At least three uninvited local wing-nuts did their best to rain on Gov. Howard Dean's parade Monday, but only one made national news.
That was the dude with the gigantic (8-by-8-foot) placard, raised high on the Church Street block behind Ho-Ho's podium. It heralded Ralph Nader and the Green Party. Dean supporters quickly rigged their own signs and hoisted them in an attempt to block out Sign Man from the TV cameras, but the damage was done.
The sign incident became all the rage for the chattering inside-the-beltway class Tuesday morning. In fact, one reader informed us the incident made the David Letterman show Monday night.
In addition, it sparked outrage among Deanocrats. They're more than a little ticked off at Mr. Nader and his Green Party for a demonstration of colossal rudeness at best, dirty tricks at worst.
In response to angry calls and emails, the Vermont headquarters of the Green Party (not to be confused with the Vermont Progressive Party) issued a statement Tuesday quoting Craig Chevrier, the chairman of the Vermont Greens. Chairman Chevrier said the giant Nader protest banner "was a surprise." The party, he said, had nothing to do with it.
But George Plumb, executive director of the fledgling Vermont Greens, told Seven Days in an interview Tuesday that the gentleman holding the sign is indeed a member of the Green Party.
"I guess you could say he is a Green," said Mr. Plumb. Sign Man, he said, has attended Green Party functions, such as annual meetings, over the last "couple years."
Plumb said the sign-crashing at the Dean event was not the "appropriate" thing to do. But Plumb defended Sign Man's right to express himself.
"I wouldn't say it was rude," said Plumb, "because we go to demonstrations all the time." (In fact, Sign Man also crashed the Fletcher Allen nurses' union victory rally Saturday afternoon with his Viagra-inspired Nader sign.)
The Green Plumb said Sign Man "obviously doesn't agree with Dean." He had "every right" to be at Dean's rally, said Plumb, "but perhaps it was not in the best taste at that point in time."
Asked about the Nader/Green Party sign, Dean Myerson, national political coordinator for the Green Party in Washington, D.C., told Seven Days, "We knew nothing about it."
Mr. Myerson said the national office had received dozens of calls and emails complaining. "Some said they had voted for Nader in 2000 and were unhappy."
So who the hell is Sign Man? Drum roll, please!
According to those who know him all too well, including Burlington Police, local peace activists and organizers of the annual Vermont City Marathon, Sign Man's real name is Steven Ekberg, 39. He's been hanging around the People's Republic of Burlington for about five years.
Mr. Ekberg has become a "regular" on the Church Street Marketplace and at local political demonstrations. Large, usually obscene homemade political signs are his forte. The more provocative the better. One day last winter Mr. Ekberg stopped yours truly on Church Street to proudly show off photos of himself in a Washington, D.C., peace march carrying a sign with the message: "F**k Bush."
He's also appeared at antiwar rallies hoisting placards using similar vulgarities to describe the sexual proclivities of the reigning president of the United States. One description that we vividly recall would have been more accurately applied to Monica Lewinsky, if you get the drift.
We've observed local peace demonstrators doing their best to ignore him. Some have invited him to leave demos or lower his vulgar signs. But Mr. Ekberg is one persistent dude, so persistent that Seven Days has learned police have issued him no-trespassing orders at two local businesses: the Vermont City Marathon and the Burling-ton Peace and Justice Center.
Burlington Police Lieutenant Walter Decker told Seven Days that, according to police records, Mr. Ekberg, a native of Iowa City, Iowa, was issued two disorderly conduct citations in 1999. "One," he said, "involved a person he was jogging with." Decker said Ekberg allegedly "was verbally assaultive, using a fair amount of profanity and threatening harm."
According to Lt. Decker, Mr. Ekberg was also charged with simple assault in 1999. The officer was not aware of the disposition of that case. A check of court records indicates Ekberg was arrested for threatening the life of a man at Burlington's July 3 fireworks celebration on the waterfront.
Then in 2000, Ekberg ran into a little problem at the Vermont City Marathon. Lt. Decker told us that Mr. Ekberg was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct at the Sheraton headquarters of the Vermont City Marathon on May 26, 2000. According to the police affidavit, Ekberg threatened VCM director Andrea Sisino, calling her a "c**t."
Lt. Decker said records indicate Ekberg pled guilty to the charge June 1, 2001, was sentenced to 30 to 60 days, all suspended except for 10 days on the work crew. He was also fined $500.
According to Sisino, Mr. Ekberg had been disqualified from running in the marathon for "continuous cheating."
"Ekberg would cut the course," said Sisino. She said he also made "harassing phone calls and sent harassing letters" to marathon officials.
Told Ekberg was the man who tried to spoil Howard Dean's big speech with a Nader sign, Sisino replied, "He's up to his old tricks."
Ekberg could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Sign Man does not have a listed phone number.
Dean campaign spokesman Courtney O'Donnell told Seven Days that Green party Chairman Chevrier had called Tuesday to apologize for the Nader sign. Ms. O'Donnell downplayed suggestions that Ekberg messed up the candidate's carefully scripted speech.
"We believe in the First Amendment," said O'Donnell, "and I'm sure our volunteers had a good dialogue with him."
Too bad it wasn't a Chicago-style dialogue of the sort we remember from earlier times. Because at a Chicago political rally, Sign Man wouldn't have been able to hold up his sign for more than 30 seconds.
P.S. One of the other two wing-nuts spotted at the Dean rally was His Smarminess Brian Pearl. The biennial office-seeker continues to proclaim his personal hatred for homosexuals and for Gov. Dean. If he had a party label, it might well be called the Lunatic Fringe Party. Running for governor as an Independent in 2002, Pearl received 569 votes out of 230,161 cast. A real charmer.
The other wing-nut was a gent carrying a normal-sized sign proclaiming Howard Dean had appointed "corrupt judges." In a brief interview, Lawrence Agee of Richmond told Seven Days he was particularly upset with former Associate Justice James Morse, who he said had presided at his divorce hearing.
We pointed out that Judge Morse had been appointed to the bench by Gov. Richard Snelling, not by Gov. Howard Dean.
It didn't seem to matter.
If Dean Campaign manager Joe Trippi is really as smart as they say, he'll start up a new Dean Blog on the Internet: "Wing-Nuts for Ho-Ho!"
McMullen Update -- More disturbing news from the campaign of Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Jack McMullen.
Last week, we reported Mr. McMullen had sent out a direct-mail fundraising letter trashing Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. McMullen's press secretary Noah Pollak told Seven Days the mailing cost the candidate "zero" and there was no need to report any expense to the Federal Election Commission.
FEC spokesman Kelly Huff told us differently. In fact, she chuckled when informed of Mr. Pollak's outrageous claim. All campaign expenses must be reported, she said. And when a candidate raises or spends $5000, a statement of candidacy must be filed with the FEC. It's the law. So far, McMullen has not filed.
Shortly after last week's edition hit the street, Mr. Pollak, a 25-year-old UVM graduate from Shelburne, called. He insisted we had got it wrong. Pollak said he had spoken to "three officials at the FEC," and they all agreed with him that McMullen did not have to report the expense of the fundraising letter.
When asked for the names of the FEC officials, Pollak said he had neglected to ask for their names.
Hey, look, Noah. Yours truly may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night.
Asked for the names, Pollak the Press Secretary said he'd get them for us. As of press time this week, he hadn't.
But it gets worse.
The appearance of Mr. Pollak's name in last week's "Inside Track" rang a bell in the memory of one Leahy staffer.
Robyn Schmidek, assistant to chief-of-staff Luke Albee, recognized the name. It had come across her desk about six weeks ago. On April 29, a young man named "Noah Pollak" had called Leahy's Washington office. Ms. Schmidek tracked down the original phone message.
According to a copy obtained by Seven Days, Mr. Pollak said he went to the University of Ver-mont and was "doing a research paper on endorsements." He wanted to get the names of the organizations and individuals who endorsed St. Patrick in the 1998 election.
That was the memorable election in which McMullen, the Massachusetts carpetbagger, got blown out of the water in the GOP primary by retired Tun-bridge dairy farmer and Man With a Plan movie star Fred Tuttle.
McMullen has remained in Vermont and is gearing up for a second shot at Leahy.
On Tuesday we asked Pollak if he had contacted Sen. Leahy's office seeking information on endorsements.
"No," he replied.
It was one of those precious "liar, liar pants on fire" moments. Informed we had a copy of the phone message in our hands, Young Pollak quickly began to change his tune, admitting he had made the call.
You see, at the time he contacted Leahy's office, Pollak was on McMullen's campaign payroll. He told yours truly he called because he "was thinking about writing an article about endorsements." Asked where it might have appeared, he said, "The Burlington Free Press or Seven Days."
Pollak called us back in about five minutes and changed his tune some more. He admitted he hadn't told the truth about his reason for calling Leahy's office on April 29.
"I was not honest," said Pollak. "I made a mistake and I regret it. It was stupid of me to say I was doing a research paper. It was a dumb mistake."
You're telling me! In the game of politics, honesty is job one. Political operatives who lie tend to have short careers. It's all about a thing called "credibility." Right now, Pollak has none. But his boss, Jack McMullen, is standing by his truth-challenged press secretary.
"He's young," McMullen told Seven Days, 'and he needs to have a little seasoning in life. He's a good man." McMullen then asked yours truly to "cut him a little slack."
Jeezum crow, just imagine a man with that kind of moral compass representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate?
Said Leahy's chief-of-staff Luke Albee, "This kid is going to give right-wing political operatives a bad name."
Cool Hand Luke's got a point.