Vice President Dick Cheney sure knows how to pack 'em in. We're not talking about the 400 people who ponied up $500 a plate to hear Cheney extol the virtues of U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy during a Republican fundraiser at the Minneapolis Hyatt two weeks ago; we're referring to the gridlocked mass of irate, honking drivers who had their rush-hour commute elongated by federal Secret Service security precautions during Cheney's trip from the airport.
In recent weeks, the veep has emerged from his bunker to help fill Republican Party coffers. Post-9/11 paranoia remains in full effect, however. During the evening rush hour on May 9, Twin Cities commuters were prevented from heading northbound on I-35W, and overpasses on the ten-mile stretch of highway between the airport and downtown Minneapolis were sealed off until his motorcade had passed. As was the case with President Bush's Twin Cities visit earlier this spring for U.S. Senate hopeful Norm Coleman, the public wasn't given advance notice (KBEM traffic-management radio announcer Mike Mauren says he wasn't even able to give listeners a reason for the jam once Cheney was en route). And efforts by frustrated drivers to use the frontage roads along the highway only made matters worse.
"Shutting off the overpasses is just one of the things that goes into security," explains U.S. Secret Service spokesman Brian Marr. "We try to provide 360 degrees of coverage. That means above and below the ground as well as north, south, east, and west. We don't go into commenting on what we do, but the agents doing the advance work meet with local law enforcement, consider a number of different factors and come up with a plan. That often includes closing down the overpasses. The Secret Service policies really haven't changed that much since 9/11."
Curiously, traffic was not halted along southbound I-35W when Cheney drove into town. It was backed up, however, because of gridlock near the overpasses. Gawkers, intrigued by the empty northbound highway and plethora of police patrols, didn't help. Any people who did have ill intentions toward Cheney--a group that doubtless got bigger as the afternoon wore on--would have had a closer vantage point from across the median than from on the overpass.
The Cheney visit was all about partisan politics; he was whizzed back to the airport immediately after his stump speech for Kennedy. So what was the taxpayers' tab to ensure that Cheney was available for the $500 chicken and the optional $5,000 photo op, resulting in a $225,000 windfall for the state GOP?
"I've talked to the state patrol officers and the Secret Service and in the interest of security, we are not going to talk about how many people were used," says Kevin Smith, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "For obvious reasons, any talk about the planning and efforts of law enforcement in this matter are off limits."