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Mayors Are Harassed and Threatened, But Just How Often?

A new study reveals the downsides of running a city.

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Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker: “They want to demean us as women. They get mad at us, and the first thing they talk about is the way we look.”
(AP)
Demeaning comments, harassment and—less commonly—threats of violence all come with the job of being a mayor.

A new national survey assesses how frequently mayors experience various forms of abuse. The survey, the basis of a study published in the journal State and Local Government Review, finds that most mayors contend with verbal hostility or physical intimidation at rates above those of the general workforce.

In all, 79 percent of mayors reported at least one form of “psychological abuse,” which the survey defined to include harassment, being demeaned or receiving threats. Disrespectful comments or images on social media were by far the most frequent means of abuse. Nearly half of mayors similarly experienced harassment, while 13 percent reported threats of violence directed toward them. “You see this as a widespread phenomenon,” says Sue Thomas, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, who co-authored the study. Few in the position, she says, are spared.

More serious acts of violence were far less common. About 11 percent of mayors reported property damage.

While it’s not at all surprising that mayors encounter negativity, some face much more frequent offenses than others. The only factor that predicted both psychological abuse and physical violence was gender, with women more than twice as likely to experience such incidents as men, after controlling for time in office and other factors. The types of abuse women face are also different: more personal, says Annise Parker, who served as Houston’s mayor until 2016. “They want to demean us as women,” she says. “They get mad at us, and the first thing they talk about is the way we look.” 

Younger mayors and those who consider themselves to be more conservative than their constituents report more psychological abuse (although not more physical violence). The same was true of mayors serving larger cities and those in systems where the mayor has strong powers. Differences across most other traits—including party affiliation and region—were not statistically significant.

 
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SOURCE: “Not for the Faint of Heart: Assessing Physical Violence and Psychological Abuse Against U.S. Mayors," State and Local Government Review

 
It’s not just the position of mayor. A 2013 survey by the International City/County Management Association found 53 percent of the organization’s female members reported “inappropriate or disrespectful” treatment or comments from other elected officials. Studies have shown women in the general workforce face more sexual harassment and other abuse than men as well. 

More broadly, government workers suffer more workplace violence than private-sector employees. A 2011 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics detailed higher rates of workplace violence for law enforcement, medical, mental health and teaching employees in government than for their private-sector counterparts.

One reason public officials bear the brunt of abuse is that they simply have more contact with the public, exposing them to greater risks. Parker, who now leads the Victory Institute, a group supporting LGBTQ officeholders, says it’s important for those concerned about harassment to make themselves accessible to voters before a crisis develops. “You have to be in the arena and where your constituents are.”

In an open-ended section of the survey, mayors most frequently cited negative experiences with social media. Parker recommends that officials have staff manage their accounts to put distance between them and the keyboard.

For some, harassment or abuse can take such a toll that they decide to abandon their political careers altogether. Sixteen percent of mayors experiencing abuse or violence reported that they had thought about leaving public office or suspending their campaigns as a result. An article in the journal Politics, Groups and Identities, utilizing the same survey data, raises the possibility that the issue may be contributing to a larger underrepresentation of women in office.

Kiah Morris, who had been the Vermont General Assembly’s only black female state representative, told The Washington Post she received death threats, had her home vandalized and once found swastikas on tree trunks on her property. Morris resigned late last year before the completion of her term, citing concerns for her family. Such encounters can be particularly unnerving for political newcomers. In 2011, a first-time District of Columbia council candidate dropped out of the race after what she says was an “intimidation campaign” by her opponent that included being surveilled by a private investigator.

 
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Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
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