Initiative 300 sets off campaign sign skirmishes and thefts across Denver

Both sides of the debate over whether to overturn Denver’s urban camping ban say their campaign signs are being taken from yards.
5 min. read
Initiative 300 election signs. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite and Hart Van Denberg/CPR)

Perhaps some Denverites are playing a citywide, political game of capture the flag that they haven't told the rest of us about.

Both sides of the debate over Initiative 300, the measure on the May 7 municipal ballot asking voters to overturn Denver's urban camping ban, say their campaign signs are being taken from yards. One man told 9News he looked out a window of his house and saw a woman take his red-white-and-teal "No on 300" sign from his yard and walk away. He said she doused him with pepper spray after he followed to approach her on the street.

We hear again and again that people on opposite sides of political divides won't listen to one another's perspectives. Now it seems they can't stand the sight of an opinion they don't share.

"I don't think that stealing signs is unusual in this day and age," said Kristina Cook, an opponent of 300. "It's indicative of our divided political climate."

The former talk radio host and current Denver County GOP chair said that when she was on the air she tried to model civil discourse. But she acknowledges her old medium may have contributed to the climate, and "some of it is CNN and headline news -- getting our news in 30-second sound bites."

"I'd like to see an end to it," she said. "It's something that worries me a lot."

Bree Davies, a 300 supporter, expressed both concern and lack of surprise that what she called "intense" feelings had led some to take action. She said the action they should take is to vote. Mail-in ballots began reaching Denver households last week.

Davies is press sorceress (that's her title) for mayoral candidate Kalyn Heffernan, whose campaign sometimes has a merry prankster feel. It has, for example, recommended that supporters recycle those ubiquitous "cash for houses" placards into posters for Heffernan.

"But I would never tell somebody to take a (campaign) sign down," Davies said.

Alvina Vasquez, communications director for the anti-300 campaign known as Together Denver, said her organization had heard on the news of the pepper spray incident and received a number of requests for replacements after signs disappeared.

"What we want is for people to engage respectfully," she said.

"We reviewed emails and posts about the signs and conservatively 200 signs have gone missing," Vasquez added in an email. "We have delivered more than 5,100 signs."

Denver Homeless Out Loud, an advocacy group whose leaders and members include people living on the streets, gathered signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

"Our signs have been taken, too," said Terese Howard, who has helped lead Denver Homeless Out Loud's campaign for 300.

She did not have a count of missing yellow-and-white "Yes on 300" signs. Several were taken from a tent camp of people living in homelessness in Curtis Park on two occasions by a man Howard could only identify as a "guy in a truck."  She said Denver Homeless Out Loud had printed 500 of its signs.

The disparity in sign arsenals parallels a financial gap. Together Denver, backed by some of the city's biggest businesses and industry groups as well as statewide and national organizations, has raised more than $1.5 million for its campaign, according to a March report filed with the Denver Elections Division. Homeless Out Loud's  pro-300 committee has raised just under $80,000, most in small amounts from individuals.

Davies, the 300 supporter, said a sense they are up against a behemoth may be intensifying passions on her side.

But "we do need to respect both sides of this debate, no matter how inequitable the sides are," she said.

Denver Homeless Out Loud says overturning the camping ban, which bars people from using even a blanket to shelter in public spaces, is a matter of protecting basic rights. Howard questioned whether outrage over signs being removed matched the response to "homeless people's blankets being taken."

Together Denver says 300 is so vague and broad that it will not only topple the camping ban but prevent city officials from maintaining the order, safety and security needed to protect lives and livelihoods.

Nonprofits that provide housing, health and other services to those in need oppose the camping ban and have criticized the amount 300's opponents have spent on their campaign. But groups like the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Catholic Charities and the Denver Rescue Mission also say 300 could prevent them from extending aid to those living in homelessness.

Meanwhile, no arrest has been made in the pepper spray incident, which occurred last week, Denver police spokesman Sonny Jackson said Monday. Jackson added it's rare for anyone to report a sign's disappearance to his department.

And violence -- albeit in the form of pepper spray -- in the sign skirmishes? "That is unusual," Jackson said.

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