September 12, 2004

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign...

What I have always perceived the first unofficial rule of Washington state politics is, “The person who is perceived as the nicest by the public usually wins the race...”

Competency, typically, is a baseline from which to grow. Experience sometimes helps. An open, welcoming style takes you places. But the curmudgeons and the stern faces among our state’s candidates are usually, by far, the losers.

Yet, as every Jekyll must have their Hyde, this rule has its not so pleasant underside:

“…but you can do what you want with yard signs.”

Washington state is a relatively tame place as far as politics goes, and I for one am grateful for it. But for some folks, stuck with latent twelve-year-old energy that’s been left to curdle in a world that they think should bend a little more to their whims, signs are their lasting form of “expression.”

The blitzing of a given space with half a dozen or more signs of a specific candidate isn’t that big a deal. Real applied yard sign warfare is more about denying your opponent an advantage, rather than enhancing your own.

The most creative example of this that I’ve ever seen was in 2000. At that time, someone on Mercer Island went to the trouble modifying Gore/Lieberman signs to say “Gored/Liarman”. One had to really look carefully to notice the changes, and they were convincing. (This may not be the most obnoxious case I know of, though – one friend swears that a Dean sign he put up in Sammamish was, when he returned the next day, burned past a third of the post – the sign itself was gone. Which goes to show, I guess, that the Republicans are typically better at connecting with the sinister side of the 12 year old within than the Democrats.)

In 2000, when there was a three-way race among the Republicans for the 41st State Legislative District, I don’t remember signs being harmed much (though there was allegedly a fight at an intersection on Mercer Island between one of the candidates and someone he accused of attempting to block the view of one of the candidate’s signs). This time around, with four candidates competing for the US 8th Congressional District race, the Republican candidates are after each other in earnest, and show no signs of letting up.

Reichert’s signs were among the first up in my neck of the woods, and the first to be destroyed or removed. The usual replacements were Tebelius signs. These in turn were eventually “disappeared”, though at some spots, especially Park & Ride mass transit spots, one could find the green strip between the sidewalk and street littered with uprooted and dropped signs. Luke Esser’s signs have been popping up everywhere of late, and their sheer number seems to mask their occasional disappearance, again with Tebelius signs in their place more often than not. One odd note, though, has been Rodney Tom signs occasionally replacing Luke Esser signs, with obvious evidence that the Esser signs were uprooted and left next to the Tom signs. Both are Republicans, and niether is competing with the other for political office, so it's an oddity without an immediate explanation.

Another trick is “overlapping”, where one candidate simply puts a sign in front of an opponent’s sign. This can get silly after a while – one case I’ve seen had three signs overlapping each other, with maybe six inches between the front and rear signs.

Probably the most polite and demure sign campaign for the Republicans in the 8th Congressional District race was Conrad Lee, with his signs, until recently, very infrequently placed, usually away from the usual flock found at specific intersections and Park & Rides. This weekend, though, he was busily placing signs everywhere he could. (That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been working earlier in the campaign…I found out, by chance, that Lee is buying time on “international channels” on local cable TV, reaching out to the local Asian community for all he’s worth.)

I was hoping that the Democrats wouldn’t try yard sign warfare on each other this primary season, but that hope was dashed a few weeks ago when, on my way to work, one of my east-west streets near home had all the Alben signs removed, and brand spankin’ new Behrens-Benedict signs in their place. Since there has been occasional “mutual disappearances”, and apparently a fight or two when one has caught the other at it. (Dave Ross signs haven’t suffered much mischief, but most tend to be seen at supporters’ homes, not at intersections or Park & Rides.)

The strongest statement I’ve seen so far was a sign torn to confetti at one intersection on Mercer Island. I still don’t know if it was a Behrens-Benedict sign, a Weinstein sign, or a Nethercutt sign, but the rage living with the bits of color that was once a sign was palpable.

Smaller surprises are the first set of Rod McKenna signs, which for a man with a reputation as a person who plans his actions carefully, were particularly poorly designed and assembled. (He apparently agrees, as new and better signs are now all over the place, though the name is still a bit small compared to the size of the sign, and they just seem…too empty.) Just as odd are what is either a design flaw or a very subtle form of trickery. A number of McKenna’s new signs are held in place, like most heavy gauge plastic signs, with two screws. A number of the signs are losing their lower screw, or they’re failing to hold, providing….wellll…a “droopy” look.

There are other oddities as well. Fred Jarrett’s signs, which can be best described as “the Dreamsicle look”. The utter lack of Mark Sidran or Deborah Senn signs, in what can be argued is the third most important race in the state. The near lack of Chris Gregoire signs, which some people have found irritating and indicative of her often-interpreted “campaign of inevitability”, matched only by the loss and non-replacement of Ron Sims’ signs, so plentiful early in the campaign.

One can expect a blitz of new signs in the final days of the primary campaign, as well as the sight of piles of torn down signs beside them, all pretense of hiding the act gone. What really matters, though, are not the signs, but the people willing to wave them at us on election day. I never really thought it was that big a deal, myself, until I got up at the crack of dawn on Election Day 2000 to stack and secure a Maria Cantwell sign to a Gore/Lieberman sign, then pick a corner on 27th Avenue on Mercer Island, smiling and waving for all I was worth that morning.

It was a small but gratifying surprise to see how many spirits were actually lifted by my signs, and me beneath them, smiling. How I seemed to be telling them, if they leaned my way, that we stood a chance. (Don’t forget, Gore had just slipped a few points in the eyes of the prognosticators the day before the election.)

It as also fun to see the Bush supporters freak out enough to send three Bush sign wavers two blocks down from me. But they must have seemed fake somehow, because they were gone after half an hour, and I was easily tracking three smiles out of every four pairs of eyes I would meet.

The signs are just noise, in the end. The people standing beside them, underneath them – they are the real message.

Posted by palamedes at September 12, 2004 10:25 PM | WA Politics | Technorati links |

A little off-subject, but I have a sign for our Democratic candidate for Congress in my yard and a Democratic campaign volunteer came up to my door and asked if I were voting for Kerry. I pointed to the sign and asked what he thought. He wanted money, which I gave, so I figured my snottiness wasn't totally a waste.

Posted by: Amanda at September 13, 2004 09:46 AM