October 27, 2012

Businesses learn hard lessons of placing campaign signs

Some regret backing causes publicly; others willing to take the heat from social media critics

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

LEVANT -- Patty and Gary Treworgy are born-again Christians and business owners who believe strongly in marriage between a man and a woman, so they didn't think much about whether they should put a "No on 1" sign near the driveway of their farm.

But the couple, owners of Treworgy Family Orchards, was shocked last week when their sign urging a "no" vote on Question 1, the same-sex marriage referendum, sparked a public outcry on the farm's Facebook page. The sign drew more than 1,500 comments from places as far away as Florida and California.

The farm page, which features a large illustration of their turkey-shaped corn maze, began to resemble the reader comments section of a daily newspaper website, not a family-friendly place where people check in to see whether the apples are ripe.

"It took us aback," Patty Treworgy said last week. "It was distressing. What we realized was, that sign said to people, 'We hate you.' We're not hateful in any way."

The Treworgys and other business owners, including a Brunswick bookseller and another apple grower in Manchester, near Augusta, have been learning the hard way in this campaign season that politics and business can be a combustible mixture.

Their experience reflects those of business owners across the nation who have endured attacks through social media and other avenues over their political views -- especially on the issue of same-sex marriage, which evokes passionate feelings on all sides.

Married for 34 years, the Treworgys have been running their 40-acre farm outside Bangor since 1995. They've built a loyal following among families with children who drive for up to two hours to come pick apples and pumpkins, pet the goats, go on a hayride and drink cider.

When their "No on 1" sign triggered a Facebook uproar, they heard from all sides.

"If this business believes this way then they are entitled to their belief like I'm entitled to mine," wrote Ronni Sagner. "I will just choose to avoid that business and not support them with my hard earned money."

Corinne Dunlop, on the other hand, wrote that she would like to see support for the farm.

"If I was back in Maine I would make sure they were overrun with business," she wrote. "I'm sorry but everyone has a right to their beliefs. If we aren't able express those beliefs that is discrimination in reverse!"

Despite their own strongly held beliefs in opposition to gay marriage, the Treworgys took their sign down, at least until the farm is closed for the season.

Linda Meyerhans, of Lakeside Orchards in Manchester, also removed political signs last week. They had been posted not by her but by others, and customers were reacting negatively -- especially to the signs urging a "No on 1" vote on the same-sex marriage referendum.

"I don't care who it is. I won't do it for any politician or referendum question," Meyerhans said. "It doesn't matter how I feel. The farm does not have an opinion."

A small-business owner for 40 years, Meyerhans said she sees no upside to publicizing her politics on her business property. She said a large company such as Hannaford Bros. would not allow political signs at its grocery stores, and neither will she.

"We want everyone to feel they are welcome here," she said. "We're a small business. We need everyone we can get."

At Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, owners Gary Lawless and Beth Leonard took the opposite approach and went high-profile with their politics last week.

In an email to customers, they explained their decision to put up a sign supporting Democrat Mattie Daughtry, rather than Green Independent Fred Horch, in the race for House District 66. The bookstore, which has been in business for 32 years, has a history of putting up large political signs -- they had an Obama sign in 2008 -- because it's part of who they are, said Gary Lawless.

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