On Sept. 19, 2000, John McCain rose in the Senate to rail against what he called the “staggering” sums that the federal government planned to spend to help Salt Lake City stage the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“The American taxpayer is being shaken down to the tune of nearly a billion and a half dollars,” McCain said.
The Arizona Republican vowed to “do everything in my power” to delay or kill “this pork-barrel spending” and to end the “fiscal abuse” related to the Olympics. “This is preposterous and it must stop,” he said.
Mitt Romney, who headed the Olympics, counseled calm when reporters from Utah’s Deseret Morning News reached him in Sydney, Australia. Romney challenged McCain’s arithmetic, arguing that taxpayers would provide only $250 million. In any case, he asserted that he already had obtained backing in Congress.
“I’m expecting the funding we need to host the Games,” he said. “I’m quite confident.”
The clash over Olympics spending, which dragged on for two years, helps explain some of the acrimony that now characterizes the race between the two front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination. The dispute provided an early preview of the fissures that still divide McCain and Romney as they face what may be decisive contests Tuesday.
“It may be a source of the sniping between the two,” said Quin Monson, assistant director of the Center for Elections and Democracy at Romney’s alma mater, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Kelly Patterson, the center’s director, agreed: “People have long memories in politics.”
In the background of the dispute lies a long-simmering argument in Utah over whether Romney has overstated his role in saving the Olympics.
In debates and on the campaign trail, McCain highlights his history as a watchdog of “wasteful” government spending. Over the years, he has challenged Senate colleagues who inserted so-called earmarks in legislation to fund “pet projects,” from new courthouses to catfish farms, and to bypass normal budget scrutiny.
Cutting federal aid for the Olympics and other sports events became one of McCain’s goals. He repeatedly denounced “pork-barrel subsidies” for the 2002 Games, identifying earmarks for construction projects, road improvements, new post offices and other infrastructure in and around Salt Lake City.
His bark had little bite, however. As chairman of the commerce committee, McCain held no hearings into the alleged overspending and failed in his one attempt to cut Olympic spending, according to his Senate staff.
In early 2001, McCain proposed shifting $30 million from the Treasury Department, which sought the money for “salaries and expenses of law enforcement personnel” at the Olympics, to the Pentagon. The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated.
McCain’s angry rhetoric put him at odds not only with Romney but with Sen. Robert F. Bennett, the Utah Republican who sat on the appropriations committee and who personally led the fight for federal aid to the Olympics.
In October 1999, Bennett took to the Senate floor to condemn a claim on McCain’s website that called an allocation of $2.2 million to improve Salt Lake City sewers “a direct result of unlimited contributions from special interests.” McCain’s staff had found the sewer aid in an emergency appropriation to fund U.S. military operations in Kosovo.
In a rancorous exchange, Bennett demanded that McCain identify who the special interests were and how they benefited. McCain replied that he was attacking “the system,” not individual members, and refused to amend the website. The sewer money stayed in.
Bennett, who has endorsed Romney’s presidential bid, could not be reached Friday because of a death in the family, according to his spokeswoman.
McCain doesn’t mention his concerns about Olympics spending on the campaign trail, according to aides. Romney, however, cites his stewardship of the Games as core to his candidacy.
The Boston-based business tycoon took over the operation in February 1999 after organizers in Salt Lake City were accused of providing more than $1 million in cash and gifts to members of the International Olympic Committee to secure the city’s bid. The local organizers later were acquitted of all criminal charges.
On the campaign trail, Romney cites his efforts to rescue the Games from scandal, lure new corporate sponsors and fix a huge budget shortfall. The Olympics ultimately proved both a sporting and financial success.
But some critics claim Romney overstates his effect. They argue that federal tax dollars effectively provided huge subsidies for each ticket sold, and that the largest corporate sponsorships were in place before he arrived.
“He had his role, but he didn’t save the Games by any stretch of the imagination,” said Ken Bullock, a former board member of the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee and now head of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, a nonpartisan municipal group. “He was very opportunistic in trying to portray himself as the white knight.”
Romney “takes credit for cleaning everything up,” complained Stephen Pace, who helped run Utahns for Responsible Public Spending, a local nonprofit group. “How much he really did, how much initiative he showed, is hard to tell.”
Romney gives his version of events, including early face-offs with McCain, in his 2004 book, “Turnaround.”
At a time when the Games needed “record-breaking federal support,” he wrote, McCain and a few of his Senate colleagues were threatening to revoke the tax deductibility of corporate sponsorships. “That would nail the coffin of the Salt Lake Olympics and future Games,” Romney worried.
McCain, he added, “had earned the unfair reputation of being out to destroy the Games.” After their first meeting, in early 1999, Romney decided that McCain “did not oppose the Olympics -- he simply opposed the federal government paying for the Games, particularly when he saw any waste and abuse. And he had plenty of examples.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, however, McCain “made clear there would be no problems from him when we came to Congress for the funding necessary to keep the Games secure,” Romney wrote.
In the end, neither Romney nor McCain were correct in their public statements about how much the Olympics cost.
In response to a request from McCain, the General Accounting Office -- the research arm of Congress that is now known as the Government Accountability Office -- reported in September 2000 that federal agencies would spend $1.3 billion in and around Salt Lake City, or less than McCain claimed.
Most of the money was allocated to improve or build highways and transit systems, not expenses directly related to staging the games.
Bennett, Romney’s chief backer, struck back the following year.
He asked the GAO to recalculate the federal tab minus the heavy construction and infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the tally was far smaller: $342 million, but still more than Romney had said.
Additional security measures added after Sept. 11 raised the total to about $400 million, subsequent reports showed.