Mike Pence’s stop in Sarasota last week for a National Republican Congressional Committee event to raise funds ‘to defeat Democratic incumbents’ cost the city thousands of dollars and caused hours of traffic gridlock

Among the thousands of residents caught in gridlock last week when Vice President Mike Pence came to town for a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraiser was a frustrated dance critic trying to get from her office downtown to a ballet performance at a venue directly across from the airport, Pence’s arrival and departure point.

Thanks to police parked at every cross street, who barred motorists’ access between the airport and the fundraiser venue at Congressman Vern Buchanan’s home on Longboat Key, a typically 15-minute drive turned into a 90-minute detour through Bradenton.

This occurred on a high season Friday evening at rush hour, along a route where construction was already causing severe backups. The resulting logjam ultimately led to thousands of angry motorists, the delayed start of at least three arts performances affecting more than 3,000 patrons and a bill for police overtime that will be paid for not by the federal government, Congressman Buchanan or the NRCC, but local taxpayers.

The reason for Pence’s visit? To raise money for the NRCC’s “Take Back the House” program to defeat Democratic incumbents.

That’s right. With tickets priced at $2,500 — double that if you wanted a photo with the VP and $25,000 to sit at his dinner table — the NRCC got a nice boost to its coffers. And Sarasota got to foot the bill.

Local restaurateurs took a hit on their biggest night of the week from missed or canceled reservations. Theater operators paid pricey overtime to technical and production staff when shows ran late. And, almost a week later, the Sarasota Police Department is still tabulating the grand sum for overtime and logistics.

I spent two days trying to get answers to everything from who was responsible for the inconvenient time and location of the event, to whether other venues or routes were considered, and why municipalities can’t recover their incurred expenses. But despite numerous emails and messages left over two days with the vice president’s office and the NRCC, I never received a single response.

Meanwhile, city officials directed me to the Sarasota Police Department, and SPD deferred all questions about “planning, timing and route” to the vice president’s office.

I did get a call back from Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin, who said the reaction to the disruption had been “anticipated.” In fact, as soon as he received notification of the visit — about two days prior — his office contacted both SPD and Buchanan to ask if the Secret Service would consider an alternate route, timing or mode of transportation.

“I asked them to understand we’re dealing with rush hour traffic in a community with multiple events that is already in a state of angst over traffic and construction, a lot of it emanating from Longboat Key, ironically,” Barwin said.

He never got a reply. Nor does he expect reimbursement; in his 38 years in municipal government, which has included dozens of presidential and vice presidential visits, “I don’t ever recall submitting expenses or even being invited to,” Barwin said.

Meanwhile Max Goodman, Buchanan’s campaign manager, said there had never been “any consideration of an alternate location,” and that, contrary to the feedback I’d received, he’d heard nothing but praise for the VP visit.

“Frankly, it’s been just the opposite,” he said, referring me to social media videos of fans waving at a passing motorcade. “I would say there were a lot of people who were ecstatic that the vice president of the United States was in their community.”

As for the traffic, Goodman insisted, it wasn’t out of the ordinary.

“The traffic is lousy in this town pretty much every day of the week. When you have the opportunity to have the Vice President of the United States in your region, that’s very special and I would guess they would welcome a small delay in traffic that is darn awful anyway.”

Goodman also wanted to make sure everyone knew that “not a penny“ of the money that was raised would go to Congressman Buchanan.

“It was sponsored by the NRCC and all proceeds go to them,” Goodman said. “It just so happened it was at Vern’s house.”

Instead, he accused Buchanan’s rival, Margaret Good, of exploiting the visit for political gain when she accused both men of prioritizing fundraising over the county’s health just days after Pence was named head of a national coronavirus task force.

But this isn’t really about traffic snarls, shirking duties or snarky backbiting. It’s about why we even need to have a fundraising event like this in the first place. It’s about the need to get money out of our political process and institute the kind of campaign finance reform that would make big ticket events like this a thing of the past.

Until we do, no matter which party is in power, the democratic process will be corrupted, priorities will be skewed and the people will pay the price.

“This isn’t a partisan rant,” a female caller assured me. “I would say the same thing if the visitor had been Barack Obama. But why should we foot the bill to subsidize any party’s political ends? It’s appalling to me that, at a time when this country is facing so many critical challenges — from coronavirus to climate change — our leaders are putting their time and our money into keeping themselves in power.”

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