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Sign Skirmishes in Mount Vernon

Thieves venture onto private property in brazen sign-stealing sprees destroying both Webb and Allen signs.

Wendell Allen had the perfect trees. For a moment, anyone coming around the bend on the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway stares directly at the two trunks. “I would say we have the most prominent place to put a sign in the whole Mount Vernon area,” said Wendell Allen’s son, Skip Allen.

So Skip Allen looked up the Webb campaign on the internet, drove to the headquarters in Arlington, cut them a check and picked up two signs. He nailed them up with three nails apiece. Two days later they were gone. He returned to the campaign headquarters in Arlington, but they were out of signs. So he contacted Laura Sonnenmark, the Westgate precinct captain, and she arranged for a four by three foot sign to be delivered.

“I said, ‘We gotta get this thing up high,” Skip Allen recalled. So he propped the sign on one ladder and climbed another to pound in the sign eight feet off the ground with ten-penny nails. “We had a devil of a time getting it up,” said Wendell Allen, 88, “heavy as it is.”

That sign lasted four days. Last Friday, Skip Allen said a tenant of his father’s was sitting in the basement apartment of the house around midnight when he heard a truck pull up and three male voices. Then he heard “banging, banging, banging.” The sign was gone.

In the past two weeks, at least three large signs, two Webbs and one Allen, have been stolen from people’s yards. Smaller Webb and Allen signs have also been stolen from Woodley, Stratford, Waynewood and Fort Hunt precincts. Local political activists say sign-stealing reached new levels in the 2004 election, but many believe the thefts concentrated in the last few weeks are even worse.

When contacted last Friday, Tom Burgess, Stratford’s Republican precinct captain said that although in previous election years he had lost 80 or 90 signs, there had been no thefts this year. “This particular year has been phenomenally good,” he said. On Monday, he called back. At least 15 George Allen and Tom Davis signs had been stolen over the weekend.

In Sulgrave Manor, Linda Monk had planted five Webb signs in the yards of three neighbors at their request. Some needed her help because they were elderly or disabled. “The reason there weren’t more is we had to buy our own signs,” she said. A few nights later, the signs were gone. “This just goes above and beyond any kind of political pranks, this is denying us our first amendment rights here in George Washington’s back yard,” said Monk, a constitutional scholar, and the author of “The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution.”

Many echoed the sentiment. “The Bill of Rights was written by George Mason, who would have lived in the Mount Vernon District if he lived today,” said Doug Jones, the Republican Party’s Mount Vernon District chairman. “I embrace those. I cherish those. And there is no way I would diminish those by authorizing or condoning the theft of sings. We’re way above that.”

After being contacted by Monk, Jones sent out an email on his listserv condemning the theft. “I made it clear that’s not something that we do.” But he suggested that not all signs were taken down by opposition supporters, theorizing “post-sign-insertion dissonance,” i.e., a change of heart by the owner of the house, as a reason signs may disappear.

IN STRATFORD PRECINCT, Bob Hurd wanted to utilize his prominent yard on the corner of Fort Hunt and Old Stage roads. The Webb campaign brought him a four by four foot plastic sign glued and nailed to a plywood backing, which he put in his yard on two metal poles. Two nights later, someone peeled the plastic sign from the plywood, scraping off the glue and removing the staples. Hurd woke the next morning to a bare plywood board staked in his yard.

“I think it’s kind of counter-productive,” Hurd said. “I had more people come by that said they had noticed the sign and had noticed it had been stolen. By leaving the plywood and the frame it drew attention.” Now he has another sign, with stronger glue, a frame around the edge and “about 40 screws.”

Sonnenmark said the Mount Vernon Democratic Committee pays about $50 for each large sign. She estimates about 20 people have lost small signs in Westgate precinct. “I can only speak for my own precinct, and I think it worse this year,” than in 2004, she said.

“It’s a problem from year to year but for some reason this year it seems really bad in those three or four precincts,” said Mount Vernon District Democratic Committee chairman Scott Surovell. He said the number of signs stolen from private property was particularly disturbing. “The signs that are actually in people’s yards, usually those don’t get messed with too much. But for some reason in 2004 and now in 2006, for some reason those are now just vanishing.”

He added that the Webb campaign had struggled to provide signs until very recently in the campaign season, when they received a big infusion of cash. Now Surovell’s committee has a new shipment of signs to distribute. “I’m worried they’re all going to vanish, but we’re going to start putting them up.”

AFTER LARGE NUMBERS of Allen and Davis signs were stolen from Waynewood, Collingwood and Potomac Valley over the weekend, Billy Boger, 10, said he and his friends were disappointed they had lost their end zone markers for games of front yard football. His mother Dorothy was more concerned that someone had walked up to a tree in the center of the family’s front lawn at the corner of Neal Drive and West Boulevard and ripped off the four by six foot Allen sign that had been nailed to it. The family had left the door open that night because out-of-town friends were coming to visit. While they watched a video together in the family room someone came onto their property and stole the sign that Dorothy Boger had kept since Allen first ran for Senate.

“I don’t get it,” said Dorothy Boger, who works on Capitol Hill, “this is what America’s all about.” She added that she was disturbed to think of people entering her property while she was watching television with children. “It’s clearly trespassing and theft.” Now Dorothy Boger has an even larger Allen sign hanging high on the wall of her house.

Rusty Perverell said he witnessed a man and a woman in their 30s or 40s leave a “light beige” vehicle to knock over Allen signs near Woodley Hills Elementary. He rescued one of the signs, repaired its bent stakes, and put it in his own front yard.

Miriam Sullivan said that last weekend the Allen signs in her yard were among the many Republican signs that disappeared from her Potomac Valley neighborhood. She’d posted them 25 feet inside her yard, but the thieves were undeterred. “I think that’s sleazy. Its not going to stop me on election day going down and voting,” she said. “That is not only criminal, but I think it’s sleazy and low-life.”

This sentiment was a universal one, expressed by every victim of sign-theft regardless of the party affiliation staked (or securely nailed) in the front yard.

“It’s a real battle for free speech,” said Skip Allen, who has put up another large Webb sign, this one equipped with floodlights. “We’re going to try to tough it out.”