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In political war, signs often victims

In the dead of night, thieves and vandals wreak havoc on campaign signs, but rarely affect the race.

[Times photo: Stephen Coddington]
With the election weeks away, campaign signs abound at the corner of Beverly Hills Boulevard and County Road 491 in Beverly Hills.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002

INVERNESS -- They could be overzealous politicos or mischievous kids, but they always work under cover of darkness.

When their work is done, the colorful cardboard signs dotting front lawns and busy intersections will be spray painted, vandalized or just plain gone.

Complaints of sign-swiping and other political dirty tricks are as old and common as elections themselves. But because the perpetrators rarely advertise their activities, few are ever pinned with the crime.

That was the case until this year, when Harvey Waite, husband of Republican congressional candidate Ginny Brown-Waite, was arrested and accused of vandalizing and stealing incumbent U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman's election signs.

Thurman said she would wait until after the election for Florida's 5th Congressional District to decide whether to file formal charges.

While the high-profile case generated snickers and blushes in various political circles, it's not the first time political hijinks have disrupted a local campaign.

And it probably won't be the last, said Chris Becker, a former candidate for school superintendent and an activist in the Democratic Party.

"This happens all the time," he said. "Those signs just disappear."

During his 2000 campaign, Becker said, his campaign signs were snatched up almost as quickly as volunteers could put them in the ground.

"It was frustrating, because your campaign workers would put a lot of time and effort into them. It's like money going out the window," he said.

Jeff Kopp, a local Republican activist, said his party had experienced some particularly disturbing political vandalism this year. Stickers stamped with profane messages were stuck on the door of the Republican Election Campaign headquarters.

Also, bumper stickers reading, "There's dirt under every Bush," have been slapped on many of Gov. Jeb Bush 's re-election signs.

Ken Chadwick, who is managing Nancy Argenziano's campaign for the state Senate, filed a report with the Citrus County Sheriff's Office last month after magnetic campaign signs were stolen off his truck and a rear view mirror was snapped off.

Political skulduggery is suspected.

"Political signs always disappear, but we've never had anything like this," Chadwick said.

But Joe Cino, head of the Citrus County Democratic Executive Committee, said there had been relatively little bad behavior this election season.

While campaign volunteers may occasionally become a bit overenthusiastic, Cino, said most of the sign stealing is the work of teenage vandals. "I don't think it's a widespread problem," he said.

That was presumed to be the case early Friday, when residents on Kings Bay Drive in Crystal River awoke to find their lawns stripped bare of signs. Crystal River police Chief James Farley said the thievery is believed to be the work of students from Crystal River High School, who held their annual scavenger hunt this week.

According to a list obtained by one of the Crystal River officers, the campaign signs were worth 10 points each -- a paltry amount compared with the 100 points offered for a bong, a device used to smoke marijuana.

Farley said police were working Friday to recover some of the signs. But it's unlikely anyone will be charged with stealing them.

"It's something that typically occurs at the dead of night when nobody's around," Farley said. "Proving who took what would be a very difficult thing."

The fuss over stolen signs is probably wasted energy from a campaign standpoint, said Michael Weigold, an advertising professor at the University of Florida. For most voters, campaign signs aren't that effective a political tool.

However, for a few people who don't pay attention to campaigns or have strong party affiliations, the signs may increase familiarity at the polls.

"If you're somebody who just feels an obligation to come out and vote, in that case, familiarity may be the ticket," Weigold said.

But no matter how many signs are stolen, it's unlikely to affect the outcome of a campaign. "I don't think it was worth the poor guy's trouble," Weigold said of Waite. "I don't think the signs make enough of a difference."

Pilfered signs landed a group of supporters for former Sheriff Charles Dean in hot water after Dean's re-election in 1992.

As Dean was celebrating his win, someone erected a mock graveyard at Main Street and Apopka Avenue, complete with stolen campaign signs from Dean's challenger, Howard Arnold. The tableau also included a headstone for Arnold and signs insulting then-County Judge Gary Graham and others.

Dean later apologized to the community for the incident.

Of course, those candidates truly concerned about vandalism and theft of signs could follow the lead of Helen Spivey, formerly the state representative for District 43.

Spivey, an avid environmentalist, thought the signs were a blight. So she made only one sign. And she carried it with her everywhere she went.

-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or .

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