Posted: June 21, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

On the day Ferris W. Wharton premiered a video promoting his experience as a criminal prosecutor, his campaign acknowledged it has run a bit afoul of the civil side of the law.

Wharton, the Republican candidate for attorney general, became one of the first politicians to feel the sting of a new law and tougher enforcement by the Delaware Transportation Department to keep roadsides free of the clutter and safety hazards of signs, including the ones for campaigns.

Wharton's campaign owes $100 in fines -- or $25 for each of four signs -- placed too close to the roadway along Shipley Road, Foulk Road, Marsh Road and Silverside Road, all in Brandywine Hundred in northern New Castle County.

"We do have pictures," said Darrel W. Cole, the Transportation Department's public relations director.

As violations go, this one probably competes for severity with overstaying at a parking meter, but it is a more noteworthy blemish for a candidate running on his mastery of the law. In fact, the new video on Wharton's Web site at is titled "Accomplished."

The video trumpets Wharton's 26 years as a prosecutor, and although it never directly mentions Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, the senator's son who is the Democratic candidate, it is dismissive of him as it shows Wharton saying, "Ambition is not a substitute for accomplishment."

David A. Crossan, the state Republican Party's executive director, chalked up the errant signs to overeager volunteers. "Especially for statewide campaigns, you have very little control over your signs even when you give proper instruction. It seems a little unfair because you really don't have control," he said.

Transportation officials are armed with a new law this campaign season as they go after improperly-placed signs, which Cole said cost the department $400,000 to police in 2004, the last election year.

Enforcement began in November 2005 after the department sent notification to political parties, real estate agents and others -- even sign makers -- who typically use roadside signs to advertise.

Under the new law, the department will remove and issue fines for signs within 10 feet of a roadway, except in neighborhoods where the signs can be slightly closer at seven feet back. Each sign violation carries a $25 fine, and any sign not reclaimed within 30 days for an additional $15 will be discarded.

The signs are a constant beef every election year because of safety issues and visual pollution, and transportation officials mean business. "People better be aware of the 10-foot clear zone, because the signs will be taken," Cole said. "We don't target anybody, but we don't play favorites."

The department has not kept records detailing the political signs it has collected, Cole said.

One candidate has come forward to protest the new law. Wilmington Councilman Charles Potter Jr., a Democrat running in a primary against state Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, says he had a sign stolen from a supporter's yard along Shipley Road and then moved too close to the road.

David L. Finger, a lawyer for Potter, wrote to complain about the $25 fine:

"Campaign signs are a time-honored part of the political process. The theft of political signs is also a political tradition, albeit a less honorable one. Political campaigning goes to the core of the First Amendment. . . .

"The fear of candidates or their supporters stealing signs from adversaries and placing them in state rights-of-way and subjecting those adversaries to multiple fines is an undue burden on political speech, particularly on candidates with more limited resources."

Finger's letter was sent to the state Justice Department, which Wharton would head if elected.

Crossan noted that Wharton's campaign was not alone with its sign troubles. "Are you telling me that at some point some Beau Biden supporter isn't going to put a sign too close to the road?" he said.

It could happen. In Wharton's case, it already has.