GOP’s flesh-eating zombie candidate

Folks often joke about the blood-sucking parasites that infect politics, but the gibes about politicians and lobbyists are usually just that — jokes. Yet the charge gets uncomfortably close to being literal when discussing former South Dakota lieutenant governor and potential Senate candidate Steve Kirby.

Following the sale of his prominent Sioux Falls family’s surety bond company, Kirby branched out into more exotic business terrain when he founded Bluestern Venture Capital in 1992. Among Bluestern’s portfolio companies was a Massachusetts-based biotech firm called Collagenesis — a company whose business model couldn’t have been more foreign to the stolid world of South Dakota surety bonding.

Collagenesis specialized in processing donated skin off cadavers into cosmetic surgery products, and was subject to a blistering five-part investigative series by the Orange County Register beginning on April 17, 2000. “Burn victims lie waiting in hospitals as nurses scour the country for skin to cover their wounds, even though skin is in plentiful supply for plastic surgeons,” read the lede of the Register report. “The skin they need to save their lives is being used instead for procedures that could wait: supporting bladders, erasing laugh lines and enlarging penises.”

Suffice it to say that penis enlargement represented a slight departure from the Kirby family’s traditional business of bonding hard-working Sioux Falls mason contractors.

 Kirby’s niche industry had proven financially lucrative. Collagenesis could take the skin off one cadaver and convert it into $36,000 of a gel injected to smooth wrinkles and inflate lips. Its lone competitor, a firm called LifeCell, estimated its potential revenues from such skin at $200 million a year — 10 times what it would earn if it focused on life-saving burn applications instead of cosmetic surgery.

 And while Collagenesis and LifeCell claimed that they weren’t taking skin away from burn units at hospitals, the Register’s investigation proved otherwise. Meanwhile, cadaver donors and their families were left in the dark; Arthur Caplan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, explained to the Register that “people who donate have no idea tissue is being processed into products that per gram or per ounce are in the price range of diamonds.”

 In a move that demonstrated a shocking lack of ethical acumen, Kirby only invested in the ghoulish Collagenesis after the Register exposé came out. And he proved his lack of business acumen by investing in a company that would soon be driven to bankruptcy by the fierce (and understandable) backlash the investigative report generated. What looked attractive in a spreadsheet generated genuine revulsion in the real world.

 Republicans had high hopes for the South Dakota Senate seat currently held by Democrat Tim Johnson. The state gave President George W. Bush a 60-38 victory in both 2000 and 2004, and its cheap media markets make it an inexpensive place to do battle. A win in South Dakota could help offset expected Republican losses in places like New Hampshire, Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado.

 Yet Johnson’s popularity, his $2.3 million warchest, and the difficulties of attacking a senator who nearly lost his life to a brain hemorrhage in 2005 make it tough for most Republican prospects to stomach a race. Kirby trailed Johnson badly — 67-29 — in an internal Democratic poll taken last November.

 Now, with the clock ticking toward a March 25 filing deadline, and still without a serious challenger, the Republican National Senatorial Committee is apparently trolling cemeteries looking for any name to slap on the ballot. And all the wrinkle-smoothing gel that Collagenesis produced isn’t enough to erase Democrats’ laugh lines.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .