Campaign signs: Negative or freedom of expression?

Signage for two candidates was defaced at the corner of Queen Creek and Power roads. (Independent Newspapers/Arianna Grainey)

Signage for two candidates was defaced at the corner of Queen Creek and Power roads. (Independent Newspapers/Arianna Grainey)

 
Are they signs of the times or just political expression taken to an extreme?

Signage for candidates running for Queen Creek Town Council in the Aug. 30 primary election are decorating street corners, along roadways and in front yards throughout the community.

Over the past month or so, many have had to be repaired or replaced due to vandalism and theft, according to some of the eight candidates, who say they are disappointed by the acts of destruction.

“It’s unsettling. It’s never been done in Queen Creek before,” incumbent Craig Barnes said during a phone interview, adding he does not believe any of his fellow candidates are responsible for the vandalism.

Mr. Barnes said he spent about three hours on a Saturday using more than 100 zip ties to fix 30-40 political signs, including his own and some belonging to other candidates. He said he could tell the damage was deliberate. He could see where some of the zip ties used to hold the signs in place were cut. He said he also had observed tire tracks where someone had driven his or her vehicle over the signs, some of which were located 20 feet away from the road.

“What’s the purpose of that? I don’t know. I don’t understand it,” Mr. Barnes said.

Shared signage for candidates Jake Hoffman and Natasha Schaeler has also been targeted. Their sign on the northwest corner of Queen Creek and Power roads has been defaced, with someone drawing a moustache and unibrow on each of their faces.

During a phone interview, Mr. Hoffman said it is unfortunate that there is a tiny clique of people in the town who are using such negative tactics in an effort to help his or her candidate of choice.

He said from day one, his shared goal with Ms. Schaeler was to run a positive campaign. He said the negativity might reflect the era of politics that exists today but he preferred not to speculate why.

This is the third election in which incumbent Jeff Brown has run for town council. He called this year’s campaigning “considerably more toxic” than in previous years.

“I try not to spend time thinking about it or looking for the boogie man in the corner. There is too much good and positive to focus on,” he said during a phone interview.

Mr. Brown said he has about 50 signs scattered around town, a few of which have been defaced or had the type of “destruction not caused by wind, storms or other natural forces.” He said this type of thing happens during every campaign, calling election time “silly season” but adding it’s worse this year.

He said he doesn’t believe he did a good enough job telling his wife, Karen, how far down campaigns can go.

“While I have a thicker skin over the years, it has been a struggle for her at times to be angrier than a hornet’s nest or at times sobbing at things being said about me,” Mr. Brown said.

 

Signage opposing some candidates for Queen Creek Town Council are located throughout the town. In many cases during this campaign, the personal signage for some candidates has been vandalized and even run over by a vehicle. (Independent Newspapers/Wendy Miller)

Signage opposing some candidates for Queen Creek Town Council are located throughout the town. In many cases during this campaign, the personal signage for some candidates has been vandalized and even run over by a vehicle. (Independent Newspapers/Wendy Miller)

 

Some of those things include the wolves in sheep’s clothing signage directed at the three incumbents running for council seats — Mr. Brown, Mr. Barnes and Robin Benning. The signs are shaped like a sheep with the head of a wolf. Each has the names of the three men and includes an alleged wrong-doing — such as spending thousands of dollars on candy, using town funds to go on a retreat and raising taxes — the sign-owner believes the candidates are responsible for.

Mr. Benning said his first response at seeing the sheep signs was to laugh. The second, he said during a phone interview, was to feel disappointment that someone “would attempt to smear the good name of three really good people, using untruths.”

Commenting on the accusations, he said he has spent his own money to buy candy for various town functions. He said he does not see a problem with the town buying candy for community events such as Trunk or Treat at Halloween or the annual Easter egg hunt during the Spring Into QC event.

Mr. Benning said council schedules retreats in an effort to remove its members from the everyday setting so they can get work done on a specific project.

Mr. Benning said he has 58 signs displayed. To his knowledge, only one was moved. That was at the request of the business behind who told Mr. Benning it did not want a political sign nearby.

Like the other candidates, Mr. Benning said he has tried to remain positive and upbeat during the election.

“It’s unfortunate somebody would choose to go negative,” he said.

Newcomers Matt McWilliams, Todd Broadhead and Stacy Portonova said they have not been targeted with negativity but added they are concerned by what they are observing in the campaign.

“I don’t like what’s going on,” Mr. McWilliams said during a phone interview.

He said he understands that campaigns are a time to talk about a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses but added each candidate is a law-abiding citizen who is putting himself or herself out there for public scrutiny for the betterment of the community.

“If people ask my opinion on a candidate, I’ll give it, but I try to focus instead on why people should vote for me and not the negatives,” he said.

Mr. McWilliams said this is his first time running for office and he didn’t expect it to rise to the level of negativity it has via signage and social media.

“I try to tell people there are lots of good candidates. Do your research to see what they can bring to the table and then vote for the candidate of your choice,” Mr. McWilliams said. “People want to hear why they should vote for somebody, not why they shouldn’t.”

He said he has about 150 signs up and they have not been vandalized. He noted there have been about five instances where the weather damaged a sign or he has been asked to move it.

Ms. Portonova said she had not seen signs that were vandalized but has noticed the many smaller signs that have been positioned next to a candidate’s signage to question an action allegedly taken by that candidate. She said during a phone interview she considers the signs free speech and that everyone should be able to express his or her opinion.

She called the negativity petty and ridiculous.

“When you see signs like that, look it up. I don’t like that some candidates are backed by big developers but all that stuff is public record,” she said. “If you have an opinion, state it.”

She said some of the negativity might be caused by the “exploding growth” of the town.

She said there are many long-time residents who want to protect the town’s heritage and may not feel they have a voice in what is happening in the town. She said there seems to be some dislike for the direction in which the town is heading and that people are commenting on social media they don’t know what the town stands for.

She encourages people to educate themselves on the issues and candidates and then to vote.

Mr. Broadhead said he is also disappointed by some of what he called childish behavior being displayed during the campaign.

“Grown-ups should be acting like grown-ups and be open and honest,” he said during a phone interview.
He said if people took the time to talk to a candidate, he or she would think differently about them than by just talking on the Internet.

“What may be happening here, I’m afraid, is that people may be more interested in getting their candidate to win than educating themselves,” he said.

Ms. Schaeler said she does not believe any candidate is responsible for damaging a sign or trying to destroy a candidate. She said she’s saddened by the negative nature of this year’s election.

“I have lived in Queen Creek a  long time — 32 years — and have never seen anything like this,” she said during a phone interview. “I have heard it’s happened before, but I think social media has been a part of this.”

She said she and Mr. Hoffman are committed to running a positive campaign.

“I think it’s unfortunate that a small group has chosen to take a negative campaign by creating Facebook pages and posting negative signs specifically to try and tear down other candidates,” Ms. Schaeler said. “I think in an election it’s entirely possible to uplift, endorse and support a candidate without tearing another candidate down.

My hope is that we try a little harder to see the good in others and be kinder.”

While it’s possible that the town might ask for a sign to be taken down, it’s extremely difficult to say in advance when or why that might occur, Constance Halonen-Wilson, the town’s public information officer, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

“Political speech, including signs, enjoy First Amendment protection; the town has little ability to regulate political speech. In addition, in order to be defamatory, a statement has to be false,” Mr. Halonen-Wilson said.

Mr. Barnes said he wishes everyone would just get along.

He said even if he doesn’t get elected, he will still play an active role in municipal matters, serving on commissions, boards and nonprofits.

“One way or the other, I’ll have to work with you or you’ll have to work with me, and if there is no respect, how are we going to work together?” he said.

Candidates who win the primary will have until 10 days after the primary election to remove their signs, according to the Section 7, Sign Regulations, of the Queen Creek Town Code.

The candidates advancing to the general election may leave their signs up between the primary election and the general election. They must remove the signs within 15 days of the general election, Ms. Halonen-Wilson said.

The primary election takes place Aug. 30. To determine the location of a polling site, visit the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office online.

Early voters in Maricopa County may drop off their completed ballot through 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, to the Queen Creek Municipal Services Building, 22358 S. Ellsworth Road, directly behind the town hall, Ms. Halonen-Wilson said.

The ballot box is the only election service the town is providing, Town Clerk Jennifer Robinson said during a phone interview.

News Editor Wendy Miller can be contacted at 480-982-7799 and via e-mail at qcnews@newszap.com, or follow her on Twitter @WendyNewszap123.

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