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Signs of the times

In a bitterly fought presidential race, stealing and defacing political signs appears to be on the rise.

By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / October 19, 2008
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Like most things that go missing, campaign signs usually disappear in the night. They're ripped out of yards and flowerbeds. They turn up in Dumpsters or, more often, they don't turn up at all. And sometimes, these cardboard placards suffer even more ignoble fates. Vandals - especially this year, it seems - love to deface them, smash them, spear them with wooden stakes, or tag them with spray paint.

"It baffles me. It doesn't make sense," said Corporal Jon Kelly of the Raymond Police Department in Raymond, N.H., a typically peaceful town of about 10,780 people where there have been multiple reports of campaign sign chicanery in recent weeks. "Why would you touch somebody's sign?"

As baffling as it may be to some, people have been stealing or defacing campaign signs since supporters first began planting them in their yards. It is an American tradition neither limited to presidential politics, nor to the hotly contested 2008 presidential election between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, the Democratic and Republican nominees, respectively.

But in a year when many voters are struggling to pay their bills, and both Democrats and Republicans feel so passionate about their respective presidential tickets, such shenanigans seem to be cropping up more often, even in states like Massachusetts, where Obama is a shoo-in to win the state's 12 electoral votes on Nov. 4.

"I've been doing this for a long time and you always lose signs here and there," said Kevin Jones, a member of the Norwell Democratic Town Committee. "Signs always get knocked over, ripped off or whatever. But never has it been so systematic and so quick."

In Norwell last weekend, Jones posted 28 Obama signs all over town and, within 12 hours, someone had stolen nearly every single one of them, including a sign from the yard of Patricia and Robert Bordewieck.

The Bordewiecks were livid, especially when a second Obama sign in their yard was run over the next day, apparently by a car.

In Dover, 50-year-old Mike Hoffman reported similar acts of "political vandalism" recently when he awoke to find that someone had spray-painted red Xs, and hammers and sickles, on the four Obama signs in his yard. On Cape Cod, an Orleans man, tired of having his McCain signs stolen, recently erected a 4-by-8-foot sign touting the Arizona Republican. Illuminated at night, the sign since has inspired the wrath of neighbors - on aesthetic, not political grounds, police say - spawning a number of complaints.

And in battleground states, where every vote is crucial, cardboard campaign signs have become battlegrounds unto themselves.

In Ohio, police in Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, are keeping a log of stolen campaign signs this fall in order to track who has lost what. In North Carolina, campaign signs are being stolen at such an alarming rate that Democratic and Republican leaders recently issued a joint statement condemning the thefts. McCain signs in Maryland have been set on fire. Obama signs in Michigan have been tagged with racial slurs. Slurs have also turned up on Obama signs in Michigan and Wisconsin while in New Hampshire signs for both candidates are vanishing overnight.

"I had McCain signs," said Eric LaMontagne, a 60-year-old barber and Vietnam War veteran who lives in Raymond. "They were up on my lawn. And I got up one morning and they were all gone. They didn't just grow legs."

Steve Grossman, a Newton resident and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is a big believer in the old adage: "Signs don't vote. People do." Nevertheless, campaign signs are a staple of the political process. Voters use them to make a statement, plain for all their neighbors to see. By Election Day, the signs are often everywhere and, like weeds, not always welcome. Critics of all the signage - preferably in red and blue hues - call them litter, and some placards, inevitably, are targeted and swiped by others looking to make a statement of their own.

It's not all that surprising, said Thomas J. Whalen, a political historian at Boston University and author of "A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage." Politics, he said, is about gaining power, and some people can rationalize just about any tactics in order to obtain it, including tearing down an opponent's sign.

"As long as the Republic has been around," said Whalen, "it's been happening."

But local police, who are faced with the almost impossible task of tracking down the sign thieves and vandals, say an angry electorate in 2008, increasingly intolerant of the other side's views, is taking sign destruction to new heights - or lows.

"It's a cowardly act, let's be honest," said Joseph Griffin, chief of police in Dover, where the Obama signs that were vandalized this month still stand, covered in red paint. "How often do you ever hear of a report like this happening at high noon in front of 300 witnesses? These events always happen at night. It's very sneaky, very underhanded."

Both parties deplore such tactics. But victims often believe the other side is to blame. Hoffman, who had his Obama signs defaced, believes that a Republican, feeling desperate, "felt the need to strike out" and targeted the signs.

It's troubling to think, he said, that someone was on his property in the middle of the night, walking sign to sign with a red spray paint can in hand. But Hoffman has no plans to take down the tainted signs.

"I'm leaving them up," he said. "I think it's really important for everybody to see what the other side is like, what some people are capable of."

Meanwhile, McCain supporters, like Joe Kutt, are developing strategies of their own.

Kutt, a 63-year-old Navy veteran and McCain supporter in North Hampton, N.H., erected a large McCain sign a few weeks ago only to have it ripped out of the ground and skewered on a wooden stake, "like you'd put a stake through the heart of a vampire."

In response, Kutt has posted a $500 reward for any tip leading to the arrest of the person - or persons - responsible for destroying his sign or any McCain sign. And others, like LaMontagne, are getting even more creative.

On Sept. 14, after awaking to find that someone had stolen the two McCain signs in his yard, LaMontagne called the police and his state representative to complain. He then got more signs - about a half-dozen - moved them closer to his home, redirected the exterior motion lights on his house, and, just in case that wasn't enough, bought a little protection.

"I have a paintball gun now," he said, "with some nice hard paintballs."

He doesn't want to use them, but he's not afraid to, either. LaMontagne, a retired Marine, said he would do what it takes to keep people off his property and away from his beloved campaign signs, and he figures a paintball gun should do the trick.

"It doesn't kill you," he said. "It just marks you."

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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