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Kensington Tells Retiree to Button Up or Pay Up

Alan McConnell has been ordered to stop selling buttons at the Kensington farmers market for safety reasons.
Alan McConnell has been ordered to stop selling buttons at the Kensington farmers market for safety reasons. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

The left-leaning town of Kensington would seem fertile ground for Alan McConnell to peddle his little green buttons.

"Impeach Him," the buttons state, and for months the 74-year-old has sold them for a dollar apiece at the town's Saturday morning farmers market.

But things hardly have been easy for him lately.

Three weeks ago, the retired mathematician was issued a trespassing warning, after he'd been told to leave the market. Last week, Kensington's mayor canceled the market, concerned that McConnell and "potentially aggressive" supporters of ousting President Bush could endanger safety there. And at 10:35 a.m. Thursday, a woman from the town and two Montgomery County police officers knocked on McConnell's door.

"I'm sorry to be in a state of undress," he told them politely, standing in his underwear. "How long do you folks want to talk?"

Ten minutes, McConnell was told.

"I'll get dressed very quickly," he said, heading back to do so.

"Thank you," one of the officers responded.

When it was over, McConnell was left holding two documents: an updated trespassing warning and a citation charging him with selling merchandise at the farmers market without a permit. He is to stand trial or pay a $500 fine.

"The blood," McConnell cracked, "is in the water."

Not so, Kensington Mayor Peter Fosselman said. And given time to explain himself in a lengthy interview, he can deliver a compelling argument for the clampdown.

Fosselman, who was elected last year to the part-time post, said patrons and vendors had complained about McConnell's assertive button pitches. When he was in operation, McConnell sold on the same parking lot as the market, off Howard Avenue near the Kensington train station. He tended to stand on a no-parking patch of striped lines, good for getting patrons coming and going.

"My concern," the mayor said, "is that he is harassing customers."

He added that -- after consulting with counsel -- he believes the town has the right to boot McConnell off this piece of public property, because it is used for a "special event," i.e., the farmers market. As for the latest citation, which carries the possible $500 fine, the mayor has said people need a permit to sell items there.

Regulars shop there for fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, gourmet olive oil, flowers and more. "It's a pretty nice little market," the mayor said, adding that McConnell could have sold his buttons nearby, on public spots. "It wouldn't have escalated to what it has," Fosselman said.

McConnell sees the matter entirely differently. He said no one has complained to him, save for one couple telling him that his behavior was playing into the hands of the enemy. He uses proceeds from sales to buy "Impeach Him" yard signs.

McConnell favors a floppy white sun hat, shorts, brown socks and brown shoes. He received a PhD in math from Cornell, plays the violin and likes to write online essays on musical vibrations. In "The Impossibility of Exact Intonation," he cites Pythagoras and Bach and takes readers through a series of calculations to arrive at 129.746, which, importantly, according to the essay, isn't 128.

As for the current matter, McConnell referred to it as a "Kensington MD Civil Liberties Issue" in a July 10 news release. Clearly McConnell is trying to get some media mileage for a cause he believes journalists have largely ignored.

He's not alone in that thought. In further left-leaning Takoma Park, which voted 88.9 percent for Sen. John F. Kerry (D) in 2004, the City Council will consider a resolution Monday urging the Maryland congressional delegation to pursue Bush's impeachment.

McConnell said he is planning to come to the market today, perhaps with some supporters waving signs.

"I think it would be a good show," he said. "I am hopeful it will be a good show. . . . To have an old, old, old fart like me dragged off, with people in the background holding signs, that's an opportunity. That's public relations."

Such talk can draw long sighs from Fosselman. He is worried that McConnell will try to sell buttons at the market today. If so, the mayor said, "We will have him arrested."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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