Women Politicians Across the County Say They’ve Faced Harassment, Threats

Politics

Women Politicians Across the County Say They’ve Faced Harassment, Threats

Many women candidates and officeholders told Voice of San Diego that as the Democratic Party expands its reach in places that have long been represented by Republicans, they’re bearing the brunt of the backlash to those changes.

Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

One member of the Carlsbad City Council applied for a restraining order after being stalked and harassed online. Another Carlsbad councilwoman filed police reports against two different men who she said threatened her in phone calls and texts and through stalking. An Imperial Beach councilwoman contacted police after a man called her and threatened her to “take her out.” A woman running for state Assembly contacted both SDPD and the district attorney’s office after receiving threatening text messages in response to campaign outreach. A candidate for county supervisor in the March primary said it wasn’t unusual to see people who opposed her candidacy posted up outside of her house during the campaign.

Women candidates and officeholders from all corners of the county told Voice of San Diego they’ve been the target of harassment and threats, often fueled by vitriolic social media posts.

Black, Latina and Asian women, as well as those who identify as LGBTQ, and other marginalized women often face the worst of the harassment, Voice of San Diego found. Many of them said that as the Democratic Party expands its reach in places that have long been represented by Republicans, they’re bearing the brunt of the backlash to those changes. Some said the threats ultimately strengthened their resolve to run for office, but many worried that women contemplating a future in politics would be deterred by the possibility of harassment – or worse.

‘You Become a Bigger Target’

In September, Carlsbad Councilwoman Cori Schumacher, who is gay, applied for a temporary restraining order seeking to protect herself and her spouse from a man who she said directed social media threats against her. She also sought protection from two others she alleged to be associated with the man.

Schumacher wrote in court filings that the man, who lives in her district, stalked her and posted on social media that he intended to force her to leave her home. Schumacher wrote in legal documents that she’d experienced “over a year of consistent, increasingly obsessive and distressing activity directed at (her) and those who publicly associate with me (who fear retaliation).” Schumacher wrote that the man sent an email to city employees, attempting to gain access to her personal phone number and threatened to sue her for her not responding to him online. His behavior, and that of two other men collaborating with him, became increasingly concerning between July and September, Schumacher wrote in the restraining order application.

“Please get ready to move out of our wonderful city. That is – if you actually live here,” the man wrote about Schumacher on Facebook, according to images included in Schumacher’s restraining order application.

A judge granted the stay-away order and a decision on whether to extend the order is set for Dec. 15.

Schumacher said there needs to be a conversation about the line between constitutionally protected speech and “actions intended primarily to terrorize public servants who have been turned into political piñatas for the benefit of the previously privileged,” she wrote in an email.

“Women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks have been dehumanized and terrorized for years in North County. Now it’s happening for all to see and those of us who have dared to step up and strive for more for our communities are taking the brunt of the toxic backlash because of the idea that abuse and online terrorism are allowed if it’s pointed in the direction of politicians,” Schumacher wrote. “Political power in North County doesn’t protect you from the racism, misogyny, or homophobia, it just means you become a bigger target.”

In a sign of the depth of the problem, Schumacher isn’t the only female member of the Carlsbad City Council who’s sought help from police after receiving threats.

Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel was elected in 2018, and in her two years in office has filed two police reports against two men she said threatened and stalked her.

Carlsbad Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel, shown speaking at the 2019 Women’s March, said she’s filed two police reports against two men she said threatened and stalked her since she took office. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

In one instance, a man who helped on her campaign sent her inappropriate text messages and became obsessive, so she had to change her phone number, she said. Then he managed to get access to her new phone number, she said. In another case, a man she said she met in a political circle sent her inappropriate messages and told her that if she didn’t respond to her messages that he would end her political career.

“It was very similar, and it was very creepy,” she said.

She said she didn’t file restraining orders against the men since warnings from the police have worked so far, but that she’d consider going that route if the threats persisted.

Dr. Esperanza Camargo, an associate professor of criminal justice at San Diego State University who researches violence against women, said threats against women politicians are just an extension of the violence women face every day and that those threats can be amplified by the anonymity social media provides. She said marginalized groups like Black, Latino and Asian women and those who transcend traditional gender roles often must contend with men who want to see things stay the way they are.

“Women are abused in many instances, but when acting against their expected roles, especially strong women, and act against traditional norms, everyone – including women – go against them,” she said. She said threats against women in power are often sexual in nature because they reinforce the idea of submission and uphold a structure for men to overpower women. “A woman can be killed, but she can also be raped,” she said.

In nearby Encinitas, politicians say they’re regularly the targets of hate speech.

At a virtual forum hosted by the Coast News in October, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and her challenger Julie Thunder vehemently disagreed about a host of issues – but also swapped stories about the toxicity that comes with running for office in the coastal town.

Encinitas Councilwoman Kellie Shay Hinze expressed frustration with a lack of moderation on Facebook. She said that in one Encinitas-focused group, people are allowed to continue posting despite calling Council members Nazis and posting hate speech. She said some of the posts on that forum include vague threats against her, Blakespear and Encinitas Councilman Tony Kranz – all of whom supported allowing homeless residents in the community to park overnight in a so-called safe parking lot. All three candidates ran for re-election in November and won, according to election results posted Sunday evening.

In August, the San Diego County Democratic Party censured one of its members, Vallecitos Water Board candidate Matthew Corrales, after finding he “exhibited a pattern of harassment including name calling, ridicule and obscene gestures,” and “a tendency to target women and members of the Jewish community,” and posted “a picture of a candidate’s home, and children, and tagging an organization that has targeted her for public harassment in the past,” according to a document signed by Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party.

Tiffany Boyd-Hodgson, Corrales’s opponent in the race, is one of several candidates who brought concerns about Corrales to the Democratic Party. Boyd-Hodgson told Voice of San Diego that as a result of Corrales’s hostility, it was more difficult for her to get endorsements from the San Diego Democratic Party and Democratic-affiliated clubs in the county.

Boyd-Hodgson, like Hinze, graduated from a program called Emerge California, which encourages and trains Democratic women to run for office.

“But it didn’t prepare us for this bullshit. Even with in-depth training, it knocks you off your feet,” she said.

Feeling Unsafe in the Town You Represent

Other women in the Democratic Party said as the county turns increasingly blue, they’ve faced harassment particularly in places that historically leaned Republican. Many women of color said the harassment they faced came with an underlying – or sometimes explicit – message: You don’t belong here.

Imperial Beach Councilwoman Paloma Aguirre was the first Latina elected to office in the city in 2018 despite the fact that the city is majority-Hispanic. Aguirre said she received threats to her safety during her campaign in 2018 and that they’ve continued while in office.

“In the past it’s been conservative here, but there’s an ideological shift. I only mention it because it seems to be a phenomenon that happens with men who are very vocal about seeing very different faces and a different makeup in governing,” she said.

Imperial Beach Councilwoman Paloma Aguirre / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In one case, a man sent her a text reply to a campaign message with a racial slur, claimed to be a Vietnam war veteran and said he would bring an AK-47 rifle to the polls to “take care of her.” In another case, a man called her direct line and threatened to “take her out.” She said she reported it to police and was told they couldn’t do anything because she was not told explicitly, “I’m going to kill you.”

She said now she sometimes fears everyday activities like walking around town. Aguirre said the harassment has revved up again recently.

“We’re in a little bit of a bind as elected officials because we’re nebulous online receiving comments from constituents,” she said. “It’s not like you can just block people.”

Kenya Taylor, who ran for the District 2 seat on the County Board of Supervisors earlier this year, said it wasn’t uncommon to see people who opposed her candidacy sitting outside of her home, and she had to explain to her children why they were there.

“As a Black woman running for office people came to me and said, ‘Are you crazy for running in East County?’ I said it won’t be as bad as what our ancestors have been through,” she said.

Kenya Taylor appears at a Democratic Party gathering on primary election night March 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Esther Sanchez, a Latina and the only woman who ran in the 12-candidate Oceanside mayor’s race, said she faced harassment and bullying along the campaign trail. She said it’s hurtful when people she knows in real life are the ones doing the harassing, but she said social media harassment doesn’t bother her because they’re being made by people who don’t actually know her.

“Part of the reason I’ve been able to survive is I’ve dealt with bias all my life; and it’s a different kind of bias,” she said.

Sanchez has been one of the only women on the Oceanside City Council for much of the last 20 years.

“It’s a very, very tough thing to go through. It attempts to be impersonal, but it’s very personal and I think that a lot of the things that have to change are the things that have to start to change at a national level,” she said.

Turning to the Police

Sarah Davis, a candidate for state Assembly, also had trouble reporting troubling interactions to the police.

On Oct. 26, two men sent Davis text messages in response to campaign outreach that worried her enough to report them.

“You can count on being highly opposed at the ballot box and in the streets by a highly armed well-trained family,” one read. “If you text me again, I will fucking kill you,” the other reads.

She said she had difficulty getting an SDPD dispatcher to file a police report, so she turned to the DA’s office.

Law enforcement officials from the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego Sheriff’s Department said in general, they investigate any criminal threats made if they become known to them. San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Captain Herb Taft said the department encourages victims to notify law enforcement about troubling posts. Shawn Takeuchi, a spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, said the department will respond to any request for service in which a person feels they were a victim of a crime. He flagged a section of the Penal Code that makes it a misdemeanor to send obscene or threatening messages through phones or other communications devices.

Steve Walker, a spokesperson for the San Diego district attorney’s office, said individuals who believe a crime has been committed or are the target of what they believe is a credible threat can report to their office but it is usually other law enforcement agencies like the Sheriff’s Department or the San Diego Police Department that monitor and investigate such threats. He said when the office is presented with such cases by law enforcement, it evaluates them to determine if they can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Harassment Can Be a Deterrent or a Motivator

Multiple women in the Democratic Party told Voice of San Diego that seeing threats of violence and public harassment against female politicians and candidates has made them reconsider running for office, and they know of others who share the same reticence.

Sue Alderson, a member of the San Diego Democratic Party’s club development committee and former president of the Democratic Club of Vista, said her group is pushing young women to run, but she’s seeing some question it. “They’re asking ‘What if I want to have a baby? What if I want to have a family?” she said. “We need to have more young, qualified women candidates run for office.”

Taylor, the former District 2 supervisor candidate who is the membership chair for the Black Women’s Institute for Leadership Development, said despite what she went through in her campaign, she still encourages women to run for office and resists a culture of older women in the party telling potential young women candidates to wait their turns.

Hinze, the Encinitas councilwoman, similarly said that she weighed the possibility of continued harassment when deciding whether to seek re-election, but ultimately felt a responsibility to run.

“People say to me, ‘I’ve been reading what they say about you online and I want to send you support,” she said. “Honestly it’s exhausting, and it would be a full-time job to respond to their false statements.”

Correction: This story has been revised to clarify that the allegations in Councilwoman Schumacher’s restraining order application pertained primarily to one of the three men from whom she sought protection.

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