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The profit in political passion
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Owner Todd Turfler in his St. Paul store, "Rebel Ink." By playing to certain political passions, Turfler has combined a business venture with "kind of my little crusade." (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
Usually businesses like to stay as far away from politics as possible. In a swing state like Minnesota, publicly casting your lot with one party or the other could turn off half your customers. But where most businesses see danger, a few see opportunity. Welcome to one store finding money to be made in the bitter political climate.

St. Paul, Minn. — About five months ago, the Rebel Ink T-shirt shop appeared next to some cozy antique stores on St. Paul's Selby Avenue. But there's not much quaint or delicate about this front window. Cut-out faces of Bush and Kerry hover above T-shirts that are sometimes vulgar and always partisan.

"The Liberal and Proud of It shirt kind of stood out, and then I saw some other things about voting Bush out, so that really caught my interest," says Melissa Prashad, who is running some errands nearby. She tries the door before realizing the store's owner keeps only afternoon hours.

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Image Wearing pride on your sleeve

"I'm from Apple Valley, and I hadn't seen anything like this before. So I was very interested in seeing what they had to offer," she says. Prashad says her vintage political clothing from the Vietnam era needs an update.

At one minute before noon, a red-haired man tears up on a bicycle, singing along with his Apple iPod. Thirty-five-year-old owner Todd Turfler is wearing Rebel Ink's best-seller: A black T-shirt with the date of the upcoming election, "11-02-04," and the phrase: "End of an Error."

"'E-R-R-O-R,' since he wasn't voted in the first time," says Turfler, as he gives a tour of the most popular shirts. "Save the World, Vote Bush Out, that is probably second-best. We've got your basic Outsource Bush. I don't know if we can really say that one..." Some other T-shirt slogans you read at your own risk.

Rather than a Democrat, Turfler describes himself as "more of an anti-Bush kind of guy." And as this political year heated up, his knowledge of screen-printing seemed to fit with what he calls "kind of my little crusade."

So far, the decision to move from his basement to a full-fledged shop seems to be paying off. Turfler makes most of his money from special orders, but even there his reputation has brought business through the door.

He takes out a design from a recent customer: "This was his 40th birthday and we printed this on a bunch of shirts: 'John R____, 40 in '04: Friends don't let friends vote Republican.' I thought that was fantastic."

The front window of Rebel Ink advertises that he takes special orders as small as one shirt. It almost seems like an open invitation for Turfler's ideological opponents to hold him to his word, and some have come close.

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Image And Martha too

"I've had about four or five come in and say they want something. And they're usually pretty heated at the storefront. I say, 'Yes I'm a businessman so yes, I'll print it.' None of them have given me any business," he says. Just testing him, he figures: "I think they just want to see where I'm at."

After building his business partly on anti-Bush fervor, Turfler is in an interesting position. If his ideological mission succeeds, and President Bush is denied another term, the bogeyman that helped drive his sales is gone. He's says he's not worried.

"I don't think business will be hurt," Turfler says. "Just, people won't come in as enraged as they might have before, saying, 'Where's that Save the World (Vote Bush Out) shirt, I need one now!'"

After the election is over and passions die down, Turfler will still have bread-and-butter jobs like T-shirts for amateur sports teams and local bands. His one-year-old son inspired a line of baby clothes, adorned with predictably snarky -- but so far non-partisan -- slogans.

And even without Bush-Kerry, there's always another election around the corner. Governor Pawlenty has already made the T-shirt rack here. And a fresh design is hanging on the wall, waiting for St. Paul's DFL -- but Bush-endorsing -- Mayor Randy Kelly.

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