DES MOINES — Mark Vukovich was disappointed when Ohio Democratic Sen. John Glenn decided not to run for President next year.
"I was really hoping he would run again so I could sue his campaign when it came to Iowa," said Vukovich, an officer of a local car dealership that says it has yet to see a dime of the $3,724 in rental fees still owed it from Glenn's losing 1984 presidential bid.
Candidates, staff, press and security people spend up a storm here every four years on food, rooms, transportation and other resources, getting ready for the state's vaunted presidential preference caucuses.
That is always good news for Iowa's economy, but businessmen like Vukovich have sometimes found lumps in the gravy train. Stung more than once by presidential campaigns that leave the state without paying their tabs, many merchants have put campaigns on notice that this time around their business is appreciated but their credit is no good.
"Hail to the chief, but cash on the barrelhead" seems to be a growing refrain heard by presidential candidates as they shop for votes both here, in anticipation of the Feb. 8 caucuses, and elsewhere around the country. Everyone from the printers who churn out custom flyers to the specialty shops that sell balloons and crepe paper has begun crunching down on campaign credit. More and more, firms want cash up front from political candidates or even large deposits to cover anticipated spending.
The candidates usually don't run up the debts personally, even though it is their name on the campaign. Most often it is their staffs, eyes cast upon the White House, that generate the red ink under the umbrella of the candidate's campaign committee, which is then liable for the debt.
"It's a shame we can't vote for President by the quality of the people who work for the campaigns," Vukovich said. "Glenn may be a quality senator, but he had people on his staff who belong in a penitentiary."
Glenn, who dropped out of the 1984 race a few weeks after finishing a dismal sixth in the Democratic caucuses here, still owes more than $2.1 million to creditors across the country. Much is owed to banks for loans, but the debt also represents purchases of everything from the coffee Glenn supporters drank (Custom Coffee in Des Moines, $554.75) to the rolls they noshed on (Scruffy's Breadboard, $400).
Hart Owes $1.35 Million
Former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) had yet to pay off $1.35 million on his failed 1984 presidential drive when he pulled out of the 1988 race last May in a scandal involving Miami model Donna Rice. And that debt had been whittled down from $5 million only because Hart had pressed many of his creditors to settle their claims for far less than they were owed, some for as little as 10 cents on the dollar.
In all, past presidential candidates have racked up a whopping $8 million in bad debts dating back to the 1976 campaign, according to records on file at the Federal Election Commission. Former President Jimmy Carter still owes $676,187 on his unsuccessful 1980 reelection drive; California Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston's 1984 campaign committee is still in hock for $454,457 and Democrat George S. McGovern, the former South Dakota senator, has yet to pay off $6,311 still on the books from 11 years ago.
Presidential aspirants raise and spend tens of millions of dollars trying to get elected and only a handful over the years have gotten in any serious financial bind. Yet, even candidates with impeccable payment records have been hobbled by the legacy of the deadbeats.
Personal Credit Card
One example: Vice President George Bush has always run flush campaigns. But last fall, when Bush went to Cedar Rapids for a hastily arranged Republican fund-raiser, the Best Western Town House motel made a state GOP official charge the rooms and refreshments for the vice president's party on her personal credit card. Glenn's 1984 campaign still owes the motel $2,428.
"You get a few bad problems with one, and you kind of caution up on all of them," said Parnell Proctor, a part owner at the motel. " . . . These people from Congress, as bad as they are about handling the national debt, I guess we can't expect them to manage their own."
Campaigning for the major party nominations was no big deal in Iowa until Carter's surprise victory in the 1976 caucuses catapulted him to the presidency. Some Iowa shopkeepers acknowledge that they were a bit naive in 1980 and even 1984 as their state was emerging as a featured opening act for the national nominating circus. Campaign staffers were often given carte blanche to charge rooms, supplies, meals, office space, cars, equipment and a host of other items.
'Awe-Struck and Star-Struck'