Dems: 'What country do I live in?'

The Island County Fair may not be a free speech zone, especially for political parties.

On Thursday, the Island County Democrats caught heat from several Island County Fair Board members and from members of the public for distributing buttons, bumper stickers and signs some called unpatriotic. The dispute became so serious that the message and purpose of the booth was discussed at the fair board's Friday morning meeting, though no action was taken.

Most prominent and -- according to Island County Democrat and booth volunteer Craig Brant -- most controversial were two yard signs, one reading "Bush Lied" and the other "Beat Back Bush." The signs, like all the other materials in the booth, were available to anyone coming to the booth. The Democrats were asking for donations in return.

Though the booth's primary purpose is to register Island County citizens to vote, Brant and other volunteers in the booth quickly discovered that the political materials were getting the most attention. When the Democrats were told to take several of their signs down, Brant said he was dumbfounded.

"I wonder what country I'm living in," he said.

Further aggravating the situation, apparently, was an impromptu protest started by children who picked up signs and buttons at the the Democrat booth. They sat in front of the Island County Republicans' ice cream booth for over an hour displaying their literature.

The Democrats did remove the "Bush Lied" sign from view at the booth, but that, apparently, was not enough. At Friday's fair board meeting, board chair Marilyn Gabelein questioned the purpose of the booth and asked the board whether it should take action to discourage the Democrats from distributing their materials. Fair manager Jim Eakin was one of the board members who didn't much care for the political message.

"I don't think that stuff should be part of this fair," he said.

However, the majority of the board verbally agreed that the issue was best dealt with prior to next year's fair.

This is exactly what Grethe Cammermeyer, chairperson of the Island County Democrats, feared. Though in speaking with Gabelein Thursday Cammermeyer learned of no specific rule barring her group from distributing its materials, she said the board could nonetheless kick the Democrats out of their booth area on the fair midway for next year's fair. That would be particularly damaging to the local party, she said, since 2004 is a presidential election year.

"I'm not quite sure why there is so much concern all of a sudden over buttons and signs being available at a booth we paid for," she said.

While on one hand Cammermeyer said she was disturbed by those who labelled the Democrats' materials as "unpatriotic," she was encouraged by the opinions expressed by the group of protesting youth. After speaking with the children, she said they and the Democrats are beginning to plan a political and musical event called "Youth for Truth."

Since the fair board did not choose to take any action against the Democrats, the booth will likely continue to distribute its materials through Sunday. However, material Brant said fair board members told him were "inappropriate" may not be an issue beyond Friday. By late Thursday, the Democrat had already give away all of its "Bush Sucks" lapel buttons and were well on their way toward handing out all of their signs.

"Business has been pretty good," Brant said with no attempt to hide his satisfaction.

Donations given at the Democrats' booth go toward funding the campaigns of Island County Democratic candidates.

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