A spate of political sign vandalism in the county has escalated to the point that officials of both major parties came together to implore residents to respect one another's right to free speech.
Two 21-year-old Ellicott City women were arrested and charged with theft after a yard sign was taken from an Ellicott City home just before midnight Oct. 9. The owner of the Burnside Drive home, Kenneth Aldrich, followed the women's vehicle and called police after witnessing the theft.
In hopes of bringing an end to the sign skulduggery, County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, joined county Republican Party chair Joan Becker and county Democratic leader Michael C.A. McPherson on a neighborhood street in Dorsey's Search on Wednesday to urge restraint.
The location was hand-picked. Donald Gifford's yard on Oxbow Court sported a plastic Obama sign, while next door a McCain-Palin sign waved in the breeze at the home of Carl and Joyce Lietzau. Ulman said the resident whose candidate wins plans to hold a block party for the court, which is the kind of neighborly spirit he likes to see.
The sight of a large McCain-Palin sign lying on its side with the center cut out at Folly Quarter and Frederick roads recently prompted Ulman to action, he said. A small Obama sign was found burned elsewhere.
"To me, that crosses a line," Ulman said about both incidents. "We in Howard County really take pride in freedom of expression, including political expression."
Becker said stealing signs does more damage than people might think.
"I never want to hear someone say they're afraid to put one up in their neighborhood," Becker said.
McPherson said thieves and vandals take a selfish view.
"First Amendment rights are very important," he said. "Too often people seem to think that right applies to them and nobody else."
Such acts are not mere pranks and should be taken seriously, Ulman said, adding that no one wants to be arrested and hauled off to central booking.
That's where Grace Chiou and Gillian Lauren Horn were taken after their arrest on U.S. 29 with the Aldrich yard sign in the back seat of their car. Both face theft charges that could result in maximum penalties of a $500 fine and 18 months in jail for taking a $5 yard sign, said police Maj. Gary Gardner.
A call for civility
Rarely in politics does the call for bipartisan spirit come without at least a little partisan seasoning.
Such was the case at an event last week hosted by Pat McCuan, a GOP stalwart in the county, and his wife, Jill, at their Woodbine horse farm. Speaking at the gathering, a fundraiser for state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, McCuan beseeched the crowd of about 150 to rally behind whomever wins the presidential election.
He just couldn't resist a jab at Democrats while doing so.
"Let's support that person," he said. "Let's not be the mean-spirited opposition the Democrats have been over the last eight years. Let's be sure we support the president of the United States, and the presidency."
Asked later whether Democrats would argue that President Bush and his top supporters have also engaged in divisive behavior, McCuan responded forcefully.
"I know the president personally," he said. "There's not a mean bone in his body."
The news media, McCuan said, have distorted the president's image.
McPherson, the county Democratic Party leader, rejected that view.
"Democrats are by nature kind and unselfish people fighting for those who need help," McPherson said. "[McCuan] is not in touch with reality."
Guy Guzzone, one of three Democrats heading the Obama campaign in the county, said his group strictly enforces civility.
"We have zero tolerance for negative personal attacks," he said.
Kittleman, now his party's leader in the Maryland Senate, said he expected to raise about $15,000 at the annual event, which featured games for children, food and sunny weather. That money is important in helping him travel the state in support of other Republicans, he said.
Increasing the number of Republican senators from the current 14 to 19, Kittleman said, would provide the ability to filibuster and thwart bills.
"If we had five more, we would be asked [by Democrats] to come to the table," he said. "That's all we want."
Two other fundraisers were held last week. On Wednesday night, about 50 people - including former Baltimore Ravens star defender Michael McCrary - turned out at the Hilton Garden Inn for an Ulman event. And a golf outing was held earlier that day at Waverly Woods Golf Course for legislators from District 13, including Sen. James N. Robey and Dels. Frank S. Turner, Guzzone and Shane Pendergrass.
Jonathan Weinstein of Ellicott City, a centrist Democrat who is running for the House of Delegates in Republican-dominated District 9A, was also there, campaigning for the 2010 election.
Looking to reform
The small group that gathered in the corner of the Mad City Coffee Shop on Hickory Ridge Road in Columbia seemed inconsequential as other customers moved through on a warm night. But it has big aspirations.
The 10 who gathered at the nonpartisan Common Cause Maryland meeting Oct. 9 want nothing less than to change the way state lawmakers are elected. They want public financing of elections, and if that's not achievable, they want to see the influence of special interest groups sharply reduced.
Just closing a loophole in Maryland law that allows business owners to create multiple subsidiary corporations - each able to legally contribute $4,000 to selected politicians - would be a big victory, said Ryan O'Donnell, the statewide group's executive director.
"We're not a typical Annapolis lobbying group," said O'Donnell, 28. "Our strength is not money. Our strength is our membership."
Dayton resident Ruth Smith, 85, a Common Cause member, agreed wholeheartedly. "It's delightful," she said of the group's efforts to reform Maryland politics, after participating in an hourlong discussion on objectives for the 2009 General Assembly session.
Other members there included Common Cause Maryland President Gary Magnuson, a former president of the Columbia Democratic Club; board member Rusty Toler, a member of the county Commission on Aging; and Frank Chase, a federal retiree who serves on the county's Senior Tax Task Force. Ann Balcerzak, an attorney who is also chairwoman of the county's elections board, also attended as a private citizen, she said.
With a budget of $75,000, Common Cause Maryland appears to be living its credo, though a fundraiser is planned Dec. 5 at the Rams Head Tavern in Savage.
O'Donnell said the Columbia coffee event was one in a series being held around Maryland to allow the group's leaders to connect face-to-face with some of the 4,000 members and build strength as the legislative session approaches.