HOUSTON -- Southgate is one of those neighborhoods where people love to take morning walks.
An upscale enclave of expensive homes just west of the Texas Medical Center, it’s a subdivision where neighbors notice little things that look out of place. A couple of weeks ago, people strolling down the street started noticing something peculiar.
Campaign signs planted in people’s yards started disappearing, leaving a telltale trail of wire frames planted in the grass like silver skeletons that once bore the names of candidates. Southgate is a Democratic stronghold, so perhaps it’s not surprising that most of the thefts were reported by Obama supporters.
“This is terrible,” said Buddy Gilmer, whose Obama sign was filched from his yard. “I mean, it’s not American to me.”
Swiping campaign signs is a long and dishonorable tradition in politics. Indeed, sometimes Houston politicians themselves have been caught in the act of ripping up their opponents’ signs. But the polarized nature of partisan debate and the venom spewing in politics today have some people in Southgate musing that the sign swiping in their little neighborhood is evidence the anger surrounding political discussion has just gotten out of hand.
“It’s like everybody’s having this political discussion out in their front yard,” said Andrea Georgsson, a former newspaper editorial writer whose Obama sign was swiped. “And when you take my sign, it takes me out of the conversation.”
The curious crime wave triggered complaints on a community bulletin board posted on a website. The discussion started when Frank Lucia, an attorney living in Southgate, posted a surveillance video showing someone walking his dog, then pausing to tear away an Obama sign. Lucia said five Obama signs had disappeared from his yard.
Another Southgate resident, Happy Alagarsamy, discovered someone had stolen his campaign signs for Ann Johnson, a Democratic candidate for state representative.
“Southgate turned into Signgate,” he said. “Signs started getting lifted.”
Sometimes picking up campaign signs is not only legal, its arguably admirable. Planting those signs in public rights of way, like street medians, is actually illegal. Sign regulators like to call them “litter on a stick.” But taking campaign signs from private property, like homeowners’ yards, is misdemeanor theft punishable by a fine of up to $500. Trespassing charges can make these cases even more complicated.
Even more disturbing to some homeowners was an anonymous mailer addressed to a house where an Obama sign was posted. The envelope contained sheets of anti-Obama photographs and messages, sort of like an email screed delivered by a postal carrier.
“It doesn’t show good judgment on these people’s part, because it aggravates people that they do that,” Gilmer said. “And it makes them think more that they want to support the people whose sign was stolen.”
Walking down the street and pulling along his two children in a red wagon, Alagarsamy reacted to the thefts by distributing ten new campaign signs for the one that was stolen out of his yard.
“We all need to calm the hell down and realize that, hey, I can have a political disagreement with you, but you’re still my neighbor,” he said.
As for the fellow captured on videotape, Lucia said he identified the guy as a neighbor living down his street. He said he repeatedly knocked on the man’s door and left messages with his wife. Finally, he said, the man paid him a visit, apologized and offered to replace his stolen sign.
Lucia later chuckled about it. The sign snatcher ended up going to a Democratic Party headquarters, dropping a few dollars on a table and carrying an Obama sign down a public street.
So maybe neighbors really can agree to disagree.