Campaigning 101: Don’t tear down your opponent’s campaign signs

There are many ways to win an election. Raising money or being an incumbent helps. Looking like George Clooney doesn't hurt. Kissing babies, well, who knows what that does, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it.


Campaign signs sit in standing water along a road across from a polling station on a stormy election day on May 27 in Cypress, Tex. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

Taking down your opponent's campaign signs and replacing them with your own is not on this list. Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach allegedly tried anyway.

In later April, the district attorney, who is running for reelection against prosecutor Mike Hestrin, used a government vehicle to go put up campaign signs around Indio, California. One of Zellerbach's employees, a supporter of his opponent, took a shaky-cam cellphone video of his boss allegedly making room for his own signs by removing some of Hestrin's.

When the local media started to report on the incident, and local authorities began to investigate, he first said knocking over the signs was an accident. Security cameras caught someone who looked like Zellerbach taking down three of his opponents' signs outside of a convenience store earlier in the day. Zellerbach said the store owner gave him permission to take down the signs. He later e-mailed a local newspaper to say, “On April 23 I made mistakes, which I regret."

The Indio Police Department is asking the state attorney general's office to change him with two felonies and four misdemeanors: "Petty theft, vandalism under $400, trespassing to place unauthorized signs and trespassing with intent to cause damage." A new California law passed in 2012 prohibits people from serving in elected office if they have certain felony charges.

Zellerbach has called the whole thing "silly" and "much ado about nothing."

Since the sign-swapping incident, Zellerbach's chances at reelection have faded rapidly.

His opponent has received major donations and endorsements from law-enforcement unions and legal associations. Zellerbach had debts exceeding $160,000 as of last week, and only about $1,000 on hand. A few union leaders have called for Zellerbach to resign.

It's all been part of a nasty, no-good year for Zellerbach. In January, he was banned from ever speaking at a local middle school after swearing during a "Youth Education Motivation Program" presentation in December. Zellerbach doesn't remember swearing, but the students and teachers beg to differ. A local television station reported on the incident.

"He filled his time slot, every last minute, and that was great,'' Alvarez told CNS. "Everything was fine until the last 10 minutes. Then he used language that we as teachers wouldn't use. They were not very appropriate words. The kids were kind of like, 'oh.' "

Alvarez declined to repeat several of the words, though he confirmed "damn'' made it into one statement.

"The words were nothing the kids haven't heard before. But we try to watch what we say in front of them,'' Alvarez said.

Eighth-graders Aryssa Flores and Marissa Roque recalled little about the D.A.'s lecture — except how he punctuated it.  "He cussed,'' Aryssa told CNS.   "He used inappropriate words,'' Marissa added.

According to Marissa, she was only vaguely paying attention to the lecture until she heard Zellerbach say "bull----.'' She could not recall the context for the expletive.

"He also said something about his butt,'' the 14-year-old told CNS.

Zellerbach also faced some pushback when he aired an attack ad and sent out a few mailers in which he called Hestrin a "dead beat dad."

Unsurprisingly, this California district attorney race is not the first time people have been caught stealing campaign signs.

  • In Carroll County, Md., "losing campaign signs to vandals is a part of the game." Haven Shoemaker, a House of Delegates candidate, told a local newspaper last week. “It happens, unfortunately, every election cycle. I don’t think I’ve lost as many as some other folks, but I have lost a handful. I wish folks would grow up.”
  • In Nevada this April, Nye County Assistant Sheriff Rick Marshall and one of his volunteers were arrested by one of Marshall's own deputies after being accused of stealing about 50 campaign signs, many which read,  "Anybody But Rick."
  • In 2012, a Florida twentysomething faced 57 counts of petty theft for stealing campaign signs from 18 different candidates. He said he considered the signs littering.
  • In 2011, two women running for City Council in Keene, N.H., swapped shoves and slung profanities after one accused the other of stealing campaign signs.
  • In 2004, a Denver Republican got caught in the act of stealing campaign signs when "he ran across a low-hanging driveway chain, fell face first onto a pilfered sign and the concrete and knocked himself unconscious."
  • An 82-year-old Fairfax County court clerk went on a car chase after a Fairfax County sheriff's deputy who stole three campaign signs from his yard in 1993. "I was going fast, but I wasn't afraid," the clerk told The Washington Post.
  • A Los Angeles city council race in 1990 had two opponents accusing each other of buying votes and stealing signs. One of the candidates' cats had to be shaved after being plastered with campaign bumper stickers.
Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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