As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on October 7th, 2006:
I never knew how much trash local residents throw out on the road until I spent last Sunday putting up yard signs with Chatham County resident Staples Hughes.
Hughes, who spends his weekdays advocating for low-income accused criminals in the North Carolina Office of the Appellate Defender, has spent many weekends over the past 15 years putting up signs for candidates he knows or respects along the roads of Chatham County.
The lucky beneficiary of Hughes' handiwork for this election cycle is Superior Court candidate Adam Stein. And there is no doubt that Stein is lucky -- Hughes has this banal but necessary part of local election campaigns down to an art form.
He knows most every intersection in Chatham County and how many signs should go at each of them. He knows that you should ideally put seven staples each on the left and right sides of the folded sign to hold it together.
When you put it on the stake after it's been hammered in the ground you put four staples on each side. It might seem like overkill, but it also ensures that the signs stay up, saving a lot of maintenance time later.
He also knows the hazards of the practice, saying that "ticks and poison ivy are de rigeur when putting up signs." He's contended with many of those over the years, and more recently had an unfortunate encounter with a farm of fire ants.
Once the signs are up, teenage motorists are one of the greatest threats to them. Hughes has noticed over the years that for whatever reason, some drivers find great amusement from swerving onto the shoulder to run over signs.
Hughes has come up with a good solution, though. He hammers campaign signs into the ground near road signs. So if someone wants to run over a Stein sign in Chatham during this election cycle they're more than likely going to ruin the front of the car on a stop sign, too.
What impressed me most about Hughes, though, was somewhat incidental to the cause of putting signs up. Everywhere he stops to put in some signs, he also gets a trash bag out of the back of his truck. And he scours the intersection for litter, picking up every last disgusting piece and putting it in the bag to be properly disposed of later.
I could not believe how much junk there was nearly everywhere we stopped.
There are dozens upon dozens of abandoned drink bottles and beer cans everywhere you look, not to mention random pieces of Styrofoam, candy wrappers and about anything else you could imagine.
It is clear people have no respect for our natural landscapes, and that's exceedingly unfortunate. We are very lucky locally to have citizens like Staples Hughes who go far beyond rhetoric in their efforts to protect the environment. But he shouldn't have as much cleaning work to do as he does.
Staples has a great idea for something that could be done in Raleigh to make politicians better show their commitment to the common good. He would like to see the General Assembly pass a bill requiring all candidates and candidate surrogates putting up signs in the right of way to clean up the surrounding trash in the process of doing so.
It is about the most commonsensical idea for a piece of legislation I've ever heard.
If candidates are truly committed to serving the people they shouldn't have any problem with doing so. It will also work to solve one of the problems North Carolina is plagued with due to the disrespect of some of its citizens.
I hope one of our outstanding local legislators will take the lead on "Staples' Bill" when the legislature reconvenes in January, and I hope there isn't any opposition. It would be a step in the right direction. This is one of those ideas that there really is no negative side to.
I've been putting up yard signs since I was a teenager. I've put up thousands of signs for candidates ranging from school board to president on the roads of Michigan and North Carolina.
I was nearly run over by an 18-wheeler at 3 a.m. one morning putting up signs for Erskine Bowles on U.S. 15-501 and watched my best friend's car start flaming on a ramp to the bypass last fall putting up signs for Laurin Easthom.
But after spending an afternoon with Staples Hughes, I saw that when it comes to putting up signs I'm a complete amateur. We're lucky to have folks like him out there and I hope others will follow the noble lead he has taken in combining candidate advocacy and highway beautification.