In this year’s Anchorage city election, several candidates say they’ve recently seen the systematic destruction, stealing and sometimes graphic defacing of large, expensive campaign signs at locations across the city.
While it’s common for some Anchorage campaign signs to be vandalized or stolen during elections, campaigns and candidates say the latest string of incidents is worse, and appears more targeted, than in the past.
“This is pretty deliberate — to try to silence a campaign,” said Andy Holleman, an incumbent candidate for the Anchorage School Board.
The lumber frames have been broken and sawn into pieces, 60-pound sandbags holding the signs’ bases have been slashed open and scattered, and the signs have been ripped off and stolen or spray painted. Nearby signs of opposing candidates have largely been left untouched.
Signs are targeted all over Anchorage on a nightly basis, said John-Henry Heckendorn of Ship Creek Group, which is managing and assisting several local campaigns.
Holleman and several Assembly candidates running moderate-to-progressive campaigns have borne the brunt of the vandalism — including East Anchorage Assembly candidate Karen Bronga, Anna Brawley in West Anchorage and Zac Johnson in South Anchorage, Heckendorn said. The signs of their conservative opponents in the same locations have remained intact, he said.
Signs cost between $80 and $100 each, not including the lumber, parts, labor and the time to put them up, mostly by volunteers, according to Ship Creek Group.
“The result is thousands of dollars’ worth of damage and an advertising medium that’s starting to get rendered inaccessible to candidates on the center-left,” Heckendorn said.
On Friday afternoon, a Daily News journalist was assaulted by a man while attempting to photograph vandalized signs. The journalist sustained an abrasion to one hand but wasn’t otherwise injured, and police are investigating the incident. The identity of the man is currently unknown. It’s also unknown whether the man, who was moving sandbags in an area frequently targeted, is connected in any way to recent sign vandalism.
Those with Ship Creek Group said they don’t believe the campaigns of conservative candidates have anything to do with the vandalism. They said they believe it does give those candidates an advantage, and plays into a recent upswell in political toxicity that Anchorage voters have said they’re largely fed up with.
Location targeted repeatedly
Conservative opponents denounced the destruction.
“I have no patience for it, and I have even notified my opponent and other candidates when I’ve seen their signs vandalized. We all know how difficult it is to campaign and raise funds, let alone have to worry about property being destroyed,” West Anchorage Assembly candidate Brian Flynn said. He said some of his signs have also been stolen and vandalized.
On Thursday morning, Holleman received a phone call from a friend who had just driven by a cluster of large campaign signs at 100th Avenue and Minnesota Drive.
Holleman’s sign had been spray painted, the words “child porn” scrawled in large red letters. Pages from a book on teen sexuality, depicting images of sexual acts, were duct-taped to the sign. (The book has become a national flashpoint and sparked controversy during a February Anchorage School Board meeting and with the Anchorage Library Advisory Board.)
Holleman filed a police report later that day.
On Friday, signs for Holleman’s opponent, Mark Anthony Cox; school board candidate Irene Boll; and Flynn were still standing alongside the defaced Holleman sign.
Another wooden frame lay broken and empty in the snow — it held a sign for Brawley, Flynn’s opponent, a few days before.
That location has been targeted repeatedly, Holleman and other candidates said.
Cox, Holleman’s opponent, said he wasn’t aware of the incidents, but said “vandalism is illegal, and therefore, anyone who vandalizes should definitely be held accountable.”
Signs of several candidates have been dumped in piles, out of view — for example, at a site in the Tudor Road area, according to Holleman. Holleman said he received a call from a person who found signs there, including some for incumbent Midtown Assembly member Felix Rivera.
“It starts to look like it’s a very deliberate, coordinated effort,” Holleman said.
Someone, or a group, appears to have spent hours on multiple nights driving from place to place, he said.
“They have to literally rip the sign from the lumber, which takes some exertion, and then you’ve got to be in a truck or a large SUV to fit it inside, and then you’ve got to go somewhere and get rid of it,” Holleman said.
‘It feels aggressive’
On Tuesday morning, Vered Mares arrived at her West Anchorage business, The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe, and found her campaign signs supporting Brawley and Boll destroyed.
Mares, co-owner of the cafe, also reported the vandalism to police.
“It should be on the record that this is happening. It’s happening all over town,” she said.
South Anchorage candidate Rachel Ries, a conservative, said someone destroyed a large sign belonging to her opponent, Johnson, which was next to her own sign, left untouched, she said.
“This is not acceptable behavior. And if you’re doing this — no. This is unsportsmanlike,” she said. “I’ve been very public about that. It’s very uncool.”
Ries said she’s been contacted by people who say their yard signs have been stolen, and she found a sign in her own yard ripped up in her driveway. But Ries hasn’t seen any of her large signs destroyed, most of which are on private property, she said.
“It’s disrespectful to the process. It’s disrespectful to democracy and freedom of speech and these things that we’re all supposed to kind of respect as core values,” Johnson said.
Leigh Sloan, who is a conservative candidate running for an East Anchorage seat against Bronga, said she’s heard that several of her own signs have been taken.
“I know that signs don’t win elections, so while it’s unfortunate, I’m not putting my focus there,” Sloan said.
But, she said, “I can say for sure, it’s not us.”
Amber Lee, Brawley’s campaign manager, said the level of public vandalism creates a negative, discouraging environment for candidates and for voters.
“It feels aggressive. It feels hateful. It feels childish,” she said.
Derek Applin, Ship Creek Group’s field organizer, said campaign signs serve multiple purposes, like putting a face to a name and increasing a candidate’s recognition among voters. They signal to voters that a campaign is serious, Holleman said.
The vandalism is diverting campaign resources away from other activities like door-knocking, Holleman and Applin said.
“It’s so much time wasted, so much manpower wasted, so much money wasted,” Applin said.
Applin, who manages 40-plus sign locations, said he noticed the pattern a little over two weeks ago.
“At first I thought it was just a guy with a few marbles loose, but it’s started to look more and more organized. And you know, people on the left are scared. People are becoming nervous and scared because of it.”
Candidates have been worried about going out to fix or put up new signs alone, Heckendorn said.
“Our concern has been violence,” Heckendorn said.
A Daily News photographer had planned to meet Applin on Friday at a roundabout near West 100th Ave and Minnesota Drive to make a picture of the vandalized Holleman sign.
According to the photographer, when he arrived, he saw a man moving sandbags and asked if the man was with Ship Creek Group. The man said “yes” but refused to give his name and asked the photographer not to take photos, said the photographer, who had introduced himself as a journalist with the Daily News. When the photographer said he was confused and that he had a right to take photos in a public place, the man threatened to take his camera, according to the photographer, Loren Holmes.
As Holmes took out his phone, the man approached him, he said. The photographer fell back in the snow, and the man jumped on top of him and, after a struggle, took Holmes’ phone, Holmes said. The photographer said that as he called 911 on his smartwatch, the man threw the phone and fled.
Police and Applin later arrived at the scene. Applin said he did not recognize the man in photos that Holmes took as the man was fleeing. Ship Creek Group said the man is not affiliated with Ship Creek or any campaigns it manages. It’s not clear whether the man is connected to the sign vandalism.
Applin and Heckendorn said they saw Friday’s incident as an escalation of that aggressive pattern of vandalism.