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The Seattle Sonics: Public Financing for Private Bigotry?

February 27, 2007

In Seattle, the already fierce debate about public financing for a new basketball arena for the NBA's Sonics is about to get a lot hotter. As Dan Savage first reported yesterday, Sonics co-owners Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward contributed $1.1 million to fund the anti-same-sex marriage campaign of radical crusader Gary Bauer.
The revelations come at a delicate time for Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and the Democratic-controlled state legislature. They are currently considering the team's proposal for $300 million in public financing for a $500 million arena complex to be built in nearby Renton on Boeing property. Governor Gregoire has been mildly supportive of the Sonics' ownership team proposal to replace the outdated Key Arena in Seattle and thus avert a threatened franchise move to Oklahoma City.
But with this week's revelations, Oklahoma City might be a more hospitable climate for Ward and McClendon, two of the team's co-owners along with Clay Bennett. While Washington Democrats have solidly supported the rights of the state's gay citizens, McClendon and Ward contributed $625,000 and $475,000 to Bauer's Americans United to Preserve Marriage for the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, amounts constituting almost the entirety of the $1.3 million his group spent.
Bauer ran for President in 2000 and has been at the forefront of the religious right's fight against civil rights and marriage equality for gay Americans. Bauer has also been a fixture at conservative events such as Justice Sunday and the so-called Values Voters Summit. The latter right-wing hate-fest included Bishop Wellington Boone proclaiming "I want the gays mad at me," attacks on "faggots" and "sissies," and one speaker's declaration that " the gay rights movement was inspired from the pit of hell itself." Bauer himself vociferously opposes same-sex marriage and protections against workplace discrimination and hiring, while encouraging gay Americans to "get out of a destructive lifestyle."
Faced with a public relations fiasco, Sonics spokesman Jim Kneeland claimed that the ownership's links to Bauer hardly ally the team with the recent homophobic comments of retired NBA star Tim Hardaway:

"People are entitled to have their views, they are not views that I happen to agree with...but they are not trying to impose them on anyone out here. I won't argue that some of the owners may have more conservative political views than the norm out here; one of the things that they agreed to when they bought the team is that they would leave their politics at the state line. They have done that. They were not involved in the election cycle out here last year and have no intention of doing so."

The government and voters of Washington state, of course, will ultimately have to make that judgment. While public financing of sports stadiums rarely can be justified economic grounds alone, the expenses are often worth bearing for community building and civic pride.
But in King County, Washington, the questions will be: Whose pride? At whose expense?


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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