Most summers, they sprout from Brooklyn lampposts like a wild variety of urban flora: posterica politicanus. But this year, a blight has descended on the species. The city Department of Sanitation has been cracking down on the campaign signs that pols from Fort Greene to East New York have long counted on to make a name for themselves.
The campaign offices of Hakeem Jeffries, a lawyer who is running for Roger Green’s assembly seat, and Barry Ford, who for the second time is hoping to unseat Congressman Edolphus Towns, both received notices last month warning that they must remove all posters or face fines. Penalties start at $50 per poster for the first offense up to $250 for repeated violations. Assemblyman Clarence Norman, who is also the chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, got the royal treatment: a visit to his campaign office from a group of Sanitation supervisors, who warned the staff that they had five days to take hundreds of posters down.
The challengers protest that the crackdown has robbed them of one of the critical tools they rely on to break incumbents’ lock on power. “It’s a complete infringement of speech,” said Ford campaign manager Grace Bonilla. “If you’re an insurgent campaign, it’s the only way to reach voters.” The posters are usually stapled in pairs around a pole, leaving property undamaged. Brooklyn’s posters traditionally feature a large photograph of a candidate, an important way to let black voters know they’re supporting one of their own.
Rather than risk the fines, most candidates are playing it safe. Jeffries has taken all of his down until he’s certain he won’t get fined. “It’s not money we want to burn,” he said. His campaign has about $41,000 in the bank. Ford’s campaign has decided that it’s worth taking a chance in some cases. “We’re careful about where we poster,” said Bonilla. “There are some places where we still do it, like a block party.”
Norman, who was fined $1,500 in his last race, insists that Sanitation’s enforcement is selective–and driven by phone calls from aggressive campaigns. “Sanitation looks the other way until someone calls,” he said. “In races that are not hotly contested, Sanitation doesn’t give out summonses.”
According to Charles Barron, who will be running for City Council against Priscilla Wooten for the second time next year, postering is still the way to go. In 1997, hundreds of his posters vanished, but a warning letter was the worst he got from the city. This time, he’s saving his nicest posters for Election Day. Said Barron, “We’ll put them up at midnight.”