Democrat Lindsey Williams is facing Republican Jeremy Shaffer in November
At first glance, they look like any other yard signs, very similar to the others Lindsey Williams’ campaign has scattered on lawns and by the side of roads around the North Hills communities in the 38th District, where she’s a candidate for the state Senate.
But these signs, which started appearing over the weekend, are emblazoned with a red banner reading “socialist” beneath her name, and the Williams campaign says it’s not responsible for them. During a campaign rally on Saturday with Gov. Wolf and Lt. Gov. candidate John Fetterman, Williams said the signs weren’t surprising to her.
“You’ve see the negative ads, you’ve seen the negative mailers and today you saw negative yard signs,” Williams said, to a chorus of boos. “We’re not surprised, because this is what my opponent has done in the primaries, smearing a well-liked incumbent, and he’s trying to do it now. The best response to that is this room, because power concedes nothing without demand and we all are going to demand it.”
Negative lawn signs are a novel concept, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, but he wonders how much impact they will ultimately have.
“Lawn signs aren’t nearly as effective as radio and television, they don’t reach nearly as many people,” he said. He noted that lawn signs are usually on someone’s private property, and said he’d be surprised to see the “socialist” Williams signs in people’s yards.
The ones this reporter spotted in the Wexford and Shaler areas on Saturday were mostly clumped in alongside other Williams signs or other candidates’ signs along public roads, none in people’s yards.
“I don’t think anybody would put up a sign in their yard that said ‘socialist’ on it without getting some questions,” Madonna said, because most lawn signs are positive and carefully chosen by the property owner.
Still, Madonna added, the lawn sign served as something of a harbinger in the 2016 election. He said as he traveled across Pennsylvania during the 2016 presidential campaign, he saw Trump lawn signs in rural areas. But there were few visible in suburban areas until after Donald Trump won the Republican nomination.
“People were reluctant at first to admit they would vote for now-President Trump at first,” Madonna said. “But once there was that level of acceptance, you started to see more Trump signs in suburban neighborhoods.”
Williams, a first-time candidate in the district, sought the endorsement of the Pittsburgh branch of the Democratic Socialists last year, but did not receive it. Long an advocate for workers’ rights, she touts her union background and her experience working for the National Whistleblowers’ Center, where she was fired for trying to organize a union, as her working-class bona fides.
And even though she doesn’t have the DSA endorsement, she’s one of a handful of Pennsylvania candidates to recently receive the endorsement of former President Barack Obama.
The word “socialist” has been used by Republican candidates dating back to the Cold War, almost always as a scare tactic, and never as compliment. But as Madonna points out, the Democratic Socialists of America have many issues in common with Democrats who describe themselves as “progressives,” including healthcare for all, no border wall and free college education. So the term “socialist” doesn’t have the negative connotation for younger voters that it may have had for their grandparents.
Locally, the Democratic Socialists endorsed Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, both of whom won their primary races against well-known incumbent Democrats, Paul and Dom Costa, respectively. The Pittsburgh DSA chapter has more than 500 members, and according to the New York Times, the national DSA grew from about 5,000 members in November 2016 to more than 35,000 as of April.
On Monday evening, the DSA released the following statement: “While Lindsey Williams is not a Pittsburgh DSA-endorsed candidate, I think the electoral record has shown in the case of our other endorsements that red-baiting simply does not work. The message of socialism resonates with many Americans who feel cheated and harmed by capitalism.”
Given the DSA’s resurgence, Madonna said Williams may have to walk a fine line in her comments about the signs.
“What they’re trying to do, is make it look like a person is a socialist because there may be a backlash,” he said of whomever is responsible for the signs. But she doesn’t want to alienate any potential voters who may be aligned with the DSA platform. “The best way to handle is to just say ‘it’s not my sign’ and leave it at that.”
For her part, Williams urged supporters not to vandalize the signs in a statement on her Facebook page. “While I understand that my supporters are angry, I am asking everyone to treat these signs as you would any other political sign and leave them alone,” the statement read. “I will not let dirty politics from the other side distract me from talking about the issues and fighting for the people here.”
Williams and Shaffer will face each other in a League of Women Voters’ debate on Nov. 1
Kim Lyons is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact her at email@example.com