The Day Jim Rhodes' Campaign Bus Got Busted For Speeding

Sep 23, 2017

One drawback to covering politics for a living is that you end up riding on a lot of campaign buses.

I've been a passenger on hundreds of them – some very fancy, others very plain. Some were reasonably comfortable; others were hot and sweaty and gave one the distinct impression mechanical failure was imminent and you might have to find an alternate mode of transportation.

But there was only campaign bus I rode on that was pulled over by the Ohio Highway Patrol for speeding.

A bus for the 1986 campaign of James A. Rhodes, then 77 years old and a four-term former governor who was, for some inexplicable reason, running for a fifth term for against a pretty popular 46-year-old incumbent Democrat named Dick Celeste. Popular enough to win re-election over Rhodes that year with 61 percent of the vote.

Rhodes, on sheer name recognition alone, beat two competent challengers in the Republican gubernatorial primary – Ohio Senate President Paul Gillmor and State Sen. Paul Pfeifer.

And, thus, he was the GOP nominee for governor and had a great, big campaign bus for hauling weary reporters and harried staffers around the state.

And that bus was pulled over by an Ohio Highway Patrol trooper on one campaign swing through southern Ohio on U.S. 32, also known as the James A. Rhodes Appalachian Highway.

In fact, the whole day was very bizarre. Even by Jim Rhodes' standards.

It was Day One of a two-day campaign rampage through Rhodes' home territory, southern Ohio.

It started at the crack of dawn at a donut shop on the west side of Columbus, where Rhodes, a junk food maven of the first order, loaded up on big bags of donuts for the 10 or 12 journalists and the handful of staffers on the campaign bus.

Everyone loaded on to the bus, which had two words stenciled on the front: Force Field.

That was a reference to something Celeste had said earlier about Rhodes – that the former governor seemed to have a force field around him that deflected all criticism.

Rhodes, glazed donut in hand, looked at the lettering on the front of the bus. Field force! Ha!

For the next two days, he called the bus Field Force instead of Force Field. Drove the campaign staffers crazy.

Anyway, we all climbed aboard and the bus pulled out, bound for the first campaign stop of the day – Princeton High School in Sharonville.

This was one of the most unmemorable campaign events in history. Rhodes talked to some teachers and then addressed a large group of students jammed into the school gym – students who, for the most part, had no idea who this old dude jawing at them was supposed to be and they clearly couldn't care less. But it got them out of their first class of the day, so it was OK.

Rhodes couldn't wait to get everybody back on the bus and on the road; he had bigger fish to fry.   

The donuts were already gone, but Rhodes had already dipped into the lunch fare stored in a cooler in the back of the bus – all the fixins' for his favorite, a Lebanon bologna sandwich with American cheese and plenty of Miracle Whip.

We were expected to eat the same.

The bus barreled through Hamilton County and into Clermont County (via U.S. 32). Then the bus driver turned onto a back road in Pierce Township. The driver pulled over on the side of the road, across from the massive iron gates of Warnerton Farm.

Warnerton was a 640-acre horse farm owned by financier Marvin Warner, who was notorious at the time as the man at the heart of Ohio's 1985 collapse of the savings and loans industry, triggered by the bankruptcy of Warner's Home State Savings Bank.

Eventually, Warner ended up in prison, serving 28 months of three-and-a-half-year sentence for his role in the Home State collapse.

At the time of Rhodes' campaign trip, Warner was about the most despised person in Ohio. Before the fall of Home State and the Ohio savings and loans crisis, Warner was a major player in Ohio Democratic politics, raising large sums of money for Democrats – including Celeste.

Rhodes hopped out of the bus, carrying a homemade yard sign and a mallet.

Carefully trying to stay off Warner's property and in the public right-of-way, Rhodes began pounding the yard sign into the ground outside Warner's farm.

It read: Marvin Warner's farm. Birthplace of the Celeste Administration.

There were a few photos snapped and some video shot; and Rhodes stood there with a big, self-satisfied grin on his face.

How 'bout that, boys?, Rhodes said. Pretty good stunt, eh?

The reporters, underwhelmed, slogged back on to the bus for the next stop, which was to be a gathering of Republicans in Portsmouth.

Once we got settled back in the bus, we realized Rhodes was no longer aboard.

We were told by an aide that a top staffer was driving Rhodes to Portsmouth in a campaign aide's car.

We knew exactly what that meant – the 77-year-old former governor didn't want us to see him take a midday nap.

He wasn't fooling anybody.

So, we settled in for the drive to Portsmouth – east on U.S. 32 (the James A. Rhodes Appalachian Highway, of course) and then south on U.S. 23 to Portsmouth.

We started digging into the cooler – Lebanon bologna sandwiches for all!

The bus driver, who looked to be about 60 years old, didn't talk much, but we could tell he had put the pedal to the metal and was high-tailing it down the highway.

We were passing by Sardinia – a tiny town that straddles Brown and Highland counties – when somebody heard a siren coming up behind. We looked behind and there we saw the red-and-blue flashing lights of an Ohio Highway Patrol cruiser.

Busted.

Our driver pulled off to the side of the road, within walking distance of a Marathon gas station that had a little convenience store attached.

The trooper walked up to the door of the bus, asked the bus driver for his Commercial Driver's License (CDL) and the registration for the campaign bus.

I had you going 80 in a 55 mile per hour zone, the trooper said. You know what that means.

The trooper walked slowly back to his cruiser; the bus driver turned around and gave us a sheepish grin.

Sorry, fellers. I guess I got a little carried away.

Not two minutes later, we saw the trooper walking back to the bus with a grim look on his face.

Sir, the trooper said, I'm afraid I can't let you drive this bus. There is a warrant out for you in Kentucky. Reckless operation. Unpaid fines.

Immediately, all the reporters, photographers and the staff people jumped off the bus and stood on the side of the road, trying to figure out what to do next.

This was before cell phones and one of the aides sprinted into the Marathon station to call the campaign headquarters in Columbus from a pay phone.

The trooper was writing out a ticket; and the bus driver was doing his mea culpa, mea maxima culpa schtick for our benefit.

I was driving a busload of guys down to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby. They were all drunker than skunks. Things got a little out of hand. I meant to pay those fines, but it slipped my mind. I'm drivin' every day. I'm sorry, boys. I messed up your day. Boy, is Rhodes going to be mad at me!

We explained to him that we were a little bit mad at him ourselves. And then we started discussing what to do.

Anybody here have a CDL?

No.

Anybody here want to try to drive this bus without one?

No way. None of us were interested in sharing a jail cell with the bus driver.

We're all standing along the side of the highway, with cars zooming by, trying to figure out what we were going to do.

We weren't within miles of a motel; and nobody wanted to spend the night on this bus, subsisting on Jim Rhodes' Lebanon bologna.

I decided to explain the situation to the trooper. I told him we were pretty much stuck in a bad situation not of our own making. I hoped there was something he could do to get this bus moving again.

He seemed to be sympathetic, but he made it clear.

I can't allow this man to drive this bus. I just can't.

He went back into his cruiser.

We stood along the side of the road, trying to concoct a scenario where we could find somebody in Sardinia with a CDL who would like to make a few bucks driving a campaign bus for a couple of days. And many other equally stupid ideas.

About 40 minutes later, the trooper came back to the bus and pulled the driver aside. He was talking to him sternly; the bus driver was bowing and scraping.

Finally, they were done. Have a good day, gentleman, the trooper said as he climbed back in his car and took off down the highway.

The bus driver – clutching his Ohio speeding ticket – came back and explained that he had been given special dispensation by the superintendent of the Ohio Highway Patrol to drive the bus.

We didn't ask any questions.

Finally, at least an hour behind schedule, we arrived at the campaign event in Portsmouth.

Rhodes was irritated; the event was for all intents and purposes over. The bus driver laid low; he wouldn't come out of the bus.

Where have you people been?, Rhodes bellowed.  

Busted, on your stupid highway, we told him.

The former governor seemed taken aback. Then we hit him with the coup de grâce.

Plus, we said, we're sick of your Lebanon bologna.