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An illustration of a burglar stealing a political sign from a yard

Maggie Sivit

Stealing campaign signs is a Chicago tradition steeped in machine politics

It was 2:30 a.m. when Ann Brekke was jolted out of a dead sleep. She heard some empty cans clinking around the front yard, then suddenly a car screeching away.

The next morning, Brekke went outside and saw that, yet again, someone had stolen the political yard sign off her lawn.

Sign stealing and other campaign hijinks are par for the course for municipal elections in the Chicago area.

Back in 2007, it was especially rampant in the 50th Ward, where the Wasmer-Brekke family lived. At the time, the family was locked in a heated sign war. Every time they put up signs for Naisy Dolar, they would get swiped. They brainstormed ways to catch the thief, including the one that woke Brekke up in the middle of the night: tying empty cans to a decoy sign, so they’d rattle if it was pulled away.

Recently, the Wasmer-Brekke family asked Curious City who’s behind what seems to be an election time tradition of stealing yard signs.

The family laughs off their sign-stealing saga today, but what they experienced is rooted in Chicago political history. It’s a tradition that goes back more than 100 years, when the city was rebuilding after the Chicago Fire and saloon and brothel owners had great influence. While it’s not what it used to be, election shenanigans still happen today.

Saloons, politicians and the machine

“Sign stealing has been going on as long as signs have been printed,” said Dick Simpson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Simpson, who served as alderperson of the 44th Ward in the 1970s, said the tactic goes back more than a 100 years in Chicago. It was particularly rampant in the rough-and-tumble time of machine politics when patronage jobs and favors were given out in order to win an election.

 Machine politics in the city can be traced back to 1871, right after the Chicago Fire. A gambler and saloonkeeper named Michael McDonald saw the common interests between saloon and brothel owners and the city’s politicians. He’s credited as the city’s first political boss.

“It was the saloon keepers, the bars, the brothels — [they] would pay off the politicians and the politicians would tell the police not to raid these fine business establishments,” Simpson said.

Simpson said the saloons would also give free lunch and beer to anyone that voted for their preferred candidates. Saloons became so synonymous with politics that in the late 19th century some of the most prominent aldermen were saloon owners.

Machine politics reached its height in the mid-20th century, under former Mayor Richard J. Daley.

By that time, precinct captains and ward committeemen were considered a party’s foot soldiers, and were tasked with shoring up voters’ support, often taking extreme measures.

They did the dirty work or assigned campaign workers with such tasks as sign stealing.

After the Shakman Consent Decree in 1972, hiring and promotions in Chicago and Cook County government were put under federal court oversight. As a result, Simpson said the ward committeeman post is much weaker today, primarily because there are almost no patronage jobs to give out.

However, federal oversight didn’t fix Chicago’s patronage politics overnight, and as a result, campaign workers were still tasked with taking down opponents’ signs into the 2000s.

Dirty tricks

The late Bernard Stone was the longest-serving alderperson of the 50th Ward, where the Wasmer-Brekke family has lived since the late 1990s.

 The Wasmer-Brekke family said they often felt ignored by Ald. Stone, who only seemed to fulfill their requests for things like new garbage cans or tree trimming during election time.

So they put signs up for his opponent, newcomer Naisy Dolar. But like many other Dolar signs in the ward, they went missing. A Chicago Sun-Times headline from the 2007 election season read: “Stealing signs business as usual in 50th Ward.”

And the Wasmer-Brekke family had their suspicions of who was behind the theft.

“I kind of imagined that it was the precinct captain doing his routine,” Dan Wasmer said. After all, the ward had been a machine stronghold since the early 20th century.

Stone was even asked by WBEZ at the time if there was any truth to rumors that his supporters were pressuring residents to take down signs of his opponents.

“Well that’s tough,” Stone responded. “I don’t know if it’s happening, but if it is, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Dolar, for her part, expected some political mudslinging, but she didn’t know how far the dirty tricks would go.

“Our signs would get stolen, our cars were getting moved,” she said.

Later, two of Stone’s former political workers, one of whom was a precinct captain, would be sentenced to nearly a year in jail for attempting to manipulate absentee ballots in that election.

Ultimately, Dolar lost the election by about 700 votes. While she doesn’t think the sign stealing contributed to the loss, it was the dirty politics in general that left her feeling drained and turned off from ever running for office again.

“Signs don’t vote”

“The machine may be dead, but there's sure a lot of old leftover soldiers in the machine business,” said a Chicago campaign worker who wished to remain anonymous.

The campaign worker said while many long-serving machine politicians who used sign stealing as a tactic are no longer in office, old habits die hard.

Ask any alderperson at Chicago City Hall about sign stealing today, and it’s almost a quaint topic. They’ve all been victims of it.

“We've had precincts across the 26th Ward where there are signs put up and [they got] completely wiped out overnight,” said Ald. Jessie Fuentes of the 26th Ward. “A lot of it has to do with wanting to remove names, so that there's not a building of name recognition.”

 Fuentes said it’s also a way to force campaigns to spend more money on printing new signs.

Sign stealing is illegal, and people have been caught before. In 2010, former Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica was convicted of a misdemeanor for tearing down his opponent’s signs in west suburban McCook.

And in 2017, a former library board member in suburban Elgin was convicted of misdemeanor theft for stealing signs in the local municipal election. A witness alerted police after seeing him load signs into the back of his car.

But these days, local candidates are less concerned about lawn signs than they used to be, since there are a plethora of ways to get the word out about a campaign — including social media and texting. The campaign worker said lawn signs can cost about $5 a piece, but texting a voter is less than 10 cents.

“The new lawn sign is the text message. It’s more valuable because we’re all attached to [our phones],” he said.

Ald. Maria Hadden of the 49th Ward said, “[Sign stealing is] annoying, but it's really small potatoes in the scope of most things you're concerned with in a campaign. There's always more signs.”

“It's very important to remember: signs don't vote.”

Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ. Follow her @Tessa_Weinberg

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