Streak of vandalized Trump signs 'unprecedented,' local party leaders say

Streak of vandalized Trump signs 'unprecedented,' local party leaders say.

Like other Republicans, state Sen. Gail Bates has had a campaign sign for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in her yard.

But her sign is now lodged several feet from the ground in a tree as vandalism and theft of Trump campaign signs increases across Howard County.

Large Trump signs have been burned, ripped and vandalized throughout the county, a streak local party leaders and elected officials said is indicative of an unprecedented divisive and polarizing political climate.

"The destruction has been somewhat ugly," said Bates on Wednesday, who represents District 9 in Howard and Carroll counties. "We have a very divided electorate this year, but people have the right to express their opinions. They do not have a right to destroy things."

Previous presidential elections sparked sporadic vandalism and theft, said Loretta Shields, chairwoman of the county's Republican Central Committee.

But this year, the problem is unlike anything Shields has seen before. Large signs have been burned and destroyed, some multiple times. Others had words such as "rapist" written on them, she said.

As of Wednesday, Howard County police had received 27 reports of campaign sign vandalism since Aug. 1. No arrests have been made, police said.

More than one-third of large Trump signs have been damaged over the past week, said Frank Mirabile, chairman of Howard County's Trump campaign. Costs for repairing signs range from $500 to $1,500 per sign, he said.

"It's unfortunate that many of these issues are happening in the heart of Columbia, where we're supposed to talk about equality and openness," Mirabile said.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, wrote that vandalism runs counter to "the shared beliefs of respect and inclusion that have made this community a model for others to follow."

"In this often polarizing political climate that we now find ourselves, we must find ways to rise above the name-calling, rancor and acts of destruction when someone else's views challenge our own," he wrote. Kittleman, a Republican, has said he will not vote for Trump.

Officials of his administration declined to comment on whether a specific party's signs were being targeted for vandalism.

"We do not want to single out any particular campaign or omit any that might have suffered this problem," Howard County spokeswoman Alexandra Bresani said.

The vandalism departs from the county's commitment to civility, Shields said. Motorists frequently decorate their cars with "Choose Civility" bumper stickers as part of a county-led public campaign to encourage openness, transparency and respect.

"I'm disappointed and ashamed this is happening here," Shields said.

The streak is part of an "aggressive" statewide increase in vandalism of Trump campaign signs, especially in Democrat-majority areas, such as Howard County, where signs are "a hot target," said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Republican State Central Committee. In Howard, the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans is 1.6 to 1.

"All of my large signs are either up or destroyed," Cluster said. "We had over 10,000 in the whole state and now we're completely out." The state committee distributed signs at the start of this election season.

In previous election cycles, the committee received a call per week from residents looking to replace damaged or lost signs. This year, Cluster said he receives one call per day.

Abby Hendrix, chairwoman of the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, said she has not heard reports of vandalism to campaign signs of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Hendrix said Trump's comments against women, Muslims, Hispanics and African Americans have "evoked a sense of anger."

"I condemn vandalism regardless, but I can also understand some of the irrational anger experienced by people who worry about what may happen to them or what their quality of life might be," she said.

The most effective tool to express opinions is by voting on Election Day, Hendrix said.

Courtney Watson, a former Howard County Council member, who is leading statewide volunteer efforts for the Clinton campaign, said theft of Clinton signs is ongoing. Theft of signs is common in presidential elections, she said.

But the rhetoric created by the Trump campaign, she said, is "the worst it has ever been in my lifetime."

"It's just not who we are as a county," Watson said.

This story will be updated.

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