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With less than an hour left before the debate among Ward 6 D.C. Council contenders at Hine Junior High School, Dino pulls his Plymouth Voyager alongside the school’s curb and darts for the van’s back door. With the help of an assistant, Dino extracts 14 stakes and dozens of posters emblazoned with the message, “Rob Robinson for City Council Ward 6.” Dino’s job is to blanket the school grounds with Robinson postersa job that requires campaign volunteers to clutch posters and staples in one hand and a billy club in the other.
As he attaches his candidate’s posters to posts around the school, Dino holds forth on the risks of working the campaign-poster beat. At the previous week’s debate, for example, Dino claims that a rival campaign tore down his work: “A guy came up and said, ‘Y’all motherfuckers are putting our posters down so we’re going to take yours down.’ It was one of [the campaign’s] guineashenchmen, whatever you call it. My first reaction was to calm the rest of my staff down.”
Eventually a few cops intervened to keep the dispute from escalating. But Dino’s anger lingers. “When I do see someone [tearing down our posters], it’s going to be arms and legs all over the place,” he warns.
Skeptics say the council is an irrelevant panel of do-nothing politicos, but for the 12 candidates in this special election, the job looks every bit as precious as a Supreme Court appointment. There’s the $80,000 salary for part-time work, the free vanity tags, and a year-’round audience eager to listen to your musings on crime prevention and economic developmenta life of privilege for a die-hard community activist. And though the debates in the electionwhich will fill the vacancy left by recently crowned At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazilhave been lively, the race’s high stakes show up most starkly in the poster campaign.
“I have been in politics since home rule started, and this is the worst poster war I’ve witnessed,” says candidate Howard Croft, a former urban studies professor at the University of the District of Columbia.
Diagramming the allegations of poster tampering gets messy quickly. Candidate John Capozzi’s camp says Sandy McCall’s campaign has taken down his blue-and-white posters. McCall denies the allegations and compares poster stealing to “getting caught in a hotel with a billy goat.”
John Miyasato, Capozzi’s campaign manager, says McCall called him and threatened that if he caught anyone stealing posters, “We’re going to get out and whack ’em.” McCall says he never threatened anyone but admits he has set up a night patrol to stake out poster sites. “We wouldn’t fight them or anything,” he explains, adding only half-jokingly, “[maybe we could] get people organized to tear down their signs.”
Candidate Sharon Ambrose lashed out at Capozzi for recycling posters from his candidacy in last year’s at-large race. “John Capozzi might as well have put up posters saying, ‘John Capozzi for Whatever,’” she says. Ambrose’s allegations helped spark an investigation by the city’s Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) into whether Capozzi’s posters accurately represent his campaign. In a hearing last week, Capozzi showed the fine print on the posters to OCF staffers and expects the probe to end with no action.
The Croft and Robinson campaigns trade charges of poster poaching. Robinson says his campaign staffers caught a Croft operative taking down his signs on 7th and 8th Streets NEan offense that threatens to bring the rival camps to blows. “It’s going to get to that point. It’s hard for me to tell my staff to not get upset,” says Robinson. Croft says Robinson staffers have pulled down his signs and suggests Robinson’s indignation is so much posturing. “He’s trying to say he’s the pugnacious little boy. I think it’s desperate,” says Croft.
Croft fingers candidate Trista Tramposch for the heinous crime of stapling her posters to his. Tramposch pleaded guilty but requested clemency. “I admit it was a bit mischievous on my part,” she confides. “He had a lot of posters. I didn’t cover up his name or anything.” Tramposch said she was forced to staple her posters to Croft’s because she had run out of duct tape.
A newcomer to D.C. electoral politics, Tramposch misses the point: Aspiring D.C. politicos consider their posters arttouching them is equivalent to thumbing a Matisse at the National Gallery. Many of the candidates have just a couple of hundred dollars in their coffers and no identifiable supporters outside their extended families. Since they don’t have the cash to plaster their names on Metrobuses and the like, their PR blitzes begin and end with posters.
The posters themselves do more to distinguish the candidates than their bland pronouncements on the campaign trail. Stallings and Croft go for simplicity, with one-color schemes and no flashy art. Croft went to the extreme of appointing a committee to choose the color of his posters. But a campaign worker who brought the poster’s blueprint to the printer chose the wrong color, nullifying the hard work of the poster committee.
McCall’s posters, which he describes as “safety orange,” plug the “Fight crime now!” platform McCall mouths at every candidate forum. The Ambrose models resemble a new-age box of Lucky Charms, with “Sharon Ambrose City Council Ward 6” sandwiched between stars. Robinson’s red-and-black posters remind one of the malt-liquor ad vibe.
Dr. Philip Ogilvie, a retired D.C. archivist, says posters add a rare touch of color to the often monochrome electoral contests in town. “Rumor has it that one candidate in Ward 3 lost the election because they nailed their posters to trees,” he remembers. “Some have superstitions. Arrington Dixon made sure that all his posters had to have the color green. Not all were green but somewhere on the poster green would appear.”
One-time D.C. Council chair candidate Marie Drissel was the first candidate to experiment with a campaign booster that makes other candidates salivate: the four-color poster. “It was a dramatic step. It was a dramatic idea,” she recalls. “My campaign was convinced we couldn’t do it.”
Although she lost, her posters were winners. “One guy said he almost got into a car accident after he saw them on Military Road….Franklin Smith took one downhe said it was a collector’s item.”
Drissel finds no rival for herself in Ward 6, at least as far as posters are concerned. “They’re not in the league of my poster,” she boasts. “Not even close.”
What the candidates lack in color, they make up in number. Although a District regulation limits candidates to three posters per side of the street per block, the rule exists only on paper. Surrounding Hine, posters for Croft, Capozzi, McCall, and Ambrose number up to a half-dozen per side. Croft has as many as five per lamppost.
Napoleon Griffin knows this just means more work for him. As an assistant custodial foreman at Hine, he has spent many campaigns picking up their trash. He says when the posters get torn down, they usually end up in his yard or stuck in the fence.
As Griffin walks through the lawn picking up wrappers and papers, he admits he isn’t looking forward to election night. Staring out at the rows of posters, he asks, “What are they getting ready to vote for?”CP