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PolitiFact VA: Sen. Chap Petersen changes mind on Commanders football stadium in Northern Virginia

Sen. Chap Petersen attends a meeting.
Sen. Chap Petersen was a fan of the Washington Commanders when they were called the Washington Redskins. He held season tickets for their games at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, for 22 years and was a founding member of “Redskins Pride Caucus.” (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Flip-O-Meter
Sen. Chap Petersen
On building a Commanders football
stadium in Virginia

The General Assembly’s zest for luring the Washington Commanders to Northern Virginia is losing its zing. 

In February, there was broad bipartisan backing for a bill that would help the football team finance construction of a $3-billion stadium, retail and entertainment complex. The measure would allow a state authority to sell $1 billion in bonds that the Commanders would later pay back. 

Negotiators have since reduced the state subsidy to $300 million as Dan Snyder, the Commanders’ owner, has become entangled in allegations of sexual and financial improprieties. Snyder denies the charges.

An upside-down meter that says "Full Flop."

The project lost a key supporter on March 25 in state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax). Days after his announcement, General Assembly leaders indefinitely delayed a scheduled June 1 vote on the plan.

We decided to gauge Petersen’s actions on our Flip-O-Meter, which measures a politician’s consistency on an issue. We do not contend politicians should never change their minds; we just lay out their reasons.  

Petersen then

Petersen was a huge fan of the Commanders when they were called the Washington Redskins. He held season tickets for their games at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, for 22 years and was a founding member of “Redskins Pride Caucus,” a group of legislators that defended the team’s old name against arguments that it was a racist term for native Americans. 

Petersen voted for the $1-billion-bond bill during a Feb. 10 meeting of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. He opposed an unsuccessful effort that would have made the loan contingent on the release of NFL investigations into Snyder’s conduct that the team and league have kept private.

“We need to focus on the business details, that’s the only thing that matters,” he said. 

Petersen voiced unspecific concern about the business deal. “I think there’s a lot of details here that need to be vetted,” he said. 

Five days later, Petersen voted for the bill again on the Senate floor and it passed overwhelmingly. He later said he thought there would be time to work out particulars as the measure worked its way through the House and to the governor’s desk.

Petersen now

Word leaked on May 23 that the Commanders had acquired the right to buy 200 acres in Prince William County to build a stadium. Even so, the team still is reportedly interested in sites in Washington and Maryland.

Two days later, Petersen issued a scathing statement saying, ”I do not plan to support the project or Virginia's pursuit of this NFL franchise.” His main reason, he wrote, is that he doesn't “have confidence in the Washington Commanders as a viable NFL franchise.”

During a May 26 radio interview with The Sports Junkies, Petersen said the Commanders are a different organization than the once-powerful Redskins, a team that filled stadiums and won championships from the early 1970s through 1992. 

“None of that exists anymore. You don't have the fanbase for starters … . You don't have the same identity; you don't have the same community buy-in,” he said, referring to the team’s losing record in recent decades and its declining home-game attendance.

“I'm looking at it from a taxpayer perspective,” Petersen said. “If we, in any way, subsidize — even in a small way — a huge economic development and then the anchor tenant is not a stable entity, and either leaves or does something else, that's a problem."

He added, “What happens if Dan Snyder builds a stadium or the team builds a stadium, and we build all the infrastructure around it, and five years later they're getting 20,000 people, [and] they're like, 'We're out of here?' And then we're sitting there with an empty building on I-95.”  

Petersen, in an interview with Politifact VA, acknowledged that the team’s sagging popularity and changing brand have been issues for several years and didn’t stop him from voting for the bill twice in February.

“That’s a fair criticism,” he said.

What about his season tickets? Petersen said he dropped them in 2020, when the team dropped its former name.

Our ruling

Despite reservations, Petersen voted twice in February to subsidize building a stadium for the Washington Commanders in Virginia. He announced in May that he opposed the project, questioning whether the troubled team is “viable as an NFL franchise.” He acknowledged that his concerns about the team’s dwindling fanbase go back several years.

That’s a Full Flop.

Sources

Interview with Chap Petersen, June 2, 2022
Chap Petersen, Interview on The Sports Junkies, May 26, 2022
Petersen, Comments to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, Feb. 10, 2022 (1:08:15 mark)
Legislative Information System, SB727, 2022 session
The Washington Post, “Virginia lawmakers to delay vote on NFL stadium for Commanders,” May 31, 2022
The Washington Post, “Key Virginia senators raise doubts about Commanders stadium bill,” May 25, 2022
The Washington Post, “Virginia legislature has bipartisan support to build stadium complex for Washington Commanders,” Feb. 15, 2022
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Commanders stadium project on life support as $350 million subsidy loses key supporters in the Virginia legislature,” May 25, 2022
The Washington Post, “Why is there a ‘Redskins Pride’ Caucus?” June 24, 2014
The Washington Post, “Commanders acquire right to buy 200 acres in Va. for potential new stadium,” May 23, 2022
ESPN, NFL attendance, 2021