Stein Volunteer Mixes Campaign Signs and Highway Beautification

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.




As I've thought about it since I wrote this column, I wish signs in the right of way would be straight out banned.

It's a vacuous form of campaign communication that keeps candidates and their supporters from doing more meaningful things to connect with voters.

But as long as one candidate does it, there's no way the other candidates can resist doing it too, for fear of falling behind.

But I doubt they'll be banned so Staples' idea could at least make it more worthwhile.

BTW, some have asked for the link to the permanent archive of my columns:

Tom is right. I don't know how many candidates I've heard bemoan "do I really have to put up those signs?" and wind up doing so in the end.

Joyce Brown, who spent less than $500 in winning her 1989 and 1993 campaigns (she went up to $1000 in 1997), had an interesting approach. She bought 50 pieces of poster board and a bunch of markers. A volunteer who was a good letterer wrote "Joyce Brown for Council" on them. Then Joyce had a poster party where supporters and their children decorated them with environmental and community motifs. Posted only in key locations, each sign had a unique message, evocative of the values of Brown and her supporters. Not only the message, but the signs themselves and the process of creating them embodied those values.

Mark Chilton borrowed this method for his initial 1991 campaign and was still doing something similar a year ago.

It doesn't make sense to me to require candidates to clean the streets just because they are posting signs. What's the logical connection?

These candidates are already strecthing their time to do something for the community; they shouldn't have to clean up other people's messes.

And then you have the predictable dumping of trash near someone's signs.

Don't get me wrong - I'd love to see Bunky Morgan on his hands and knees picking up rotting chicken McNuggets, but he hasn't even cleaned the old beer cans out of his unruly bushes at his "residence" in Chatham.

I know that Gov. Easley has always had the mantra that "signs do not vote," and therefore he prints very few signs/bumper stickers. Granted he has high name recognition so he is in a good place to refrain from it. But i think the idea that campaign funds can be more effectively used elsewhere has merit.

Adam Stein will only be able to serve 2 1/2 years of an 8 year term because of mandatory retirement.

In addition, the Administrative Office of the Courts just came out with its 2007 schedule for superior court judges, and if Adam Stein were to win, he'd be taking a judgeship that will require him to be out of the district for all of 2007. The people of Orange and Chatham Counties would only have the opportunity to see him on _our_bench for 1 1/2 years of an eight year term. And, finally, since the typical schedule for superior court judges has them in their own district at most 50% of the time, we can shave off another 6-9 months, when Stein would be sitting out of our judicial district.

One year. And how much has he spent for that one year? More than most people in this district make in two years.

Tom Jensen: I know you're not a journalist, and probably don't hold yourself to the same (admittedly sketchy) standards that journalists accept, but I think many journalists would agree that writing a pro-Stein campaign column without revealing your deep involvement in the Stein campaign, which goes far beyond merely putting up signs, isn't cool.

I guess I'm a sap for not using my Chapel Hill News column to shill for Judge Allen Baddour (who has spent more time in our Superior Court, as a criminal defense attorney, a prosecutor, and a judge, in 11 years than Adam Stein has spent in a lifetime), under the theory that my wife's role as Judge Baddour's campaign treasurer would make such a column an abuse of my privilege as a columnist. Live and learn, I guess.


You have made your feelings on the campaign more than clear and have turned pretty much every thread on OP remotely related to the Superior Court race into an attack on Adam Stein. I think we all get the picture.

I think Allen Baddour is a fine Judge. We are lucky to have such great choices.

Right-of-way signage should be permanently banned! It is a form of vacuous campaigning because there is no merit to having the most signs in the most places, and the alternative, only signs in private property is a sign of support for a candidate.

But most importantly right-of-way signage is a form of litter. People often don't clean them up after the campaign. They are ugly and destroy the scenic nature of many rural highways.

And as a frequent campaign volunteer, they are a waste of time and resources for a campaign.

They should be permanently banned with stiff penalties for abusers of the law.

Wake County does ban right-of-way signs but does almost nothing in way of enforcement. The state ought to make them illegal everywhere, but Orange County should institute a strong and enforceable ban on these signs in the meantime.


And you turned a column only remotely concerned with litter into a campaign advert for Mr. Stein. Good job!

It's not an attack on Adam Stein to point out that he can't serve the term of the office for which he's running, or that he's taken the lead in injecting record amounts of money into this race. Voters might want to ask themselves what the fallout will be from this race, and how many potential future judges will shy away from running because he's raised the bar for every subsequent race when it comes to spending.

I assume your feelings for Judge Baddour will earn him your vote? Or is that the usual false bonhomie, part of the myth of the collegial bar? I'm quite sick of the personally vicious, whisper campaigns going on in this race, and so forgive me if I don't buy the "we are lucky to have such great choices" public line.

I'll admit I have strong feelings about this race, but I let them be known in public.

I call on more people to make their feelings known in public -- especially people who have been around the court and these candidates. It's time for people with an interest in court to quit their silence for fear of getting on the bad side of someone who may or may not become judge. This race is being run on rumor and public relations, and it's got to stop. The people who _know_ something about Superior Court, who know something about our district and its needs, who have seen these men in action, need to speak up. I really don't care what they say, about my candidate or any other.

Tom and Duncan, I haven't been shy in either my support for Judge Baddour or my public concern about Adam Stein's campaign .

Tom, you were a great help in my campaign for Council and gave me sound advice - I think you'll understand that my opinion here isn't biased by my support of Baddour.

Duncan is dead-on. Your column advocates as much for Stein as for picking up trash. Let's not confuse the quality of the man with the responsibility of the candidate. This is a tough job with many demands beyond legal jurisprudence. I'm looking for a candidate that has a strong vision of the court's future and the wherewithal to carry out that vision. Mr. Stein is not that candidate.

Back to the signs. As Tom knows, I struggled with this issue quite a bit - probably to some detriment to my campaign. Everyone (and I mean every single person) - a mix of current and former candidates - I consulted said that going without signs in Chapel Hill was a non-starter.

I had signs. They and the mailings constituted %95 of my campaign expenses.

Justin, my signs were effective in getting my name out there AND they were (not completely ;-) ) effective at communicating a message. Essentially, the signs are a form of speech. While distributing them to supporters is fine, it's also quite inefficient.

As far as "care and maintenance", I tracked every one of my signs and "fed and nourished" them.

Like Hughes, I picked up trash around my signs as I made the rounds. As far as signs as trash - heck, I spent more time fixing other folks signs (especially Ed Harrison's @ 3 to 1 )than my own. I cleaned every one of my signs up by the next morning and collected (with the permission of various candidates) - that day and over the next week or so - many more.

If I run again, I will not forego using them though I'll pull a Jacquie and re-use my existing signs (thus saving hundreds).

Regarding signs, why-oh-why doesn't every single candidate put their URLs on them? It seems like the most useful information you could give a potential voter in the few inches you have.

Because they're driving by the signs so fast that they aren't able to read the URL?

Folks must've seen my URL as I got more hits on my site than can be accounted for by links from OP. One reason the corner of MLK.Estes is such hot territory is folks have to wait there before turning - wait long enough, I imagine, even to read a URL.

So, if not signs, what else? Radio? It cost me $180 for 10 spots - not cost effective for a campaign spending nearly $5000 less than some of the candidates. Newspaper ads? Even more expensive.

If campaign signs really have any influence I would think that voter turnout would be better than it has been in our last few elections. What was it last year? - something like 16%? It's hard for me to imagine that the same electorate that turns out so faithfully time and time again need a sign to remind them of who the candidates are. But then again, I've never run for office so I have no facts to back this up.

Signs can be (and usually are) vacuous as someone above posted, but they don't have to be. Ruby's point about adding URL's is one way that signs could be more effective, but I have seen lots of old school campaign signs that communicate a lot with a little.

I can't remember the candidate's actual name, but here is a sign I saw in Harnett County some years ago:

Jane Smith for School Board: Protecting All God's Children

Personally, I thought this communicated a lot - I mean a whole lot - about who this candidate is and what she believes in. And had I been a Harnett County voter, I believe that I would have been casting a more informed vote in that race for having seen her sign.

Likewise, Dan Coleman mentioned above that Joyce Brown always used low-budget handmade signs with various environmental themes depicted on them. Now you could say that that is vacuous, but particularly back in 1989 when these signs first appeared they were entirely unprecedented. They were talked about at length in Chapel Hill policital circles and also (more importantly) outside political circles. Their craftsmanship and aesthetic qualities combined with the phrase "Keep It Green" told the world volumes about who Joyce is and also about what kind of campaign she was running.

Did Joyce's signs address so much as one substantive issue at stake in 1989? No, but voters generally are not voting for candidates as a surrogate for a referendum on a single issue (even in dramatic cases such as Moses Carey's re-election 2 years ago). Voters are trying to pick someone whose style and approach will satisfactorily resolve both the current issues AND the issues that have not yet arisen (as well as current issues that the voter is unaware of). Knowing what Joyce's signs were like told us that she was different than any candidate in living memory, that she was bringing an environmental perspective (not a default assumption at that time) and that she was not running on the strength of large amounts of money. And Joyce did in fact bring those same values to the Town Council.

So, yes, yard signs are usually vacuous, but they certainly don't have to be.

I've been thinking about the notion that we should take advantage of candidates' proximity to somethinng that needs to be done by requiring them to do something like pick up trash around their signs (bring biscuits for poor people when going door-to-door? trim branches that obscure road signs? remove roadkill that they might encounter on their routes?) & realized that there is one simple thing we absolutely should require of Democratic Party candidates or withold our votes - if they do not unequivocally oppose the Occupation of Iraq, the torture policies of the U.S., and the systematic attack on our constitutional rights.

I think we shold just go with picking up roadkill.

Mark, are you suggesting slinging a dead cat? (no offense to dead cats). If so, don't you risk a dead cat bounce?

yuck mark its grossing me out

Picking up roadside trash = a noble apology for cluttering the landscape with campaign signs. Yard signs (same product) display actual support and have more impact than the wholesale planting that crops up every November.

I was driving down Seawell School Road when I saw what I thought was someone tampering with a sign. I drove down the road, made a safe turn around, and realized I was mistaken. It was a man placing an "Endorsed by The Independant" placard to an Adam Stein sign.

By the time I reached him he had already made it to his car which was parked on a dirt side street. I stopped him as he was driving out and we chatted briefly. I thanked him for his work and he thanked me for my vigilance.

Tonight I read about Staples Hughes and wonder if this was the man I met that day. I would like to think it was.

In case anyone missed Tom's latest (10/14) column, he concludes with the mea culpa that Duncan implicitly calls for above:

On another note, my column last week about campaign signs referred to my putting them up for Superior Court candidate Adam Stein. I should have made it clearer that I am heavily involved in his campaign and apologize to anyone who wasn't aware of that.

Nicely done.

I agree.

That is, I agree that it's professional and more than sufficient. Most people would have told me to f--- off.

In fact, most people _do_ tell me to f--- off. It's how I'm normally greeted at cocktail parties, at the garage, at the library (by the librarians, who have tired of my incessant requests for various _other_ editions of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici and Hydriotaphia). At home, too.


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