Top-tier presidential candidates—Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Donald Trump—brought more than canned campaign speeches when they visited Janesville in 2016.
Some of them also handed local government several large bills.
For Trump’s visit, the city spent $48,000 on overtime for police officers to help provide event security. Sheriff’s deputies from Rock and Walworth counties also contributed to security efforts, spending a combined $33,433. Another $3,700 paid for Rock County Public Works trucks to line the Interstate 90/39 exit ramp to thwart a possible car bomber.
Expect even larger bills for 2020 unless local government takes steps to force campaigns to pay their way.
Local officials should require campaigns to sign contracts ahead of their visits, promising to reimburse local governments for any incurred expenses. The contracts should apply to presidential candidates of all political parties and any campaign stop projected to cost local government more than $5,000—or whatever dollar threshold local officials deem appropriate. The contracts should also require a security deposit.
Janesville should follow the lead of other cities experimenting with such contractual setups. There’s some debate whether these contracts are enforceable, but local government has little to lose. In a worst-case scenario, the campaigns break their contracts and stick local governments with their bills as they’ve always done.
We asked City Manager Mark Freitag for his thoughts on requiring campaigns to sign contracts, and he resisted the idea.
“We believe the more candidates that come to Janesville, the better. The campaign rallies provide personal exposure to the candidates, provide an opportunity to learn/understand/differentiate the candidates, and possibly increase participation in the election process. That’s good for Janesville, Wisconsin and the United States,” Freitag said in an email.
Far be it from us to discourage free speech and voter participation, but we disagree with Freitag about the value of these campaign visits, which more closely resemble circus shows, except the clowns aren’t friendly. Protesters and counter-protesters shout at each other in the streets, while the local police must babysit. The tin-foil hats at these events come in all shapes and sizes, and the national media eat it up.
Count on the national media, too, to find the gloomiest story possible and cast Janesville as a dying Midwestern town with the now-demolished GM plant serving as Exhibit A.
It won’t be “good for Janesville.” Not at all.
Not too long ago, a visit from a presidential contender would have been an honor. But that’s simply not the case anymore. These visits are a headache for local law enforcement and a financial burden on taxpayers. If campaigns refuse to sign a contract and threaten to go elsewhere, local government’s response should be: Please do.
But if these campaigns insist on coming to Janesville, local government should demand reimbursement through signed contracts. At the city level, maybe the city council needs to take the lead on this issue if Freitag remains reluctant.
But the council doesn’t have much time. The circus arrives soon.