Until last spring, Johnny Richey had never voted in a presidential election. "I always say, 'Mine ain't gonna count no way,'" he explains. "Who am I going to vote for: Lucifer, the devil or Satan?" But this year, the 56-year-old writer and producer of R&B songs cast his Democratic primary ballot for Sen. Barack Obama, and he didn't stop there. The day after Obama's May 18 rally in Portland drew a crowd of 75,000, Richey realized that he wanted to do something to support the campaign. Also, he needed a job.
So every weekday for the past 2 1/2 months, Johnny Richey has stood by a blue tent in front of the Piedmont Post Office branch on Northeast Killingsworth Street and 7th Avenue, selling merchandise emblazoned with Barack Obama's name, or face, or both. He started by selling buttons. He has since expanded his stock to include bumper stickers, yard signs and hats. But mostly he sells T-shirts—black, white and orange shirts reading "Vote for Your President" and "I like Obama, but is America ready for a President with brains?" He thinks he's sold about 500 shirts since May, for prices ranging from $10 to $15. "I started getting 'em by the fifties and hundreds," Richey says. "I just turn 'em over."
Obama may be battling attacks by Sen. John McCain calling him an empty celebrity, but he's unquestionably a star in one sense: He moves product. NBC News polled gift-shop owners nationwide last month, and found Obama swag outselling McCain wares at a rate of 5-to-1. Some of the merch is a corporate ploy: At Urban Outfitters stores, including the Portland branch on 2320 NW Westover Road, $28 tees feature OBEY's iconic "HOPE" portrait or self-conscious jokes like "Obama Says Knock You Out."
But in Portland, the most dogged bootleg-shirt salesmen—the die-hard Obamapreneurs—can be found on Northeast Killingsworth Street, in the heart of the city's traditionally black neighborhoods. Across the street from Richey's stand, at the northwest corner of Killingsworth and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, former City Council candidate Woodrow Broadnax sets up a table and metal rack every Sunday and some weekdays, selling shirts to benefit "The Office of Mr. Juneteenth." (He's Mr. Juneteenth, and an officer of the National Juneteenth Convention.) Broadnax's signature item is a $20 tee with Obama's name inside the Presidential seal. He claims he invented the design and showed it to Obama volunteers, who promptly stole it: "They took that idea from me."
For sheer stamina, however, no street-corner shirt vendor in Portland can match Richey, who, when he isn't in front of the post office, sets up shop with his girlfriend, Jeannie Moore, at events like Last Thursday on Alberta Street or the Skidmore Market. His shirts, which he buys from manufacturers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Pasadena, Calif., range from a basic "Yes We Can" slogan to messages not necessarily endorsed by the candidate: One shirt displays Obama's face floating next to those of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, while another—Richey designed this one himself—says "Coexist on Earth" above a logo including the religious symbols of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, along with a Holy Grail and a peace pipe. His most controversial tee, Richey says, is the one with Obama Photoshopped between King and Malcolm X, which reads, "Change By Any Means Necessary." Richey takes it to mean the message of hope should be spread in creative ways.
Richey smokes Old Gold filtered cigarettes and sports gold-framed sunglasses, and carries a portable credit-card machine next to a cardboard box for cash donations. "We don't like calling it 'sales,'" he says. "We like calling it 'donations.' Sales is not a nonprofit word."
But Johnny Ray Richey Productions LLC is not a nonprofit, as Obama campaign volunteers are quick to point out. "He is totally misrepresenting his sales," says Obama North-Northeast Office Manager Colleen Davis. She used to send people looking for buttons and yard signs to Richey—the campaign office is perpetually sold out—until she was told last week that Richey was claiming to be affiliated with the campaign. "People think that they're giving money to the Obama campaign," Davis says. "The Obama campaign says he isn't giving money. Johnny is not being honest."
Richey, who says he makes just enough money from his booth to buy more shirts and pay for rent, gas and hamburgers, has his own justifying logic. "We're making sure that every person in Portland sees this hat, sees this shirt, sees this poster in the window," he says. "And that's what we're giving to Obama."
His belief in the campaign certainly seems fervent. He gives away Obama buttons and bumper stickers to passersby without any money, and he's written a new gospel song, "Yes We Can," which he plans to release next year. (The chorus: "Yes we can/ We can do it/ Yes we can/ We can change it/ 'Cause you have to try and try and try love again.") Richey looks back at his "By Any Means Necessary" shirt: "I do live by that."
Richey's T-shirt booth is open from 9 am-5 pm Monday-Friday at 630 NE Killingsworth St. Official Obama merchandise is available at store.barackobama.com.