A campaign turns inside out

Nonresidents join an effort to defeat Aberdeen mayor

November 03, 2007|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun Reporter

Distributing campaign fliers and pamphlets, a group of community activists has been canvassing Aberdeen neighborhoods every weekend in a door-to-door effort to persuade the electorate to sweep Mayor S. Fred Simmons out of office.

But most of the group's members are devoting time and money in hopes of influencing an election they can't take part in - they're not Aberdeen residents.

Nonresidents have taken keen interest in this Tuesday's election, which features competitive mayoral and council races. The group - Aberdeen Communities Together - was formed last year to oppose an annexation attempt by city officials, and the ill will that emerged then has reached a high point during the run-up to the election.

Three candidates - including a 19-year-old college student - are running for mayor, and 10 are vying for four council seats in a campaign that has been filled with accusations, rumors, and defaced or vanished campaign signs.

During the past month the activists, donning matching blue T-shirts, have convened outside City Hall to stuff campaign literature into plastic bags for distribution around the city. The activists have stumped for challenger Michael E. Bennett for mayor, as well as for council candidates who are critical of Simmons. About 60 percent to 65 percent of the group's members are not Aberdeen residents, said Chuck Doty, ACT's founding member.

The group's fervor to thwart Simmons' election hopes stems from the city's attempt to annex more than 500 acres last year. Some residents living in the proposed annexation area formed the group and launched an aggressive door-to-door campaign to persuade voters to defeat the proposal.

The effort paid off when Aberdeen voters rejected the proposal by a 2-to-1 margin in December.

"My fear is that if they stay in office, they will ignore that referendum," said Rosemary Queen, an ACT member who does not live in Aberdeen but volunteers on weekends for Simmons' opponents.

Almost a year after the referendum, the bitterness between the group and mayor lingers. Members of the group are a regular presence at council meetings, criticizing Simmons on topics ranging from his brash management style to his habit of carrying a gun.

"The annexation galvanized a neighborhood of people into warriors. Instead of having it be a process, they turned it into a war," Simmons said. "They had every reason and right to challenge the annexation, but it's degraded into personal attacks and crazy rumors and innuendos. I find them parked outside my house with big signs and rude sayings."

The windows of his insurance office in Aberdeen were shattered recently, Simmons said, though he did not accuse ACT in the incident.

In August, Simmons' business partner, Stephen Wright, demanded that the group stop using its original title, Friends of Aberdeen, after he purchased the rights to the name. The group switched its name to Aberdeen Communities Together. They accused Wright and Simmons of trying to confuse voters in the months leading up to the election.

Some ACT members drive around town in trucks carrying signs with slogans such as, "Thank you Mayor Simmons for Doubling Water and Sewer," and referring to the mayor as a "tinhorn dictator."

Paul and Cathy Burkheimer drive a truck carrying a sign that says: "Tax and Spend Fred! Now that we know ... he has to go." But the Burkheimers live outside city limits and don't pay Aberdeen property taxes.

"Some of us have family and friends in Aberdeen," Cathy Burkheimer said. "We are watchdogs for friends and families. They can't always get to the meeting, get motivated or have time. So we're their eyes, ears and feet."

Simmons said that it's a group of vocal people who "don't live in the city, they don't pay city taxes, they don't vote."

Queen said city boundaries don't determine everything.

"One community doesn't begin and one doesn't end at a certain line," Queen said. "All the communities around Aberdeen are affected by what goes on in town and vice versa."

The issue of noncity residents affecting the election was a subplot in the case of Steven C. Johnson, a local pharmacy owner who was blocked from being a council candidate because the Aberdeen election board concluded he didn't meet residency requirements.

Johnson sued to get on the ballot. But after a judge placed an injunction on the election, all but ensuring a postponement, Johnson dropped the lawsuit.

madison.park@baltsun.com

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