The Red Sox have just completed their infamous “bridge year,” but it’s shaping up as a real bridge year for politicians who have apparently decided that the election will turn upon their ability to transform every highway overpass in Massachusetts into a campaign billboard.
Look up on your drive into Boston, Worcester or Springfield and you can’t escape the bridges festooned with campaign signs guarded by campaign workers doing the Queen’s wave at the traffic below. In an age when campaigns spend millions of dollars carpeting television and the Internet with apocalyptic ads about opponents, politicians have turned 7 a.m. on the Expressway into the Massachusetts version of kissing babies at the state fair.
The overpass stand-outs have become so pervasive that they have all but pushed out the home-made “Welcome Home PFC Smith” signs that normally have the bridges all to themselves. Is this what Bill Clinton had in mind when he talked about building a bridge to the 21st century?
A strict protocol apparently governs which signs end up on which bridges. There are Democratic bridges and Republican bridges. While one bridge in Quincy recently broke the mold with signs for both Republican candidate for state auditor Mary Connaughton and incumbent Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch, the vast majority of political spans seem to act as a kind of metaphor for the government itself – parallel directions, miles apart.
No surprise, then, that an overpass along Route 3 in Weymouth decked out with signs for Independent 10th District Congressional candidate Maryanne Lewis fell squarely between bridges claimed on one side by Democrat William Keating and on the other by the ubiquitous supporters of Republican Jeff Perry.
It’s hard to tell whether the campaign workers who patrol the bridges keep smiling from a sense of superiority to the caffeinated motorists caught in the gridlock below or simply from spending three hours inhaling carbon monoxide fumes. The one bright spot is that no candidate elected on November 2 will be able claim that he or she is unfamiliar with the issues facing the nation’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.
Anthony Cignoli, a national political consultant based in Springfield, says campaigns conduct stand-outs to create last-minute name recognition and to build enthusiasm among campaign volunteers. He believes that campaigns are increasingly determined to reach voters behind the wheel – like the candidate for governor’s council in western Massachusetts who spelled his name with artificial flowers in the links of a safety fence on a highway bridge in Palmer.
“There’s also a sense that if the other campaign is doing it, then our campaign should do it too,” said Cignoli, who is working on several campaigns in the Midwest this fall.
Keep in mind that the bridges where campaigns are hanging their political wallpaper are the same spans from which the Massachusetts Highway Department ordered flags and other patriotic displays removed in 2007 because of concerns that the flags and posters might fall on drivers and cause a crash. Perhaps now that the commonwealth has banned drivers from looking down at text messages, lawmakers might do something to reduce the distraction of drivers looking up at bridge displays while crossing three lanes of Route 128 to get to the next exit.
The good news is that overpass standouts ultimately represent one of the oldest and most enduring traditions of free expression in our democracy. Like colonial office seekers carrying leaflets on horseback or depression era politicians mounting loudspeakers on trucks, candidates for office in 2010 stand on bridges as an inexpensive method of reaching voters in the marketplace. The practice may not add much to our understanding of the issues, but neither do the grainy television advertisements and repeated robo-calls from which there will be no escape during the next seven days.
The only question is whether the candidates in Alaska hang signs from the bridge to nowhere…