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The findings show female mayors of color were especially likely to face threats.
The percentage of mayors reporting psychological abuse from the public increased by 23% between 2017 and 2021, a study funded by the Center for American Women and Politics revealed on Wednesday. Mayors also reported physical abuse rose by nearly 5% during the same period.
Among mayors serving cities with populations of 30,000 or greater, 95.7% said they have suffered psychological violence, which the report authors describe as "acts likely to harm the psychological well-being of individuals by inducing fear or harm to their sense of self worth or well-being." Meanwhile, 13.9% of these respondents said they'd been victims of physical violence.
That compares with 72.7% who reported psychological abuse and 9.2% who said they were victims of physical violence in 2017.
“Local elected officials, including mayors, election administrators, public health officials, school board members are all facing political violence these days,” Heidi Gerbracht, co-founder of the Women Mayors Network, said at a press conference Wednesday for the report’s release. “And these officials are the heart of our American democracy.”
The 2017 survey included responses from mayors of cities of 30,000 or more residents. The 2021 poll expanded the 2017 survey to include responses from mayors of cities with populations of 10,000 or more. For consistency, researchers provided numbers comparing just cities of 30,000 or more to Route Fifty.
According to the 2021 survey, which included responses from 971 mayors, female mayors of color received monthly and weekly threats more often than male mayors of color or white male and female mayors.
The report’s authors, Sue Thomas of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation and Rebekah Herrick of Oklahoma State University, say that those threats often are tinged with racial or gender criticism.
In fact, the study revealed, 17.1% of women mayors of color reported they are threatened with “some sort of sexualized violence” at least monthly.
“All mayors have experienced more violence over time,” Thomas told Route Fifty. “Women and women of color experienced more of a specific kind of violence—sexualized violence and race and gender violence.”
Tacoma, Washington Mayor Victoria Woodards, who spoke at the press conference, said she is “deeply concerned about the impact political violence is having on us as women. … We are resilient. We are strong. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t significant negative impacts,” she said.
Among them, added Boise, Idaho, Mayor Lauren McLean, who also spoke, is the reaction of many officials and candidates to get out of public service rather than suffer harassment and violence.
“As a public servant of 20 years, I’m incredibly disheartened to see good people stepping down from public service because of the impact that threats—very real threats—have on their sense of security, on their families, on their ability to serve their communities and fulfill their duties,” McLean said.
McLean released a lengthy statement in March detailing the threats that politicians and their staffs have endured since the pandemic began. At that time, she vowed not to step down.
Covid-19 Policies Fueling Harassment
Mayors who wrote comments on their surveys pointed to harassment related to Covid-19 policies, Thomas said.
Woodards agreed that political violence has ballooned during the pandemic. “Covid was a significant factor in violence against candidates” during the last election, she said.
She also said it’s easier for angry constituents to find officials’ home addresses online, and some have started visiting her at home.
“Before Covid, I never had anyone come to my house,” she said at the press conference. “Now [it seems] it’s an acceptable thing for someone to show up at someone’s house. I’m a single woman, so showing up at my house is an … issue.”
Woodards called the threats “designed to terrify and they are designed to silence,” and added, “We cannot continue to ignore it” if “a democracy that represents the people who call this country home” is to survive.
The report’s authors agreed, writing, “Violence against mayors affects their ability to concentrate on the job and depresses the willingness of Americans to serve.”