Confessions of a Lawn Sign Stealer
Highway 19 is a busy six-mile stretch of meandering road that links to main interstate artery in southeast Minnesota. More interestingly, the road connects rural, and often conservative, Minnesota to the liberal college town of Northfield. Rolling through pumpkin patches and apple orchids, the highway is postcard beautiful. This summer and autumn it was speckled with McCain signs, their cobalt blue squarely set against the gold and red of fall foliage.
By early October, however, there were no McCain-Palin campaign signs on the eastbound stretch of Highway 19. It wasn't because loyalties had switched, but because I pulled them out.
And that goes for the oversized 4 x 8 foot mini-billboard in front of the ranch-style farm house. It barely fit in the back of my Subaru. But I carted it away with seven other lawn signs that, like a ninja under the cover of cloudy Minnesota night, I "removed."
I am a visiting professor at St. Olaf College, whose student body is ideologically balanced. I have been involved with political campaigns in the past -- phone-banking, politicking and working as a campaign manager. I even ran for mayor of Portland, Oregon once myself. But, when teaching, I try not to share my political beliefs. Earlier this term, I marked down a student's grade for wearing an Obama T-shirt when he gave a presentation about talk radio's impact on the current election. I told him that the T-shirt made his presentation look biased and detracted from his otherwise sincere analysis of Rush Limbaugh.
Sure, I understand that stealing a sign will not change anyone's mind, and, most likely, will only embolden McCain supporters' disdain for liberals. Even so, yanking out the signs and running like a scared rabbit back to my idling car was one of the single-most exhilarating and empowering political acts that I have ever done.
Today, national politics amounts to slick TV ads and choreographed stump speeches. A vote often feels like a raindrop in an ocean. But this illicit act of civil disobedience was something visceral. It was unscripted and raw expression. It was a chance to stop talking about theories and projections and get my hands dirty. Of course, I realized there was the very real chance my antics in rural Minnesota would be met with a shotgun, or at least a hockey dad tackling me.
Mature? No. Illegal? Yes. Satisfying? Definitely.
I am not alone. Earlier this week, in the battleground state of Ohio, a (below voting age) teenager was shot in the arm while pulling out McCain signs. The AP reported that a 50-year old man pulled out his .22 rifle when he saw the teen taking his lawn sign and tried to "defend his property." The 17-year old boy sign stealer was wounded slightly and the 50-year old man faces felony assault. Not to be outdone, police in southeastern Ohio solved the caper of 140 missing Obama campaign signs after a resident there set up a webcam. Two high school students were found with the signs, surprisingly, still in their possession.
A very unscientific survey of Google searches and Facebook entries shows that political sign-stealing is a crime committed equally by Republicans and Democrats. Both Obama and McCain campaign offices around the country confirm that they hear daily from residents needing to replace missing signs.
In central Washington state, where Obama holds a 10-point lead, one blogger reported on RedCountry.com that his McCain signs had been repeatedly swiped. In response, other victims suggested counter-theft measures: One offers up rubbing poison ivy oil over the signs or wrapping them in barbed wire; another recommends a shotgun.
In mid-October, a local TV station reported on a woman in Tempe, Arizona, who had four Obama signs stolen in quick secession. She set up a surveillance camera, which caught the unlikely sight of a middle-aged and slightly overweight woman casually stroll from her SUV and grab an Obama sign.
But the greatest lawn stealing sign escapade of the season, thanks to YouTube, happened just miles up the road from my thefts. A young woman was caught on video pulling up lawn signs supporting Erik Paulson, a Republican candidate for Minnesota's upscale 3rd district. A large man, strangely dressed in a reflective vest, walks up to her -- apparently his friend is filming -- and asks, "Who do you work for?" In a surprisingly calm and measured voice, she answers, "I'm a private citizen." She is also a volunteer for Ashwin Madia, Paulson's Democratic opponent.
It's common political wisdom, say consultants and campaign managers, that lawn signs play little role in the outcome. Akin to wearing the home team's color on game day or fans painting their faces, the political lawn sign is more statement than persuasion.
And, yes, stealing campaign signs is a crime. But because campaign laws regulate that candidates cannot give out gifts or anything beyond "de minimis" value, a political lawn sign, by its very definition, has no value. Technically, according to the Minnesota sheriff's department, I could be charged with misdemeanor theft or trespassing.
But unlike stealing a lawn gnome or a plastic pink flamingo, I admit, stealing a lawn sign is a more heinous crime. There is moral and ethical guilt. I believe in free speech, and also believe and encourage political expression. I guess I could argue that I was flexing my free expression to say "shut up." But that would put me at the same low-level of political discourse as Bill O'Reilly, who consistently steamrolls over anyone who disagrees with him. If I need to justify my actions, I could argue that I was trying to achieve some great public service for rural voters. In his 2004 book, What's The Matter With Kansas, Frank Rich explains that working class and family farmers, like these in Minnesota, increasingly vote conservative and against their own interests. By pulling out the McCain signs, I was hoping to curb the impression for passing motorists that family farmers in Minnesota supported McCain. Or, at least that's the most high-minded explanation that I can offer.
I guess I could argue that I was flexing my free expression to say "shut up." But that would put me at the same low-level of political discourse as Bill O'Reilly.
The biggest sign I stole was also the grandest thrill. It was 10 p.m. on a Saturday evening and there was a good chance the homeowners were awake. I drove by once and could see at least one light on inside the house. As a safety feature, newer models of Subarus do not allow the driver to leave the engine running and to turn off all exterior lights. The parking lights burned orange as I hustled up the small grass embankment. Inside, I could see a TV flickering blue light.
I reached the sign and, for the first time, recognized its sublime size. It stood as tall as me. I grabbed one of the steel rods holding the signs; but unlike the smaller signs, it did not yield. I wrapped my hands tighter around the stake as if I were a Little Leaguer stepping to bat for the first time, and I squatted, thrusting my legs. The post resisted for a strained, frozen moment and then released. I considered running away right then, leaving the sign crippled but still there. But my Midwest morals insisted that I finish the job. I grabbed the other post and yanked, dragging the sign behind me as I ran. I drove away with the hatchback yawning wide open, and the sign hanging out over the back bumper.
I drive by the house on a near daily basis. For a week afterwards, I had that particular thrill which must draw criminals back to the scene of the crime. The empty lawn -- its silence -- seemed like a small victory that I had scored for my side.
But now, a month later, the homeowners have again decorated their front yard with a more modest wicker sign that announces, "Family for McCain." I was surprisingly happy to see the new sign. In many ways, it felt like it was directed straight at me, the invisible hand that had removed and silenced their first sign.
I had said my piece, and they responded with theirs.
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