A few weeks ago, on the back patio of the Handlebar, two dozen friends and well-wishers clustered around Paul Smith and Ben Helphand as they raffled off "vaguely democracy-themed" items from a battered UPS next-day-air envelope: a vintage paperback copy of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals; a goody bag of swag donated by the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail; a jar of honey from the North Lawndale-based Chicago Honey Co-op ("A model of democracy to emulate," cracked Helphand, "minus the queen part."); and to much giggling, a laminated copy of the Burger King Bill of Rights.
Hung on the fence behind them was an oversize vinyl model of the reason for all the civic-minded revelry: the Election Day Advent Calendar.
The brainchild of Helphand and Smith, the colorful 11-by-17-inch calendar is the first product from Gerrymander, a new business they established to create and market novelty political paraphernalia. A wonkish tweak of the form familiar to legions of Sunday-schooled kids, the calendar, rather than telling the Christmas story, offers a way to count down the days leading up to the November 7 general election. Starting with October 10, each of 29 little card-stock windows opens to reveal a quote or factoid relating to the history of democracy in America. Helphand and Smith are both avowed Democrats, but they went out of their way to make the calendar nonpartisan, drawing on the political wisdom of experts from Winston Churchill to Jon Stewart and along the way referencing the 19th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act, and Reinhold Niebuhr ("Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary"). It's about the democratic process, they aver, not politics. And no, there's no chocolate.
Helphand and Smith met in 2001 when both were working at the Center for Neighborhood Technology and bonded on a long, chilly trip to Minnesota to campaign for Walter Mondale when he stepped in to run for the Senate after the death of Paul Wellstone in 2002. They've since done multiple tours of duty in the political trenches--for Obama, 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon, and, most recently, newly elected water commissioner Debra Shore--experiences that pushed them to dream up ways of cutting through the thicket of election-season propaganda to capture voters' attention. "Everyone has to do bumper stickers and yard signs and buttons," says Smith. "It feels like they're just going through the motions."
For a 2005 Shore fund-raiser the pair designed a limited edition run of "Tap Brand Tap Water," bottled directly from the faucet and labeled with information on Chicago's water supply, its contaminants, and its environmental impact. It was great to watch people have this moment of recognition, Helphand says, as they slowly realized that they weren't just drinking Poland Spring. It was a lesson that stuck with them, says Smith: "You don't just learn by memorizing. You learn by experiencing things and by telling stories."
While neither quit his day job--Helphand's an organizer for the CNT, Smith's a freelance programmer and IT guy--they decided to parlay their creative energies into a moneymaking venture. "We've always wanted to take one of our schemes," says Smith, "and do it up right." They spent much of the last four months researching and designing the calendar, which sells for $9.99 plus shipping and handling at electionday adventcalendar.com. (They'll also be hawking it at the next Depart-Ment, October 13-15 at Open End Gallery, 2000 W. Fulton.) Since it came from the press on September 18 they've sold half the initial run of 3,000, mostly through word of mouth and write-ups on Daily Candy and BoingBoing. Educators have been noticeably responsive, so Helphand and Smith are putting the finishing touches on a teacher's guide they say will be available for free off the Web site by October 10. They're cagey on the subject of future Gerrymander products--greeting cards? a jigsaw puzzle?--and though they'd like to do something less time-sensitive, a 2008 calendar isn't out of the question. Says Helphand, who fondly remembers the thrill of going to vote with his mom as a kid, "We just think it's a damn good system, and we don't celebrate it enough."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.