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Kansan sticks it to election system

Times Staff Writer

When Sean Tevis decided to run for a seat in the Kansas Legislature, he faced a serious problem: money. Local political advisors warned the campaign novice that he would need a war chest of at least $26,000 to compete against his entrenched Republican rival.

It seemed like a fortune to the 39-year-old Democrat. Everyone he knew here was either on a fixed income, worried about losing a job or fretting that the nation’s stumbling economy could spread to this southwestern suburb of Kansas City, Kan.

So Tevis created a droll online cartoon strip to appeal to potential supporters wherever they might be, using stick figures to represent himself, his GOP opponent and others.

In one panel, a stick-figure Tevis greets a constituent by rattling off a stream of personal facts he’s found online about her -- including her birthdate, voting pattern, divorce, paycheck, credit card balances and medical history -- to illustrate his interest in protecting individual privacy.

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When she slams the door in his face, the cartoon Tevis muses, “Maybe I should rethink my approach.”

“I figured I’d raise a few thousand dollars, at most,” for his bid to become a state representative, said Tevis, a computer systems manager who works for an industrial manufacturing company.

In fact, before he created the comic strip, Tevis spent weeks asking cash-strapped friends and family for help and walking door-to-door in the district. He raised $1,525.

The comic strip -- at www.seantevis.com/3000 -- was first posted online July 16. Today, when he files his campaign finance forms with the Kansas secretary of state’s office, Tevis will report that he has raised $95,162.76 in donations through PayPal, the online service that allows payments and money transfers via the Internet.

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Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential bid has transformed the way presidential candidates use the Internet to reach volunteers and donors -- particularly donors who give relatively small amounts. Now Tevis’ success underscores how such online grass-roots efforts are also revolutionizing down-ticket races.

“This shows how all political races could be done in the future: drawing support across state lines and around a community of common interests, instead of just where people vote,” said Julie Barko Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

“But for something like this to work, you have to be the right counter-political candidate -- a cool maverick,” Barko Germany said. “And Sean is that.”

The strip is the antithesis of the typical campaign mailer.

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It is peppered with online geek-speak, with references to “downmodding” (voting down anything not considered worthwhile) and “forum troll” (someone who intentionally riles up a Web-based social group or conversation) and gives a nod to “Rickrolling” (an Internet bait-and-switch prank where people are misdirected to a Rick Astley music video). It is drawn in a style similar to xkcd, a popular Web-based comic.

And its message is barely concealed exasperation with his opponent’s social conservatism and a political process where the candidate with the most money often wins.

“Relax,” a bearded stick figure consoles the Tevis figure. “You just need 52 people who can donate $500.”

Tevis’ character replies, “I know two.”

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The solution, Tevis says, is simple: If 3,000 people donated $8.34 each, he’d reach his goal.

Those who gave $60 would get a handwritten thank-you note. Donors who gave $500, the legal limit, would get a DVD of Tevis’ mom thanking them.

It was a long shot at best.

Seasoned Democrats in Olathe (population about 115,000), located about 20 miles southwest of Kansas City, Kan., advised Tevis to drop his online efforts and stick with asking local residents and state political action groups for financial help. The average state representative race rarely pulls in donations from more than a couple hundred people or PACs, according to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.

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“These state seats are not big-money races being run by professional politicians with dreams of higher office. These are citizen legislators who are trying to get to Topeka because they are trying to make a change in their community,” said Joseph Aistrup, head of the political science department at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

“Besides, the idea of anyone outside of Kansas being interested enough in a state legislative race here to give money is unfathomable,” Aistrup said.

Tevis initially shared the strip with a group of friends and asked them to share it with their friends if they thought it was funny and believed in his bid for office. The comic quickly spread to social networking websites -- and the donations poured in.

In less than 24 hours, Tevis said, he reached his goal. More than half of the funds were donations of $8.34 or less.

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His opponent, Arlen Siegfreid, a 61-year-old grandfather and semi-retired real estate agent, said he had raised about $12,000 the old-fashioned way -- offline. He’s proud of his approach.

“This is a race you win by getting out and walking, not sitting in front of a computer,” said Siegfreid, a three-term incumbent whose website offers information on how people can physically mail a check for his reelection bid.

Indeed, the strategy could backfire on Tevis, particularly if voters are put off by the idea of outsiders paying for a candidate’s campaign, said Martin Hawver, a longtime Kansas politics-watcher who publishes Hawver’s Capitol Report.

“Arlen is fairly popular and a pretty conservative old-boy who represents a pretty conservative district,” Hawver said. “All those people supporting Sean won’t be able to vote for him. He could e-mail his heart out and still get stomped.”

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Still, Tevis’ fundraising success had Siegfreid nervous enough to print out a copy of the comic strip and show it to a group of fellow state GOP officials.

“I told them, ‘If he’s successful and wins in November, this is what you’re going to see from every Democrat in Kansas -- and everywhere -- in two years,’ ” Siegfreid said.

As of Saturday, 5,703 people had made online donations to Tevis’ campaign. The majority live outside of the state. Fans from other countries even sent more than $1,700 -- which Tevis refunded, in compliance with federal election rules.

Staffers for two political candidates in Kansas and eight out-of-state campaigns -- Democrats and independents running for state or congressional seats -- have contacted Tevis in recent days to ask for help and advice. And the money has continued to pour into Tevis’ campaign, along with fan e-mails cheering on his campaign platform of boosting teacher pay, eliminating food taxes and protecting an individual’s right to privacy.

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“Hilarious and awesome!” wrote one woman from Portland, Ore. “I only wish my $10 could be more.”

Mark Davis, a donor from West Virginia, said he was crushed by debt and had been unemployed for nearly six months. “Despite this, I sent my first-ever political donation to your campaign,” he wrote. “My [significant other] and I are attempting to find jobs so that we can move to Kansas. I can only hope I end up in your district, and can also offer you my vote.”

Tevis sheepishly broke the news to his mother last week that she needed to step in front of a camera: Four people so far have given enough to get the DVD.

“All I could think was, ‘Gosh, we still have months to go before November, and more people will probably donate money,’ ” said Claudia Tevis Schindel. “That’s a lot of thank-you cards to send out, let alone the videos. I hope we have enough time to get it all done before people actually go vote.”

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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