Sunday, October 03, 2004
Sticking it to the neighbors
This election season, dueling political signs really get people where they live.
Witness all the subtle and not-so-subtle digs out there on the big highway of life:
The whispers in the school car pool line;
The water-cooler snubs;
The growling between clenched teeth while you wait at that interminable red light, forced to look at a bumper sticker that is so clearly misguided, so uneducated, so (insert favorite insult here).
The election is a month away, and the Sign Wars are mounting.
My wife, who admits to only one prejudice, shakes her head in wonder when we're out walking the neighborhood and witness THE WRONG POLITICAL SIGN . . . .
My personal trainer told me at the start of a session that she was going to vote for THE WRONG POLITICAL CANDIDATE. I was out of my mind with reasons why she shouldn't. She just kept handing me heavier and heavier weights. . . .
I put up a Bush sign, and the next day my neighbor put a Kerry sign up - an INCH from my property line!
A Garrison Keillor essay making the Internet rounds ends with a quote from Dante, who said the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of crisis.
Dante needn't worry. This election, perhaps more than any before, there's no need to pass the ice. Where one sign pops up, an opposing sign is likely to appear within a wiffle ball's toss.
Do they make any difference?
And what happens the morning after? Will the neighbors still trade fruitcakes this Christmas?
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Scenes from random drive-bys:
On Southwest Roanoke's Greenwood Avenue, Bush wins, hands down. A blockover on Arlington Road, the Kerry signs have it.
In North Roanoke County, someone placed a toilet in the front yard with two Kerry/Edwards signs. "FLUSH THE TWO JOHNS," blared the hand-made banner underneath - a sentiment echoed on surrounding blocks by about a 3-2 margin.
Northern Botetourt County has more Kerry signs, while the southern end leans toward Bush. Northeast Roanoke signs favor Bush about 3-1.
South Roanokers claim there are more Democrat-touting signs than in years past (though Bush still has the edge). In Northwest and Southeast Roanoke, campaign volunteers report more Republican signs than before (though Kerry still has the edge).
Craig County is so red-hot Republican that Elizabeth Fazar said she was afraid to put a Kerry sign in her front yard - though that didn't stop her from volunteering at the Democrats' regional office in Roanoke County.
And Roanoke County Republican chairman Tom Leggette revels as he drives around his Fairway Forest subdivision in Southwest Roanoke County, witnessing row upon row of Bush/Cheney blue.
Except for one Toyota a few blocks away. That would be Pat Marlowe's Camry with its decidedly un-Republican bumper sticker.
"I don't exactly feel outnumbered, but I guess I am," says Marlowe, who is pals with Leggette - though they usually steer clear of politics.
Marlowe, a social worker, would like to think that neighbors with opposing views might welcome "a chance to talk a little bit about the issues."
Fat chance in these divisive times.
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Political signs are the ultimate passive-aggressive statement, explains Virginia Tech political scientist Craig Brians.
Not long ago while driving to work, Brians noted a Kerry sign on a Blacksburg street. "Within a week, there was a Bush/Cheney sign next door - but those neighbors raised the ante by putting up a Triplett sign, too.
"I'm waiting for the people on the other side to put up three signs!" (Kevin Triplett is the 9th District Republican candidate for Congress.)
Is it that we don't know our neighbors well enough to talk? Or do the signs more comfortably express topics formerly reserved for the family dinner table?
Probably both, according to Brians.
While bumper stickers tend to be more insulting - "Last time somebody listened to a Bush, folk wandered for 40 years in the desert" and "John Kerry? No thanks, I already have a wafflemaker" - yard signs allow citizens to assert their beliefs in a more genteel manner, Brians adds.
Even though the Sign Wars are in full throttle, Brians doubts that voter turnout will change. Fewer than half of all eligible voters typically pull a lever on Election Day, a statistic he doesn't see changing on Nov. 2.
"If someone fundamentally doesn't care, the signs won't make much of an impact," Brians says. "But if it's someone who might possibly vote, a sign might get them thinking. They see three signs in a row, and they might ask themselves, 'Which one do I favor?'
"In terms of promoting a healthy democracy, signs can be very valuable."
Both Republican and Democratic offices report an increase in the number of first-time Sign People, owing to the war in Iraq, post-9/11 terrorism concerns and Bush's hotly contested win in 2000.
"I really think signs build momentum more than anything," says Rachel Felix, a Republican volunteer. "They can cause [undecided] people to pause and think - especially if they value what a neighbor thinks."
But Felix, 32, believes erecting a sign doesn't change minds as much as it makes a statement. "It gives people a voice in the election; it says you're passionate enough to make your vote public."
Both offices are collecting reports of stolen signs. "Whether it's a Bush sign or a Kerry sign, it's a freedom of speech issue, and we all should be concerned about it," says Democratic volunteer chief Nancy Hughes.
Last weekend Margo McCord watched, incredulous, as "a white male with a pot belly and moustache" removed her Kerry sign, threw it in his black pick-up truck and drove away.
On Roanoke's Main Street, of all places. In broad daylight.
"He had an angry countenance about him, and I threw my pen down and gave chase - in my bare feet," she reported in an e-mail. "The question is: What would I have done if I'd caught him?"
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A few weeks ago, Mike Duval was driving through his Wasena neighborhood. "I saw so many Kerry signs, I thought, 'Oh my god, what's going on?'"
A friend gave him a Bush/Cheney sign, which he promptly stuck into his front lawn.
His wife, Nancy, didn't mind when he put a sign up this spring for Republican mayoral candidate Alice Hincker. But she drew the line at the Bush sign.
It took her a week to plant a Kerry sign inches away, explaining: "I didn't want people thinking I'm going to vote for Bush when I don't know who I'm going to vote for yet."
During the national conventions, the couple had to resort to dueling televisions. "He watches Fox News and I can't stand Fox News. So I watched downstairs and he watched upstairs."
They agree on everything but politics. And, yes, passers-by gawk and compare them to married political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin.
"We've always disagreed about politics, but it's mostly very congenial," Nancy says. "We try to keep it light."
That was not the case among the tenants at Tanglewood West when the regional office for the Democrats erected a giant sign at the intersection of Starkey Road and Virginia 419.
Office volunteers say they had permission from the building's owners. But Bush-supporting tenants in the building complained, and the sign was removed three weeks ago.
"They've left us silly notes, Heinz ketchup bottles, a picture of a truck with two front ends," notes office coordinator Geri Furr. "We're still fighting to try to get the sign back."
For now, the sign is leaning against the back of the building, its message facing inward. To help compensate, Furr tries to park her Subaru, with its prominent Kerry signs and bumper stickers, near the entrance.
"But somebody keeps taking my place," she said.
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Would that it were the civilized days of old, says retired teacher Gail Lambert, who grew up in Georgia "when it was considered impolite to talk about politics and religion." When she moved to Virginia as an adult, neighbors were even more close-mouthed about whom they voted for.
"But now we see yard signs in front of houses we would have never guessed were inhabited by apparently partisan Republicans or Democrats." The old admonition was probably the more civil approach, she contends, though the sign wars make for more interesting strolls around the block.
And they keep you from assuming everyone feels the same way as you - and putting your foot in your mouth.
On the politics-proud 2200 block of Maiden Lane (where Bush outnumbered Kerry 5-4 at last count, though one Bush-centric yard contained multiple signs), at least three neighbors have reached a peaceful accord. Though Kathleen Strazzini's Kerry sign was the first on the block, she found herself flanked by Bush/Cheney signs within two weeks.
Children of both neighboring households play in her yard; they all exchange Christmas gifts and bring food when someone is sick. "I'm like everyone's grandma," Strazzini says. Last year, one neighbor's 9-year-old invited her to Raleigh Court Elementary for grandparents' day.
Strazzini says she's never felt so vehement about getting a president out of the White House. "I have a lot of friends who jokingly say they're moving to Switzerland or Canada if Bush gets in again. They've lived through Vietnam and seen the perils of not willing to admit we made a mistake and not making amends."
Strazzini speaks daily to her neighbors (who declined to be interviewed for this story). But they have never, not once, discussed their dueling signs.
"I was hoping for a meltdown when Hurricane Frances came through," Strazzini says, smiling. "Because their signs are paper and mine's plastic.
"I was praying for it, actually."
hubbub in the suburbs
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battleground: front yard
point of view
sloganThesignwarsKnow your signs?Think you know your signs? Which political party flies which version of the Stars and Stripes? See Page 5Want a sign?Call the Democratic regional office at 772-3191.
Call the Republican regional office at 776-3199.
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