Gubernatorial Booty

How our candidates for governor are spending their dough

Gubernatorial Booty
Illustration By Doug Potter

That eye-catching bumper sticker on your Chevy Nova may have only set you back $3, but your purchase, however modest, set off a lively ka-ching! down at Kinky Friedman's campaign headquarters, where online sales of customized booty have already surpassed the half-million-dollar mark this year.

Friedman isn't the first gubernatorial candidate to cash in on his celebrity status to help finance his campaign. But in following the merchandising path of former pro wrestler and ex-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, can he similarly achieve an Election Day upset? Or do such things only happen in the Gopher State? Like any gambling man worth his salt, Friedman is laying bets on a couple of key players in Ventura's Reform Party campaign – Minnesota consultant Dean Barkley and adman Bill Hillsman – to do for the Kinkster in '06 what they did for "The Body" in '98. That is, turn conventional political wisdom on its pointy little head.

That's a tall order from an independent candidate running against three major conventionals -- Republican Gov. Rick Perry, Democrat Chris Bell, and "D"-turned-"R"-turned-indie Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Plus, Minnesota and Texas operate under dramatically different election laws, the northern state being the more progressive of the two. Ventura's campaign benefited from public funding as well as Election Day voter registration that produced a rush of first-time voters, most of them turning out for the former wrestler. Down here in Texas, there'll be no public funds or same-day voter registration working in Friedman's favor.

Still, who but an outsider like Friedman could market his cigar-smoking image on a ladies biker tank-top that sells for $22.50? Not Strayhorn, not Bell, and certainly not Perry, the odds-on favorite to win in spite of his consistent unpopularity in opinion polls. Regardless of how the numbers shake out in November, Friedman's online merchandise operation is truly an unconventional fundraising success, generating $515,671 in sales between Jan. 1 and June 30, according to the campaign. In retail, however, you have to spend money to make money. An informal study of Friedman's expenditures during this same six-month period shows he paid about $163,764 for the customized products he sold, still turning a profit of about $352,000. "He gets more small-dollar donations than anyone, but it's all in merchandise," said Bell campaign spokesman Jason Stanford. "He's taking retail politics literally. But clearly he's keeping a very small percentage of each dollar he raises. A big chunk of every dollar that comes in the door goes to pay for what people are buying – that's an incredible burn rate he's got going on."

"Chris Bell can't give away bumper stickers and we're selling them at a profit," Friedman spokeswoman Laura Stromberg responded. "And who cares if the markup isn't that high? We manage to make a higher profit through online merchandise sales in a six-month period than Chris Bell has raised online since he started campaigning. So we will take that burn rate every day of the week, because it's only merchandise – it doesn't include fundraisers, or individual donations," she said. "We're outraising the Democrat three or four to one. We knew we were never going to outraise Perry or Strayhorn, we just wanted enough money for a good solid week of advertising right before the election, and we're going to have that."

Longtime Republican consultant Royal Masset doesn't begrudge Friedman the right to merchandise his candidacy. "Unlike poor Kinky, every other candidate has a built-in contributor constituency," he said. "Carole has lawyers and tax advisers. Bell has traditional Democrats. Perry has the Austin lobby. Kinky has no one." But what Kinky lacks in lobby and other special-interest resources he makes up for in the free market. "T-shirts and other merchandise are great name ID sources," Masset said. "Most campaigns give T-shirts away, but you only see Republican T-shirts at parades and fairs, when the candidate forces volunteers to don them. Anyone who pays Kinky for a T-shirt will probably wear it."

The half-million dollars Friedman generated in sales this year accounted for most of his impressive bounty of $50-and-under contributions, a rare feat in a Texas governor's race. By contrast, Gov. Perry's small donations added up to a piddly $2.76 – not even enough to buy a "Why the Hell Not?" bumper sticker from Kinky. Bell and Strayhorn each outpaced Perry in the small-change category, netting $18,283 and $12,857, respectively, from the $50-and-under crowd.

A campaign expenditure report can reveal as much about a candidate as his list of donors. For example, Friedman has raised more than $3.3 million since February 2005. We know that a good chunk of that cash came from regular people who paid maybe $3 for a bumper sticker, or $30 for a Conversation Starter Package of loot. But after raising more than $3 million in 14 months, Friedman's account balance stood at just $491,000 as of June 30. What happened to all that money?

Besides merchandise and shipping costs and payroll expenses, a lot of those funds got eaten up by hotel expenses, restaurant tabs, rental cars, and fuel costs. Friedman's tastes aren't extravagant, but like his $20 T-shirts, those daily meal tickets – whether they're from Cisco's in East Austin, the Cracker Barrel in Lacy Lakeview, or the Cowboy Steak House in Kerrville – add up pretty quickly. Friedman's lodging preferences range from $50-a-night stays at America's Best Value Inn in Breckenridge, to $214 sleepovers at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. In the first half of this year, Friedman's hotel bill totaled $31,167. As Democratic strategist Kelly Fero sees it, that's money that could have been put to better use – polling, for example, or direct mail. "I think Kinky and his staff have found what certain other candidates of late have found. It's nice to eat and drink on the largesse of the lobby or your donors, or, in this case, your tchotchkes donors."

Says Stromberg of the Friedman campaign: "We don't have private planes donated to us like the others, but Kinky really enjoys driving. He likes stopping a the local Dairy Queen and saying hello to people in Victoria, and stopping at the kolache place on the way to Houston. He's a musician. He's a road guy. He just really enjoys the road."

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