Phil Brooks, a local supporter of President Donald J. Trump, said that he has had several large Trump yard signs stolen off of his fence. (Andrew Deziel/southernminn.com)

With political tensions on the rise in advance of November’s election, local partisans are reporting a concerning increase in theft and vandalism of yard signs.

The development is concerning both Rice County Republicans Chair Kathy Dodds and Rice County DFL Chair Shawn Groth. While they might disagree on many things, the two local party leaders used much the same language in condemning the thefts.

“It’s not a way to conduct business or conduct an election,” Groth said. “People have a right to have their lawn signs up, and we all should respect that right.”

Dodds said that throughout the county, the Rice County Republicans and Trump Victory Campaign have had to replace numerous signs after theft or vandalism. Even her own neighbor had to have her signs replaced after they were stolen about a month ago, she said.

“It’s a form of shutting down free speech and competition,” Dodds said. “It is criminal to do, and costly for us the people who buy the signs and put up the signs.”

At this point, Groth said that he hasn’t heard local reports of stolen or vandalized Biden campaign signs. However, unlike Republicans, who have had Trump signs up for months, the county DFL just received the signs last Friday.

In years past, Groth said that he’s had signs stolen from his yard. Though they haven’t been stolen or vandalized yet, Groth said that the signs have already elicited negative comments from people walking by.

“It’s always on the back of my mind (that they could be stolen),” he said. “I’m sure we’ll hear about Biden signs being taken or vandalized.”

Minnesota hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1972, the longest streak of any state in the nation. However, polls indicate that Trump is within striking distance of Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Minnesota, thanks mainly to strong support in greater Minnesota. In recent days, that’s led both the Republican and Democratic campaigns to double down their focus on Minnesota as a true “swing state. With Republican enthusiasm for President Trump at high levels, Trump flags, signs and banners dot the county, particularly in rural areas.

In liberal-leaning Northfield, the look is a bit different. With Democrats enjoying strong support there, signs for Biden and other local candidates like Rep. Angie Craig and State Rep. Todd Lippert are much more common.

Both parties' signs can be vulnerable to theft or vandalism. Faribault Police Capt. Neal Pederson said that his department has been receiving reports of local yard sign thefts. In some cases, the department has worked with homeowners to stop the thefts, such as by installing security cameras. In one case, Pederson said that the department caught a couple of juveniles stealing signs. However, he said that the police often follow the lead of homeowners interested in a more lenient approach, particularly when juveniles may be involved.

Phil Brooks, a local supporter of President Trump, said that he’s had two large Trump signs stolen from his fence. His neighbor’s even larger pro-Trump display, which also includes signs for other Republican candidates, has been subject to vandalism.

Still, Brooks and his neighbor have kept the pro-Trump signage in their yard. While he said that’s netted him some verbal abuse, Brooks said that many others stop by to honk their horns, take pictures and express their strong support for the president and Republicans.

John Culhane, another local Trump supporter, said that he’d put up signs for prior Republican candidates like John McCain and Mitt Romney without issue. However, he had three Trump signs stolen from his yard in 2016 and another this year.

Culhane said he isn’t the only local Trump supporter to lose his signs. However, he said that he has hesitated to report the issue to police because he suspects many of the culprits are likely juveniles, and doesn’t want them to get in too much trouble.

“If you’ve got a kid who’s in seventh grade, and is (stealing the sign) because somebody told him that Trump is a racist, he doesn’t need to get in trouble,” Culhane said. “The police have enough things to worry about without worrying about my yard sign.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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