Rash of Political Vandalism, Graffiti Reported

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

Republican leaders in Prince William County said more than two dozen homes and stores in Gainesville were spray-painted early yesterday with obscene messages about Republican Sen. John McCain, and some Montgomery County residents said they awoke to find their yard signs for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama defaced with a red "S" sticker placed over the "B" in his last name.

The overnight vandalism came a little more than a week before the Nov. 4 election -- a sign, some political observers say, that the passion and anger of the presidential race are boiling over, at least for a relative few.

In the Virginia Oaks subdivision in western Prince William, residents spent the morning painting over anti-McCain messages, which were scrawled in two-foot-tall, red and black letters, "so kids in the neighborhood don't have to see the foul language," said Conrad Holtslag, a Republican activist who lives in the neighborhood. The golf club's stone pillars were marred, he said, and on one home with a McCain-Palin yard sign, the double-garage doors were almost completely covered with the words "Hail Satan" and "See What Happens."

Lyle Beefelt, chairman of the Prince William Republican Committee, said the neighborhood likely was targeted because it is heavily Republican. But this election also seems more contentious, he said. In the 2004 presidential race, he said, the county's GOP headquarters received one or two complaints a week about yard signs being stolen or defaced. Now, he said, there are about 10 a week. Virginia is one of the battleground states in this presidential race, and hasn't gone Democratic in a presidential race since 1964.

As for politically charged graffiti, he said, "We haven't really experienced this kind of nastiness in Prince William before."

Prince William police said they began receiving complaints shortly before 4 a.m. Local Republican leaders said they had heard that up to 35 homes and businesses had been hit, although police spokeswoman Erika Hernandez said police had received complaints from 13 homeowners and five businesses by mid-afternoon. Businesses targeted at the Virginia Gateway shopping center included Giant, Best Buy and Target.

The number of incidents would probably climb, she said, because officers were responding to calls throughout the day.

Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of Supervisors, called for state and federal investigations into the graffiti, saying it was "voter intimidation" and a hate crime.

Brent Colburn, a spokesman for the Obama campaign in Northern Virginia, said that he hadn't heard of the spray-paint incidents but that the campaign condemns it. "There should be respect for both sides," Colburn said. "This is not anything we'd support or stand for from anyone associated with the campaign."

Defaced Obama signs are also a part of the political landscape.

Opal Stroup, co-chairman of the Spotsylvania County Democratic Committee, said a large Obama sign in the yard of a Partlow home was spray-painted Friday with "KKK."

In Vienna, an Obama sign was defaced daily until someone wrote that the vandalism didn't matter because "we're changing America."

In Maryland, the vandalism to Obama signs was less damaging than the graffiti on Virginia homes but seemed no less personal.

"This is just shocking for this country to have this sort of hate," said Janet Bass, an Obama volunteer who said her yard sign and three others on her Bethesda street were hit with "S" stickers. "It only makes me want to work harder for the Obama-[Joe] Biden ticket."

She said a friend in Kensington told her that Obama signs there also had been defaced overnight.

Lt. Paul Starks, a spokesman for Montgomery police, said he hadn't heard of any widespread vandalism beyond those reported yesterday.

Leonard Steinhorn, a political communications professor at American University, said acts of political vandalism might capture the media's attention but represent a relative few whose emotions are often fueled by angry comments on talk radio and the Internet. Such acts don't sway opinion, he said, and usually hurt the image of the side perceived to be behind them.

"I think plenty of Americans see and respect a good, healthy debate, but they know not to step over any lines," Steinhorn said. "But there are some who do, and that's unfortunate."

Prince William police asked that anyone with information about the graffiti to call 703-670-3700 or 1-866-411-TIPS.

Staff writer Ian Shapira contributed to this report.

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