Campaign Noir

A guy named Macilwain pounds Palm Beach's mean streets, in search of lost Beers.

The phone on Tailpipe's desk rang. There was something haunting about the sound, like a troubling memory of lost innocence, a dark trill of foreboding. The 'Pipe let it ring a few more times, reluctant to pick up.

It was Dennis Macilwain. Yes, that Macilwain, "The Sign Guy." Macilwain has been putting up campaign signs on the mean streets of West Palm Beach since the Reagan years. It's a tough, grinding job, full of unexpected dangers. Macilwain has been pelted with eggs, threatened by alligators. He's had guns waved in his face. Macilwain knows where all the bodies are buried, and he never hits the streets without a PK Walther .380 in the glove compartment.

There was trouble, Macilwain told the 'Pipe, a hint of desperation in his voice. Jerry Beer's campaign signs were mysteriously disappearing. Beer, a candidate for Circuit Court judge in Palm Beach County, was in a hot race with incumbent Judge Art Wroble and a couple of other candidates, and somebody with a razor was on a rampage.

It's the beer, stupid: Macilwain nails down another trophy.
Julia Reischel
It's the beer, stupid: Macilwain nails down another trophy.

Macilwain's message was simple: Come on up and see for yourself.

The battered cylinder dropped the bourbon bottle back into the bottom drawer of his desk and headed out. It was up I-95, slicing through traffic, past retail boxes and glassy office buildings, pulling off finally at Atlantic Avenue. Macilwain was waiting there in a pickup, a short, round man in a golf cap.

He grimly opened the passenger door for the 'Pipe, then aimed the truck down the avenue.

Macilwain ran it down for Tailpipe, pulling the story, episode by episode, out of the ooze of Palm Beach County politics. The territory was under siege, he said. Campaign signs for Jerry Beer, a lawyer and traffic hearing officer who's been endorsed by the Palm Beach Post, were being sliced from their frames with razors, uprooted, and smashed. In the dog-eared notebook where Macilwain scrawls his sign tally, entry after entry indicated that Beer signs he'd posted in the past weeks were downed, mangled, or... just gone. Oddly, though, signs for other campaigns remained.

"I'll bet you the keys to my truck that this one is down too," the Sign Guy muttered as the lights of his massive pickup truck illuminated a grassy swale at Atlantic Avenue and 441. The sliver of land on the corner of the highway was littered with campaign signs, including some of Beer's competitors in this year's unusually cutthroat judicial race.

Macilwain gunned the truck over the curb and grunted knowingly. The big red, white, and blue, eight-by-four-footer advertising "BEER" in huge block letters that Macilwain put here weeks ago was nowhere to be seen.

Tailpipe groped for an answer, like a tongue probing a loose tooth. Let's face it, he said. Anyone might want an eight-by-four-foot sign proclaiming allegiance to beer. With college students moving into bare-walled dorm rooms at Florida Atlantic University this week, they'd be damned hard to resist. Macilwain ruminated on the idea. Maybe so, he said, though tales of vandalized signs were coming up empty on the FAU grapevine.

And the evidence was pointing elsewhere. Although some of the Beer signs had been carefully razored free from their frames, as if being prepared for a new life as wall art, others had simply been overturned or smashed.

"This is no college-kid job," Macilwain said as he leaned over a Beer sign at the corner of Glades Road and Boca Real, like a coroner examining a corpse. The top had been sliced off, neatly decapitated.

"This judge race has been ugly," Macilwain says. "Only the Bush/Gore campaign was worse."

The race pits Beer against Wroble, who has been widely criticized by local lawyers as well as trial lawyer David French and ex-cop Ken LeMoine. The contest has been an unusual round robin of credentials challenges — with Beer often striking the telling blows — in what's ordinarily the least interesting part of a county election.

Beer's campaign manager, Cheryl Carpenter Klimek, said the sign vandalism is starting to hurt the campaign. Big signs cost $20 to $40 apiece, not counting what Macilwain charges for labor. The damage Macilwain has seen just tonight has easily cost the Beer campaign hundreds of dollars. The campaign expected the $6,000 it had spent on signage to last it until Election Day, Klimek said, but now it'll almost certainly have to buy more.

"It seems odd that they're disappearing at one end of the county and not the other," Klimek said. "That's near the territory of one of our opponents."

Macilwain didn't want to name names. But at many of the corners where Beer signs have disappeared, signs for French are usually standing tall, he said. (Reached by phone, French said his campaign is missing some signs too. Vandalism? "In my humble opinion, that would be inappropriate for a judicial race," he said.)

Macilwain is bluer than B.B. King on a gloomy Monday. "You wonder why I still do it — I don't know," he says.

Tailpipe headed back down I-95, through a hard, slanting rain, wondering if he'd ever get to the bottom of Beer's missing signs.

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