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California and the West

Sign-Stealing Still Part of Some Campaigns

Politics: Such skulduggery haunts some areas of San Diego County. Three misdemeanor cases are pending, and opponents are often the suspects.

November 08, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Before the 1998 political season fades into history, let us consider that low-grade but persistent political crime: campaign sign-stealing.

"We've had an epidemic of it this year," said Gayle Falkenthal, spokeswoman for San Diego County Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst. Her boss is not amused.

"Theft is not permissible, even when it's part of a political disagreement," Falkenthal said. "Stealing a sign from a lawn is no different than shoplifting a pair of jeans from a department store."

Three cases of misdemeanor theft/vandalism are pending, with more possible. For reasons that defy easy explanation, political sign-stealing seems to be a suburban and smaller-city phenomenon.

In the seaside community of Encinitas, an upstart City Council candidate complained about her signs disappearing. A campaign worker for a rival candidate will stand trial to explain why those signs were found in the back of his pickup.

In Vista, longtime Mayor Gloria McClellan said sign-stealing and/or defacing was worse than ever this year. In Escondido, an exasperated candidate offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the thief or thieves ripping off his signs (no takers).

And in Oceanside, carloads of teenagers dressed as hooded ninja warriors were spotted ripping down signs for local Proposition V, which would allow a hotel developer to lease city parkland (the measure won anyway).

But for sheer skulduggery, the prize may go to the case of the disappearing apple-shaped signs placed by an incumbent for the Cajon Valley school board.

It bears noting that the eastern section of San Diego County is known for poke-in-the-eye school board elections, often followed by recall movements, calls for grand jury investigations and outraged letters to newspaper editors. Rare is the school pot that is not being stirred by one faction or another.

"The voters elect school candidates who are guaranteed to cause trouble," said Marjorie Van Nuis, a founder of the Mainstream Voters Project, a group dedicated to "fighting political extremism" in the area.

Which brings us to Jill D. Barto, elected in 1994 with the backing of Christian groups and the anti-abortion movement to the Cajon Valley Union School District board, which oversees 20,000 students in 20 schools.

*

Barto's campaign in 1994 found a novel way to break through the clutter of political placards: rosy-red signs shaped like apples. It was an innovative tactic admired by rivals.

This season, however, Barto found that her apple-shaped signs were being destroyed or stolen. With the candidate running on a tight budget, the signs were hand-crafted. Volunteers used scissors to cut the cardboard into its distinctive shape.

Barto says 200 to 300 signs were vandalized in recent weeks. At $8 to $10 a pop, that's a heavy hit on a tight-money campaign.

"We noticed the M.O. was always the same," she said. "The sticks holding the signs were broken, and the signs were ripped up and left on the ground. It was very disturbing."

About two weeks ago Barto and her husband, Duane, a telephone company technician, decided that enough was enough. Duane took time off from work and, after recruiting some campaign workers, began a late-night stakeout. Volunteers sat in cars on darkened streets and communicated with cellular phones.

Shortly before midnight Monday, a bare seven hours before the polls were to open, Duane and a campaign volunteer allegedly saw a 1992 Mazda van pull up to a location dotted with the candidate's apple-shaped signs.

Duane says a man jumped out of the Mazda and grabbed several before rejoining a woman inside the van. Duane called El Cajon police and kept tailing the vehicle.

According to Lt. Fred Morrison, police stopped the van in front of a pest control business and found signs for Barto and Assemblyman Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon) inside. Duane Barto and the campaign worker then arrived and placed the couple in the van under citizens arrest.

The woman was identified as Taghrid Bakeer, 28, also a candidate for the Cajon Valley school board. "I thought we were friends," Jill Barto said.

The man in the van was identified as Bakeer's husband, Emad, 47, an audiovisual engineer and candidate for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca College District board.

The Bakeers are politically aligned with a former member of the Grossmont Union High School District board who resigned this year when faced with a recall backed by parents and teachers and a legal challenge to her residency.

Taghrid Bakeer was cited and released. After police found a prior conviction for petty theft, Emad Bakeer spent the night in jail.

He was released in time to watch election results Tuesday. Barto was reelected easily and both Bakeers were defeated by wide margins.

Barto says she has no desire to see the Bakeers sent to jail; she just wants the sign snatching to stop.

"The school district needs to mend," Barto said. "We need to respect each other, and to respect each other's signs."

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