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

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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.

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