With the odds still long and time running short, the Vikings bring pressure - and even a Pro Bowl defensive end.
On the same day that Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf met privately with unnamed legislators at St. Paul's University Club to push for a new stadium, Vikings star player Jared Allen spent his evening posing for pictures with legislators, having popped in unexpectedly at their gatherings.
On Friday, Vikings President Mark Wilf will offer business leaders at the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce yet another "update" on the team's quest for a new $870 million stadium.
So far, no formal Vikings stadium funding proposal has been offered at the Legislature. But that hasn't stopped the Vikings -- in ways big and small -- from pushing every other button they can in the final weeks of the session.
While the odds remain long, even those who strongly oppose a Vikings stadium say they worry the stadium drive is gaining traction.
"I'm all of a sudden becoming very concerned," said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, a longtime critic of public stadium subsidies and a gubernatorial candidate.
Allen, the Vikings' towering, 6-foot-6-inch defensive end, has become something of a poster child for the Vikings' stadium push. After his surprise appearance at the Kelly Inn legislators' gathering, Allen trekked on to an even smaller event -- an informal dinner of legislators at an apartment complex after a long day of committee hearings.
At one event, guests were given small purple and gold footballs for Allen to sign. "I imagine people asked him questions" about the stadium, said Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, who co-hosted one of the dinners with Allen. "It's a pretty big topic right now."
Allen is "a supporter of what we're trying to accomplish," said Vikings stadium spokesman Lester Bagley. The team is attempting to capitalize, he said, on the growing interest -- by fans, the business community and legislators -- in finding a way to publicly fund a stadium before the legislative session ends in mid-May. "The stadium issue comes up no matter where we go," Bagley said.
Other legislators say they are annoyed by the aggressiveness of a stadium effort that is being conducted largely out of the public eye and too late in the session for thorough debate.
By comparison, the 2006 proposal that led to a new Minnesota Twins baseball stadium was publicly unveiled 13 months before the Legislature's final vote. Lengthy hearings were held in the House and Senate, including one at a Bloomington school where 700 people showed up. By this juncture in 2006, the House Taxes Committee had spent seven hours before narrowly assenting to the Twins proposal. The Hennepin County Board had also affirmed its support for the project -- which was subsidized heavily by a countywide sales tax -- by a one-vote margin.
"We need to do a better job of vetting these issues through the legislative process, starting in January ... rather than the last three weeks of the session," said Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth. "Maybe that's just me being overly optimistic, or naive."
Formal plan or not, the team is pushing hard. Team officials have created a grass-roots effort to enlist stadium support that they are calling "Minnesota Momentum." Fans who become "recruiters" get a chance to win free game tickets if they sign up by Friday.
Several days ago, the Vikings website featured a picture of Allen with the words: "Join the Momentum! Are you going to argue with Jared?"
A leapfrog finish?
For years, Sen. Pat Pariseau, R-Farmington, has helped organize the annual Ducks Unlimited banquet for legislators and lobbyists. But until last week, she never saw a Vikings player show up.
"I suppose it was a good appearance for [Allen] and for the team," Pariseau said. "Maybe they're looking for that stadium, who knows? It's never going to stop here until it's either 'ayed' or 'nayed.'"
Policy deadlines for introducing legislation this year have already passed. So to get that aye or nay, a stadium proposal would have to be given special treatment.
But that could be relatively easy. House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, while emphasizing that the Legislature has more important priorities, also told reporters last week that a stadium proposal would be steered straight to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee, which he chairs and which has the ability to move legislation quickly to the House floor.
Sertich said he has not talked to many legislators about the stadium, and said he mainly hears about the topic from reporters and "the fellas back at the bar in Chisholm," his hometown.
Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, who chairs the House Taxes Committee and who opposes public stadium subsidies, said she would look askance at any stadium proposal that popped up in the final weeks. "I think it is completely irresponsible that we would even be talking about this, with the enormity of the [state budget] deficit before us," she said.
Vikings officials won't disclose who attended last week's meeting with Wilf and many of the 20 legislators who went remain mum -- another sign that the topic is politically touchy.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, who chairs a House panel that held a Vikings hearing last year and who did attend the meeting, said he's "not exactly" sure how legislators were chosen. He was equally vague about who in the House might sponsor a stadium bill.
"I think I have a good sense of who the author ought to be," said Atkins, who added that he did not see himself in that role.
State law gives legislators wide latitude to meet in small -- and even not so small -- groups without requiring a meeting to be open to the public. Under the law, 20 or more legislators could meet in private as long as those present did not make up a quorum of a specific legislative panel. Even if they did form a quorum, the meeting would still be private unless the legislators took formal action or discussed an issue that had jurisdiction before a specific panel.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Wilf meeting, along with other subterranean stadium activities, was "highly unusual," even on a controversial issue.
"This is not sitting well with the public," Hornstein said.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673