'It's on me'

| 7/28/2004

Trucker pays the price for presidential visit

Usually, taxpayers pick up the tab for all the police and other security when the president comes to town. And the bill can run in the thousands.

But in Lancaster, PA, recently, the whole tab was picked up by one taxpayer – truck driver Ron Larson.

The president was working his was through a series of campaign stops in eastern Pennsylvania July 9 when he passed through Lancaster. The town sits along U.S. 30 about halfway between Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

Lancaster Mayor Charles Smithgall said his town was on the route between two of the president’s campaign stops in Pennsylvania. Bush was traveling by motorcoach to the town of York.

The president did not stop in Lancaster, but his motorcade’s path took him down Route 462, the old, original Lincoln Highway, which passes through the center of town.

“They drove through and he (the president) stood at the front of the bus and waived,” Smithgall said.

Each community the president passed through had to meet certain requirements, such as clearing all traffic from the street 15 minutes before the president arrived.

“They totally clear it, parked cars and everything,” he said. That required considerable personnel from the town – “a lot of volunteer firemen, fire police, city police, crossing guards and parking enforcement aids at every corner to stop cross traffic.”

The cost to the citizens of Lancaster? About $2,300. Money that, according to The Lancaster Intelligencer Journal, covered 66 hours of overtime by those city workers.

And that’s when the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan.

Lancaster, like many Pennsylvania cities, is financially strapped due to development limits imposed by the state long ago. Democratic politicians in the area, pointing to the city’s battered economy, came before the city council to ask why local folks should have to pay for the president to pass through on what they considered a campaign stop.

But the city had no intention of billing the president. And Smithgall – who describes himself as “a Republican mayor in a Democrat city” – defended the city’s actions.

“Every president we’ve ever had visit Lancaster, we’ve never charged anybody for assisting his security staff; to me, it’s a thing you don’t do,” the mayor said. “If Kerry comes to town, we won’t bill him either.”

Enter truck driver Ron Larson.

Larson first heard about the situation when he read an item in the local paper. His reaction, he said, was immediate.

“The only ones that called for the president to pay for his security were Democrats on the city council,” Larson, who drives an International daycab for a local company, told Land Line. “Nobody else really wanted that to happen. But they kept hounding the mayor about getting reimbursed for the president’s expenses.”

The military veteran said he “was about 90 seconds into the story” when he called the mayor, telling him “this is totally partisan.” He told city officials he would pay the expenses.

“I would take a bullet for this commander in chief, but since I am not in the position to do that, I think this is the least I can do for him,” Larson said in a statement. “Furthermore, if the president ever decides to visit Lancaster again, and there is a security cost issue, I would pay it again.”

Smithgall said Larson “thought it wasn’t fair that the opposing party was opposing his president by requesting payment. He said, ‘I’ll pay it myself.’”

“He paid it all for this community out of the kindness of his heart.”

Larson said it wasn’t easy for his family to come up with the money.

“Of course we’re going to have to sacrifice something,” he said. “But I thought it was worth it. And I had the support of my wife. She knows how I feel about these things, and she supported me fully.”

The trucker made arrangements with the mayor over the phone to come in and write the city a check. But when Larson went to city offices that Monday for what he thought would be a simple financial transaction, he found not only the mayor, but also newspaper reporters and television cameras waiting for him.

The mayor was impressed with the truck driver in a lot of ways – and not all relating to Larson’s political stand.

“I’ve got to call him a very conscientious driver,” the mayor said. “He was on the Baltimore Beltway – I didn’t realize it was his cell phone, and I didn’t know he was a over-the-road trucker – and he pulled off the road to talk to me.”

Larson said most of the comments he has received – 90 percent – have been positive. Shortly after his decision became public, he did get some negative feedback, but since then, most comments have been favorable.

Smithgall said he had thought that the Bush campaign should send Larson a thank-you note. What Larson got was far more than a simple thank you, however.

Recently, officials from the Bush campaign asked him if he was interested in meeting the president’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara. Not surprisingly, he said yes.

“Thursday, they came up to Lancaster,” Larson said. “They gave me a signed picture of their father, and I had pictures taken with them. They signed the book ‘George and Laura.’ It was really thrilling.”

And although he certainly appreciated the visit, the Manor Township, PA, trucker said he didn’t do what he did for credit, publicity or recognition of any kind.

“I wasn’t looking for any recognition at all; I had no idea I was going to get any coverage,” he said. “I did it out of principal.”

- by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.