San Jose sign thieves caught in the act
Lawn signs, long a staple during election season, have been disappearing since the June primary. Candidates from various campaigns have reported signs as stolen or missing. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Election signs are disappearing across San Jose, and local candidates are asking would-be thieves to keep off the grass.

    It’s part of an ongoing trend that candidates say disrupts the democratic process.

    San Jose Councilmember Matt Mahan, who is running for mayor, said hundreds of campaign signs have disappeared in the span of a few weeks — and there is video evidence of some thefts. His campaign has distributed more than 5,000 signs and replacing missing ones is costing the campaign thousands of dollars.

    One video obtained by Mahan’s campaign filmed on Aug. 28 shows home security camera footage of a car pulling up to a residence as a passenger runs out and removes a sign before leaving. In another video obtained by the campaign and filmed on Sept. 23, an individual walks up to a campaign banner outside of a business, and removes it from a chain-link fence. San José Spotlight reviewed both videos, one of which clearly shows Mahan’s name on the sign being stolen.

    While the thieves are unidentified, Mahan said the scale of the thefts indicate more than random vandalism.

    “San Jose is better than this. We should embrace debate and discussion—not make our politics so toxic that people feel that theft is an appropriate response to political disagreement,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “I certainly call upon my opponent Cindy Chavez to send a clear message to her supporters that theft and vandalism are wrong. All campaigns should do that—and I am certainly asking my supporters not to retaliate.”

    Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez’s mayoral campaign is facing the same problem, said Brian Parvizshahi, a spokesperson for her campaign. 

    “(Supporters) feel proud to put (out) a sign to show their support. And then they feel violated when it’s stolen from them,” Parvizshahi told San José Spotlight. “If someone supporting Cindy is taking down Mahan signs—please stop. It’s not being helpful. We hope the Mahan campaign would encourage the same.”

    Campaign signs were targets ahead of the June primary election, which experts said could be particularly damaging for first-time candidates who need to build name recognition and visibility. Some candidates have also faced opposition mailers and digital text campaigns, efforts that are often funded by special interest groups. It doesn’t stop there: transitions of power between successors and predecessors of an office can also be rife with conflict.

    Lifting lawn signs

    The stolen signs aren’t unique only to the San Jose mayor’s race.

    Irene Smith, a San Jose City Council District 3 candidate, said her signs have gone missing too. She said stolen or vandalized campaign signs indicate a political climate that is intolerant of other candidates and viewpoints.

    “It’s not so minor because it’s suppressing the right to free speech in a political process. It’s a right that we all guarantee,” Smith told San José Spotlight. “We should take it more seriously than the Halloween (toilet papering) of a house.”

    Smith said each sign that goes missing means a volunteer or herself takes extra time to replace them. Her campaign is using cable ties to help residents secure signs to their homes.

    Lawn signs represent a campaign’s financial efforts and should be left alone, said Omar Torres, also a candidate in the District 3 race. He said more than 50 signs have been taken from his campaign.

    “I hope that lawn signs are not being taken out of spite,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “Before a supporter of a candidate steals a lawn sign, they should think of all the hard work the candidate has done to get such an expensive lawn sign and investment from their donors as well.”

    Bien Doan, a San Jose City Council District 7 candidate, estimated hundreds of his signs have gone missing from residents’ yards and local businesses. Stealing a sign can constitute petty theft, a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment and/or fines up to $1,000 in California.

    “Stealing signs is a very minor symptom of the more concerning problems our (District 7) community faces, such as experiencing the highest violent crime rate in the city,” Doan told San José Spotlight.

    District 7 Councilmember Maya Esparza felt the stolen sign pain during the June primary, a concerning trend that limits civic engagement, said campaign spokesperson Nick Kaspar. The campaign has not yet distributed signs for the general election.

    The consequences of vandalized and stolen campaign signs go deeper than just politics, officials like Mahan said.

    “It matters because we all want to live in a city where people obey the law and political differences are addressed with debate,” Mahan said, “Not theft.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

    Comment Policy (updated 11/1/2021): We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by administrators.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.