By Jenny Neyman
Political signs have it rough. In the course of one election season the red-white-and-blue signs that sprout up overnight along major roads, busy intersections and in supporters’ yards take a lot of abuse.
They’re shot, stabbed, shredded by razors, graffitied and burned. Run over by four-wheelers, dirt bikes, cars and trucks, wildlife and the occasional piece of farm equipment. This year on the central Kenai Peninsula, they’re being stolen altogether.
Several signs promoting Democratic candidates for state and national offices have gone missing this month. Mary Toutonghi, who lives on SoHi Lane in Soldotna, has had problems with her yard signs being knocked over periodically in the two months or so she’s had them out. Then on Sept. 9 she woke up to find a sign for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and one for Democratic U.S. House of Representatives candidate Ethan Berkowitz were gone altogether.
“To me it’s a cowardly act because there’s no discussion or anything, and I see it as an act of vandalism, really,” Toutonghi said.
A Soldotna resident since 1984, Toutonghi has displayed signs for candidates she’s supported for “years and years,” she said. They’ve been knocked down before but never outright stolen.
She related the act to an incident in 2003, when people participating in a peace demonstration at Soldotna Creek Park along the Sterling Highway were doused with water by a man in a truck.
“To me it’s not a democratic form, it is a cowardly form,” she said.
Toutonghi said she reported the theft to Soldotna police, but without any witnesses she doesn’t expect anyone to be held accountable.
“It’s my yard, I put up my signs and they tear them down instead of going the route of putting up their own signs. Or maybe they do have their own signs, but to me it’s a violation of what I choose to display in my yard,” she said.
Toutonghi’s political beliefs are strong enough for her to promote them visually, but she draws the line at interfering in what others believe.
“I do feel they have a right to their own opinions,” she said. “There are times when there are discussions and there is agreement, and if there is serious disagreement I let it go. I feel I don’t have any more right to push on people than they have to push on me.”
Julie Hasquet, with the Mark Begich for U.S. Senate campaign in Anchorage, said on Friday that she had heard of a rash of sign stealing on the central peninsula. Begich, a Democrat, is running against incumbent Republican Ted Stevens.
“It appears at this point this is pretty exclusive to your area. There have been reports of Begich signs taken down there, and larger numbers than normal,” Hasquet said.
She said people have reported seeing someone in a white Suburban taking signs.
“We think it’s very unfortunate people try to curb others’ right to free speech, and it’s illegal to take down those signs,” she said.
Nathan Osburn, the Alaska deputy communications director for the Obama for America campaign, said he’d also heard of signs in the Soldotna area going missing, but didn’t know if it was more than was usual in an election season.
“I think people tend to get very passionate about their candidates and sometimes express themselves in inappropriate ways,” Osburn said.
With the Berkowitz campaign, press secretary David Shurtleff hadn’t heard of sign thefts this year, but wouldn’t consider it unusual if there were.
“It’s always disappointing but never surprising to hear about it,” Shurtleff said. “Hopefully they’re taking them and putting them on eBay, but they’re probably going in a bonfire. It happens every year and it’s always disappointing. That being said, if somebody gets their sign stolen or already has and they want another one, we’ll keep giving them until we don’t have any more.”
Representatives for Begich and Berkowitz said their candidates have been treated respectfully when visiting the central peninsula.
With the Ted Stevens re-election campaign, Jane and Will Madison, of Soldotna, are co-chairs of a local steering committee responsible for putting up Stevens signs on the peninsula. As of Friday, 50 4-by-8-foot signs and another 50 yard signs supporting Stevens had been put up on the peninsula, and Jane Madison said they hope to put up another 50 signs in the coming week. She said she hasn’t heard of a single sign being stolen.
Tim Evans, a Democrat running for the state House District 34 seat, covering the northwestern Kenai Peninsula outside the Kenai, Soldotna and Kalifornsky-Beach Road areas, hasn’t been as lucky.
Six of his signs were stolen from the Sterling Highway in Sterling about a week ago.
“Across from the post office they left two other political signs, so I felt it was pretty well-targeted,” Evans said.
He said a vehicle with two men was seen taking the signs. He reported it to Alaska State Troopers, and they were nice about it, but he doesn’t expect anything to be done, he said.
“You just never know. You don’t want to point a finger at your opponent because that’s probably way beneath him. It was probably just over-exuberant kids or whatever, or even some over-exuberant adults. I don’t even want to point the finger at kids.”
Mike Chenault, a Republican, is the District 34 incumbent. He said his signs haven’t seen any more abuse than normal, although the one act of vandalism he does know of was unusual for the amount of effort put into it.
“A couple of road signs somebody took off my frames,” he said. “They actually unscrewed them. That took some time. They took the sandbags and the signs and left the frame.”
In Chenault’s experience, sign vandalism varies from year to year. Some years none of his signs are messed with, other years he’s had eight or 10 disappear. He’s had signs shot, run over and slashed with a razor knife.
“I don’t mess with other people’s signs.,” he said. “Sometimes kids will get playing around or even adults will think it’s cute to go do some things.”
The cost can add up in a hurry, he said.
David Hartman, an employee with G.F. Sherman Signs on K-Beach, said yard signs cost $350 for 25 or $540 for 100. For 4-by-4-foot signs, it’s $582 for 10 or $726 for 25. For 4-by-8-foot signs, it’s $822 for 10 or $1,134 for 25.
In the state Senate District Q race, Republican incumbent Tom Wagoner said he hasn’t had any unusual trouble with his signs. He hasn’t put many out this year, though.
“People get pretty passionate this time of the election, and sometimes people just don’t like all the signs,” he said. “I don’t like signs, but here on the peninsula they’re kind of a necessary evil when you’re running for office. It’s an inexpensive way to get your name out on the peninsula.”
Kelly Wolf, running as a nonpartisan for House District 33, covering the Kenai-Soldotna-K-Beach area, said he’s careful about where he puts his signs, because he knows what can happen if they end up in the wrong place.
“If they’re disappearing if they’re in the road right of way I don’t know if the (Department of Transportation) sign Nazis are down here or not,” he said. “They’re a real factor. Most everybody running for office is supposed to be aware of regulations from DOT sign police. If it’s in that right of way they will remove it, and they do have the ability to fine.”
Wolf said he hasn’t had any problems with his signs, other than one being knocked down. It was on a dirt path so it may have been the wind, or perhaps a dirt bike or four-wheeler, he said.
“Sometimes adults act more childish than children themselves. Sometimes you have to figure out who’s more mature,” he said.
Dick Waisanen is a first-time candidate, a Democrat running for the District 33 seat. He’s had one sign run over by a four-wheeler in a field along the Kenai Spur Highway by Sport Lake Road. His and one of Evans’ signs were flattened, but Evans’ stake didn’t break so Waisanen put it back up for him. That’s the kind of thing he expected to deal with, not outright theft.
“As far as signs go, we have freedom of speech. As a candidate, you still need to respect the property of whoever’s got the sign up there,” he said. “I’m surprised we had so much of it. You have to maintain them, the wind knocks them down or different things happen. But breaking them or cutting them up or stealing them is a step too far for what we would say for the spirit of America.”
Editor’s note: Senate District Q Democrat candidate Dr. Nels Anderson and House District 33 Republican incumbent Kurt Olson did not return a call seeking comment.