March 10, 2010

Disappearing campaign signs leave city candidate fuming

TOM BELL

— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Somebody is stealing Jim Gooch's campaign signs.

A political newcomer running for an at-large seat on Portland's charter commission, Gooch was the first candidate to plant his campaign signs around the city.

In all, he put up more than 120. Today, 12 are left standing.

They are not being knocked over. They are disappearing. In some places, Gooch replaced the signs, only to see them stolen again. And again.

After some of his larger signs were stolen twice, Gooch screwed new ones onto two-by-four posts and drove the posts deep into the ground with a sledgehammer.

Those signs are all gone, too.

''Three times? You've got to be kidding me,'' Gooch said. ''Somebody is intentionally doing this.''

Over the weekend, after withstanding a week of wind and rain, his 6-foot-wide sign on Franklin Arterial was smashed. Gooch was so angry that he filed a complaint Tuesday with Portland police.

Posting political signs on public rights of way is political speech that is protected by both the U.S. Supreme Court and Maine statutes, said Gooch, 35, who has a law degree from Yale and works for the Trust for Public Lands.

In Maine, defacing or disturbing a political sign is a civil violation and carries a fine of as much as $250.

Complaints about thefts of political signs seem to surface in every election, but Nathan Smith, one of Gooch's opponents in the race, said it has been 20 years since he has seen such a large-scale attempt to target one candidate.

Eight candidates, including three former mayors, are running for the four at-large seats on the charter commission. Smith said it's inconceivable that any of Gooch's opponents would be involved in the thefts.

''It strikes me as pure vandalism as opposed to politically motivated vandalism,'' he said. ''It shocks me.''

Doug Emerson helped Gooch install many of the signs and has volunteered for candidates in the past, including working for Councilor John Anton's campaign.

Emerson said he's known as the ''sign guru'' because of his ability to design eye-catching displays and install them quickly in the best locations around the city.

To Emerson, the disappearing signs are a sure sign that someone is trying to keep Gooch from winning a seat on the charter commission. The election is scheduled for Tuesday.

''I would swear on my mother's life that is a concerted campaign to remove his presence,'' Emerson said. ''It's a campaign against him personally. It's a well-orchestrated campaign to remove him from his campaign.''

Gooch said the signs are important because not many people know his name. He spent more than $1,000 on the signs -- more than half of his entire campaign budget.

The signs, lime green and royal blue, read, ''Jim GOOCH Charter Comm'n AT LARGE.'' Most were 13 inches by 22 inches; a dozen were 2 feet by 3 feet.

Gooch said he has 50 signs left in his garage.

He plans to wait until this weekend before putting them up in one final blitz.

Gooch said it occurred to him that some people might think he removed the signs himself.

After all, the story of their disappearance has generated the kind of publicity that any candidate would love to have a week before the election.

''Feel free to search my apartment,'' Gooch said.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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