From Congress To Local Health Boards, Public Officials Suffer Threats And Harassment COVID-19, polarization and election misinformation — including from the president — are three factors in politicians suffering harassment and even threats from voters in recent weeks.

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

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This week, the mayor of a small city in Kansas resigned after receiving violent threats over a mask mandate. That came after the Electoral College cast votes under threats of violence in some states. There's been a wave of intimidation towards public officials nationwide, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports. And just a heads-up, this story contains disturbing, racist language.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: At a regional health board meeting in Idaho last week, members were set to consider anti-coronavirus measures. Diana Lachiondo, the Democratic commissioner of Ada County, stepped away briefly to take a call from her son and then returned.

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DIANA LACHIONDO: My 12-year-old son is home by himself right now, and there are protesters banging outside the door, OK? I'm going to go home and make sure he's OK, so I will reconnect with you when I get there.

KURTZLEBEN: She thinks there were three protesters that night, and they frightened her child by banging on drums, using sirens and playing sound clips from the film "Scarface." Protesters came again the next night, frightening her other son, age 8.

LACHIONDO: He's, you know, slept on my floor the past two nights because we've had protesters at our house. 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.

KURTZLEBEN: It's one of many examples of how crises, including a pandemic and mass misinformation around the election, including from the president himself, have fostered harassment.

RACHEL KLEINFELD: 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 all the way to members of Congress and so on.

KURTZLEBEN: Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She says that while there have been instances of violence across the political spectrum in recent years, right now there appears to be more violent rhetoric and behavior from one side.

KLEINFELD: We're at a level of polarization that's quite a bit higher even than the 1970s, when we had a lot of political violence, mostly from the left then. Now it's mostly from the right.

KURTZLEBEN: It's not just Democrats who have been targeted, however. Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official in Georgia, told NPR that rampant misinformation on the right, including from the president, played into threats surrounding that state's recount.

GABRIEL STERLING: We saw kind of a rising level of language of violence around things and even death threats against my boss, Secretary Brad Raffensperger, sexualized threats to his wife on her personal cell phone and threats against me.

KURTZLEBEN: One fear among some experts is that seeing racist and sexist harassment, women and people of color will stay out of politics. Michigan Democratic State Representative Cynthia Johnson, a Black woman, said she received thousands of calls on her personal phone after she questioned Rudy Giuliani and other witnesses at a hearing on the election. Some of the voicemails contained racist and sexist slurs and threats. Here's one of them. A warning - this audio is disturbing.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 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.

KURTZLEBEN: A video she posted to Facebook in response, however, itself stirred up anger, particularly a portion where she said she wanted to punish her harassers and, quote, "make them pay." Republicans in the Michigan House condemned that as a threat and removed her from her committee assignments as a result. Johnson told NPR that she meant she wants to hit her opponents economically. And she also said there should be legal repercussions.

CYNTHIA JOHNSON: We will get you fired. Some of you trying to undermine our election and try to throw threats at this representative, some of you will go to jail.

KURTZLEBEN: For her part, 2,000 miles from D.C., Diana Lachiondo says she sees the effects of national politics, including President Trump's rhetoric, seeping into her life in Idaho.

LACHIONDO: This starts at the top. And the way that people have been fomented (laughter) over the last eight months, it has consequences. And I feel that it's had consequences for my family.

KURTZLEBEN: Before these protests, voters had already voiced their displeasure the peaceful, democratic way. She lost her reelection bid in November. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

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