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Romney, Obama campaigns stick their hosts with the check

June 26, 2012|By Patt Morrison
  • Protesters -- at least one kitted out as a billionaire "fat cat" -- show their sentiments across from Balboa Bay Club, where Mitt Romney was holding a fundraiser.
Protesters -- at least one kitted out as a billionaire "fat cat"… (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)

When Mitt Romney, or any other campaigner, is your guest, who picks up the tab?

Not the host city, if it can slide the bill over in front of the campaign.

There's no question of who pays, as far as Newport Beach is concerned.  The California coastal city is billing several Romney support groups, including the Republican Party in four states, for the $10,000 in extra police and security it cost to handle a fundraiser for the former Massachusetts governor at the snazzy Balboa Bay Club almost a month ago.

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

The bill for President Obama's campaign huzzah in Corona del Mar in February was even higher, maybe three times Romney's. Security for a sitting president is of a necessity a lot more amped up than for a challenger because he's not just a campaigner, he's the leader of the free world.

An Obama supporter finally picked up the disputed tab for the extra work entailed by the president's trip to Durham, N.H., this week. The town was reported to be divided over billing the president's campaign; some residents argued that it wasn't the city's responsibility, while others countered that to do so was un-American. One city official summed it up as both a financial burden and an honor for the president to visit.

Something of the same controversy was generated by the Romney campaign after the candidate's rally at a high school in Centennial, Colo. The Arapahoe County sheriff was mulling over presenting the campaign with a bill for $25,059.57 for law enforcement overtime. He figured if the Romney campaign could afford a splashy advertising campaign for the event, it could reimburse the county for its costs.

And a 2008 bill for $55,480 for city costs from a rally in Springfield, Ill. -- Abraham Lincoln central, and the place where then-Sen. Barack Obama stopped en route to the Denver nominating convention -- is still payment pending. The Secret Service says it's not responsible, and Obama campaign officials said it isn't either.

Civic bodies and federal election rules make a distinction between official events -- a president opening a bridge, for example, which is a presidential and not a political event -- and a campaign gig (even though all presidents try to double up to make both things happen in a single trip, usually arguing, like millions of businessmen before them, that it’s really a business trip, not pleasure).

There's a clearer line for commercial events, even those of civic interest. The Lakers' victory parade downtown was joyously received, but not so joyously received was the public cost: celebrating millionaire athletes playing for billion-dollar franchises in a parade paid for by taxpayers. Private individuals ultimately picked up more than a million dollars of the tab for the parade.

And Michael Jackson's July 2009 memorial service at Staples Center also generated a showdown between the city, which had to field police and traffic control, and the event sponsors, whose "all rights reserved" memorial stood to earn back some of the money investors had planned to make on Jackson's concert tour.

Those are commercial undertakings.

Democracy is not -- or at least it wasn't meant to be, until Citizens United.

In one way, there's an unseemliness to this campaign check-passing, which may be of recent vintage. I couldn't find references to this kind of billing in news accounts of 40 and 50 years ago. I suspect cities then just quietly paid the cost, or the campaigns quietly ponied up, or both. Back then, much less distinction was made between the niceties of official business and campaigning.

And don't cities and towns get some benefit out of candidates' visits, presidential or otherwise? Such a visit -- especially to a small town -- may be one of those events like the Super Bowl, in which the buzz and business offsets at least some of the actual costs. How can you calculate the value of a national audience hearing a political correspondent "reporting live from" -- well, your town's name here?

These are certainly hungrier times for cities, and more venomous times for politics. The last thing a campaign should want is to leave town fathers and mothers and voters feeling, once the confetti settled, that they'd been seduced and abandoned by any campaign, Democratic or Republican, and stuck with a check that looks paltry to a million-dollar campaign but enormous to the host city or town.

Yet in an age when almost all campaigning is done by remote, on TV, on the Internet, an actual glimpse of the real candidate, by hollering protesters or cheering fans, puts some flesh on the rattling bones of politics. It's dispiriting for democracy and for civic life that the quarrels over these costs could yank away the welcome mat that may be the only time in some town's history that a real live presidential candidate comes to call.

Even if it's collect.

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