By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
There’s a reason why the volunteers who man the Libertarian Party booth at the Indiana State Fair have a big bottle of hand sanitizer on hand: Everybody seems to want to touch or be touched by their star candidate.
Even people with no interest in politics can’t seem to resist a two-handed handshake grasp or full-body bear hug from Rupert Boneham, the “Survivor” reality TV star and Libertarian candidate for Indiana governor.
Almost every weekday since the 17-day fair kicked off, Boneham, 48, has been working the fair crowd, capitalizing on his celebrity to practice the old-fashioned retail politics of meeting and greeting voters.
Boneham signs campaign photos with his signature “Argh!” — the pirate cry he adopted as a three-time castaway on the long-running “Survivor” series. But he follows it up by pressing his libertarian message of a lot less government intrusion and a lot more personal freedoms.
“We don’t have the kind of corporate sponsorship that the other two parties have to buy TV time,” said Chris Spangle, a Rupert booster and executive director of the state Libertarian Party. “So he has to connect with people one-on-one.”
And connect he does. Boneham’s fans line up along tables inside the fair’s Exposition Hall that are stacked with “Rupert for Governor” bumper stickers, campaign buttons and tie-dyed T-shirts like the ones he wore while stranded with strangers in remote tropical locations for his “Survivor” stints.
He greets each of them in a booming voice and the request: “Tell me your name.” They almost always comply.
When he walks the fairgrounds, on his way to buy marinated kabobs from one of his favorite food vendors, the Terre-Haute-based Sati Baba, fair-goers who recognize the wild-haired, bushy-bearded competitor, stop and gawk. As they do, Boneham moves in with an enthusiastic handshake or a hug.
“This is my new form of ‘Survivor,’ ” he often says. “I’m running for governor of Indiana.”
It seems okay with Boneham if they didn’t know that. “Hey, whatever opens the door,” Boneham said.
He’s convinced his celebrity status has opened the door for Libertarians to get out their message.
Libertarians believe the only legitimate use of government power is to preserve unalienable rights of life, liberty, property and self-governance. For Boneham, that means government needs to get out the business of providing entitlements, whether that’s welfare for the poor or “corporate welfare” like tax credits and subsidies for big business. He doesn’t think government has the right to ban guns or gay marriage.
“People are ready for something different,” Boneham said. “The people who come to meet me, I don’t hit all their issues, but I do appeal to their desire for someone who is not a politician.”
Fair-goer Vicki Comer of Danville came to meet Rupert-the-celebrity, but left impressed by the Rupert-the-candidate. She likes the fact that he donated a portion of his $1 million winnings from “Survivor” to his Indianapolis-based charity, Rupert’s Kids, which provides mentoring and job training to at-risk youths.
“I think he would make decisions for all the people,” she said. “Not just for the people in office, or the big wigs, or the people with money.”
Along with asking for votes from people like Comer, Boneham has been asking for money to help fuel his low-budget campaign, which he’s taken on the road with a gas-guzzling RV.
“When I started this, I was sure I could win the race by spending $50,000,” Boneham said. “But here we are, and I’ve just about exhausted those funds and we need more to make it to the end.”
Boneham is the underdog when it comes the power of the two major parties. As of July 1 (at the end of the latest reporting period) his Republican opponent, Mike Pence, had $5.5 million in the bank; his Democrat opponent John Gregg had $3 million. Indiana’s current governor, Republican Mitch Daniels, raised over $19 million for his 2004 campaign and another $17 million for his 2008 re-election bid.
Boneham has one advantage that other minor party and independent candidates don’t: His name will appear on the Indiana ballot. The Libertarian Party won “ballot status” in 1994 by turning out enough voters to meet Indiana’s tough ballot-access laws.
Still, he has a lot of work to do to get people to see him less as the scraggly pirate who won the fan-favorite vote during the 2004 “Survivor: All-Stars” and more as the man who could win their vote.
That’s why he’ll continue to be camped out at the State Fair for several days to come.
Signing a photo for a very young fan who couldn’t read his writing, he instructed her: “That says, ‘Argh!’ Go home and tell your dad, that’s ‘pirate’ for ‘don’t forget to vote.’”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.