Much ado - but not from the locals - over Obama mural at polling place

Tyriek Wright emerges from a voting booth near a covered mural of President Obama after voting at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Lawncrest.
Tyriek Wright emerges from a voting booth near a covered mural of President Obama after voting at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Lawncrest. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 08, 2012

Even Democrats acknowledged that people should not be casting their vote for president in front of an oversize portrait of Barack Obama, but the Republican election official whose voting booths sat beneath the Obama mural thought it was no big deal.

Images of Philadelphians voting under Obama's paternal gaze at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Lawncrest became a source of indignation and scandal for Republicans across the city, state and country Tuesday.

The mural drew a legal challenge and a court order, became the subject of considerable media attention - including links on the Drudge Report - and inspired some rather overheated rhetoric, the outrage subsiding only after a Common Pleas Court judge ordered the offending mural covered.

The voters in the 18th Division of the 35th Ward had been casting their ballots in the same place - in front of the same Obama mural - for three years without controversy.

"It's never been an issue because [Obama] hasn't been on the ballot," said Tom Justice, the Republican judge of elections for the division, not overly concerned about the mural's impact on the 27 registered Republicans in his division.

Five voting divisions in the 35th Ward in Northeast Philadelphia vote in the school on Rising Sun Avenue. The divisions long have used the school and moved into the large ground floor cafeteria three years ago.

The mural, with an inspirational Obama quotation and symbol from the 2008 campaign, was already on the wall when voting was moved to the cafeteria. (It is adjoined by a similar painting of Oprah Winfrey and a quotation.)

Nonetheless, there is that thing about polling locations being nonpartisan. So Republicans went to court Tuesday to complain about the mural. By 1 p.m., after both political parties agreed the mural was inappropriate, a judge ordered the painting covered up.

Justice, whose own daughter once attended the elementary school, said he told his poll workers in the morning not to cover the Obama mural because he was afraid tape might damage the paint.

Other poll workers said students had painted - or at least helped to paint - the two murals, but there were no school officials on hand to confirm that.

After the court ruling, Justice had his poll workers hide Obama's face and name with sample ballots and sheets of bilingual voting instructions.

At 2:15 p.m., Jonathan Goldstein, a lawyer for the Republican State Committee, went before Common Pleas Court President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe to complain that the order to cover the mural had not been followed.

"It's covered - look," interrupted Deputy City Commissioner Fred Voigt, holding up a cellphone picture showing the partially covered mural.

Dembe, trying to calm the escalating debate, told Goldstein, "I find it ludicrous to think that somebody's vote is going to be changed by a mural on the wall. So curb your enthusiasm, if you will."

Pennsylvania Republican Chairman Rob Gleason apparently disagreed. He released a statement suggesting the mural was one of the Obama campaign's "disgusting attempts to suppress Republican voices in Philadelphia."

"It is clear the Obama campaign has taken their campaign in the gutter to manipulate this election however they can," the statement said.

According to records at the polling place, the 18th Division of the 35th Ward has 566 registered voters.

By late afternoon, the mural was still only partly covered, but Justice said he thought that adequate to quell his fellow Republicans' concerns.

Voters in the heavily Democratic section of the city, meanwhile, did not seem bothered by the mural. Kiara Brown, a 23-year-old voter, asked her friends to snap her picture before the painting was covered.

"It's the only time I'll ever get my picture with the president," she said.


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

Inquirer staff writers Allison Steele and Bob Warner contributed to this article.

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