Since taking office in 2021, Oakland City Council member Carroll Fife has received threats by phone, social media and in person, an extreme level of harassment she never imagined would come with serving her community.
Fife said she has found animal parts strewn on her car, her tires flattened, and trash dumped at her doorstep. She tried in vain to get a restraining order against a man who said she would “feel the Second Amendment.” A menacing caller whose voice mail Fife shared online displayed the particular vitriol she receives as a Black woman: “Whitey’s going to hunt your ass.”
“What reality am I living in? Why? What am I doing?” Fife said by phone from California. Her most recent threat arrived Tuesday. “What have I done to create this level of anger in people? Or what is our society creating where people think it’s okay?”
Fife’s experience is mirrored across the country, where an increase in threats and harassment against local officials has led to calls for response plans and security protocols like those typically reserved for higher offices, according to a new study of targeted officials. The report, released Friday by the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University, is based on interviews with 30 mayors, city council members and other public officials across the political spectrum and from different regions, a snapshot of serving in a violent climate that’s expected to worsen in the run-up to the 2024 election.
In October, an attack by a hammer-wielding assailant who broke into the home of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and struck her 82-year-old husband, Paul, exposed the vulnerability of the most powerful figures in the country. This month, a man with a metal baseball bat entered the office of Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and injured two of his staffers.
The Princeton study shows the trickle-down effect on largely defenseless city and county officials in an era with, as one respondent put it, a “new level of permission to be publicly vile.” Though the threat primarily comes from right-wing agitators, researchers found that Democrats and Republicans alike have been targeted, sometimes by members of their own parties.
The hostility, analysts say, chips away at democratic participation as some would-be public servants decide the risk is no longer worth it. Officials who do stick it out typically make drastic lifestyle changes to adapt. In the Princeton research, public servants described installing home-security systems, canceling social gatherings, deleting social media accounts or obtaining a concealed-carry permit for a firearm.
“Imagine you’re in a town and your town is 500 people, and you’re being threatened and harassed. Everybody knows who you are,” said Augusta Dell’Omo, lead author of the study. “Several of the local officials talked about not wanting to go to the grocery store, starting to change their routines, going to pharmacies the next town over.”
The officials interviewed are a subset in a broader national research effort by the Bridging Divides Initiative and the nonprofit government-focused research group CivicPulse to survey hundreds of local elected leaders about threats and harassment. In the smaller group, the 30 participants, whose names and locations are not revealed in the report, were split evenly between men and women, and dispersed geographically. Just over half were Democrats; the rest were a mix identifying as Republican or independent.
Because of the small sample size and other factors, the researchers emphasized that the study isn’t a scientific measure of harassment but more of a bellwether, as local democratic institutions begin to address the need for better protections.
The findings show noxious politics seeping even into ostensibly nonpartisan posts in small towns. At the hyperlocal level, the report says, disputes over ordinary municipal work of “repairing roads and building affordable housing” now risk drawing the kinds of violent responses more commonly associated with hot-button issues.
“Local officials received specific death threats to shoot them or their homes, run them over, ‘slit their throats,’ commit ‘acts of terror’ against them, and ‘hang them from nooses,’” the report states. Some officials recounted in-person confrontations at cafes and grocery stores, and “one mayor reported finding a bullet hole in a window at their house.”
In another section, the report cites an elected official who told her daughter to go to college far away, “stating that as much as it hurt, distance would keep her children safe.”
Dell’Omo said a common theme was disillusionment from public officials who entered office eager to serve only to end up facing intimidation and smear campaigns, often with little support and no training on how to respond. Some who reported the abuse were told that the harassment had to meet a criminal threshold before authorities could intervene.
“They’re almost trapped in a kind of loop: threat, harassment, lack of recourse, fear. And then the cycle just keeps going,” Dell’Omo said.
Female officials surveyed shared stories of rape threats and other examples of being targeted with gender-based intimidation. About 20 percent of respondents were people of color who likewise experienced an extra racial or ethnic dimension to the harassment they received.
Fife, the Oakland council member, was not part of the study but echoed its findings. She said messages from her detractors invoked every hateful trope about Black women, with jabs at her appearance, credentials and competence. The abuse comes in waves, the biggest arriving after what she called a bad-faith attack by Fox News over her criminal justice stances. Smaller flare-ups erupted over local issues such as a sports arena project or a fight with landlords over an eviction moratorium.
“If they can portray me in a light that makes people feel like I’m endangering their lives, then they are fully justified in impacting mine any way they see fit,” Fife said, describing her attackers’ thinking. “It’s very concerning.”
Every morning, Fife said, she wakes up and asks herself why she continues to serve, given the toll on her mental health and home life. She said inspiration comes from older generations of Oakland-area activists who endured state surveillance and retaliation in their fight for civil rights.
“They’re getting bolder because we’re winning,” Fife said of the trolls who target her and other elected officials. “It’s something that we have to prepare for and understand because this moment is not for the faint of heart.”
The report concludes that threats and harassment “present a significant challenge to American democracy, discouraging civic engagement and undermining the critical work of public servants.” Nearly all the respondents had at least contemplated leaving office or not seeking reelection.
That scenario played out this week when the mayor of tiny Newport, Vt., who had only served since March, abruptly resigned Monday at a city council session.
With a quavering voice and trembling hands, Beth Barnes announced that she was stepping down after “75 days being berated, intimidated, bullied,” including by council colleagues.
City officials declined to comment but referred obliquely to recent council meetings, recordings of which show simmering tensions. Barnes, who was not among the officials surveyed, did not offer specifics in the letter she read aloud Monday evening.
“I love being your mayor, not for the glory but for the service,” Barnes said. “However, it is with a very heavy heart that I say the people who wanted to see me fail have clearly won, by their definition.”
Barnes rose and exited as the room fell into a stunned silence. A few people began to applaud. Council members shifted awkwardly in their seats. Off camera, a woman’s voice rose from the audience.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Every one of you.”