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Lawyers, guns and muzzles

Staff Reports

When Republican Barry Goldwater and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson were locked in a nation-dividing presidential battle in 1964, Wendy and Dick Gustafson (he’s a former Eagle County Commissioner) and their family lived in San Rafael, California. One day Wendy was run off the road by a screaming fist-shaker who called her a “John Bircher,” referring to a well-known politically conservative group. She figures it had something to do with her car’s Goldwater bumper sticker. “And that’s the last bumper sticker I’ve ever put on my car,” she says some forty years later.Permanent life lessons tend to evolve quickly from life-threatening intimidation, and that’s something intimidators throughout history have counted on. Fast-forward to present-day America in the grip of yet another scorched-earth presidential election, and the same tactics are being used to cow those whose views a certain rabid element finds objectionable.Locally, Bush-Cheney and other Republican campaign signs have been burned, chain-sawed and simply stolen, while Democrat Arn Menconi also reports some mysterious disappearances of his election signs. The most starkly sinister anti-Bush messages are the large 4-by-8 foot torched and blackened Bush/Cheney sign that still stands near Wolcott, and the two back-to-back signs with their centers sawed out, located in Avon off the I-70 exit overlooking Wal-Mart.When Eagle County Bush-Cheney co-chair Henri Stone, wife of County Commissioner Tom Stone, called local violence against Bush-Cheney and other Republican campaign signs “Hitler’s brown-shirt tactics” she was roundly chastised for over-dramatizing the events’ significance by invoking the Nazi era. But similar events happening across the nation vindicate her position, she says.”I’ve been criticized for comparing the sign-burning to cross-burning and the actions of the brown shirts, but I won’t take back one word,” says Stone. “The mentality is exactly the same. It’s like it started out with Hitler, and then people are afraid to vote, afraid to speak, and afraid to support the president. The purpose of burning crosses was to intimidate people, and the purpose of chain sawing those signs is to frighten people so they stop putting signs in their yards or windows for fear of being hurt or having their homes damaged. Just like the brown shirts in Hitler’s Germany, this is the only way they can win.”But there’s no evidence that the vandals were Democrats, says Eagle County Democratic Chairwoman Debbie Marquez they’re just anti-Bush. Marquez points out that some Democratic signs are vanishing, too. In a written statement she declared, “We want Henri Stone to know that we do not have ‘Hitler style brown shirts’ destroying property. On the contrary, we encourage all citizens to support their candidates with signs and bumper stickers and we want anyone who destroys property to be brought to justice.”On Sept. 30, the same day Debbie Marquez released her statement, the Vail Daily noted that no signs promoting Democrats John Kerry or Ken Salazar had been reported damaged. Contacted for this story, Marquez declined to comment on whether Democratic signs were being swiped.After one of Henri Stone’s commentaries a Tipsline caller advised her husband to buy her a muzzle for Christmas. The suggestion inspired hearty guffaws from them both; especially her. “It’s so funny, this backward thinking from people who don’t like women to express themselves,” says Stone. “In the Arab countries, they muzzle their women and even make them cover their faces. Maybe these muzzler people would be better off living over there.”‘These muzzler people’No one has yet been identified or caught vandalizing campaign signs, but Republican officials are quick to point toward the Democrats despite Marquez’ statement that local Dems have nothing to do with the latest attacks.Republican sign-putter-upper Ron Howell, campaign manager for District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, estimates he’s erected about 120 signs for all the Republican candidates in areas from Wolcott to East Vail over the past few weeks.”Fifty to 60 of them have been yanked last weekend (Oct. 9 and 10) all our signs in Minturn vanished,” he says with a laugh. “The only things left are Peter Runyon signs.”Runyon, a Democrat, is vying for a County Commissioner seat against Republican Richard De Clark. Howell says he typically puts up a clutch of signs for all the Republican candidates, and they disappear a few at a time.Tom and Henri Stone cite a longtime pattern of Republican signs being removed and replaced by Democratic signs as evidence that local Democrats are involved.”Six years ago was probably the most blatant,” says Tom Stone. “On election day my wife and I got out at 5 a.m. to put up a bunch of signs near each county polling place. We came back two hours later, and they were all gone and replaced by Democratic signs. If it isn’t the Democrats, that’s a pretty amazing coincidence.”Stone says the latest sign-disemboweling above Avon is over the top.”When you’re talking about some fairly inexpensive yard signs, I guess I have come to take that in stride, but for someone to commit arson and then to chainsaw a 4-by-8-foot sign there’s just no excuse for this violence. We put the Avon signs up and they disappeared three times over three days. The third time I backed the signs with heavy plywood and put them in so they would be very difficult to remove. So instead they just destroyed them. There’s no excuse for this violation of free speech. We have a way to express ourselves in this country it’s called the vote.”Not all theft and destruction has been against Republican signs. Democratic County Commissioner Arn Menconi reports that between half a dozen and a dozen of his signs have disappeared from yards countywide.”When I read about the Bush signs being burned, I think how sad it is,” he says. “But I assume it’s not anything organized by a group, it’s typically one individual who is quite frankly just disturbed. They obviously have an inappropriate way of dealing with their anger. I don’t think a political party goes and does this.”Local landowner Magnus Lindholm, on whose Avon property the chain sawed signs sit, was enraged enough at the destruction to offer a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible.”I know we are living in what used to be called the Wild West,” Lindholm remarks, “but I thought that ‘Wild’ part was in the past and that we are now living in a civilized world where freedom of speech is an important part of American society. That is why I was shocked when I heard about the burning of political signs and that somebody had actually brought a chainsaw to saw apart another political sign on my land. What is next? Are they loading their Peace-makers?”Whether one sees the political mayhem going on hereabouts as an ominous attempt to suppress free speech, or as “harmless civil disobedience” to quote Vail Daily writer Matt Zalaznick, has been a hot topic in the county newspapers’ editorial pages.But for some, the issue has become all too real.Virginia Rose, an octogenarian who’s been a county resident for 27 years, likes to socialize with her friends at the Senior Center in Eagle where she’s been hearing some pretty disturbing talk lately.”Somebody with a Bush bumper sticker had their car window broken out,” she says, “and now others are saying they’re afraid to have signs and stickers for Bush.”Friends have also reported their lawn signs stolen, she adds.The cars of Eagle-Vail resident Gunther Schmidt and his daughter had their Bush-Cheney bumper stickers scratched off, but he just stuck new ones right back on. Originally from Germany, Schmidt knows well the history of Hitler’s fascist movement and says the analogy fits.”It starts kind of slow and easy with little things but can escalate into something more,” he comments. “I can see people being threatened by it, and becoming afraid that someone will do something to them. I thought we lived in a free country where you could express your opinion in a nonviolent way, without being punished for it.”Schmidt advises standing firm and defying the attacks. “I would say to continue to show your support for whoever you are supporting don’t give up because we can’t allow this country to go backwards.”On the national level, the sign destruction has amped up into the trashing of Republican offices, physical attacks on Republicans, and even hails of bullets through the windows of campaign offices.As of yet there have been no gunshots fired, but a few other incidences indicate that escalation could happen here.Blowing their doors offHenri Stone got a powerful message that her views could be hazardous to her health when the couple returned home from a short trip to find the French doors to their bedroom shattered. Nothing was taken, indicating to the Stones that more menacing motives than larceny were at work.”I wonder if this was a statement that we can come into your house and get you anytime,” she says. “We were only gone 24 hours, so somebody had to be watching the house.” Stone reported the break-in to the sheriff’s department, and says the incident won’t deter her from speaking out.The reality that you can intimidate some of the people some of the time was driven home to Marty Lich, a Gypsum resident known for her outspoken views on illegal immigration. Her strong voice was quieted last spring by threats against her daughter at school, and by an email message sent from California by LaRaza, an activist Hispanic group.”LaRaza’s email contained personal information about me and said they were going to come to my door and pay me a visit,” Lich recalls.Shaken, she called the FBI.For a year prior, Hispanic students at a local high school had been heckling Lich’s freshman daughter about her mom’s views.”They told her they didn’t like what I was writing, and that they know where we live and will come and beat her up,” Lich says. “They said they could do whatever they wanted in this country and could cross the border whenever they felt like it.”When her daughter begged her not to write any more letters, Lich gave in. The multiple threats, she admits, “silenced me very effectively because of my concern for my family.”Lich and others see evidence of free speech being squelched in the media as well, even though Lich said she often calls the Vail Daily’s tipsline and makes anonymous comments.Longtime local and vocal conservative Mike Spaniola agrees. As former editor with the Vail Daily, Vail Trail, Eagle Valley Enterprise, and the Vail Valley Times, he says he believes some media are restricting free speech.”I saw this in the local newsrooms all the time,” he says, “it was very difficult for anyone who was less than committed to the socialist Democrat agenda. I would hear daily talk that insulted people who didn’t conform to the left-wing views most reporters had.”As city editor at the Vail Daily in 1996, Spaniola occasionally ran a column by Joseph Sobran, a nationally-syndicated conservative writer.”I was told by the managing editor not to run the column,” he recalls. “He said the paper had gotten complaints.”Spaniola told his boss he was interested in publishing a variety of views, on all sides.”I gave up when I realized he would consider me insubordinate even though I was simply standing up for free speech,” he says.As of now, however, the Vail Daily has four registered Republicans on its editorial staff, including Managing Editor Don Rogers.Former publisher Robert Brown indicated that, if anything, the Daily leans to the right. He also said he wasn’t aware of any columnists being pulled because of their views during his tenure (from 1993-1999) at the Daily.”The Vail Daily has traditionally been conservative,” Brown said. “There are thousands of columnists we can choose from and we try to do our best to provide balance in what we choose.”A nation-wide problemIntimidation tactics against the Republican message, Republican headquarters, and Republicans themselves has been reported nationwide, prompting Bush-Cheney ’04 Campaign Chairman Governor Marc Racicot on Oct. 11 to send a firm letter to John Sweeney, who heads the AFL-CIO.Wrote Racicot, “Over the past several weeks, acts of violence and vandalism have occurred at Republican and Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters across the country. In addition to the injuries, property damage and disruption associated with these acts, these events have created a threatening and intimidating atmosphere abhorrent to our democratic process.”On October 5th, according to news reports, witnesses, police reports and admissions of your members, the AFL-CIO, as part of a national strategy, protested at more than a dozen of our campaign and party headquarters across the country.In many locations, the protesters attempted to enter, or entered, campaign or party facilities. As one protester said, ‘Actually, we’re storming into an office.’In Orlando, Florida, injuries and damage were sustained. Protesters forced their way into the facility, fracturing the arm of one staffer, and vandalized the office.In Michigan, Protesters entered a headquarters and engaged in activities apparently intended to disrupt volunteers trying to make phone calls.”Other incidents detailed by Racicot in the letter and confirmed by cable news and newspaper accounts include:A Seattle Republican office break-in where laptop computers with critical information were stolen from top organizing officials.At a break-in in Canton, Ohio, a staffer locked herself into an office while the burglary and ransacking was in progress.Gunshots fired into Bush-Cheney ’04 offices in West Virginia shattered glass while local party members were watching Bush’s convention speech.Gunshots were also fired into Bush-Cheney offices in Florida and Tennessee.In Wisconsin, an 8-by-8 foot swastika was burned into the lawn of a citizen with Bush-Cheney yard signs.Racicot called for Sweeney to put a stop to the union “protest activities that have led to injuries, property damage, vandalism and voter intimidation.”As of yet there is no indication that vandals locally – or nationally are prepared to cease and desist. VTJoy Overbeck can be reached through the Vail Trail by writing Tom Boyd at tboyd@vailtrail.com


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