Some Mayors Are More Likely to Get Threats Than Others

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter received threats over a trash collection program.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter received threats over a trash collection program. Lorie Shaull/Flickr

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

New research shows that mayors who are younger, female, in strong mayor systems, and in larger cities are more likely to face abuse.

When constituents are frustrated with city government, a common target for their ire is the city’s mayor—and while complaints about city services are normal, sometimes that anger can become threatening or violent. Stories of police investigations into threats made against mayors are relatively common. 

The barrage of anger that mayors experience, either sent online or through old-fashioned methods like voicemail messages, can be discouraging. Many mayors, however, tend to shrug it off, as St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter did recently when he received a racist voicemail threatening violence about potential changes to trash collection in his Minnesota city. “I’m not going to dwell on nasty experiences,” he told the Star Tribune.  

But not all mayors receive the same level of pushback. In a new study published in State and Local Government Review, researchers found that mayors who are younger, female, in strong mayor systems, and in larger cities are more likely to face abuse than their peers. Sue Thomas, a research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said that just because there are gender and age differences in the level of abuse, doesn’t mean this isn’t a universal problem. “This isn’t pitting women against men, or older mayors against younger ones,” she said. “Every mayor faces this on some level, but some people have more to deal with.”

The study Thomas and her co-researchers surveyed mayors in cities with a population greater than 30,000, and looked at two potential types of  attack: physical violence and psychological abuse. Physical violence included mayors being shoved or having their property defaced, although a very small number said they experienced a more serious physical attack. Psychological abuse in this case means harassment and stalking, threats, and demeaning comments. 

Of the 238 mayors who responded, 78.8% reported experiencing some type of psychological abuse, and 13.4% reported instances of physical violence. Eleven percent of mayors had experienced some kind of attack on their property, 2.5% had experienced a minor assault like being slapped or pushed, and 1.1% had experienced a significant assault.

The cases of psychological abuse were largely over social media—68.1% of mayors said that  they had been harassed online. Thomas said that while there isn’t longitudinal data that looked at mayoral harassment, she thinks it’s more common because of social media. “The abuse likely isn’t a whole lot different than it used to be, but in terms of the amount it can be overwhelming,” she said. “You can be more or less anonymous, and that gets very violent. We saw threats of rape, death, kidnapping, and harm to families.”

Threats like that can have serious consequences. Thomas pointed to an announcement made in early November by 18 female members of the British parliament, who said they would not seek reelection because the racist, sexually violent, and life threatening messages they received had become too much to bear. “Nobody in any job should have to put up with threats, aggressive emails, being shouted at in the street, sworn at on social media, nor have to install panic alarms at home,” Heidi Allen, a member of Parliament, wrote in a letter to her constituents. 

Similarly, Thomas’ research indicated that 15.6% of mayors who experienced violence or psychological abuse considered leaving office as a result. Those who suffered physical violence were more likely to have thought about leaving office than those who faced psychological abuse. Though female mayors were more than twice as likely to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence, women’s political ambition was not affected more than men’s ambition by the incidents.

The effects also spread beyond the mayors themselves. When police departments have to investigate threats or provide additional security to their city’s mayor, budgets and staffing can grow strained, Thomas said. She pointed to the example of Portland, Oregon, where, due to the intensity of protests and threats made against Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city officials, the annual cost for City Hall guards and the mayor’s security detail skyrocketed from $175,811 to $847,034 in just two years.

Wheeler’s experience tracks with the researchers’ findings that mayors of larger cities were twice as likely to face abuse and violence than their peers in smaller cities. Those in strong mayoral systems—defined by the mayor’s appointment and veto powers—were almost 2.5 times more likely to face attacks. But Thomas said the clearest correlator with mayoral abuse was gender. 

Female mayors often received threats that simply aren’t directed towards their male peers. About 21% female mayors reported experiencing sexual violence or sexually threatening abuse, compared to only 2.5% of male mayors. Thomas said that female mayors reported being stalked, called a whore, and blogged about in a sexual manner. “The nature of the experience is just different for women,” she said.

Women were often targets not because of their policy choices, but because of their status as disruptors to the status quo. Thomas said that attacks based on a mayor’s identity or political affiliation are more visible now than ever before. In one case she pointed to, an Oklahoma mayor who was assaulted because he was gay. In another, an Illinois mayor saw his home vandalized because of his support for President Trump. 

Thomas said attacks along the ideological spectrum like that might become more common if national discourse grows more polarized. “Those things are making their way down to the local level,” she said. “As we face greater economic and environmental issues, where the nature of the challenges is so great, we’ll have to deal with tough policy changes. That leads to citizen anger. Mayors or city council members or county supervisors will not be spared.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Ridesharing Companies Urge Ohio to Bring Back the Front License Plate

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.