Candidate Banners Can Leave Clients, Businesses Bruised

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

The sign went up Sunday evening, bold black letters against the stark white background of the marquee at the Colony South Hotel & Conference Center in Clinton: "Country First. McCain/Palin."

By daybreak, pandemonium had broken loose all across heavily Democratic Prince George's County. Many local supporters of Democrat Barack Obama, jolted by the message as they headed down Branch Avenue on their Monday morning commutes, grabbed cellphones and BlackBerrys to notify friends. Operators of neighborhood e-mail group lists cried foul to their memberships. The NAACP logged calls. Community leaders demanded boycotts of the hotel, a common venue for Democratic events.

"Businesspeople have to be mindful of the sentiments and sensibilities of their market trading area, and Prince George's County is overwhelmingly for Obama," said community activist Arthur Turner of Kettering, who was among those advocating a boycott. "People I have talked to look at the sign as a slap in the face. They feel it was blatant disrespect. . . . I have heard people say they will no longer patronize Colony South because of that disrespect."

The outcry over the hotel marquee tapped into the passion -- and sometimes anger -- that has characterized this fall's presidential campaign. Supporters of Republican candidate John McCain have vented their rage at rallies this week, applauding thunderously as McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists."

Prince George's, though, is clearly Obama Country. As the nation's wealthiest mostly black community, where about 77 percent of registered voters are Democrats, residents have Obama placards in their yards, bumper stickers on their cars and the candidate's visage on their T-shirts.

The marquee supporting the GOP ticket in "an area that is strongly African American was like putting a stink bomb in the middle of the living room," said University of Maryland political Professor Ron Walters. "What it does show is the emotions that are around this campaign and this election."

Colony South General Manager Alan Vahabzadeh said that the hotel, one of several Washington area businesses that has dared to venture into the political thicket, got the message after about 100 phone calls and three dozen e-mails. The sign came down Wednesday afternoon.

"I didn't even realize it was going to be like this," he said in an interview. The last thing "we want to do is lose business," he added.

But Friday afternoon, motorists noticed new signs -- broad banners attached to wooden stakes in the hotel's front yard -- again touting the Republicans.

Vahabzadeh did not return later calls seeking comment, but an employee said the phones were again ringing with complaints.

And Democratic activists started talking boycott. That could mean canceling political events at the hotel and urging residents to skip its Wednesday night karaoke events and Sunday brunches.

"While a business has the right to display what it chooses, the public has a right to show its contempt for that decision, including boycotting," said Mel Franklin, president of the Greater Marlboro Democratic Club.

Other business owners who have gotten into the political game have drawn less grief. At the Big Bad Woof pet store in liberal Takoma Park, bumper stickers urging people to "Vote for Bark Obama 2008" are available for sale. No such items were available for "John McCanine."

At B. Smith's restaurant in Union Station recently, a waiter sported an Obama campaign button. At the Old Town Trading Post in Alexandria, which sells hemp necklaces, African figurines and incense, among other novelties, an array of McCain T-shirts and a bumper sticker that reads "Friends don't let friends vote Democrat" are available for sale. A giant sign at Parson's Farm nursery in Prince William County proclaims the area "McCain Country."

Richard D'Amico, a stylist at Axis, a hair salon on Connecticut Avenue NW, has declared his work area a "Sarah Palin-Free Zone" by posting on his mirror a photo he cut out of a magazine marked with a red circle and a slash across it. The salon has Obama bags in the window. None of the clients has protested or demanded equal time for McCain, he said.

"It was such a topic of conversation -- everybody wants to talk about Sarah Palin. Even my clients stop me on the street and say, 'How about that Sarah Palin?' " said D'Amico, an Obama supporter. "So I decided I had to put a sign up."

The political partisanship, residents said, is their right as Americans.

Some Prince George's Democrats acknowledge as much.

"This is a highly charged election where the stakes are extremely high and emotions are running high on all fronts," said Orlan Johnson, a lawyer who lives in Bowie and is on Obama's national finance team. "But it is difficult for me to believe that individuals shouldn't continue to have the opportunity to exercise their right to free speech. It would be un-American to not allow that to happen."

Others say residents have a right to register their dissent.

"For a business to display a huge McCain-Palin sign in the middle of such a pro-Democratic and pro-Obama area is business suicide," Franklin said.

At Colony South, Vahabzadeh said the "Country First" message had been posted on the marquee Sunday evening by security guards after they received a memo instructing them to put it up.

Vahabzadeh said he did not know who wrote the memo and has been unable to find it. He has not spoken to the security guards, who work the midnight shift, he said.

The hotel's owner, Francis P. Chiaramonte, could not be reached at the hotel or at his home. His son, Michael Chiaramonte, chairman of the board of the Prince George's County Business Roundtable, did not return a call to his office or to the roundtable office yesterday.

"We support everyone here," Vahabzadeh said of the facility, whose front lawn is frequently adorned with signs for Democratic candidates and has been the venue for the annual prayer breakfast for former state delegate Obie Patterson (D-Prince George's), a recent home foreclosure program called by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and a meeting of the African American Democratic Club.

Two weeks ago, a fundraiser for Obama was held there. "If I was so Republican, why would I book an Obama fundraiser?" Vahabzadeh asked.

Bob Ross, 63, a community activist who lives near the hotel, said Obama supporters should see the sign as a reminder that they should "stay vigilant."

"That sign should serve as a reminder that everybody who supports Obama should make sure to bring five or six people with them to the polls Nov. 4. It means that there is still more work to be done."

June White Dillard, president of the Prince George's chapter of the NAACP, said the type of events Colony South has booked in the past is the reason the sign cut so deeply.

Mary Brantley, a travel agency owner from Upper Marlboro, belongs to the health club at Colony South and was among those who complained to the hotel. She was heartened to see the marquee changed Wednesday. It now advertises football games.

But as she drove past the hotel Friday afternoon, she couldn't help notice the two large banners in the front yard proclaiming: "McCain Palin. Country First." Again.

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