Bill Hillsman is the master of political buzz, a rare idealist whose tilting at windmills occasionally helps change the direction of the breeze. The owner of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, Hillsman spearheaded two of the most successful—and unlikely—guerrilla media campaigns in modern political history: Paul Wellstone's upset victory over Rudy Boschwitz in the 1990 Minnesota Senate race, and wrestler-turned-pol Jesse Ventura's triumph in the 1998 Minnesota governor's campaign that "shocked the world."
As most Americans blithely ignore politics during these dog days of summer, Hillsman has been recruited by a typically motley assortment of candidates with a real desire, and at least an outside chance, of changing two-party politics as usual. Hillsman, the author of Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System, One Campaign at a Time, spoke by phone from his downtown office recently.
City Pages: It seems to be a typically busy campaign season for you, with Kinky Friedman's offbeat [independent] candidacy for governor of Texas and the controversial Senate race in Connecticut between incumbent Joe Lieberman and your candidate, [Democrat] Ned Lamont. Any others we should know about?
Bill Hillsman: I'm working with Christy Mihos, an independent candidate for governor in Massachusetts. Christy is a man—it's a Greek name—and he's a public advocate who was a whistleblower on the Big Dig transportation project in Boston. The acting governor at the time tried to force him out and now they have been having all sorts of problems with the project. [The other day] one of the ceilings collapsed in a tunnel and somebody died, so it is more apparent that all the things he's been saying are true. We haven't done any media yet.
CP: As soon as I heard about the Kinky Friedman action figures, I knew it had to be you, spinning off from the action figures you'd used in the Ventura campaign.
Hillsman: Well, one difference is that in the Ventura campaign, people were clamoring for an action figure after we did the action figure commercial. This time, we knew that Kinky needed ways to make money and so we used the action figure ads for that. Kinky's campaign has been largely financed by merchandise sales, which isn't that different than the Ventura campaign, which, at least in the beginning, was financed by Ventura T-shirts and bumper stickers. This time, with Kinky's campaign, it would be crazy for us not to do it that way.
CP: The Lamont campaign hasn't been quite as colorful as some of the others. The first ad is a pretty traditional introduction until it shows everyone running into his house to support him, with the celebrity factor of the lefty blogger, Markos [Moulitsas Zuniga] of the Daily Kos featured. The second one shows a dog barking at a Lieberman sign and plays on the lap dog/underdog theme. But the one I like best is the "Messy Desk" spot that spoofs negative campaigning by claiming Lamont is messy, makes bad coffee, and lambastes him as a bad singer via a painful rendition of Wang Chung's "Everybody Have Fun Tonight."
Hillsman: We've done all the media for Lamont. The spot with Markos in it is called "Right Now" and is not traditional in any stretch of the imagination. When you are running against a well-established incumbent, you want to show what is really happening, and what is happening is this great groundswell of support for [Lamont]. So at first there is this fairly standard talk to the camera and then all the people come bursting in as a way of showing this groundswell.
Markos is there because we did a commercial for his book and the same director was working on the Lamont campaign, and so when Markos was in Connecticut it occurred to me this would be a smart thing to do. The dog spot we just decided to do while we were waiting around during the commercial with Markos in it—we just grabbed a dog. But the "Messy Desk"—we have had that idea for a long time. We first drafted that for Wellstone in 1996 when we knew he'd be attacked by Republicans. But Paul had gone Washington by that point and didn't see the wisdom of it. We had done up maybe 80 TV scripts for him and would up doing four or five.
CP: Wow. How many of the remaining 75 ideas have you recycled from that time?
Hillsman: The action figure commercial that we first did for Ventura came out of that Wellstone campaign. We were going to have Rudy Boschwitz as an evil action figure, saying, "Here, try some of my root beer-flavored milk." It wasn't great, obviously, but it did get us to think about action figures.
But the ideas aren't really recycled. I don't think good ideas ever really go away; you just look for good candidates to use them on. God knows real recycling of political ads goes on all the time, where they are using parts of campaigns all over the country. I can't tell you how many times somebody says to me, "Why don't we do one like you did with Wellstone?" and you wait, and you want to say, "Because you are not Paul Wellstone." The same with Ventura. Not many candidates can work as an action figure. Now with Kinky you figure it made sense, especially a talking action figure.
CP: Of those two incredibly surprising and successful campaigns—the first one with Wellstone and then Ventura—which one really put you on map?
Hillsman: I don't know. People have almost forgotten we did the original Wellstone campaign. I can't tell you how many people on blogs say, "The people doing the Lamont campaign are ripping off the Wellstone campaign." So I don't know. In politics it is, "What have you done for me lately?" I would say the work we did for [Ralph] Nader [in 2000] gets talked about more, because those commercials were national and it was a more recent election. We became an issue in the Lamont debate; Lieberman referenced my name and said we had worked against Democrats and I think he must be referring to the Nader campaign.
CP: Do you have a set political philosophy?
Hillsman: Yeah, I want to help people, and it seems to be harder and harder to do that. People without money are calling us all the time and want help, and we don't go chasing after fool's errands, but if we find out they are legitimate we will help them. Like with Kinky; a Democrat isn't going to get elected there in Texas for 15 years.