How Pete Sessions Killed the Cowboys Stadium

So, if Laura Miller didn’t lose Dallas the Cowboys stadium, and it wasn’t Jerry Jones’ fault either, then who deserves the blame? One possibility is U.S. Congressman Pete Sessions, the Keyser Soze of the deal.

You might wonder why we’re bringing this up again. When you think about why the Dallas Cowboys chose to build their new $1 billion stadium in Arlington instead of Dallas, you know who the villains are, right?

If you listen to The Ticket (1310 AM), you probably believe former mayor Laura Miller personally cost Dallas the Cowboys. This is what the station’s hosts have been telling their listeners since negotiations to build a new stadium in Fair Park broke down three years ago. There was absolutely no way “the Sea Hag,” one of the gentler names they call Miller, was going to help fund another big-bucks sports facility. As recently as August, one of The Ticket’s regular characters, the Fake Jerry Jones, was challenging the Sea Hag to a fight because “she locked us out of Dallas.”

If you read the Dallas Morning News, you have been led to believe Jerry Jones never seriously considered bringing the Cowboys back to Dallas. Metro columnists James Ragland and Jacquielynn Floyd have said as much. But Jones’ intentions didn’t matter anyway, because former County Judge Margaret Keliher botched the deal. She was an inexperienced negotiator who couldn’t be trusted to run meetings of the County Commissioners Court, much less run point on something as huge (financially and emotionally) as the return of the Cowboys from Irving’s outdated Texas Stadium to their namesake city.

Laura Miller, Jerry Jones, Margaret Keliher—one of them kept the Cowboys out of Dallas. If you know anything, you know that.

Except you’ve been wrong. In fact, after hushed interviews with many off-the-record and on-background sources from all sides, it’s clear that if we want to assign blame, we should be looking at someone who is never mentioned on The Ticket or in those Metro columns. He is the one who really killed the Fair Park deal, according to multiple people (from the city, the county, and the Cowboys) with intimate knowledge of what really happened. He is our Keyser Soze. As in: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”

You know him as United States Congressman Pete Sessions (R-TX).

Before we lay out why we think Sessions prevented the Cowboys from building a stadium in Dallas, we must dispense with the notion that Jones and the Cowboys were never coming here. They were. The Cowboys aren’t inclined to discuss the matter on the record, since construction on their new home in Arlington is well underway. It makes no sense to dredge up any of this again. We’ll do it for them.

In the fall of 2002, everyone knew the Cowboys were serious about trying to build a new stadium, one that was big and fancy enough to generate 21st-century NFL revenue and allow the Cowboys to host a Super Bowl, based on NFL criteria. What was not well known is that during that time, Jones took a long look at a site in the Cedars area near the banks of the Trinity River. This location had plenty to recommend it. Were the stadium to be built there, Jones would help revitalize downtown Dallas. He might get more credit for doing so than anyone else. This is no small point. What do you get a man, like Jerry Jones, who has everything? A legacy is a nice start. Bringing the Cowboys home to Dallas, while pumping new life into the city’s decaying downtown core—that’s the kind of thing that gets highways named after you. Don’t think that wasn’t prominent in Jones’ thought process.

Jones did what he could to make the Cedars site happen. He told the stadium team to scale back its thinking regarding the so-called “Jerry’s World,” the urban playground of restaurants and retail he planned to include in the area around the stadium, because there wasn’t enough land there to make it work. Jones commissioned environmental studies of the potentially contaminated brownfield land to estimate the cleanup costs. He had a local architectural firm do computer-animated flyovers of the area with an imagined new stadium right there in the shadow of downtown Dallas, resulting in a so-called “Project X” DVD that Ragland and Floyd must never have seen. We won’t give you a frame-by-frame review of the Project X DVD, but it’s fancy.

All told, between mid-2002 and June 2004, the Cowboys spent somewhere between $3.5 million and $3.7 million on research and development of the Cedars site, as well as the Fair Park location, and that doesn’t take into account what Jones stood to give up by shrinking Jerry’s World. But to someone like Jones, that’s just walking-around money, right? Maybe, but surely a million bucks or so is enough cash to qualify someone’s interest in moving his sparkling new football stadium to a particular city as “serious.” Consider it earnest money.

So, if Jones was intent on bringing the Cowboys to Dallas, why didn’t he? Enter Pete Sessions. Allow us to shake the Polaroid, and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

The Cowboys were eager to get the stadium finance referendum on the November 2004 ballot. That’s when their research showed they had the best chance of success, because general elections tend to bring out slightly younger voters. More important, it fit in with the terms of their lease at Texas Stadium (it expires in 2008). They needed the extra months to get the stadium built and be ready for the 2009 season and be eligible for hosting the Super Bowl in 2011.

So ask yourself: who had the most to lose if the referendum attracted a larger-than-usual number of young males from the Southern Sector who wanted to see a stadium in their backyard (read: Democrats)? Answer: the Dallas County Republican Party, which was involved in three competitive races that year. State Rep. Jim Jackson (R-Carrollton), then a Dallas County commissioner, said as much to the Dallas Morning News in the spring of 2004: “The election of a president and congressmen and sheriffs is more important in the long run than a football stadium.”

Remember that in 2004, President George W. Bush was up for reelection. Winning Dallas County was a foregone conclusion for Bush, albeit by less of a landslide than in the past. There was also an interesting race for Dallas County sheriff, but that was still more noteworthy for who wasn’t in it (Jim Bowles, who had headed the sheriff’s department for 20 years) than who was (Danny Chandler against Democrat Lupe Valdez. The big race, at least as far as the GOP was concerned, was the king of the hill match between Sessions and 13-term Democrat Congressman Martin Frost. Frost had been gerrymandered into a face-off with Sessions when a controversial 2003 redistricting plan eliminated his former district.

Much was riding on Sessions versus Frost. The 32nd District was a key component of the redistricting plan. Losing was not an option for Republicans, and Sessions (and Frost) spent accordingly. Beyond that, Sessions had a history of fighting dirty. His minions had been caught stealing his opponent’s lawn signs in 2002, and his campaign was accused of the same tactic in 2004.

What followed is murky, as such reconstructions usually are. But suffice to say the Cowboys are convinced (and that no one denies) that suggestions were made by those with a vested interest in Sessions’ victory. Suggestions that it would be very bad for the party if a stadium finance referendum were placed on the November 2004 ballot. 

“There were discussions along those lines, when it would be advantageous to have the vote,” Sessions says, adding that those discussions happened in the summer of 2003. “I said, ‘Don’t use Pete Sessions as a reason not to put the referendum on the November ballot.’ ”

Sessions also says he never worried he would lose. “It was always over,” he says, noting that he never dropped below 50 percent in polls, and Frost never rose higher than 40 percent. Maybe that was true in internal polls, but a Dallas Morning News poll conducted in mid-October showed Sessions was in front by a mere 6 percentage points, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points. It was almost a dead heat. Perhaps Sessions should have been more concerned than he was. After all, the new 32nd District included a chunk of territory south of I-30 and west of I-35. Though it was a relatively insignificant tract of land compared to the rest of the district, the demographics of the area (poor, minority, largely Democrat) figured to be favorable to a stadium deal, but not as kind to a Republican like Sessions. Plus, voters from the Southern Sector would be motivated to turn out and support the Cowboys. In theory, it could have been enough to swing the election toward Frost.

Let’s play it another way. Say the rumors that Sessions was behind it all were just that. Suppose Sessions or someone else in the Dallas County Republican Party (maybe former chairman Nate Crain) never actually demanded the stadium finance referendum be left off the November ballot. Rather, it was merely suggested. As mentioned before, former commissioner Jim Jackson alluded to this at the time, and Commissioner Mike Cantrell confirmed recently that, yes, the issue had been raised at one point during the run-up to the election. Cantrell says they decided that it was an issue they couldn’t let party politics decide.

Cantrell is probably telling the truth. But he admits the idea had been planted in their heads (he won’t say by whom), and once there, the subconscious is a powerful thing. It didn’t take much. What the GOP needed the commissioners to do was run out the clock, stalling until it was too late to put the referendum on the November ballot. (Referendum items are required to be on the ballot 60 days prior to the election.) That’s essentially what happened.

Jones and the Cowboys were anxious to negotiate. The county commissioners, on the other hand, wanted to do more research. Which makes sense: the commissioners wouldn’t be upholding their duty to the residents of Dallas County if they didn’t fully understand what they were getting into, especially since a tax hike was involved. That said, they knew all along that there was a ticking clock. One of their chief complaints in the aftermath of the failed discussions was there simply wasn’t enough time to get their arms around such a complicated deal in so short a period of time. But Arlington managed to do it—and even better, in just two weeks.

Jones and the Cowboys might have waited until that ticking clock hit zero if they thought the deal was moving toward completion, if there were only a few remaining sticking points. But when talks between Dallas County and the Cowboys looked hopelessly mired, there was only the basic framework of a deal and a dangerous game of chicken: were the Cowboys really dead-set on appearing on the November ballot? Would waiting until the May election kill the deal? Was there anywhere else the Cowboys could go instead of Dallas?

The answer to all of those questions, of course, was yes.

There are a few ironies in play when looking back at what happened. One, the original deal called for a two-thirds/one-third public/private split in financing. The measure the citizens of Arlington eventually passed set the percentages at 50/50. The final tally will end up much closer to the two-thirds/one-third deal—only Jones is the one writing the bigger check. Arlington’s share was capped at $325 million; the final price tag will come in at about $1 billion, with Jones covering every dime above that $325 million. (Since the Cowboys will pay $2 million in rent for 30 years, Arlington’s overall outlay is actually $265 million.)

In retrospect, the timing shouldn’t have been as big a concern as it was. Voters likely would have approved it in November, May, a week from Thursday, whenever. Worse, it backfired: the Cowboys’ insistence on the November election prevented them from ever having a chance to move to Dallas.

Not that anyone can prove that. The mystery of why Dallas lost the Cowboys isn’t even a cold case. No one is inclined to solve it, because justice, many feel, has already been served. Two of the prime suspects, Miller and Keliher, are out of office. Jones is Arlington’s problem now.

Meanwhile, an important city referendum will be on the ballot next month: the one concerning the Trinity toll road. But this time, Sessions will likely be less concerned with who turns out to vote. He’s not up for re-election until 2008.

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