Facing Violent Threats and Abuse, State and Local Officials Are Calling It Quits

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It's fueling concerns that qualified people may abandon or avoid public service. "That’s a big price to pay," warns one expert.

A growing cadre of government officials and potential candidates for office is leaving public service—or are thinking about it—as threats of violence and physical and verbal attacks affect their safety and that of their children and homes.

The National League of Cities revealed in November that 81% of local officials have been subjected to personal attacks, physical assaults or cyberbullying. A March poll by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in six election officials has experienced threats and one in five is unlikely to serve out the current term. 

“The price that we’re going to pay is that getting good people to run for public office will be the most challenging thing we will face,” Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities, said. “And that’s a big price to pay in a democratic system.”

Sue Thomas, a senior research scientist with the Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation, agreed. 

“If we’re going to be putting our public officials and their families in that kind of danger, either people will not stay in their positions in public services … or it may mean qualified people will choose another path.”

That danger has ranged from name-calling on social media, to threats of rape and kidnapping, to vandalism and—in one case—suspected arson at the homes of elected officials.

Authorities said they believed that a fire that damaged the home of San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher and his wife, former state legislator Lorena Gonzalez, in January was arson. Fletcher supported lockdowns, Covid-19 vaccines and mask mandates during the pandemic. 

Erie, Pennsylvania Mayor Joe Schember found a note containing a bomb threat at his home in February, and later that day police found two bombs inside the Erie County Courthouse. Boise, Idaho Mayor Lauren McLean issued an emotional, 900-word statement in March detailing “sinister thwarted plots” against her and protestors wielding torches and pitchforks outside of her home.

The recent trial of four men who allegedly plotted to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 ended in not guilty verdicts for two of the defendants, and the jury was deadlocked on the other two. Prosecutors said the men were part of a militia group and were angry over pandemic restrictions imposed by the governor.

Those officials decided not to resign. 

“We won’t let the threats designed to terrify and silence us win,” McLean explained in her statement.

Others Stepping Aside

But the same day McLean made her statement, County Commissioner Kendra Kenyon of Ada, Idaho, cited “a hostile community culture” when she announced she would not run for re-election. Just a few months earlier, social media threats against his children led Idaho secretary of state candidate Chad Houck to drop out of the race.

Two-term Dodge City, Kansas, Mayor Joyce Warshaw also stepped down in December 2020 after receiving a barrage of threatening messages—mostly anonymous—when USA Today featured an article about the city’s struggle with the coronavirus and the city commission’s decision to reinstate a mask mandate.

“There’s a strong part of me that wants to say they are only words,” Warshaw told The Washington Post. “But people are angry right now, and I don’t know that for sure.”

NLC’s Anthony said he frequently meets mayors, school board members, city managers and other public officials who are ready to throw in the towel to protect their physical and mental health from an ever-increasing cascade of threats and violence. He said the battle is most pronounced against school board members and public health officials.

“This is a difficult time for many officials, causing them to question, ‘Why did I do this? Can I still be of value in the community? Am I going to be listened to or am I going to be physically unsafe at city hall?” Anthony explained.

Anthony points to pandemic restrictions as the primary trigger for those who harass and attack public officials. But he said the murder of George Floyd, an uneasy economy during the pandemic and the amount of time locked-down Americans spent on social media while working at home combined to bring anger and frustration to a boiling point.

Brian Namey, a spokesman for the National Association of Counties, agreed. 

“Generally, it’s political discord,” Namey said. “There’s been social unrest. There have been major economic disruptions largely related to the pandemic.”

Misinformation about the safety of vaccines, the reality of the pandemic and the need to wear masks—mostly distributed via social media—has greatly contributed to the display of anger toward public servants, Anthony said.

“I do not recall this happening at this level before,” Anthony, who served as mayor of South Bay, Florida, from 1984 to 2008, said. “I was in office for 24 years and I felt like when I voted to increase the water rates that people would yell and say, ‘You’re going to cause me not to pay my light bill.’ That was about the worst of it.”

But a 2017 study of mayors conducted by Thomas and a group of researchers found that 72.7% of mayors of cities larger than 30,000 had reported psychological abuse and violence. Among women mayors at that time, that number spiked to 77.6%.

The organization’s second survey of mayors and abuse comes out on May 11.

Anonymous Perpetrators

Thomas said researchers have focused on the victims of the harassment rather than the perpetrators, so she cannot say for certain who is taking such extreme measures to communicate their anger to their elected officials.

Still, she suggested, “They are people who are generally frustrated and just feel the need to be able to share that frustration. If I … know that I can pretty anonymously go to social media and start attacking my mayor … it seems this would be people all over the map.”

Beth Resnick, assistant dean for practice and training at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agreed.

“Social media, it’s easy,” said Resnick, whose team analyzed 1,499 reports of harassment against public health workers during the first 11 months of the pandemic. “Sometimes it’s hard to tease out who the perpetrator is. It’s social. It can be anonymous. You can cut and paste. You can forward it. … It doesn’t take much and it’s pretty low risk.”

Until that risk subsides, states, local governments and the officials themselves are building in layers of protection for at-risk officials.

Anthony said many mayors are scheduling police escorts for public appointments, but small cities, he said, “don’t have the resources.” 

Meanwhile, a congressional committee is considering a bill that would make it a crime to harass or intimidate election workers. Three out of every five respondents in a recent Brennen Center survey elected officials said they were either very or somewhat concerned that “that threats, harassment and intimidation against local election officials will make it more difficult to retain or recruit election workers in future elections.” 

Heidi Gerbracht, founder and director of the nonprofit Equity Agenda, which works with local governments, encourages public servants to practice what she calls “digital hygiene.” 

For example, mayors and other government employees could use a Post Office box number instead of a street address when publishing a home address, and “just be really cognizant about what information is available about you online so people will have less information to use to harass you,” she said.

Gerbracht, a co-leader of the Women Mayors Network at the University of Wisconsin, said harassment and violence are chasing too many women out of public office.

 It “could have a chilling effect on women running for office,” she said. “We’re helping the public understand that threats are a concern and shouldn’t be a part of public service.”

Anthony agreed. But he said he is optimistic that as public awareness about verbal and physical attacks against government officials heightens, the harassment could diminish.

“I hope … we will go back to the day when civility and respect and compromise is seen as a part of the democratic process. … We need good leaders. This is not what they signed up for."

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