‘Worthless. Gutless. Loser.’ Online Attacks Escalate When the Mayor Is a Woman.


Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s inbox makes abundantly clear how personally venomous local politics has become.

“‘Fat,’ ‘sick,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘gutless,’ ‘loser,’” she said, reciting some of the insults that have been leveled at her since becoming mayor of Madison, Wis., in April.

She got a taste of the animosity during her campaign, when she was criticized on blogs and social media not for her plans for housing, stormwater management or transportation, but for not wearing makeup.

“People are angry, or afraid, and express themselves in mean ways,” she said.

Ms. Rhodes-Conway is not alone in facing this type of abuse. As many as 79 percent of mayors in the United States report being the victim of harassment, threats or other psychological abuse, according to a recent study. Thirteen percent also reported instances of physical violence.

And one factor — gender — stood out above all others as a predictor of whether a mayor would be targeted. Using a statistical analysis that took into account factors like time in office, the researchers concluded that female mayors were more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to experience psychological abuse and almost three times as likely to experience physical violence.

The study, published in the academic journal State and Local Government Review, and interviews with current and former mayors, lay bare today’s harsh political climate, in which threats of violence over social media are constant and speaking out can be perceived as a political weakness.

“We’re seeing more women get elected into political office everywhere at the same time that there are increasing threats against all public officials,” said Mona Lena Krook, a political science professor at Rutgers University who was not involved in the study. “Men also face violence, but women face more, and more types of violence.”

And the ease of making threats on social media is driving the abuse, said Sue Thomas of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, the lead author of the paper.

“Social media is absolutely toxic to women politicians. It’s much more virulent to me as a woman than as an out lesbian,” said Annise Parker, who was mayor of Houston for three two-year terms. “Remarks about the way l look, what I weigh, or how I dress — aspects of femininity — escalate into threats of physical violence.”

And when Karen Weaver made history in Flint, Mich., by becoming its first female mayor — amid a burgeoning water crisis in 2015 — she believed that she would have more support to discuss the issues facing the city, she said.

On social media, she said, “They went after me like I wasn’t a person and had no feelings or family.”

In all, 16 percent of the 238 mayors who responded to the survey said their experiences of abuse had them thinking about leaving their office, suggesting that the toxic environment also threatens to scare off mayors who are interested in long careers and higher political office.

“Folks who have everything it takes to succeed, win an election and be a terrific public servant, that’s why they say no,” said Christopher Cabaldon, the mayor of West Sacramento, Calif., since 1998. He added that on social media it’s “open season on politicians and their families. It definitely warps what our local democracy looks like.”

He said that he had been able to remain in office for more than two decades, in part, because he is single and has not faced the discomfort of having a spouse or relative attacked.

“People don’t know it until they experience it,” said Ms. Parker, who is now the chief executive of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which helps train candidates for office. “It doesn’t keep people out, but it burns people out once they’re in it.”

For Heather McTeer Toney, the first woman and the youngest person, at 28, to serve as mayor of Greenville, Miss., the menace arrived in her mailbox, not her inbox.

The words were written on a yellow sheet of paper, torn off from a legal pad, in black, blue and red ink, and the ones that explicitly threatened rape were written in red. It was more disturbing in a way, she said, that someone took the time to write a letter and mail it.

“It’s 15 years later and I can still remember that,” said Ms. McTeer Toney, who was also the first black person in the post. “Trust me, this is something that I want to forget.”

While the many threats against Ms. McTeer Toney never escalated into violent actions during her two terms in office from 2004 to 2012, the threat of violence is not an abstract concern. Last year, a white man physically abused the first Latino mayor of Burien, a Seattle suburb, at a block party. The person arrested was charged with a hate crime.

“Every time you leave your house, you have to run into a constituent,” Ms. Krook, the political scientist, said by telephone from a conference in Uppsala, Sweden, where the study was discussed this month. “People at the local level are left more vulnerable to attack, and it’s more likely that people can reach you.”

Mark Barbee, 29, a restaurant server who leads Bridgeport, Pa., a city of 5,000 about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, said he received death threats after winning election in 2017. City Council meetings have been especially contentious. His proposal for an anti-discrimination policy only increased the ire directed at him.

Mr. Barbee, a gay African-American, said that the difficult times — during which some supporters told him his advocacy was “not worth your life” — forced him to contemplate leaving office.

The survey also found that mayors who are younger, in strong chief executive systems, and in larger cities were more likely to be affected by violence and abuse.

And then there is the political calculation that comes with speaking out about the abuse: Will the public be sympathetic to a mayor who is complaining?

“Politicians have an image to keep up,” said Ms. Krook, the political scientist. “That’s particularly hard for women. If you potentially show some weakness, people can really jump on that.”

While in office, Ms. McTeer Toney, the former Greenville mayor, never spoke publicly of the threats she received, and wondered if her neighbors thought the police patrols around her home were a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“What’s terrifying is that unless something bad happens,” she said, “you sit in limbo wondering or waiting for the next threat to occur. It’s never a matter of if, but when.”

Many mayors seemed to have reluctantly accepted the abuse as part of serving in office, but have come up with their own methods of coping.

Ms. Rhodes-Conway does not engage with the attacks that come over social media, but her office reads everything, she said. “If I were reading this every day, it would be just awful,” she said. “I feel for mayors who have less of a staff, or less of a filter. This is really painful.”

Instead, she combats the barrage of nastiness by visiting coffee shops around the city, where she and her staff buy drinks for residents, many of whom arrive upset and talk for an hour. “Even when people disagree with me face to face, they are polite,” she said.

Mayor Lovely A. Warren of Rochester, N.Y., said she went so far as to shut down her personal Facebook account for nearly three years.

“When you get into a fight with the pig, you get dirty and the pig likes it,” she said, paraphrasing advice she was given by her family.


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