The side of the road in front of George Bittner’s West Austin residence has become a political battleground, one littered with the remains of Beto O’Rourke campaign signs.
Over the past several weeks, Bittner has marched 14 “Beto for Senate” campaign signs out to the front of his home, and one after another they’ve fallen. The signs have been torn up, knocked down and stolen, and finally two handmade signs warning away the serial sign attacker were spray-painted to read “Trump” and “MAGA.”
“I think, considering the timing and repetition, it’s pretty obvious it’s not just some neighborhood kids — it’s probably (Donald) Trump or (Ted) Cruz supporters,” said Bittner, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas. “This is certainly a focused attempt to inhibit my political speech, considering the number of attempts.”
Less than two months from Election Day, the contentious U.S. Senate race between O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman from El Paso, and Republican incumbent Ted Cruz has captured national attention and left many Texans drawing political battle lines.
Bittner’s neighborhood on the banks of Lake Austin is home to mostly retirees and families, many of whom are unsure of what to make of the campaign sign attacks. Nobody appears to have a lead on a suspect, either.
After the theft of his fifth sign, Bittner began reporting the incidents to the Austin Police Department. Workers at Ace Marina, across the street from Bittner’s house, said they were questioned by detectives and had even noticed signs disappearing within 30 minutes of Bittner planting them in the grass.
“Trump supporters are turning what has been a very quiet neighborhood into a high crime neighborhood,” Bittner said.
People who remove or destroy campaign signs could face criminal mischief or theft charges, an Austin police spokeswoman said. Both offenses are Class C misdemeanors if the value of the property damaged is less than $100.
Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, pointed out that during election season, criminal activity involving campaign signs is nothing new.
“I could see there being an uptick just because it’s a close and intense race,” Mackowiak said. “Those factors will make an unfortunate and illegal activity more prevalent on both sides of the aisle.”
Travis County Democratic Party Chairwoman Dyana Limon-Mercado said Bittner’s woes are familiar to other O’Rourke supporters. In the past couple of months, Limon-Mercado said, her office has received at least a dozen reports from Travis County residents who have had five or more O’Rourke campaign signs stolen or destroyed.
“I think it speaks to how much support Beto has from all his supporters, and it speaks to how Cruz supporters are acting out of fear to the support Beto has,” she said. “The level of vandalism and theft just speaks to Ted Cruz’s base, whether or not he condones it.”
Mackowiak said he certainly doesn’t condone campaign sign vandalism by supporters of either party. He said that his office had not received any reports of Cruz signs being stolen or destroyed in Travis County. As Election Day draws closer and more Cruz signs are distributed across the county, Mackowiak said, he expects there to be an increase in vandalism targeting Cruz supporters and their signs.
As Austin police investigate the theft and destruction of his signs, Bittner said he isn’t confident his mysterious nemesis will be caught. Meanwhile, he sees his continual replacement of the O’Rourke signs as a righteous battle on behalf of free speech.
“I’m simply a soldier who … is fighting back,” Bittner said. “I’m under attack, but I’m not diving for cover; I’m firing back.”
Early voting for Nov. 6 elections will start Oct. 22. For comprehensive, expert reporting on local politics and the upcoming elections, visit statesman.com/elections.
City and state law ban political signs on public property, including rights of way along streets and highways. They can be on private property only with the property owner’s approval.