Can Your Budget Handle a Presidential Campaign Rally?

Posted on July 10, 2020

Learn more about presidential campaign stops at ELGL’s July 21 virtual event:
Local Government Preparation for Presidential Candidate Visits

Photo Sarah Moss and Denver City and County BuildingBy Sarah E. Moss, MPA | LinkedIn | Twitter

What I’m listening toMusic by Judith Hill

What I’m readingRange: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

What I’m writing – A workbook to help local government staff prepare for presidential campaign visits


When President Trump traveled to Tulsa for a June campaign rally and conversations centered on COVID-19 and crowd sizes, I was thinking about the City of Tulsa’s budget. 

As someone who has worked in both local government and presidential campaigns, I wondered: How would the City of Tulsa handle this expense? I pondered how the City of Tulsa would respond when the U.S. Secret Service asked for support from local law enforcement and other city departments. I imagined city and county officials meeting in the emergency operations center to discuss additional community safety measures.

In the midst of the COVID-19 economic downturn creating local government budget shortfalls, furloughs, and layoffs across the country, could Tulsa absorb tens of thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of dollars in unplanned public safety expenses?

The U.S. Secret Service investigates financial crimes and provides protection for presidential candidates, dozens of current and former government officials, and their families. With only 3,200 special agents and 1,300 Uniformed Division officers in the entire organization, the agency does not have staffing to secure motorcades, control intersections, close streets, and protect perimeters without the partnership of local governments. If your jurisdiction finds itself the recipient of multiple presidential campaign visits, don’t be surprised if U.S. Secret Service special agents ask for different assets for different visits. Operating procedures can vary based on multiple factors including the type of protectee, type of event, and current threat levels.

Police on motorcycles in front of SUVs in a motorcade

During presidential campaign visits, local law enforcement, parks, public works, and transportation departments can rack up hundreds of hours (or more) of overtime when protecting their own communities and assisting the U.S. Secret Service’s protective mission. In addition to local gov staff time, special agents may request tents, buses, barricades, and other visual and physical barriers. And local governments must also consider staffing their own emergency operations center, securing protests/counter-rallies that might be larger than the main event, the potential for increased assaults on rally day, and defending lawsuits filed by protestors.

Who pays the costs that your local government incurs around a presidential campaign event?
Not the U.S. Secret Service.
Not any other agency or branch of the federal government.

Some local governments have billed presidential campaigns for these costs. The Center for Public Integrity investigated and published findings in 2020, 2019, and 2017. From the 2019 report, here are a few examples of unpaid bills sent to a 2020 presidential campaign for events in 2018 and 2019:

  • $16,191.00 in Lebanon, Ohio
  • $42,811.00 in Billings, Montana
  • $64,467.56 in Mesa, Arizona
  • $470,417.05 in El Paso, Texas

(Note: Thank you to investigative journalist Dave Levinthal, who wrote the The Center for Public Integrity reports, for taking time to chat with me.)

After reviewing unpaid municipal bills from 2016, Wisconsin State Rep. Amanda Stuck told the Center for Public Integrity, “That kind of money could be the difference between hiring another police officer or not.” She sponsored a bill in the Wisconsin state assembly “authorizing a local government to require advance payment from a presidential or vice-presidential campaign” for police and sanitation services. The bill would also prohibit “a political subdivision from issuing a campaign event permit to a presidential or vice-presidential campaign if the political subdivision has evidence that the campaign owes money to another Wisconsin political subdivision for unpaid campaign event costs.” The bill did not pass the state house or the state senate.

Your local government is responsible for costs it incurs (unless you get a signed contract with a campaign). However, your local government is not required to fulfill requests from the U.S. Secret Service. The U.S. Secret Service makes requests, not compulsory demands, to its local government partners. You have choices.

City-owned venue

If your local government owns a venue that a campaign wants to rent – an arena, stadium, convention center, rec center, park, or boulevard – and the owner sets the terms of the rental agreement and permits, then you can decide what to bill. For example, you could add to the rental agreement costs for anything the U.S. Secret Service requests or recommends for both inside and outside the event site, like motorcade support miles away at the airport, safety for counter-rallies, etc. You could add costs for anything else your jurisdiction deems necessary that the U.S. Secret didn’t request. You could also require payment up front before the campaign starts building staging and hanging flags in your venue.

Private venue

If a campaign rents a privately-owned venue, your local gov has sparse leverage for recouping costs. You do, however, have options. Your leadership team will have to decide if any of them are good options.

Option 1: Negotiate

Just as the U.S. Secret Service relies on partnerships with local governments, presidential campaigns rely on partnerships with their U.S. Secret Service protection details. You could tell the U.S. Secret Service that you’ll schedule staffing and vehicles to fulfill their requests as soon as a check clears from the campaign. This puts U.S. Secret Service special agents in a less-than-ideal go-between position. And if the campaign doesn’t pay, you’ll have to choose another option.

Option 2: Say no

When the U.S. Secret Service requests law enforcement or other types of assistance, you could decline. Local governments have both said no and only partially fulfilled requests for various reasons. Keep this in mind: If something bad happens at a campaign event, the job of the U.S. Secret Service is to get the protectee to safety, not to take care of the crowd, protesters, or your residents and property. Does your community have a public safety plan for annual parades and festivals? If yes, you will want one for presidential campaign events. If not, you will want one for presidential campaign events. Another worst-case scenario angle to consider is media coverage and your community’s reputation… in perpetuity. As one former police chief told the Center for Public Integrity, “Most [police] chiefs will remind their officials how long it took Dallas to not be known as the place where [President Kennedy] was assassinated” in 1963.

Option 3: Fulfill requests and recommendations, in whole or part, and absorb the costs

If you’re in a swing state or near the home(s) of a presidential candidate, your local government may already budget for costs associated with presidential campaign visits. If these costs aren’t planned expenses, they may be coming to a contingency fund near you and lead to even more difficult 2020 budget decisions amidst the COVID-19 economic downturn.

Option 4: Fulfill requests and recommendations, in whole or part, bill the campaign, and hope for the best

Some campaigns will pay. Others may not. You could create a cost dashboard for campaign events on your organization’s website. Sunlight and the potential for negative publicity might inspire a campaign to pay. Or it might not. If a campaign doesn’t pay its bill, you could file a lawsuit, as El Paso is considering. You could also file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, especially if the campaign doesn’t report the bill as debt or disputed debt, and hope the FEC returns soon from semi-shutdown with vacant commissioner seats.

Your leadership team will have to evaluate the options when the situation arises. Even better, your organization could plan ahead and write a policy that addresses different types of presidential campaign visits and events. Here is an interesting tale of approaches by two sheriffs and a possibly illegal contribution for a campaign visit. If you would like help with policies or budgeting for 2020 presidential campaign visits, I’m happy to be of service.

Were you involved in a presidential candidate’s visit to your community? I want to hear your story. Send me a note.

Learn more about presidential campaign stops at ELGL’s July 21 virtual event: Local Government Preparation for Presidential Candidate Visits

Related Morning Buzz: A Presidential Candidate is Coming to my City! Now What?!

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