Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Call it a sign of the times: Residents are fuming over stolen and vandalized political campaign signs around the region.

“Everybody has their own opinion about which way they want to vote and all, but I certainly wouldn’t run up on somebody’s yard just because they have a Kerry sign,” said Richard Greenway, of Stafford County, Va.

Yesterday, someone removed Mr. Greenway’s Bush-Cheney 2004 sign from his front lawn. “Whatever party you support, people should not do that,” said Mr. Greenway, a carpenter who replaced the missing sign with three more within an hour.

Anthony McGuffin, of Ellicott City, Md., said he has had more serious things to worry about.

“Try having a bullet shot through your window,” said the activist, who serves on the Howard County Democratic Central Committee and has a Kerry-Edwards sign on his front yard.

Mr. McGuffin, who ran for Congress in 2000 and the state legislature in 2002, found a .45-caliber slug in his upstairs study earlier this month. The bullet, he said, had been fired through the window when he stepped out of the room.

“That’s intimidation. Having a sign spray-painted or torn down, that’s just protest,” he said.

Mr. McGuffin, 51, is not sure whether his house was targeted because of his political affiliations or the Kerry-Edwards sign. “I don’t condone it and I wouldn’t do it … but I think people have gotten to a point where they see a sign and they’re just like, ‘No,’” he said.

Sign theft and political violence have been playing out across the Washington area and the nation in the weeks preceding the Nov. 2 presidential election. In some cases, the violence is increasing as Election Day draws near.

Bullets have been fired at Republican offices in Knoxville, Tenn.; Huntington, W.Va.; and Miami. Since September, Republicans have tallied a list of almost two dozen incidents in which offices have been burglarized, vandalized or stormed by protesters.

A Democratic spokesman did not return phone calls asking for a similar list of incidents.

“We’re losing about 60 percent of our signs on a daily basis at this point in Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington,” said Matt Robbins, a spokesman for the Northern Virginia Republican Party.

“We’ve got signs currently with spray paint on them, down, stakes broken in half, Kerry signs stapled on top of my Bush signs on stakes,” Mr. Robbins said. “Any variety of destruction and theft and vandalism you want, I can point you to.”

The Republican Party in Washington County, Md., is offering a $500 reward to catch sign snatchers.

“This year the vandalism’s been higher than usual,” said Wendy Fiedler, with the Howard County Democratic Central Committee. Earlier this month, police arrested a married couple for reportedly destroying Bush-Cheney signs.

Ms. Fiedler said some voters have become “aggressive drivers who want to get up close and display to you their unhappiness with your choice of who’s on your bumper sticker. People will pull up behind you close, pull up beside you and give you the finger.”

Authorities say the atmosphere among voters is much different this election year from the atmosphere in 2000, when George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore ran for president.

“The thefts weren’t as big an issue in 2000 as [they are] this year,” said Officer Derek Baliles, a spokesman for Montgomery County police who have seen an increase in the number of reports of vandalized or stolen political signs.

Officer Baliles said his department began urging county residents earlier this month to call police if their signs were vandalized or stolen. Police have received 17 such reports since the first week of October. Most involve stolen or defaced presidential campaign signs, he said.

“It’s a split. It almost reflects how close the polls are nationwide,” Officer Baliles said. Police have hardly received any reports of defaced or stolen congressional race signs.

“We want people to report these incidents because we’re looking for trends,” Officer Baliles said. “It’s a theft, it’s a misdemeanor larceny. The stolen yard signs still had value, and they were taken.”

The areas in Montgomery County hit hardest by thefts and vandalism are Rockville, Bethesda and Potomac. Police have not received reports of vandalism or theft from residents in Gaithersburg, Damascus, Germantown and Poolesville.

Anyone in Maryland caught stealing a political yard sign would be charged with theft under $500, a misdemeanor. If convicted, they face a maximum of 18 months in jail and a $500 fine.

In Virginia, the maximum penalty is a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Or, you could get cited for disorderly conduct, as one man learned in Prince William County last week.

Detective Dennis Mangan, a county police spokesman, said a 56-year-old man had been putting up signs near the intersection of Prince William Parkway and Minnieville Road,when a 70-year-old man who was passing by yelled a profanity at him. The two got into a shoving match, before one of them got a citation for disorderly conduct.

Detective Mangan did not know which signs the 56-year-old had been putting up before the fight occurred.

Meanwhile, in Roanoke, Brian Lang, a mechanical engineer involved with the Roanoke Democratic Committee, is considering whether to press charges against two youths he caught taking a Kerry sign from his neighbor’s front yard on Monday night.

Mr. Lang, 36, had been driving home about 9 p.m. when he saw the boys taking down the sign and ordered them to stop. Mr. Lang called police.

Mr. Lang said he later realized the boys were in a high school government class he had spoken to about grass-roots politics a week earlier.

Police found two more Kerry signs in the trunk of the boys’ vehicle. Police ordered the boys to return the signs to the owners and to apologize to them.

“Ultimately, what I would have liked to have seen is to have the boys work the polls on Election Day for George Bush, and see what legitimate political work is like,” Mr. Lang said.

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