From the moment Chris Hansen was introduced to Seattle almost two years ago, there were competing versions of the man and his motives.
Skeptics saw a wealthy, out-of-town hedge-fund manager seeking a public subsidy for a new sports arena on land he was buying up in Sodo. Others embraced a humble, self-made Seattle native who remembered watching the Sonics as a boy and genuinely wanted to help return his beloved team to his hometown.
The revelation Friday that Hansen was behind an anonymous, $100,000 donation to a group trying to scuttle an arena deal in Sacramento, Calif., threw those competing narratives into sharp relief.
Sports fans reaffirmed their belief in Hansen. On blogs and talk radio, many defended him as having acted in the heat of battle as he tried to win an NBA franchise for Seattle. And they noted that Hansen apologized Friday and promised to make no further contributions to groups opposed to public financing of a new Sacramento arena.
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Other observers questioned whether Seattle and King County, which have a signed a deal with Hansen to provide up to $200 million in public funds for an arena, should partner with someone willing to manipulate the democratic process.
The overwhelming consensus was that Hansen had badly tarnished the image of a trustworthy business partner that he’d worked so hard to cultivate. Less certain was the fate of the agreement, which still requires final approval by the city and county councils.
Mayor Mike McGinn, who on Friday referred all questions to Hansen, said Hansen called him Saturday to apologize.
“I appreciate that he called me personally to express regret,” McGinn said. The mayor added that the memorandum of understanding with Hansen contains numerous protections for Seattle taxpayers and that the city won’t move forward until Hansen and his investment group secure an NBA team.
McGinn said he wouldn’t speculate on whether Hansen’s actions might have made NBA approval even harder to get.
State Sen. Ed Murray, McGinn’s opponent in November’s race for mayor, issued a statement Saturday saying he was disappointed to hear about Hansen’s “deceptive contribution” to arena opponents in Sacramento.
“We have high standards of transparency and accountability here in Seattle, and this action fell short of those standards … If I am elected mayor, I will work with the Council and with other stakeholders to ensure that going forward Seattle’s interests are protected and that we remain true to our values.”
City Councilmembers Sally Clark and Tim Burgess, who added financial protections to the deal for a $490 million arena originally negotiated by McGinn, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who supported the arena deal, said it remains a good investment.
“We knew this was a business deal and we knew that for Hansen it was a profit-making enterprise. He’s a very likable, very approachable guy, but he did not amass his fortune by being a nice guy,” Harrell said.
Other longtime observers of Seattle’s political scene were less optimistic.
David Brewster, former publisher of the Seattle Weekly and an editor-at-large for the online political journal Crosscut.com, called Hansen’s secret contribution a “near fatal” mistake.
“It’s such a serious violation of trust, it really throws the whole arena deal into question.”
Brewster said he leans toward the Hansen narrative of a business tycoon rolling a gullible mayor and seducing much of the city with his modest, hometown-boy appeal.
“This was an episode of mass civic delusion,” Brewster said.
State Rep. Gael Tarleton said Saturday she was offended that Hansen would try to secretly influence an election by which Sacramento voters are supposed to have their say.
“If this guy is willing to undermine a political process in California, is he the guy we want to trust on a deal where for 30 years we’re doing business with him?”
Tarleton, a former Port of Seattle commissioner, called on both McGinn and Murray to debate the potential impacts of a Sodo arena on industrial lands and Port jobs.
“The stakes are still very high for this arena,” she said.
Chris Vance, a former Republican King County councilman who served as budget chair during negotiations over financing Safeco and CenturyLink fields, said the region needs a larger events venue to host major concerts and conventions, and that the deal negotiated with Hansen protects the city and county general funds.
“The project makes so much sense that the city, county and region want it to happen,” he said.
But Vance still thought Hansen’s anonymous contribution could hurt both his reputation and McGinn’s.
“Seattle is skeptical of anything having to do with millionaire owners and millionaire athletes. This makes Chris Hansen look like a typical grasping corporate raider and McGinn his patron.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said Hansen and the Los Angeles law firm that funneled the money to the Sacramento anti-arena campaign should have known better than to try to conceal the source of the contribution.
But he predicted the scandal would have limited influence on McGinn’s chances for re-election.
“Chances are people have already made up their minds on the arena issue and whether or not it will factor into their vote. Rabid fans of bringing back the NBA won’t care what Hansen did. People who support more important things are likely already unhappy with politicians who highly prioritize sports palaces.”
Former City Councilmember Jan Drago, who served on the Arena Review Panel that forwarded McGinn’s agreement with Hansen to the city and county councils, said she was among the Seattleites convinced that Hansen was a “true son of Seattle,” modest, socially conscious and willing to generously give back to his hometown.
Now she’s less sure, but in Hansen’s defense said he wouldn’t be the first political actor tripped up by campaign-financing rules.
“Was it intentional or naiveté? That’s the question. At the end of the day, we still have a deal and the councils still have to give final approval.”
Said Los Angeles Clippers star and Seattle native Jamal Crawford: “I don’t know what Chris was thinking or what his motivations were. You hope something like that doesn’t end up hurting him and the city in the long run.”
Times staff reporter Percy Allen contributed to this report.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes