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Chapter Eight


The Lawn Sign Campaign


In the 2008 Congressional campaign, I ordered and placed 100 lawn signs, thanks to an unexpected late donation to the campaign. The signs were ordered from SS Graphics Inc. (or, a manufacturer in Wyandotte, Michigan. It had the lowest prices that I could find for 18” by 24”, two-sided signs, and I knew the quality was good. This year, I thought I could order twice as many signs and be able to find locations if I reached out more aggressively to members of the Property Rights group. If the New Dignity Party campaign had 200 signs in locations around Minneapolis, we would get noticed. This would be our most effective way to get the message out.

designing the signs

We had three candidates this time, not just one. The three names could not be presented in as large lettering as before. I thought it made sense to emphasize the party name: New Dignity Party. This peculiar name would be the “hook” to make people look and think about voting for us. To make the hook a bit sharper, I thought of a slogan to go on the sign: “I want my dignity and I want it now!” It was meant to be cute. The idea of demanding dignity from the government or another powerful institution was ridiculous since each person has an innate dignity that is there for the asking. But I hoped it would make people laugh. Maybe someone, down on his luck, would say to himself: “Yes, that’s me. I do want my dignity. And, yes, I want it now.” That could be a subliminal thought. There was a touch of gallows humor here.

I had kept several of the signs from the previous campaign. One of them I used to measure the spacing for the different elements of this year’s sign. The dark blue background with white lettering had worked last year. We would keep it. What remained was a decision about the spacing, positioning, and size of the lettering to go on this year’s sign.

We had the slogan: “I want my dignity and I want it now!” We had the name of the party: “New Dignity Party”. We had the names of the three candidates: “John Butler, Jim Swartwood, Bill McGaughey.” Finally, we needed to leave room for the disclaimer at the bottom: “Prepared and paid for by New Dignity Party Committee, P.O. Box 3944, Minneapolis, MN 55405.” I also put the website address at the bottom of the sign: Now voters had everything they needed to know about our campaign.

I produced life-size lettering on my computer and played with the spacing, pasting bits of paper over the lettering on last year’s sign. Finally, I had a scheme that fit. I also had type sizes to give the printer. I had the number of inches of space to give each element. But first, I wanted to check with my colleagues at New Dignity Party to see if they approved of the design. John Butler deferred to my judgment. Jim Swartwood agreed to meet me at a Starbucks Coffee Shop in his neighborhood to go over the design with me. It was at the corner of Lyndale and 54th Street. After fighting late-afternoon traffic on highway 35W, I arrived at my appointment a few minutes late carrying the sign with the proposed lettering taped on one side.

Jim Swartwood’s concern was that the candidate names be larger. We could not find a way to do this effectively until we dropped the “and” between the candidate names and stacked John Butler’s name vertically. Now it worked. In larger letters, we put “John” on the same horizontal line as “Bill McGaughey”, and “Butler” on the same line as “Jim Swartwood”, The spacing allowed John Butler’s name to be seen as a unit. This would be our design, Swartwood agreed.

I contacted the customer representative at SS Graphics who turned our design over to Jason Motorojescu in the Art Department. On August 14th, Motorojescu emailed me a proposed design for my approval. It was not quite what I wanted. To maximize letter size, we needed to remove some quotation marks, asterisks, and capital lettering. Also, there were two different color schemes to consider. We went back and forth several times with proposals until I had what I wanted.

On the afternoon of August 17th, I approved Motorojescu’s latest design and placed the order for 200, two-sided signs. They cost around $2 apiece at this quantity. I also ordered 150 H-style wire holders for the signs at $.75 apiece because I thought I had 50 holders left from last year’s campaign. The shipping was $60 for the order. The total cost was $575.30. I paid the bill by credit card. It would take three to five business days to produce the signs and another several days to deliver them by truck from Wyandotte to Minneapolis.

the locations

Last year, my lawn signs were placed at locations provided by me, Jim Swartwood and three other landlords associated with our group: Howie Gangestad, Richard Bear, and Steve Meldahl. Meldahl, who was actively buying foreclosed properties, provided a majority of yard locations; they tended to be in north Minneapolis. If I could get permission from these property owners again and then approach a few others, it might be possible to reach the 200 sign mark.

So, at the beginning of August, I started calling landlords on the list. Steve Meldahl gave me permission to post signs on his properties once again. So did Swartwood, of course, and also Richard Bear. Bob Anderson, formerly active in the landlord group, had six locations in north Minneapolis. In addition, he contributed $100 to the campaign. Cliff Olson let me put a sign in his own yard as did Frank Trisko. I had four locations of my own on Glenwood Avenue.

Andy Ellis gave the campaign a big boost when he gave me a list of fourteen addresses where signs might be put. They were mainly in south Minneapolis where we most needed help. Al Keith had three south Minneapolis locations, all good ones. Don Swensrud had ten locations, including two in northeast Minneapolis. Together with Meldahl’s seventy-seven locations, Swartwood’s twenty-two and Bear’s four, that brought the number of pre-approved locations up to 127 by the time I placed the order with SS Graphics. We would need to try find 73 other locations to use up the entire shipment of signs.

From experience, I knew that a little organization went a long way when it came to installing lawn signs. I typed all the locations in “geographical order” according to my own makeshift system. Addresses in south Minneapolis locations were compiled on one list, and those in north Minneapolis on another. Since many residential streets in Minneapolis are arranged in alphabetical order, that helped me tell which locations were close to each other.

The street number told where the particular house would be found. For instance, 2319 Aldrich Avenue North is between 23rd and 24th streets on Aldrich Avenue. Aldrich Avenue is next to Bryant Avenue; Bryant, next to Colfax; Colfax, next to Dupont, etc. Typing these addresses on a sheet in some order helped determine the shortest way from one sign location to another as I was driving around the city. I did not want to waste gas or time.

placing the signs

This was the top priority for our campaign. I was eager to receive the signs and place them around the city. First, however, a trip to China needed to be taken. My wife, Lian, was then in Beijing for medical reasons. She had been urging me to visit her. I flew to Beijing via Chicago on United Airlines, leaving on Friday morning, August 21st. The return trip was Tuesday, September 1st. The highlight of this visit was a two-day bus trip to inner Mongolia where we stayed in an unheated yurt. I caught a cold or the flu in China, returning home not feeling too well.

Before leaving on this trip, I learned that the shipment of signs would probably be delivered around August 24th or 25th. I left a note for Fed-Ex to leave the boxes on the porch. The downstairs tenant put them inside for safekeeping. There were two large boxes each containing 100 signs and three small boxes with 50 wire holders apiece waiting for me when I returned to Minneapolis on September 1st. My marching orders were clear: These signs needed to be installed. The problem was that I was sick in bed with the flu.

This illness may or may not have been the H1N1 “swine” flu - probably not - but it did hit me pretty hard. I was sweating profusely, coughing up phlegm, and generally feeling weak. After spending several days trying to regain my health, I dragged myself out of bed and made the first delivery of signs. Six or seven per day were all I could manage at the beginning but gradually I built up to a dozen or more. After two weeks, all addresses on the typed sheets had been covered.

The law requires that political candidates receive permission from the property owners to place lawn signs on their property. Because these were mainly rental properties, I thought it best to receive permission from the tenants as well. In all cases, I knocked on the front door to ask for permission of whomever came to the door. I would typically begin the conversation by saying the property owner had given permission but I wanted to ask their permission, too. Mostly the tenant would agree. If he or she objected to having a lawn sign placed in the yard, I would not press the point. No signs were then placed.

If no one came to the door when I knocked, I would leave a one-page signed letter on the door step telling who I was and why my campaign sign was in their yard. I gave my home phone number to call in case the person objected. I said I would then stop by again and remove the sign. I received no calls.

Especially during the first week, I was not feeling well as I made the rounds of sign locations. I would pull three signs out of the box in the back seat of my car and insert the wire holder in the sign’s corrugated grooves at the bottom. When each group of three signs had been placed in yards, I would make up another batch of three. I was not eager to talk with anyone but simply get the signs installed. Even so, I had to be properly dressed as a candidate when I asked tenants for permission at the door. Many times, my shirt was soaking in flu-induced sweat.

I remember once approaching an African American gentleman who was barbecuing in his front yard on Upton Avenue. He insisted on engaging me in conversation about my political views. This man remarked that I might be sweating because I was afraid of him. (I was a white candidate visiting a racially mixed neighborhood.) I told him that he ought to be afraid of getting too close to me because I had the flu. He accepted my sign and convinced a neighbor to take another. When I drove down this street several days later, the signs were gone. This was one of my more memorable conversations. In the interest of time, I kept contact with prospective voters to a minimum.

The blue New Dignity Party signs were up before most other candidates had installed theirs. This gave the impression to people driving around city streets, especially in north Minneapolis, that we had a large campaign operation going. So much can be accomplished on $575! A Minneapolis police officer asked a friend of mine: What is this “New Dignity Party”? What does it stand for? A city inspector told Jim Swartwood that he had seen Swartwood’s name on signs all over town. So the signs were having their desired effect. Later on, when the other candidates caught up with us, our operation seemed less impressive. Also, I think, New Dignity Party signs started to disappear.

Because I still had 60 or 70 unused signs in the box, I spent a Sunday afternoon in late September cold-canvassing prospective sign locations along Blaisdell avenue in south Minneapolis. Back in 2005, I had done this for the Rybak re-election campaign. My work on my own behalf was less successful. Mostly, no one came to the door when I knocked. Of those who did, many would not give consent because they lived in an apartment or belonged to a property association. Only one man took a sign promising to think about it. So the idea of cold-canvassing sign locations did not seem promising.

I had better luck going back to the landlords for pre-approved locations. Howie Gangestad again came through with eight new sign locations. Don Hansen had four. Jim Swartwood and John Butler each took another four signs which they said they would place when an opportunity presented itself. Frank Trisko took several. In addition, Uncle Bill Sanigular asked for five of my signs. One he put in his own yard, one went to a grocery store on Emerson Avenue, and three went to his relatives. A candidate for City Council, Mike Tupper, took four of our signs. Between these and signs used to replace ones that had disappeared, I gradually whittled down the supply left in the box. In the end, only eight remained unused out of the two hundred that were delivered.

an "inappropriate" sign posting

Once the lawn signs were placed, this aspect of the campaign was forgotten. Once, however, I received an email message titled “inappropriate sign posting” from a woman in northeast Minneapolis who, judging from her email name, might have been a nun. She was “disappointed” to find our lawn signs in the plot of a community garden on the corner of Lowry and Central avenues. “I am asking you to remove your signs from that parcel,” she wrote.  “If Tom and Colleen wish to have the signs plastered all over their private business building, that is certainly within their right.  I just ask that you leave the public-created space alone.”

I was sure that I had not put any signs there so I replied by email that we always get the property owner’s permission before posting signs and, since that had evidently not been done in this case, I would remove the signs. Upon inspection, I found that there were indeed two of our signs on the periphery of the garden. Although a candidate for City Council had seven or eight signs on the same plot of ground, I removed ours. Then, inquiring further, I learned that my fellow candidate, John Butler, had received permission to install those signs from the property owner, the husband and wife who owned Moler’s barber school kitty corner from the garden plot. He had been the one who put the two signs there. What, then, was the problem?

Evidently, the woman who had sent the email thought that a community garden was off limits to political signs even if the property owner had given permission. I asked about getting permission from the “tenants”, so to speak, but they included a number of entities (including the Minneapolis school system) that had helped develop the garden space. The woman herself would not commit.

Finally, pointing out that I had done my best to get permission and that the signs would be promptly removed after the election in two weeks, I notified the woman that I would put the signs back up. I said this was an issue of trying to silence legitimate political speech. Our signs had not been in the garden proper but in an unused space near the sidewalk. I did put them back where they had been before. When I came by to remove them after the election, all the signs were gone.

Most sign removers do not engage in discussions with the candidate, of course. They simply remove the signs. All political campaigns have this experience and ours was no exception. When I took all the signs back following the November 3rd election, I kept count of how many signs had already been removed and how many were standing. Of 163 signs in total, 76 signs were still in place while 87 were torn down or missing. In other words, over a period of five or six weeks, about 53 percent of the signs had been taken down. Many were found lying on the ground. There was little difference in that regard between sign locations in north and south Minneapolis.


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