The Camden Yards applause rose in a crescendo when the scoreboard screen showed Maryland Gov. Wes Moore pumping his fist and Orioles Chairman and CEO John Angelos clapping to celebrate a stadium deal described as keeping the Orioles in Baltimore “for at least the next 30 years!!”
There hasn’t been so much as a chirp since from leading state Democrats, particularly those who may have to grapple in the next General Assembly session with a proposal to make additional funds available to the team.
Political experts say few in his own party may be ready to publicly question Moore — a dynamic new governor with many powers regarding state spending and decision-making — over the terms of the arrangement with Angelos, although a Republican legislative leader is expressing concerns.
The deal became public during a Sept. 28 game, when a hastily arranged announcement appeared as a scoreboard message and the display cut to a feed from the owner’s box showing the governor and Angelos. The text of the celebratory message failed to convey that there was no lease, only a nonbinding “memorandum of understanding.”
Treasurer Dereck Davis, Comptroller Brooke Lierman and Senate President Bill Ferguson — all Democrats who previously had spoken forcefully about the need to get a new lease before the current one expires Dec. 31 — declined interview requests from The Baltimore Sun about the memorandum. House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and other legislative leaders also declined to comment.
The highest-profile public responses from Democrats came after Moore’s office solicited canned comments Sept. 28 from members of Maryland’s congressional delegation to distribute to the media the next day.
“The Governor would appreciate statements of support from Members (something along the lines of being encouraged by the MOU, progress being made to keep the Orioles and boost Baltimore),” said an email from Washington-based Moore aide Matthew Verghese to Maryland congressmen and senators. “Please let me know if you think you can provide one by tonight!” said the email, which was obtained by The Sun.
Delegation members received a summary of the memorandum of understanding from the governor’s office. Echoing Moore’s previous statements, the email said the agreement would bring the stadium’s operations in line with best practices from around the country and “boost private sector investment around the stadium and across the city while creating good-paying jobs and diversifying our economy.”
Most of the Democratic federal lawmakers responded with written quotes congratulating Moore on the progress toward a significant agreement.
According to Verghese’s Sept. 28 email, the governor’s “timeline” was to announce the memorandum of understanding the next day.
Instead, it happened between innings at the game that night. Two top officials of the Maryland Stadium Authority, the state entity that oversees Camden Yards, said they did not know about the plan to make the announcement to fans at the stadium until that day. They asked that their names not be used because they were not authorized to speak about the ongoing negotiations.
David Turner, a senior adviser and communications director for Moore, declined to comment Wednesday on why the announcement was moved up.
Moore administration members held a media briefing the next day to provide details of the memorandum of understanding. They also sent out two news releases with the solicited quotes, remarks that the governor’s office sent again Tuesday to The Sun.
The eight-page memorandum contains specific terms covering issues such as stadium rent, advertising signs, parking and ground lease approvals. It is not legally binding but says it outlines “key components” of the plans of the team and the stadium authority, while remaining subject to “additional modification.”
In an Oct. 4 guest commentary in The Sun, former Stadium Authority Chair Thomas Kelso, an appointee of former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan who Moore replaced last winter with his own choice, wrote that there are “numerous issues that need scrutiny” in the memorandum of understanding.
In particular, Kelso is concerned that the Orioles, not the state, would have authority over state-funded improvements to the ballpark.
“These changes will eviscerate the MSA’s role and responsibility at Oriole Park and reverse nearly four decades of success,” he wrote.
Kelso also questioned whether the state would receive adequate compensation for allowing the Orioles to work with private firms to develop state-owned land around Camden Yards, including the former B&O Railroad warehouse and Camden Station, that the state and team have long said are underutilized. Under the plan, the Orioles would pay $94 million in rent over a 99-year term.
The memorandum of understanding also proposes a safety and repair fund for ballpark projects that would cost $3.3 million per year, or about $100 million over a 30-year lease. The General Assembly would need to approve those funds, and the Ravens would seem to be eligible for a matching amount under a parity clause that requires the state to provide the teams “fairly comparable” lease terms.
In the weeks since the Sept. 28 game, The Sun sought interviews with state Democratic leaders about the memorandum.
“The president is looking forward to a lease being signed, and it would be more appropriate to comment when that is complete,” said David Schuhlein, a spokesman for Ferguson.
It’s not known when that will happen. Asked Tuesday about the status of negotiations, Moore spokesperson Carter Elliott called the memorandum of understanding “a strong framework” and said the state and the Orioles “are diligently fleshing out the details around the announced terms to align on final lease terms.”
The Orioles finished their 101-win season with a collapse in the American League Division Series, leaving the looming lease expiration one of the last big events on the team’s horizon for 2023.
“Mark my words, and you can bet on it, the Orioles will be here for 30 years,” Moore said in an impassioned speech during an Oct. 4 meeting of the Maryland Board of Public Works. The state spending board, composed of Moore, Davis and Lierman, ultimately needs to approve a lease.
The memorandum of understanding places state Democratic lawmakers in a sensitive spot, according to political analysts.
Under a 2022 law, the stadium authority can borrow up to $1.2 billion to pay for stadium improvements — $600 million each for the Orioles and Ravens. Ferguson said in August that he didn’t envision the General Assembly making additional resources available.
Now, the memorandum suggests the legislature approve the safety and repair fund of about $3.3 million a year for the Orioles, which could trigger a matching amount for the Ravens.
“We passed this legislation that freed up an unprecedented amount of money. I supported it,” said Republican Del. Jason Buckel of Allegany County, the House minority leader. “I haven’t seen anyone advocate for going beyond the $600 million. I don’t know that there is a huge appetite in the General Assembly across party lines to invest hundreds of [millions] of dollars in more money.”
Moore — who took office in January for a four-year term and is popular within his party — has invested significant political capital in teaming with Angelos on their plans to sign a ballpark agreement and revitalize downtown Baltimore.
“Governors in our state, in particularly in comparison to other states, have a whole lot of power, and a whole lot of budget power,” said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs. “So people don’t want to offend the governor. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have disagreements. They might not make those disagreements public.”
It can be risky to challenge a new governor, said political analyst Flavio Hickel, an assistant political science professor at Washington College.
“It sounds like there are an awful lot of unknowns here,” Hickel said. ”When you don’t how a political leader will react, that’s the most dangerous situation.”