ELKHART — A tea party group’s political message on a billboard here has unified local Democrats and Republicans, generating bipartisan criticism.
The heads of the two parties here even used similar language in blasting the sign.
“I say I’m appalled,” said Dale Stickel, head of the Elkhart County Republican Party.
“I think it’s appalling,” said Shari Mellin, head of the Elkhart County Democratic Party.
The message in question, from We the People of Marshall and Fulton Counties, a tea party group, appears on a billboard at the busy intersection of Nappanee Street and John Weaver Parkway, where Nappanee curves into Bristol Street. It depicts a group of armed military men splashing through water and says this:
“The Navy SEALs removed one threat to America... The voters must remove the other.”
Don Nunemaker of Plymouth is head of the We the People group in Marshall and Fulton counties. He said Thursday that the intent of the message, on the billboard since late last week, is to spur voters into action — at the ballot box.
“The voter has to get out,” Nunemaker said. “The voter has to do the right thing.”
Mellin, though, thinks the message can be interpreted as an allusion to the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs in 2011.
Navy SEALs “killed Osama bin Laden. Is that what this group is saying should happen to President Obama?” she said. “There’s a subliminal message there. I think so, anyway.”
Whatever the tea party group’s intent, Stickel said the message could be construed in the wrong way. “It is not a positive message. It’s a negative message. I don’t approve of it,” he said.
Stickel doesn’t know Nunemaker and wonders why the his group brought the message here to Elkhart. “Never heard of him. Don’t know why he doesn’t stay in his own counties,” Stickel said.
CONCERNED ABOUT THE FUTURE
Nunemaker said the idea for the message came from a member of his group. He informally polled other members about what messages to put on billboards and they agreed on the “Navy SEALs removed” slogan and two others. The other messages relate to high gas prices and coal-fired power and appear on billboards in Marshall and Fulton counties.
Online, bumper stickers may be purchased reading: “The Navy SEALs removed one Muslim threat to America! It’s up to the voters to remove the other in 2012!” Nunemaker, though, said he wasn’t aware of the alternate message, and he was adamant in insisting he’s making no call for violence.
“Heavens no!” he said. He later added: “If someone goes and does something stupid, they already had that in mind.”
At the same time, he was cagey about the “threat” alluded to in the message that voters should remove. Threats of concern to him, he said, include the nation’s ballooning budget deficit and “activist judges.” He’s not anti-Obama, he said, “I’m for (GOP presidential hopeful Mitt) Romney.”
Jim Heierman of Perma Advertising Co., the Pierceton firm that manages the billboard in question, said the message “is not subliminal in any shape or form.” Nunemaker’s group — which plans to keep the Elkhart message in place until Nov. 1 — is just concerned about the future of the country.
We the People is concerned that if Obama’s policies continue, “America could be hurt,” Heierman said. “They’re not asking for violence or anything... They’re just concerned about the future of America.”
He said Perma won’t allow pornography on its billboards, but otherwise leaves content up to its clients.
The protestations of Nunemaker and Heierman notwithstanding, Mellin thinks the We the People group could have conveyed their message another way, without potential double entendres. As is, the group is “going a little bit over the line,” she said.
Jackie Cusack of Elkhart, who passes the sign each day going to work, also thinks it could have been worded differently. As presented, the message underscores an increasing lack of civility in public discourse and she worries it could inspire violence on the scale of the recent mass killings in Aurora, Colo., and Milwaukee.
“I just think this whole thing has gone too far,” she said. “The hatred right now in this country is rampant.”
Additions and corrections: The original version of this story said the billboard is an illusion to the killing of bin Laden. It is an allusion.