These signs may not point to victory at polls

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What looks like proof of Catherine E. Pugh's popularity seems to be right there, in yellow, black and white, along a scruffy stretch of Edmondson Avenue. Campaign signs for Pugh, a candidate for City Council president, outnumber those for Sheila Dixon, the incumbent. Another challenger, Carl Stokes, is invisible on the west-side thoroughfare.

But Pugh can't count every sign as a vote.

Lisa Patterson is leaning toward Dixon, even though she has two big Pugh placards and a Pugh yard sign outside her brick-and-stone rowhouse.

"I wasn't there when they [campaign workers] put them up," Patterson said. "They asked my daughter. She's 13. Me and my husband pulled up, and we see these two big signs in our front yard. I was, like, 'Who put those signs up?' "

Less than a month before they do battle in the voting booth, candidates for city offices are duking it out on front lawns, on fences and (illegally) on median strips. Mini-billboards for would-be mayors, council members and council presidents beckon outside shopping centers, inside store windows, across any building that will have them.

Whether the signs sway voters or even signal support is a matter of debate. Julius Henson, a political strategist known for prolific use of campaign signs, pooh-poohs their importance, saying they only help no-name candidates.

But politicos of all stripes take their signs seriously, fretting over typefaces and colors, plotting their placement on city maps and creating spreadsheets that sort each one by ward and precinct. Candidates and their workers keep current on the latest sign technology - wooden stakes and cardboard signs are out; wire frames and "Coroplast" are in. They spend up to 20 percent of precious campaign dollars on signs.

To position their signs in premium spots, candidates cold-call shopkeepers, cajole reluctant homeowners, flaunt military service, pull political strings, even order the occasional pizza. If that doesn't work, they sometimes resort to what one city politician calls "hoboing it" - planting one without permission.

All this for a political ad that has an estimated second-and-a-half to grab voters' attention.

Cheryl D. Glenn, who is running for council in the 2nd District, parlayed a political friendship and a pizza purchase into two choice sign locations.

She wanted a sign at the Stop, Shop and Save at the busy intersection of Frankford Avenue and Belair Road, but the supermarket manager wouldn't tell a campaign worker how to contact the owner. He wanted to speak to the candidate and see her literature first. Glenn went to the store, made her best sales pitch at the customer service counter and was given the owner's phone number. Then she asked a political backer, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, to make the call. He did, and her sign went up.

Glenn had an easier time at the Pizza Hut at Belair Road and Northern Parkway just outside the city line - perhaps because she ordered a medium pie with pepperoni, mushrooms and sausage before popping the question.

"You can't go in to talk to a business owner and not patronize the business," she said. "First you order, then you talk politics."

Some question whether signs are worth all that trouble.

"At the end of the day, signs do not vote. They don't even necessarily indicate support," Henson said. "On lawns in my neighborhood, you'll have two candidates, three candidates in the same race on the same lawn."

Henson said his candidates are known for having lots of signs because they tend to be political newcomers with little or no name recognition. That's one problem signs can fix, he says.

"That's a cheap way to get the name out or get the face out," he said. "But late in the campaign, as we are now, signs have very little effect in actuality."

Yet many campaigns think signs are important enough to plot their locations on color-coded maps. Dixon's campaign has a "sign coordinator," Lesley Mason, who keeps tabs on signs by ward and precinct. "It's nice to know where we have a strong base of support," Mason said.

Councilman Robert W. Curran, who is running for re-election in the 3rd District, said signs don't win over voters, but candidates need them to show they're in the game. His biggest campaign coup: posting a sign at Walther Avenue and Northern Parkway, a "killer intersection" he secured because the property owner was a Marine, as was Curran's late brother, Mike.

"If you're blown away in the sign war, people don't feel you have a viable campaign," Curran said.

With a father and brother who were politicians, another brother who still is, and a nephew-in-law who is mayor, Curran has had plenty of experience with campaign signs. He estimates that over the years, he and volunteers have made 55,000 of them in the one-car garage at his Kelway Road home.

And that was in the old days, when volunteers worked a sawhorse assembly line, putting hammer and nail to the cheap, splintery wood that lumber companies donated as in-kind campaign contributions.

In 1982 alone, the Curran sign shop cobbled together 10,500 placards for Gov. Harry R. Hughes' successful re-election campaign. Hughes had chosen Curran's brother, J. Joseph Curran Jr. (now Maryland's attorney general), as his running mate.

"Every sign for that campaign came out of my garage," Curran said, noting that neighbors on either side of his house allowed him to stockpile the finished product in their garages.

About 10 years ago, wire sign frames came along and cardboard signs started giving way to Coroplast, a corrugated plastic that is weather resistant. Then came silk-screening signs onto plastic bags, which get slipped over wire frames. The bags can be cheaper, but they melt in hot weather, said Arthur W. Murphy, managing partner of Politicom Creative, which is doing signs for three city candidates.

Signs styles have evolved, too, said Chuck Horak of Northeaster Signs Inc. in Hampden, which is producing signs for 30 to 40 city candidates this election.

When the green-roofed Harborplace opened, everybody wanted "Harborplace green," he said. Not so any more. The combination of red, white and blue never goes out of style. But he says teal, so popular a few years ago, has all the chic today of an avocado-colored refrigerator.

"The best colors I ever saw were [former City Council President] Wally Orlinsky's. He used purple and yellow. It was outrageous," Murphy said. "Man, he stopped you dead in your tracks, and it meshed with his personality. It worked. That was Wally."

Along with fashion sense, sign colors convey something about the candidate, Murphy said. Blue is thoughtful, purple implies status, orange screams strong, brown means earthy, he says. And beware of black and white.

"Black and white is cheap," he said. "It means, "I have no money' or 'I have no creativity' or 'I did not listen to the sign manufacturer.'"

The red, black and green used by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 1995 re-election campaign raised a ruckus because that color scheme is associated with black nationalism. Schmoke, who is black, was running against a white candidate, Mary Pat Clarke.

Today, Stokes' blue and gold is a nod to Loyola High School, alma mater of the council president candidate. Purple signs for Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., running for re-election in the 4th District, are meant to evoke leadership and spirituality, he said.

And Mayor Martin O'Malley hypes his youthful image and Irish roots by going with Day-Glo green, a custom color that Horak makes with a fluorescent powder he special-orders from New Jersey.

"We cannot buy that color ink," Horak said.

Even the least subtle signs can blend into the landscape after a while.

Take the McDonald's in Northeast Baltimore, where burgers come with a side of civics. The restaurant, at Harford Road and Cold Spring Lane, is allowing any candidate who asks to post a sign on its chain-link fence.

Store manager LaTarsha Blackwell said the restaurant is offering its fence as a sort of community bulletin board, "to give people some idea of who's running when they come to McDonald's."

But even with a clear view of the placards all through the work day, Blackwell doesn't know how she'll cast her ballot.

"I don't even know yet," she said. "I work so much, I haven't gotten into it."

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