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Hitchhiking, Tag Sales: Funky Election Year at the Grass Roots

November 9, 1996

One U.S. Senate candidate bounced across Texas in a dented, bug-splattered pickup, while another hitchhiked around Alaska. A Nebraska legislative hopeful threw a garage sale. In New York, a state Assembly candidate paraded through his district with a saxophonist and drummer.

In a year when Phil Gramm spent $28 million on a White House bid that did not survive some early caucuses, when would-be senators Robert Torricelli and Dick Zimmer spent nearly $20 million on a broadcast war that disgusted many New Jersey voters, let’s lift a glass to the shoestring brigade.

They’re the candidates whose frugality, ingenuity and leg work reminded us there’s more to politics than ad budgets and polls. More, sometimes, than winning.

For most third-party candidates and for some Republicans and Democrats, taking the grass route meant no political action committee money, no polling, no TV. It meant bean supper fund-raisers, bake sales, and lots of old-fashioned shoe leather.

The year’s ubershoestringer was Victor Morales, a Texas high school teacher who took $8,000 of the $10,000 in his family’s bank account to run for U.S. Senate.

He campaigned by roaming the state in his white Nissan truck. After a primary victory, he found himself matched against incumbent Republican Gramm, who spent almost $5 million and crushed the insurgent.

In Alaska, Jed Whittaker, the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, spent his $4,000 personal savings in a race against Republican institution Ted Stevens.

Travel is expensive in Alaska, so Whittaker often hitchhiked, even hanging around an airport to bum a ride on a private plane. He recorded a 30-second TV spot with an 8mm video camera, and got it broadcast on a satellite service for remote areas.

Whittaker’s cause was hopeless, wrote an Anchorage Daily News columnist. ``If on Nov. 6 this newspaper says Whittaker has won the election, look up. Pigs will be flying.″

The shoestring brigade was necessarily inventive. Chris Peterson, a Republican candidate for the Nebraska Legislature who refused to take money from special-interest groups, held a garage sale at her Grand Island home to raise money.

``It was a good excuse to get into my closets and clean them out,″ she said.

In New York’s Brooklyn, Green Party state Assembly candidate Craig Seeman led weekend parades through his district that featured jazz and pedicab rides. ``The parades hearkened back to the days when candidates really had to meet the people, and politics was a form of live entertainment,″ he said.

He got 7 percent of the vote, lost to a Democratic incumbent, and had a good time.

Newell O’Brien, a Florida Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, moved into a trailer in a campground to be closer to the heart of their district near Jacksonville. ``I can’t afford motels and hotels,″ he explained. Nor could he afford to beat Stearns, who outspent him 15-to-1 and outpolled him 2-to-1.

Stearns’ advantage wasn’t unique. A computer analysis of election returns and Federal Election Commission records late last week found that House candidates who headed into the final three weeks with the most in combined spending and cash on hand won 93 percent of the time.

Dale Mouton, an independent candidate for the U.S. House from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, used red paint, white poster board and wooden stakes to make his own campaign posters.

His opponents, he estimated, ``are paying $2.50 a pop for their small signs. I’m paying 25 cents.″ But he still got less than 5 percent of the vote.

Some candidates took perverse pride in frugality.

In Massachusetts, Republican House candidate Philip Hyde wouldn’t even pay the GOP State Committee the $50 registration fee for its candidates’ campaign class.

After he was slaughtered by U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, Hyde bragged about having spent less than 1 1/2 cents per vote (he got 27,271), compared to Kennedy’s $9 a vote (he got 145,949).

This proved, Hyde claimed, ``we can all push campaign funding reform just by running cash-free _ using our opponents’ own momentum against them as in judo.″

Other shoestringers dipped deeper into their own pockets. Oklahoma state Rep. Wanda Jo Peltier spent $215,000 _ a good part of her and her husband’s life savings _ on her campaign for state Corporation Commission.

The consumer advocate refused to take contributions from anyone regulated by the commission, which sets rates for the energy and trucking industries.

After she lost narrowly to the Republican incumbent, Peltier expressed no regrets and said she was eager to get to work selling subdivisions. ``There’s life outside politics,″ she said. ``I’m going to live it.″

Some campaigns probably had too much shoestring and too little bootstrap.

In West Virginia, Republican Betty Burks, Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s only opponent, barely stumped at all, didn’t return phone calls and ended up raising only $1,000 to Rockefeller’s $1.6 million. The 53-year-old nursing assistant remained an unknown even in her own town. He got 77 percent of the vote; she picked up 23.

Whittaker, at least, became a familiar figure in Alaska. He drew 13 percent of the vote, compared to 10 percent for the Democrat. Stevens got 77 percent.

The Associated Press tried to reach Whittaker at his mother’s house, where he’s living these days. He was out, she explained: ``He’s looking for a job.″

And above, the sky was clear of pigs.