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From Congress To Local Health Boards, Public Officials Suffer Threats And Harassment

Last week, Idaho's Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo interrupted a district health board meeting tearfully.

"My 12-year-old son is home by himself right now, and there are protesters banging outside the door. I'm going to go home and make sure he's OK," she said before disappearing from the Zoom meeting.

The board had planned to vote on an order that would have required indoor mask usage and would have limited the size of indoor gatherings. Lachiondo's fellow board members ended up ending the meeting early, and another member said he had protesters outside his home as well.

She was never expecting this level of hostility in health board politics.

"The most controversial thing that we were dealing with, really, up until March were septic system approvals," she said.

But this is among many examples of how national crises of both a pandemic and mass misinformation around the election — including from the president — have combined with polarization to create a toxic political atmosphere.

"They had a bullhorn and were talking into that and then running sirens, and they were banging on some kind of drums outside. They were playing the soundtrack from Scarface," Lachiondo said.

Protesters showed up the next night as well, upsetting her 8-year-old son.

"He's slept on my floor the past two nights because we've had protesters at our house these past two nights," she said in an interview Thursday. "I am just very sad that a decision that I made to put myself out there for public office has resulted in my kids feeling unsafe in our own home."

As politics grow increasingly acrimonious, threats against and harassment of public officials also seem to be on the rise, according to Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"We are facing a pretty unusual uptick in violence and threats and intimidation against public officials across the range, from the really hyper-local people who are either running for their state assemblies or public health officials, who are working on basic public health in the COVID pandemic, all the way to AOC and members of Congress and so on," she said, referring to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Even a simple formality such as the Electoral College was tense this year, with the president spreading misinformation about voter fraud. In the swing state of Michigan, they closed down the state Capitol.

"The Capitol Commission, because of intel that they had, decided to close the Capitol for the purposes of our Electoral College vote today," Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told NPR on Monday. "In our Capitol currently, bringing guns is permitted. And so I am glad that the Capitol Commission took these steps."

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey told the Detroit Free Press that there were "credible threats of violence" behind the closure. The vote occurred without disruption, as it did in Arizona, where electors met in an undisclosed location.

A rising trend

From state and local officials to members of Congress, it's hard to keep an exact count of exactly how many officials are being harassed or threatened. But there are some numbers to support that this has been a growing trend. In 2018 and again in 2019, for example, Capitol Hill law enforcement reported that threats against members of Congress were increasing.

That trend followed the 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice, where a gunman who had shown animosity toward Republicans injured GOP Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and others.

And while there have been instances of violence across the political spectrum in recent years, Kleinfeld said that right now there seems to be more violent rhetoric and behavior on the conservative end of the spectrum.

"We're at a moment of polarization right now that's much higher than the last moment of militia activity," she said. "The level of polarization [is] quite a bit higher even than the 1970s, when we had a lot of political violence in this country, mostly from the left then. Now it's mostly from the right."

It's not just Democrats such as Lachiondo who have experienced this harassment, however. Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official in Georgia, told NPR's Ari Shapiro that rampant misinformation on the far right played into threats surrounding that state's election recount.

"It's been like playing a game of whack-a-mole. With every new conspiracy theory [that] gets put up, we had to whack down," he said. "And we saw kind of a rising level of, you know, language of violence around things and even death threats against my boss, Secretary Brad Raffensperger, sexualized threats to his wife on her personal cellphone and threats against me."

One fear Kleinfeld has is that the misogynistic and racist harassment and threats some politicians face will keep others out of politics.

Michigan state Rep. Cynthia Johnson, a Black woman, last week posted to Facebook voicemails she received containing racist and sexist slurs as well as threats. Those came after the Democratic lawmaker questioned Rudy Giuliani and other witnesses at a Michigan House hearing on the election.

"I hope you like burning crosses in your front yard, because I'm sure by the time this is all said and done, there will be several, and maybe even a noose or two hanging from the tree in your yard," a voice says on one before calling her a sexist slur.

"I mean, just nasty foul things that I was receiving, all because I was challenging, really, the president of the United States: Don't come in our state bringing this nonsense to the people," she told NPR. "That's in essence what I was really saying."

Johnson's responses to the threats themselves stirred up anger, however, particularly a video she posted to Facebook.

"You don't have to yell. You don't have to curse anybody out," she said in the video. "You don't have to call people names; hit their asses in the pocketbook."

However, Republicans in the Michigan House saw a part of that video as threatening.

"This is just a warning to you Trumpers: be careful. Walk lightly," she said. "We ain't playing with you. Enough of the shenanigans. Enough is enough. And for those of you who are soldiers, you know how to do it. Do it right. Be in order. Make them pay."

House Republicans removed her from her committee assignments as a result. Johnson told NPR that that section of the video was a reference to her call to hit opponents "in the pocketbook."

She also said, "All of what I posted, some of them have names attached. We will get you fired. Absolutely, some of you trying to undermine our election and try to throw threats at this representative, some of you will go to jail. I have every intention of pressing charges against every single name that the FBI gives me."

NPR has reached out to the Republican speaker and speaker-elect of the Michigan House of Representatives but has not received comment. However, in a statement, Republican House leaders in Michigan condemned Johnson's words as "unacceptable and un-American."

They added: "We have been consistent in our position on this – violence and intimidation is never appropriate in politics. We have said that about threats against Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer, Secretary [Jocelyn] Benson, Rep. Johnson herself, and others. That applies to threats made toward public officials, and it must also apply when the threats come from public officials," as reported by Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta.

On Monday, they also stripped a fellow GOP lawmaker of committee assignments after he warned there would be violencewith the protests against the state's Electoral College vote.

A long pattern of political violence

For her part, Johnson said she was dismayed by the thousands of phone calls she said she received but not shocked.

"Oh, my gosh, this doesn't surprise me. This is not new," she said.

That echoed something Kleinfeld said about political violence and violent rhetoric: It's easy to become inured to it when it becomes commonplace.

"And because it's not new, it's actually more worrying because what we know about political violence is that countries that have had it in the past are more likely to have it in the future," she said.

It may not be new, but President Trump has at times fanned the flames of partisan animosity and even violence, rather than trying to quell it, as when he tweeted that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," during summer racial justice protests.

More than 2,000 miles from Washington, D.C., Lachiondo said she sees Trump's effects on local politics.

"Trump didn't come here and tell people to do this," Lachiondo said. "But this starts at the top and the way that people have been fomented over the last eight months, it has consequences, and I feel that it's had consequences for my family."

Some voters already voiced their displeasure with Lachiondo through peaceful democratic means before these recent protests, voting her out in November. She will leave office in January.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.