Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. In 2019, Lauren McLean became the first woman elected as Mayor of Boise, Idaho. She took office in early 2020 and has served the city during the pandemic. A Democrat who describes herself as tough on COVID, McLean has faced much more than simple criticism for the pandemic policies she instituted in the city. Boise's Idaho News 6 reporting back in March.
Reporter: Boise Mayor Lauren McLean says she now has a dedicated security detail from Boise PD with her most days. She says employees at City Hall as well as other officials and even her own family have been subjected to threats and she says she's had to hide her own fear from her children.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Recent results from a survey conducted by The Women Mayor's Network indicates that nearly all mayors report experiences with threat and harassment, but the problem is particularly acute for women and women of color mayors and psychological, physical, and political violence may be having real effects on the willingness of women to run for office.
Heidi Gerbracht is founder and director of the Equity Agenda, and co-founder of the Women Mayor's Network. Heidi, thanks for being here today on The Takeaway.
Heidi Gerbracht: Hello, it's great to be here talking with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell us about what this survey of American mayors was tracking.
Heidi Gerbracht: Our findings were pretty stark. In 2021, we found that violence against mayors was very common. Our survey, which was funded by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, found that among all mayors, 94.5% reported psychological violence which involves acts likely to harm people by inducing fear or harm to their sense of self-worth at least once, which, by the way, is a 23% increase from when the researchers did this survey in 2017.
24.2% reported at least one threat and 15.8% suffered physical violence, which is up from 9% in 2017. Probably not surprisingly, to many of us, white women and women of color mayors face higher levels of political violence.
45.7% of women of color mayors reported being harassed at least monthly. 39.7% of white women mayors, 36.2% of men mayors of color, and 23.4% of white men mayors reported the same. White women mayors face the most psychological violence and women mayors of color receive the highest rates of threats.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's a lot of numbers there, and I want to make sure that I understand the substance of it. When you say threat, what kind of threats? What are the tools that are being used to threaten? Is this someone coming up to your office? Is this an email? Is this an apt reply on Twitter, what's happening here?
Heidi Gerbracht: It's all of those things and more. Threats of beatings, women and certainly people of color experience this in gendered, sexualized, and race-based ways. We looked at that as well. It is virulent, it's common, and it's very much a range of both online and in-person types of activities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think when folks hear the words political violence, maybe in their minds, they see January 6th, or maybe even see something that they don't necessarily associate with the US context when we say political violence. What does political violence against a mayor mean? Is this about it ideological opponents, or are we dealing here with people who, for example, commit these acts of psychological violence against a broad range of people and mayors just happen to be one of them?
Heidi Gerbracht: Definitely, one of the things that I know from my work is that this is increasing against local elected officials. Mayors are not the only ones at the local government level. Certainly, school board members, election administrators, public health officials are also feeling this. Our mayors, we ask them open-ended questions about why they thought it was happening and increasing, and people definitely cited the pandemic. Some folks cited the uprisings against Black Lives. Definitely, I think there are a multitude of reasons that it's triggered, and then it's happening.
What we know from talking to and being in touch with the National Threat Assessment Center, which is a think tank at Homeland Security, is that basically, it doesn't exactly matter what the background reason might be, that we need to deal with individual behavior. One reason we really wanted to do this survey is to raise public awareness that this is happening at the local level against officials that are really the heart of our democracy and it is a real threat to various people's participation in our political process. That is unacceptable. It's not just politics as usual and we need to do something about it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're in the midst of primary election season and there's a lot of local politics races. I just voted early and our ballot is packed with folks running, for example, for school board and that kind of thing. Is there a concern that these threats, this harassment, even these acts of violence will reduce the number of people, and maybe particularly of women and women of color, who will throw their hat in the ring to be a public servant?
Heidi Gerbracht: Absolutely. You have zeroed in on our main concern with these survey findings. We found that 69.8% of mayors knew someone who chose not to run for office due to fears of political violence, and 32.2% thought about leaving office themselves. Lauren McLean, the mayor of Boise, Idaho put out a statement several weeks ago about the political violence she's been facing. She has been trying to recruit folks to run, women, people of color, and has been hearing from them that they are not interested in dealing with what she's been dealing with.
Absolutely, it really threatens to dilute even further groups of people who are currently marginalized and certainly don't have parity or equity in elected office in our country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to say, as I was looking at the results, that I found most distressing is that these often threats of violence are not made exclusively against the mayor, but often also against the family members of these mayors.
Heidi Gerbracht: Yes, that is absolutely something that we are seeing as well. I don't have the specific statistics about that but we did ask, and certainly concerns about family members is part of what folks are really worried about. There are personal effects, there are family effects, and there are democratic democracy effects.
We at the Women Mayor's Network are really interested in resources and what we can provide. We're actually doing an online safety training for mayors next week, mayors and their staff, that all mayors are welcome to. The week after that, we're doing a physical safety training.
We're really trying to get resources out there at the same time that we're trying to raise public awareness. We don't want folks to feel like there's nothing that can be done. There's absolutely things that can be done.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Heidi Gerbracht is founder and director of the Equity Agenda and co-founder of the Women's Mayors Network. Heidi, again, thank you so much for your time today.
Heidi Gerbracht: Thank you for having me. It's been great.
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