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Steve Wagner, Forum Communications Co., Published April 10 2012

Sweater vests gave Santorum signature style

BEMIDJI, Minn. – Rick Santorum may have bowed out Tuesday as a Republican presidential candidate, but he didn’t forget where he’s been.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who trailed Mitt Romney as a distance second for the GOP nomination, made specific reference to Bemidji and Bemidji Woolen Mills, the manufacturer of his campaign’s popular sweater vest.

MinnPost, an online news site, was quick to note the Bemidji connection in Santorum’s concession speech:

“Amazing thing that sweater vest. It happened on a night I was doing an event for Mike Huckabee in Des Moines. I showed up and everybody was in shirts and ties and I showed up in a sweater vest.

“Turned out I gave a pretty good speech that night, and all of a sudden the Twitterverse went wild, saying it must be the sweater vest. From that point on, the sweater vest became the official wardrobe of the Santorum campaign.

“And the cool thing was, obviously a big part of our campaign was the manufacturing base of the economy, so we of course sourced that sweater vest in a company that was making them here in the United States.

“We ended up going to that little company up in Bemidji, Minn., in the middle of winter, it was a beautiful day and we got the chance to see that little plant that had been around for almost 100 years.

“It turned out we were the best customer that Bemidji Woolen Mills has ever had, in their entire history.”

Bill Batchelder, owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills, said he wasn’t aware of Santorum’s comments until the phone started ringing after the speech. Batchelder was working on a machine and didn’t catch the speech live.

“It’s surreal. It’s an honor for Rick to have the kind words for Bemidji and Bemidji Woolen Mills,” Batchelder said Tuesday evening. “The whole thing with the sweater vest, you just Google it and thousands of articles come up … I just don’t even know what to say.”

MinnPost.com also reported the “sweater vests were so much a part of (Santorum’s) persona that minutes after his announcement on Tuesday, #sweatervest was briefly the number one trending topic on Twitter in the United States.”

Santorum’s campaign contacted Batchelder in January about the sweater vests, which were given to those who donated $100 or more. Cool Threads in Bemidji embroidered the vests with Santorum’s campaign logo.

The candidate toured Bemidji Woolen Mills and stopped for a photo at the Paul and Babe statues before giving a campaign speech Feb. 5 at the Sanford Center.

Batchelder, who was recently elected as a national delegate for the Republican Convention in August, said he’s still filling orders for the vests, and plans to produce 4,500 by the time he’s done.

“I’m not going to stop making these things until the last person who wants one gets one,” said Batchelder, adding all profits from the vests have been reinvested into the local store to improve equipment and the building.

And what about his thoughts on Santorum’s decision to stop the campaign?

“The writing was on the wall,” Batchelder said. “The whole country I think feels for him and his wife… People really connect with his daughter.”

Santorum’s 3-year-old daughter, Bella, is severely ill and spent this past weekend in the hospital.

“He went a lot further then a lot of people gave him credit for,” Batchelder said. “There’s always four more years.”

Steve Wagner writes for the Bemidji Pioneer, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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