Those ubiquitous roadside signs from the recent primary season may have been taken down for now, but a political battle over them was stirred up late last week.
While Labor Day might be the traditional kick-off for the general election campaign, the nascent race for state senate in the 32nd district heated up recently over, of all things, political signs.
On June 19, in a faxed letter to her Republican challenger Dave Hunt, state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) proposed an issues-oriented and sign-free campaign this fall. On Tuesday, Hunt, a political newcomer from Great Falls, didn't take the bait. Instead he offered to forgo political signs on public property if the three-term senator were to "return all funds from the development community, who are your largest contributors in this campaign cycle."
Howell, too, politely refused the offer.
Hunt said he wanted to "focus on the big picture" and he called Howell's June 19 challenge, "small potatoes" and "self-serving."
While "reluctantly" placing an order for additional signs, Howell expressed disappointment on Tuesday that Hunt refused to join her pledge. "It would have been very popular with the voters," she said. "I think we really had the opportunity to do something unique. It would have been a great step."
Howell added that she, too, wanted to focus on the big picture. "Hopefully I will be able to see it through all the signs and billboards," the senator quipped.
Both candidates expressed concern about the "desecration of our neighborhoods." In his official response, Hunt said the real danger was caused by urban sprawl and over-development. "Political signs are temporary, but the effects of unrestricted growth are permanent," he wrote. "Watching open space turn to concrete causes me greater concern."
In a follow-up interview, Hunt blamed Howell for "presiding over 12 years of sprawl."
"That's hilarious," Howell said, of Hunt's accusation. "The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors makes the decision on what to develop and where to develop it."
IN HER OPENING SALVO, Howell said that signs are "getting even more offensive." Howell said candidates, including Hunt, were putting up an inordinate amount of signs on public and private property, many which were much larger than in past campaigns. "The public," she wrote, "is increasingly outraged."
In a subsequent interview, Howell said she agreed with groups like the Great Falls Citizens Association that the plethora of political paraphernalia along local roadways add to the blight of communities.
"This could be a great opportunity to begin a trend," Howell said on Friday. "What I hope will come out of this is that he will agree that we not use signs at all and that other campaigns follow suit."
Howell said she has long been concerned about the effects that a sea of political and commercial signs can have on a community. "Like everybody else," she said, "I find that all the signs are ugly, including my own."
Hunt disagreed saying that he has gotten as many compliments about his signs as complaints. He acknowledged that supporters placed "a few" of his signs along Georgetown Pike during the primary season. Like Route 7 and Hunter Mill Road, Georgetown Pike/Rt. 193 is a considered a "historic and scenic byway." By Virginia law, signs along these roads are considered to be a "public and private nuisance." "It's inevitable that volunteers for all sides will put them up illegally, no matter how much you try and stop it," Howell said.
Hunt said that his campaign educates all of his volunteers on the county and state regulations. "Eleanor Anderson [the president of the Great Falls Citizen's Association] e-mailed me up and we immediately fixed the situation and, along with some of her folks took the signs down," Hunt said. "We are very sensitive to the neighbors' concerns."
IN HIS RESPONSE, Hunt disputed Howell's contention that "political signs do not serve any positive purpose." Hunt said his opponent's 12 years in office made her qualified to pose such an offer. "Most incumbents have name recognition," Hunt wrote. "A political challenger does not have the same opportunities for name recognition, so temporary political signs help level the playing field."
On Tuesday, Hunt said the signs do serve a positive function and he said he "didn't believe that Howell believes her statements" about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, for political signs. "In Virginia, there are no campaign finance restrictions and so I can't raise the kind of money an incumbent can," Hunt said. "This is an unleveled playing field, so if she is willing to give back her $60,000 in development money, then I will give back my $1,000 and all of my signs."
Howell said there was no "relationship between campaign signs and campaign finance," and she added that she was proud to have received more individual campaign contributions than any other state senator in Richmond.
Hunt added that Howell has been no stranger to campaign signs in past elections. The Republican challenger said he believed the signs were an effective way to get his name out in the community.
Though Howell, a Democrat, insisted there was no real purpose to the signs, her supporters did put up about 100 of her "leftover" signs right before the Republican primary earlier this month and she has steadfastly refused to "unilaterally disarm." While the number paled in comparison to Hunt's estimated 2,500 signs dotting the Western Fairfax County landscape before the June 10 primary, Howell said she felt that Hunt "had so taken over all the road sides that we had to let people know that we are in this race."
Howell insisted that the only positive name recognition comes from such things as "mailings, debates and, in my case, good constituent services." When pressed, however, Howell acknowledged signs serve a symbolic importance to the her supporters and campaign staff. "Your supporters want them out there and they give the illusion of a campaign whether or not there is one," she said. "But political consultants will tell you that signs don't persuade anybody to do anything."
Like "constituent services," incumbents relish a few other perks while in office and on the campaign trail, Hunt said. While attending the recent Langley High School Prom, Hunt sat in the stands with the other parents and spectators. Howell, on the other hand, was on stage for the entire ceremony. "She was like a human sign on that stage," Howell bemoaned. "How is that any different?"
THE SENATOR DISMISSED Hunt's contention that a sign-free election would unfairfly disadvantage the challenger. She insisted that Hunt just had had two months during the Republican primary season in which his name, and in some cases his face, graced the front of thousands of his signs. "That should give him any name recognition he would need from that source," the incumbent said.
Both candidates agree that this is not a new issue. Howell said she has received letters, phone calls and e-mails about signs during every one of her three previous senatorial elections. "Every election cycle, people complain," Howell said. "The situation now is getting out of control. People are using such large signs, to me they are like billboards and so many of them they are dominating the landscape."