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Friction over political signs
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Bob James' front yard is filled with yard signs. They've been vandalized repeatedly. Campaign workers around the state say the problem is worse than usual this year. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
In Duluth, three teenagers have been charged with a felony for defacing political signs. Election fever is so high, campaign workers around the state say people are stealing and defacing lawn signs more than usual. Some people complain, civility seems to be suffering during this election season. And in Duluth, many people say both sides have gone too far.

Duluth, Minn. — Bob James has a video camera in his front window. It runs 24 hours a day to keep an eye on his yard signs.

He's sick and tired of people stealing them, and painting on them.

He lives on one of Duluth's busiest streets, and his front yard is full of Bush signs. He made a lot of them himself. There's two really big signs, made from four-by-eight sheets of plywood.

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Image Bob James

"We've had signs stolen, signs knocked down in broad daylight," James says. " We've had 'war' spray-painted on them; we've had a swastika spray-painted on the front sidewalk. 'Liar.' 'Nazi.' All these different things spray-painted on there. It's just shy of domestic terrorism, I think."

Bob James was especially upset about the swastika on the sidewalk. After that incident, three teenage boys went to the police and confessed.

They said they were sorry for what they'd done. They said they didn't mean any harm to Bob James. They just wanted to criticize President Bush. They said they painted the swastika because they think Bush is like a Nazi because he uses nationalism to push his cause.

The boys now face very serious charges. Under Minnesota law, criminal damage to property valued at more than $500 is a felony. Based on the hourly pay for professional sign painters, Bob James says his signs are worth nearly $800. The St. Louis County attorney charged each boy with a felony.

Peter Wold is president of the Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He says he would question the value of the signs, but he says a more compelling defense would call attention to the boys' behavior after the vandalism.

"These kids apparently went to the newspaper and turned themselves in, and made an apology without coercion from the court system; they did it on their own," he says. "And to end up with the most serious charges filed after that type of action is a little bit surprising, I think."

But an apology is not what Bob James wants.

"What I guess I'm looking for is some sort of accountability for those kids," he says. They're 16, 17, years old. They should know what right and wrong is by the time they're juniors and seniors in high school. This was wrong."

Bob James' signs have been causing a stir ever since he put them up, back in August. The city said they were too big and he'd have to take them down. But he told the city that would violate his freedom of speech, and the city backed off.

At the Republican headquarters in Duluth, volunteer Lorna Burda says people are complaining more than usual this year about losing their lawn signs.

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Image Lorna Burda

"People have come in to our office here within the last few weeks, saying their signs are stolen," she says. "They're saying all the signs along a certain highway have been stolen - the Bush signs - but it seems the Kerry signs remain up."

Down the street at the DFL headquarters, office manager Terri Griffiths says Kerry signs are disappearing too, but no more than usual.

And she says the cluster of Bush signs in Bob James' yard is having some unintended consequences.

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Image Terri Griffiths

"I think it's backfired on him," she says. "A lot of people have come in and said that's the reason why they want a yard sign. There's a doctor that comes in once or twice a week, takes ten signs, and canvasses for lawn sign locations for us."

Griffiths says she's given out more than twice as many lawn signs as four years ago.

The teenage boys who vandalized Bob James' signs are appearing in court to answer the felony charges. One pleaded not guilty this week; the other two have their hearings next week.

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