His job demands high visibility

Ehrlich worker plants campaign signs on lawns and roadsides around the state

Maryland Votes 2006

20 Days Until Nov. 7

October 18, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

"Sign Boy" is on a roll. He's put up three huge "Ehrlich/Cox" signs before lunch, and they're beauties. One of them is on top of a hill outside a Wendy's in Prince George's County, its deep blue foamboard contrasting sharply with the green grass and shrubbery.

"We have a nickname for them - face-punchers - when they just overwhelm someone's view," says Sign Boy, aka Patrick O'Brien, a lanky 22- year-old Lutherville native who roams the state listening to C-SPAN radio and planting the Ehrlich flag on as many lawns and roadsides as daylight allows. "You go over the hill and - bam! - it hits you."

This year's race for governor has seen a proliferation of the 4-by-8-foot signs. The Ehrlich campaign alone has put up more than 3,000 of the oversized signs - compared with just 1,000 in 2002. Add in the other candidates' signs and an unusual number of competitive races, and the state begins to look like a used car lot on the Fourth of July.

O'Brien is one of a few full-time sign-planters in Maryland, a role he does not take lightly. "Everyone sort of respects the Sign Boy because you're just out there doing brutal work all day," he said. "Whenever someone needs something done, Sign Boy just does it."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's campaign also has a staffer whose full-time job is putting up signs, as well as an experienced sign crew in the form of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters. The union endorsed O'Malley, and its members have assisted in assembling and setting up signs. About 3,000 4-by-8 O'Malley signs have been set up across the state, according to the campaign.

Driving around the state one recent day, O'Brien shared some lessons of the political sign trade: Maximum visibility for a sign is crucial. But never place a sign where it blocks a driver's line of sight. Wind is your No. 1 enemy. Howard County code enforcement is strict, so you don't see many signs there. And the signs for the judge's races are the worst-looking of all.

"They have some really bad signs," he says, noting their illegibility and small size.

Sign Boy likes a big sign. Even though he is a Republican, O'Brien was most impressed this year by a sign he saw along the Baltimore Beltway for Jim Smith, the Democratic Baltimore County executive. It was about 16 feet by 16 feet.

"I thought it was the greatest achievement in sign history," says O'Brien, whose sense of humor is drier than Death Valley in July. "I was like, tip of the cap to you, sir."

Stakes and fences have ripped into O'Brien's clothes, and his hands are so calloused he no longer needs gloves when handling the lumber supports for the signs. He has also learned how to take abuse. When O'Brien was setting up a sign on Route 450 in Prince George's County last week, a passenger in a green Honda yelled, "Ehrlich is no good!"

"I disagree!" O'Brien responded. A bigger problem, he said, is when he can't understand what people are yelling. "Then I don't know how to formulate a witty response."

After graduating from Colgate University this year with a degree in political science, O'Brien took a job as a waiter at the Macaroni Grill in Timonium while trying to figure out his future. He was motivated to make a change by a friend who told him, "You are a waste of a life. Go work for a campaign you believe in."

The son of a liberal art teacher and a conservative auditor (now divorced), O'Brien describes himself as a moderate. So he walked into the Ehrlich campaign office and volunteered. When they learned he had spent years on stage crew at Colgate and at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, he was quickly put on sign duty. By August, he was a full-time staff member and quit his waiting job.

"I liked the Macaroni Grill," O'Brien says, "but now I feel like I'm doing something."

He works seven days a week, each day beginning at the Baltimore County Republican headquarters in Towson, where he loads lumber into the Bob Truck (his affectionate name for the U-Haul-size campaign truck that carries the signs). Then it's off to nearby Ehrlich campaign headquarters, where O'Brien gets a list of the day's stops. The campaign only plants signs on property whose owners have requested them.

He picks up the signs themselves from the quaintly named GOP Shoppe, a private business that produces signs for Republican candidates around the country and sounds like it should be located in a sleepy hamlet in Missouri. In fact, it's in Elkridge, just behind Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. On a typical day, O'Brien loads more than 100 signs into the Bob Truck. Most will be dropped off at campaign offices for volunteers to put up. The rest O'Brien will do on his own.

"He's one of the best Sign Boys we've ever had," says Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "He's out in the field from dawn to dusk putting up signs. That's his sole function - deliver signs, put up signs. Signs are his life."

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