Price tag for campus rallies can vary wildly

By Vanessa McCray

The (Toledo) Blade

It was the day before Ohio’s 2008 primary, and Hillary Clinton had more campaigning to do.

On the itinerary: The state’s northwest corner. The venue of choice: the University of Toledo’s student union, where a cheering crowd of 750 greeted her.

The next day, UT billed the Clinton campaign $1,553.01 for room rental, sales tax, and overtime labor related to hosting her rally.

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Fast forward eight years to the weekend before Ohio’s March 15 primary. Mrs. Clinton, once again pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination, was back in the Buckeye State.

Her campaign sent former President Bill Clinton to Toledo, where he addressed more than 500 supporters at UT.

But this time, the university didn’t charge for use of its Memorial Field House. UT also absorbed the $1,598 in extra police and custodial costs associated with the visit.

In this college-speckled battleground state, the presidential campaign trail almost always leads to a school gym or student union, which offers candidates large venues and eager audiences.

But how exactly campuses roll out the welcome mat depends on the place.

Although they profess political neutrality, area schools take a patchwork approach to charging for use of spaces that provide a scholastic backdrop to so many stump speeches.

Some, such as Bowling Green State University, have collected thousands of dollars for renting their venues.

Others, including UT and Monroe County Community College, have waived fees in exchange for the learning opportunities and media attention such visits can offer.

With the presidential campaigns barreling toward party nominations, area school administrators have begun to discuss how to respond to the requests they expect to field from candidates during the prime political season.

Such visits provided memorable moments over the years: From President Ronald Reagan proudly holding up a No. 84 BGSU football jersey in 1984, about a month before he won re-election, to President Obama’s 2012 visit to a packed Scott High School gym in Toledo.

“I think that universities in general are great places to have an exchange of ideas,” said Frank Calzonetti, UT’s vice president of government relations. “I think people see it as a venue to be a great convener.”

But, he acknowledged, UT has been inconsistent in how it handles that role.

The university billed some campaigns but not others for rallies held on campus during the 2016, 2012, and 2008 presidential elections, according to The Blade’s review of a sampling of contracts released in response to a public records request. And, UT was unable to find records showing it ever collected payments from the campaigns it did charge.

Spokesman Meghan Cunningham blamed the historically uneven treatment on the lack of “a centralized process” that permitted different campus officials to coordinate campaign requests. Now, UT is developing a policy that calls for its government relations office to handle such matters. The policy, to be complete by July 1, also will provide guidance on safety measures and what to charge.

“We are trying to be consistent and have the university as a showcase, but certainly we can’t be in a position to be underwriting campaign costs,” said Calzonetti.

The university in February announced budget cuts after lower-than-projected enrollment contributed to an estimated $11.5 million shortfall this fiscal year.

The policy was prompted, he said, because officials realize Ohio will again be a well-trodden campaign stop in the march to the Nov. 8 election.

BGSU’s team met once this year to review campaign procedures that the university put in place in 2008.

“We want to treat all the campaigns the same. It’s a great opportunity for our students to participate in the political process, to hear directly from the candidates on campus, but at the same time we have a responsibility to our students and to also the taxpayers of the state of Ohio that we make sure we aren’t subsidizing these candidates when they come here,” said spokesman Dave Kielmeyer.

Just days before the 2008 general election, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Democratic vice president candidate Joe Biden held rallies on the Bowling Green campus.

The terms of Biden’s event called for an $11,000 payment. The contract for Palin asked for payment of “actual costs incurred by the university” including campus police and overtime. BGSU could not produce copies of payments because the events took place eight years ago — beyond the retention period for keeping those types of records, said Kielmeyer. But, he said the bills were paid before the rallies took place.

BGSU did provide a credit card receipt showing advance payment of $11,875 for the Obama campaign’s use of the Stroh Center in September, 2012, when a crowd of 5,500 showed up to hear the President speak.

Four years before, in February, 2008, his campaign signed a contract with UT to use Savage Hall for a speech that drew 10,000 supporters. UT has no record of asking for or receiving payment, and the line in the contract requesting an advance deposit was blank.

The university asked for $1,654.63 to cover rental fees in October, 2012, when Vice President Biden campaigned at the student union, but again officials couldn’t find records indicating the amount was paid.

In 2012, Toledo Public Schools sought $5,053.05 from the Obama campaign to rent Scott High School, but district spokesman Patty Mazur said the amount was never paid.

Each school system creates its own rules regarding use of facilities, according to the Ohio Department of Education. TPS officials review the district’s policy annually and payment protocol will be part of those talks, said Mazur, adding that the district bills campaigns “in good faith.”

Defiance City Schools collected $2,073.18 for rent and other charges when Mitt Romney held a rally at the high school football stadium in October, 2012, said Superintendent Mike Struble. Musical guest Meat Loaf and a crowd of 12,000 also showed up.

A few days later, Romney campaigned at the University of Findlay’s athletic complex. The private school in Hancock County charges campaigns a rental fee and expects payment for setup or additional security, said Dave Emsweller, vice president for student affairs. He did not know how much the Romney campaign paid.

Monroe County Community College waived a $200 rental fee when Gov. John Kasich campaigned in March in the atrium of the La-Z-Boy Center. Such decisions are made at the discretion of the college president, and the event required no staff costs, said spokesman Joe Verkennes.

The event garnered attention for the school from national news outlets.

“It was really great for the college,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many hits on our media monitoring sites.”

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