Stiffing Your Hosts

Every once in a while, as Campaign Desk wanders through the thickets of election coverage, we stumble across one of those little stories that are so obvious we think, Hey, why hasn’t everybody done a version of this too? And the source of such gems is often The Wall Street Journal.

Today’s Journal delivers another (subscription required). “It is costly to be a city in a swing state in 2004,” writes reporter Greg Hitt. “In Cleveland, a gateway into vote-rich Ohio, the tab is $270,610 — and counting.” Local taxpayers — already stretched thin — are footing much of the costs that the city pays to pave the way for visiting candidates.

Good story, we thought. And it is. But in this case, not an original one. Turns out the hometown paper, The Plain Dealer, did the same story about a month ago, when the city’s campaign tab hit $200,000. Plain Dealer reporter Mike Tobin quotes David Fritz, spokesman for Mayor Jane Campbell: “We welcome the visits and the chance to put Cleveland in the spotlight. But if they want to hold a barbecue in our back yard, they should pay for the burgers and hot dogs.”

The Journal’s Hitt provides some nice little details in his budget-buster story:

Just before Sen. Kerry visited here in July, for example, the city dispatched plumbers to accompany Secret Service agents on a security sweep of the convention center. The bill for half an hour’s work: $27.50. Plumbers also disconnected a sprinkler system. Additional cost: $82.50. It adds up. When President Bush showed up on Labor Day weekend, Cleveland posted a firefighter overnight to monitor the alarm panel in Mr. Bush’s hotel. Cost: $485.10.

“I’m certainly glad there’s this much attention and interest in our community,” says Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, a Democrat. But she doesn’t appreciate her city having to subsidize a national political campaign, especially after she had to lay off 250 police officers and 450 other workers in the past year. For what Cleveland has spent since the election narrowed to a two-man race in March, Mayor Campbell could have put four police officers back on the beat.

Cleveland has hosted seven candidate visits this election season — and there may be more, given Ohio’s up-for-grabs electoral status. As Tobin and Hitt both note, Cleveland officials plan to send bills to the Bush and Kerry campaigns, asking for reimbursement for some of the security expenses. “But,” writes Tobin, “they don’t expect to be paid.”

Two stories; same subject. It seems likely that, in the course of scanning regional newspapers, The Journal lifted the story idea, albeit not the story, from The Plain Dealer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, in this case, it’s a story worth reporting in both local and national venues.

Note to assigning editors in battleground cities: Forget the latest polling data; go find the folks in the green eyeshades poring over the ledgers in the basement of City Hall. They’ve got the really interesting numbers.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.