By Jenny Neyman
While free speech is a tenant of democracy, area Democrats are feeling silenced by thefts of their political signs this election season.
Signs supporting a yes vote on Ballot Initiative 1 — repeal of the oil tax reform bill passed by the Legislature — and Democrat-supported candidates for state and national offices, including Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Democrat gubernatorial candidate Byron Mallot and nonaffiliated candidate Eric Treider for Senate District O, are disappearing around town, supporters say.
“There are probably close to a dozen signs that have disappeared in the last month,” said Dick Waisanen, of Soldotna.
Most are going missing in and around Soldotna. Signs posted at the Y intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways have been taken down three times now — twice left in a pile, and the third time, last week, stolen altogether.
“For the amount of money the candidates are trying to raise and trying to budget and all of a sudden they’re missing some signs, it does put a crimp in their fundraising. I don’t know if some people think, ‘Well, it doesn’t mean anything.’ It is vandalism, it is against the law,” Waisanen said.
The signs were placed on private property with permission of the property owners, in accordance with city and Department of Transportation regulations, Waisanen said.
“We always get permission,” said Waisanen, who is familiar with political sign-posting regulations from his previous runs for office. The city of Soldotna confirmed they did not remove the signs.
Even more frustrating is that signs backing Republicans and the No On Prop 1 campaign don’t seem to be touched, he said.
“The Democrats respect the right of free speech. If they (Republicans) want to put up a sign, that’s their prerogative, but they should respect our right to do the same.”
This has happened in previous elections, as well. Mary Toutonghi, of Soldotna, has had campaign signs taken right out of her front lawn.
“I’m just beyond yelling and screaming and shouting,” she said. “I’m ticked. I didn’t have a word to come out. It’s stifling my free speech. I don’t have the equal ability to express my views because (my signs) are being stolen. It’s vandalism and theft.”
Toutonghi said that sign thefts are not only a violation to the candidate or cause being supported, but also to the owner of the property from which the signs are being stolen.
“A number of them, some people who are worried about what will happen on their property, haven’t put the signs back up when they’ve been stolen. This is really ridiculous,” Toutonghi said.
Toutonghi said she reported the thefts to the police, though she doesn’t expect anything will be done unless someone is observed removing the signs. Waisanen said he understands that investigating sign thefts probably isn’t a high priority for law enforcement, compared to matters of more direct impact to public safety, but that the matter still is galling.
“It is an expression of free speech that everybody has the right to post a sign, and it’s illegal to take down somebody else’s sign. Like going out and hitting a mailbox, that’s a (criminal) offense. They are crimes and they are destruction somebody’s property,” he said.
“It’s not a life-and-death issue,” said Waisanen’s wife, Sharon. “It’s a frustrating situation. It’s disgusting that people are so disrespectful.”
Shauna Thornton, a Democrat running for state House in District 30, Kenai-Soldotna, said the thefts have her thinking twice about putting out signs for her campaign. Though she doubts regional candidates will have as much trouble as state and national campaigns, why go to the expense if they’re just going to be stolen? She said she has friends who have had signs stolen from their property, and that makes her uncomfortable, as well.
“People are saying, ‘I’m worried somebody’s on my property that shouldn’t be.’ And, yeah, that would make me a little nervous, to think somebody is coming on my property, trespassing and violating my personal space is scary because what’s next? Are we going to get tomatoes thrown at us when we walk out our door? We should be able to feel safe and not have people trespassing,” she said.
“We’re always entitled to our own opinion, that’s what freedom of speech is all about. I just think it’s really wrong,” Thornton said. “Shame on whoever’s doing this. And good for those keeping an eye out for it. Hopefully they’ll know we know, and maybe they’ll quit doing that.”