Signs proliferate as county gets set for busy primary Politicians on budget blanket rural areas without overspending

Campaign 1998

September 10, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

On the highways and back roads of Carroll County, hundreds of political signs hang on barn sides, sprout in cornfields and call from the neighbor's yard.

Hand-painted signs for County Commissioner Richard T. Yates have red smiley faces. School board candidate James Reter made his signs resemble a chalkboard. Others are simply large stenciled letters on plain backgrounds.

It's politics at its most frugal and folksy.

With little television or radio advertising and 453 square miles of predominantly rural geography, road signs are the main route to name recognition and the linchpin of a successful campaign in Carroll.

Many candidates pull used signs from storage or paint their own. Homemade means irregular lettering, paint gaps and hours of work for candidates.

Because more than half of the county's work force leaves Carroll every day, signs line every major route to capture commuter attention. The vote-for pleas spill across borders and mingle with missives from Howard and Baltimore county candidates.

The sign proliferation has not escaped the notice of the State Highway Administration, which is fiercely protective of its medians and rights of way. State crews removed 103 signs from routes in Carroll last week, including a large one at Route 26 and Salem Bottom Road. It belonged to incumbent Sheriff John H. Brown.

"We had warned him," said Steve Thomas, engineering technician.

Among the metropolitan counties, Carroll seems to post the most road signs. It has the most candidates in the primary.

Nineteen are vying for three Carroll County commissioner seats; nine are trying for three spots on the school board; and races are contested for the state legislature, sheriff and several minor offices. Nearly everybody is waging a sign campaign.

Kenneth Tregoning, sheriff's candidate, took days to cut out stencils and spray-paint hundreds of signs in his driveway.

Incumbent Commissioner Donald I. Dell has mixed new signs with old ones in his try for a third term.

"They might look a little shabby, but at 70 mph, people don't notice shabby," said Dell.

Dell acknowledges that posting signs and keeping them graffiti-free is constant work, but necessary and worthwhile.

"It puts your name out there," said Dell. "Somebody might catch up to me if I don't put them out there."

Many signs are recycled from campaigns past with new slogans painted over the old. Yates, seeking a second term, kept the smiley faces from his 1994 signs and added "promises kept." He bought more for 1998.

"I have to keep my name out there, especially because it begins with Y and will be the last on the ballot," he said.

Name recognition is more important than a candidate's politics, said Richard Vatz, professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University.

At the local level, signs build name identity and add momentum to the campaign, said Kevin Igoe, a Republican political consultant who works mostly in Prince George's County.

"I would rather have a lot of signs than none," said Igoe. In local elections, he who posts the most signs often wins, said Igoe, who can offer many examples.

Stephen M. Nevin, a political newcomer and candidate for commissioner, spent $700 on signs and dug them into friends' lawns.

"I have had people tell me their neighbors asked about me after seeing the sign," Nevin said. "You get instant credibility when neighbor tells neighbor about you, especially in the newer neighborhoods."

The sign crop comes in a rainbow of colors, multiple sizes and seems to multiply overnight, at least for the 45 days preceding an election. Small ones cling to larger ones, an attachment more convenient than ideological.

Only a few signs are slickly professional, with most candidates spending less than $1,000 for roadside advertising, according to preliminary finance reports. Some are creative and catchy, like the simulated chalkboard touting "CPA James Reter" for the school board.

On Route 140, candidates' messages compete with a deli ad for char-broiled beef and glitzy notes about new subdivisions. On Route 26, the heart of Carroll's most populated area, politics mesh with news of a PTA fund-raiser. At the Route 91 and 140 intersection, so many signs bunch at each corner that reading a single one is nearly impossible.

"Unless you have the biggest sign, who is going to see it?" asked M. Patricia Holbert, commissioner candidate. "I want people to vote for me because they know I am going to do a good job, not because I have bigger signs."

Carroll has no zoning regulations on political signs, so it lets almost anything go, but the state takes a more rigid tack. Valerie Burnette Edgar, SHA spokeswoman, said the impromptu collection last week was in response to complaints.

"In simple terms, this is a nuisance and it is against the law," she said. "There is a safety issue, too. Signs distract motorists and affect their vision."

The crackdown on illegally placed signs will continue. In Frederick County last month, 21 state and county workers hauled off 1,500 political and real estate signs from roads, an effort that cost taxpayers $4,300.

But not everyone is annoyed. Ed Primoff, a Woodbine farmer, has about two dozen signs posted on his Route 97 property.

"Signs are a way to promote a person or an idea," Primoff said. "They are a First Amendment right."

As the primary campaign races to a finish Tuesday, signs might no longer be stationary. Several candidates will wave their signs in the streets.

George Murphy, commissioner candidate, claims to be the street-waving front-runner. He began at Routes 140 and 91 three weeks ago. He now appears at dawn at three or four spots a week, holding his sign near his face.

"You need body armor and an asthma inhaler," said Murphy. "But it's effective and people remember."

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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