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A sign of the times: Islanders rally against theft and vandalism of political signs

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Part of the group protesting Saturday in the Center over the theft and destruction of political lawn signs.
Part of the group protesting Saturday in the Center over the theft and destruction of political lawn signs.

A gathering of more than 20 people assembled Saturday morning in the Center to protest the theft and trashing of political lawn signs.

Billed as a “free speech rally,” the group stood on the sidewalk between the Library and Schmidt’s. There were signs shown to passing motorists reading: “Stealing Rights Is Wrong,” and “Our Rights Aren’t Up For Election.”

Among the protesters were the chairs of the Island’s Republican and Democratic committees and candidates for the Town Board — Republican challenger Amber Brach-Williams and Democratic incumbent Mary Dudley — joined the group. Republican Councilwoman Chris Lewis also attended.

Organized by Heather Reylek, chairwoman of the Island’s Democratic Committee, the gathering was a bipartisan affair, although supporters of Ms. Dudley, Anna Throne-Holst for Congress and Hillary Clinton for president, outnumbered those supporting Ms. Williams, Congressman Lee Zeldin and Donald Trump.

Everyone attending, however, said they had never experienced anything like the number of cases of theft and vandalism of lawn signs this political season compared to others. Bob Reylek, a Democrat who has run for the Town Board, said, “It wasn’t this bad even when Obama was running.”

The Shelter Island Police Department has told the Reporter that cases of sign stealing and vandalism are normal for a presidential election year, but those who gathered Saturday heartily disagree. Reporter columnist Bob DeStefano said

Republican signs had been stolen three times in the last few weeks from his property and now he has one chained to a tree. His son Bob DeStefano Jr., chairman of the Island’s Republican Committee, said he had given out numerous signs touting Republican candidates and almost all had been stolen or vandalized.

“It’s both sides,” Ms. Reylek said, noting that it had begun with signs supporting Ms. Dudley earlier in the campaign season and has continued. “The country over the last few years has become more polarized and Trump has made it worse,” she added.

Ms. Dudley has had her lawn sign endorsing her candidacy ripped to pieces in the middle of the night. Asked if this frightened her, the councilwoman said she had initially felt anger along with fear, but her emotions quickly turned to sadness at the state of some people’s ideas about political behavior.

Ms. Brach-Williams wrote a letter to the Reporter when she learned what was happening to Ms. Dudley’s signs, stating that she “would like to go on the record that I don’t condone any activity that maliciously disrespects her [Ms. Dudley’s] campaign efforts.”

Ms. Brach-Williams said at the rally that she had a sign stolen and one “run over.”

Don Young, who had lettered signs spelling out “HILLARY” on his property woke one morning to find that someone removed most of them and rearranged four to spell “LIAR.”

A native of England and  U.S. citizen Frank Emmett stopped by the rally after voting for the library budget. , Mr. Emmett, , who identified himself as an Independent, said  he was appalled that there are some people who want to interfere with “one of our rights. This is who we are. You can say what you want.”

Lisa Cholnoky, a Democrat said, “vitriol is at an all time high.” Ms. Cholnoky has a 13-year-old son, and is concerned for his future in a place where the right to express an opinion is under siege.

Don DeVries, who had a sign stolen from the front of his house, said he was attending the rally because “stealing signs is not the way a community should operate or members of that community should communicate with each other.”