Ever since then-political newcomer Jim Ward topped the vote count in the 1999 council race, there has been a kind of odd reverence among Chapel Hill politicos about the role in the election played by "that leaf."
"That leaf" was a prominently displayed section of a Christmas fern on Ward's campaign signs. Elegant, in full color and very green, the fern drove home Ward's pro-environment pitch, his occupation as a curator at the N.C. Botanical Garden, and a plant rescue he organized in 1999 on the soon-to-be paved grounds of Meadowmont.
By the next election cycle, in 2001, other candidates were on to the idea adding leaves and other greenery to their signs. Mark Kleinschmidt, one of the council members elected that year, said he added a leaf to his sign to reach out to voters concerned about the environment.
"Very few people in town knew who I was. If you read my resume you saw 'lawyer' all over it, so I wanted to do something to show I had green credentials," he said in a recent interview. "You don't see signs like we have in Chapel Hill in many other places. You don't see that kind of thing in Durham or Raleigh. It may have started in the early '90s when people had homemade signs, but Jim, with his leaf, really made it something you had to do," Kleinschmidt said.
This year, the leaf theme has even taken root in Carrboro with Mark Chilton's use of multiple leaf varieties in his push for a seat on the Board of Aldermen.
In Chapel Hill, the 12 candidates running for four seats on the council have broadened the iconography a bit. In addition to Ward, who has recycled his ferns and added a "re-elect" atop them, newcomer Thatcher Freund has also gone the leaf route. His, an oak, is accompanied by an acorn. Environmental lawyer Sally Greene, with her green signs and, uh, name, also has a leaf motif. Candidates Bill Strom and Rudy Juliano have opted for larger vistas in their choice of iconography, but their signs still include trees. Juliano's signs feature a set of angular, Christmas cookie-like pines. Strom's more sculpted hardwoods are prominent in a panorama of a small town--presumably Chapel Hill-- at sunrise. The look is vaguely reminiscent of the town flag, which depicts downtown, a key issue in this year's race.
Dianne Bachman and Andrea Rohrbacher, both making their first bid for council, have used more abstract symbols. Bachman, an architect with UNC-Chapel Hill, has added a draftsman's compass to her yard signs. The symbol has struck some folks as a little too Masonic. Given that the university's cornerstone was set after a Masonic ceremony and the school's initial layout based on a Masonic temple, it's an assessment that's not all that far fetched, although not likely the intent of the candidate.
Rohrbacher's choice of symbol is a little less clear. From the road, it looks like a cross or possibly a crossroads. On closer examination, it turns out to be warp and woof. There's a slogan written into the symbol about weaving together the community.
That's probably a bit too much," Kleinschmidt said."You want to have something easily recognizable. There's probably a good explanation with the image, but when people are whizzing by in their cars, you're not there to give it."
Jim Peacock, a Chapel Hill anthropology professor who teaches a class in signs and symbols, said the bloom in political icons is intriguing.
"You'd think in a university town that words would mean a lot more," he said. "But here people are using not only words but images. It reminds me a little of some non-literate nations that are forced to use icons on their ballots."
Another reason, Peacock said, is that computers use more and more graphics and icons to convey ideas. "People are more comfortable with using them."
There may also be a hint of political post-modernism in all the sign work, Peacock suggested.
"With the decline of real face-to-face contact, people are creating virtual contact," he said. "A sign is a way to do that. You're creating images that link people together."
In two weeks or so we may learn if virtual Chapel Hill is now more fern than acorn, looking for its compass or a weave, waiting for a new dawn or somewhere in the pines.