitol, Lucas is testing the limits of ties she’s forged over three decades in Richmond, deploying a string of highhanded procedural tactics aimed at the arena.

Is Lucas trying to kill the project or just bargaining? “I have no idea,” said one Senate Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of offending Lucas. “Nobody does.”

Stylistically and biographically, Scott is in the middle — a man who served a stretch in prison for a youthful drug-related conviction, but rebuilt his life as a prominent defense lawyer before this year becoming Virginia’s first Black House speaker.

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Scott, who has privately represented Lucas in court cases, says her reluctance to issue bonds for the arena stems from her experience with another public-private partnership: highway tolls on two tunnels under the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and their hometown of Portsmouth.

While the amounts are low by Northern Virginia standards — around $3 during rush hour for EZPass holders, $7.57 for non-pass holders — they can be a crushing burden for low-income workers who have to travel back and forth daily. The tolls are collected by a private firm under a long-term contract inked more than a decade ago with the state.

“You have a 58-year toll on one of the poorest communities in Hampton Roads,” Scott said. “She has some scar tissue from these types of … quasi-public-private partnerships.”

He said his own approach is different, in deference to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) and Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), whose Northern Virginian constituents are directly affected by the plan.

“So if my leadership team is saying that they want to continue to have a conversation, we’ve got to continue the conversation,” Scott said.

He pointed out that Northern Virginia’s traffic problems are going to require a major state investment regardless of whether the arena gets built. Maybe arena revenue could help cover those costs, he said.

Youngkin has been making that case to Scott in regular texts and phone calls. While Scott has been one of Youngkin’s sharpest critics, he has entertained the governor’s efforts to court him this year. They joke about a shared fondness for Dr Pepper; Youngkin attends Scott’s morning Bible study every Wednesday.

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Don Scott was a fiery partisan; as Va. speaker, he’s top negotiator

Youngkin has not spent quite as much time wooing Lucas lately, but his spokesman said the governor has had to play catch-up with Scott, who only ascended to the chamber’s top spot this year.

Lucas said she hardly feels neglected and that every week, Youngkin calls, texts or sends someone from his team to see her. But she has said she felt snubbed that the administration did not bring her in on the arena project earlier.

It didn’t help when Youngkin insulted Democrats with a speech at a mock presidential nominating convention in February, saying the party does not believe in “a strong America.”

In the immediate aftermath, Lucas killed the Senate’s stand-alone arena bill without a hearing — contrary to Senate practice and without buy-in from Democratic colleagues. She did so even as Senate Majority Leader Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who had sponsored the bill at Youngkin’s request, was reworking it with the goal of increasing the legislature’s oversight and better protecting taxpayers.

“I had a rewrite ready to go,” Surovell said in an interview with The Post, noting that traditionally in the Senate, every bill gets docketed for a hearing. He said Lucas has occasionally objected to hearing bills she dislikes. “In the past, we’ve been able to work through it,” he said. “But this year, she wasn’t willing to talk about it.”

After killing Surovell’s arena bill, Lucas did the same to the House version once it crossed over to the Senate. She also stripped arena language from the Senate budget bill and included no new funding for the Metro transit system, whose expansion would be critical for the project. (The House, by comparison, included $149.5 million for Metro.)

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The only public pushback came over her actions on Metro funding, widely considered critical to the Northern Virginia economy irrespective of any arena. She got a visit from Metro leadership the next day and softened her tone.

Youngkin has begun signaling that he can play hardball, too, perhaps taking revenge on a host of Democratic legislation with his veto pen. While the governor typically avoids weighing in before measures get to his desk, his spokesman recently volunteered that Youngkin has concerns on bills related to slots-like machines known as “skill games” — a measure that Lucas has supported.

All was cordial, though, as the budget conferees from both House and Senate met with the governor Friday for a traditional breakfast as they prepared to launch negotiations. Scott is not a budget negotiator but also attended.

Lucas said the governor reminded them of all the things he called for at the end of last year when he unveiled his budget plan, which included the arena.

“At breakfast this morning he said, ‘Well, I told everybody what my priorities were in December,’ ” Lucas said that afternoon. “I said, ‘I did, too. Go back and read my Twitter feed.’”

Source: Washington Post

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