Prognostication Skills Pay for Political Button Maker

Posted September 4, 2003 at 2:57pm

Mort Berkowitz is a political prognosticator, a predictor of trends, a teller of candidates’ fortune. He makes and sells campaign buttons.

“If you ask me who is winning now, I’ve sold more Dean buttons than anybody else,” he said, referring to the former Vermont governor, Howard Dean, and the rest of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Second is Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), while Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) places third.

“Conversely, I’ve sold fewer Liebermans than I thought I would have sold,” Berkowitz said, referring to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) buttons are in last place — below even the Rev. Al Sharpton’s quixotic presidential bid buttons.

Berkowitz, 64, runs Bold Concepts, a nonpartisan button design and distribution shop, from a cramped office on the 18th floor of a Times Square building in New York City. He’s been there, his back to the window facing the neon craziness outside, since 1985.

“I have now about 130 different political buttons for this year’s presidential race that I have designed,” he said.

But Lieberman’s button has him worried. Berkowitz just saw a poll that has the Connecticut Senator trailing in New Hampshire. “He could be out of the race by February and I could have thousands of Lieberman buttons,” he griped.

Tearing open an envelope, Berkowitz called out an order for three types of Dean buttons and one type of Gephardt button.

“See?” he said, adding that Dean buttons are outselling Democratic rivals 5-to-1.

Even still, he expects to sell all of the buttons he makes, usually to collectors who want a full set of “hopefuls” for any campaign. The only time he was stuck with a load of unsellable buttons was in 1985, from Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. Berkowitz had 30,000 buttons ready for sale, but frigid weather drove the inauguration indoors and potential customers away.

A self-admitted political junkie, Berkowitz designs and manufactures buttons for every declared presidential candidate — as well as the undeclared long shots. Berkowitz likes gambling on the “might-runs”; having the right button ready for the right candidate’s announcement can mean lucrative business. Being ready with a Clinton-Gore button in 1992 paid off handsomely. But this year, he gambled that Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) would enter the race.

“I can offer a fire sale on those two,” he said.

Buttons for retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who has been mulling a run but remains undeclared, are still going for $2.

Berkowitz keeps button samples in a wall of plastic blue containers in the small room adjacent to his office. Political clubs, trade unions, campaigns and collectors form the bulk of his clientele, he said. He also sells to the public through a catalog.

He has contracts with two factories in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His current warehoused stock is 350,000 buttons.

Berkowitz started in the business by volunteering for campaigns in New York’s Upper West Side.

“At some point, I went from making buttons for the campaign to figuring out I had some talent in the area,” he explained. Watergate inspired a burst of creativity — 81 scandal-related buttons with slogans like “I made the Dean’s list” and “Behind every Watergate stands a Millhouse.”

After starting his business in 1993, he’s been pumping out buttons with regularity — helping to fuel speculation that retired Gen. Colin Powell and then-New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman might run for the GOP nod in 1996 by selling buttons touting their presidential bids.

Berkowitz said he keeps tabs on the political scene in part by listening to his distributors. “People will come up to me and say, ‘So and so is hot in my area,’” he said.

Most of his buttons are dedicated to presidential races, but he made an exception for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). The former first lady, in fact, mentions a Berkowitz button on page 375 of her book, “Living History.” The button in question had a picture of basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman’s dyed-orange hair superimposed with Clinton’s face.

“Everybody wanted to collect Hillary Clinton buttons,” said Berkowitz, even Republicans. “Why is that? Search me, but I love it.”

Right now attention is switching over to the California recall election. Berkowitz is ready with pro- and anti-Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) for governor buttons. He’s considering printing a Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) button. What about one for Arianna Huffington (I)?

“Good God, no,” he said. “There have to be some limits to even what I do.”

— David Perera