Candidates want to turn a few heads
By Ashley H. Grant
ST. PAUL -- It's tough for local candidates to attract much attention in a year when White House hopefuls have been visiting Minnesota as often as snow in winter.
But that hasn't stopped them from trying.
Among candidates' gimmicks: dog-sledding across the district, choreographed campaign-sign twirlers, even a donkey.
Rep. Kent Eken, a one-term Democrat, is the one who's been lugging a donkey around as he seeks a second term. Bertha, the donkey, belongs to his wife's uncle, who also built a small covered wagon for the animal to pull in parades.
Sound cute? Well, sometimes.
"It's lived up to its reputation as being stubborn," said Eken, of Twin Valley in northwestern Minnesota. Bertha sometimes amuses crowds by stopping and refusing to budge -- or even digging in her heels and moving backward.
"She's really gotten accustomed to going to these parades," he said. "She likes kids. She eats the candy from the streets along the way. I try to stop her, but she'll pick up a sucker that's still in the wrapper and start crunching on it, stick and all. She must have a great digestive system."
Bertha even made it into a piece of Eken's campaign literature. The brochure features a photo of Eken trying to pull stubborn Bertha forward. The catchphrase: "Eken is pulling for you!"
Eken says it's helped raise his profile in a hot presidential election year that has focused even more attention than usual on Washington.
"The presidential race definitely overshadows everything else," he said. "It's hard to get people focused on the issues we're dealing with."
Bill Hillsman, the ad man who helped create lasting images of Jesse Ventura and Paul Wellstone, said breaking from the pack to try something different helps raise name identification, especially for candidates who are relatively new to politics.
"These are candidates that can't afford media," he said.
Normally, local races are won by door-to-door, face-to-face contact, but if a candidate isn't well known already, unconventional campaigning has the potential to make a difference, he said.
In Bemidji, candidate Frank Moe has tried a couple of stunts, including a five-day dog-sledding trip across the rural district in March.
"That was the formal kickoff for the campaign," said Moe, a Democrat who is challenging Republican three-term incumbent Rep. Doug Fuller for the seat. "What a great way to get out and see all of the district."
Moe camped out and stopped at schools along the way, sometimes telling students about Joe Roulette, a fur trapper from what is now Pembina, N.D., who made regular trips to St. Paul as a member of Minnesota's territorial legislature.
Moe called the trip across his district "a magical week" and thinks it locked up the party's endorsement for him.
"People thought I was crazy," he said. "They said I should be out knocking on doors. I said, 'I'll do that, but I'm going to do this now."'
Moe, who teaches outdoor ethics and recreation, emergency response, canoeing and rock climbing among other things, has taken some hits from Fuller for being too environmental.
"My opponent has been trying to paint me as a tree-hugging, eco-weirdo," Moe said.
He recently took Fuller on in a chicken wing eating contest and won. The next day, his campaign ran a huge ad in the local newspaper with a photo from the contest and a banner that read, "Moe beats Fuller, 27-14."
In Austin, Sen. Dan Sparks campaigned in a yellow limousine during his first run for office in 2002. Though he's not up for election this year, it's become a sort of trademark, and he still takes it to parades.
Rep. Katie Sieben of Newport has a 14-year-old cousin play his drums out of the back of a truck at her campaign events.
And in the Twin Cities area, candidate Ryan Griffin's campaign surprised him with a novel performance.
Griffin, a Republican running for an open seat just north of St. Paul, was taken aback when he turned around at a parade in Little Canada to see his campaign sign carriers had broken into a choreographed dance behind him.
"They did some kind of crazy dance," he said. "They twirled the signs and danced and turned around." After that, they were a hit at all the parades, Griffin said.