Clarence E. Anthony is the CEO and Executive Director of the National League of Cities. He previously served as mayor of South Bay, Florida.
Since the start of the pandemic and everything that has followed, local leaders across the country have had to step in in unforeseen ways to meet the needs of their residents. From making tough decisions about how and when to implement COVID-19 safety protocols to figuring out how to balance budgets with less revenue, these officials have run our country from the ground up. and let us out on the other side.
Unfortunately, the jobs of these local leaders are increasingly life-threatening. Around January 6 of last year, a man drove into Washington, DC with an assault rifle, a Glock gun and thousands of rounds. According to federal court filings, the man texted, “I can walk over to the mayor’s office and put a 5.56 in his skull.” The mayor he was referring to is DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and the “5.56” he was referring to is an armor-piercing bullet.
Unlike other elected officials whose positions keep them in state capitals or Washington, municipal leaders are embedded in their communities. When President Biden recently addressed the National League of Cities, he sums it up well: As a local elected official, “You can’t walk into a grocery store or a gas station, you can’t walk into a supermarket without someone having a question for you ask because you’re the people they know, you’re the people they depend on. You’re there every day on the front lines of public service.
Residents’ access to local authorities is essential, ensuring that their needs and concerns are heard and understood. As a former mayor, I can attest to the value of face-to-face and often spontaneous interactions with constituents and the insight they provided as I framed my response to a number of issues. While I may not agree with all of the opinions communicated to me, hearing them has exposed me to a range of viewpoints that have led to more informed public policy.
Heightened partisanship has been a concern for some time now, but I fear we are on the verge of tipping over to an even more damaging level of incivility. In 2020, following the approval of an indoor mask requirement by the City Commission, Mayor Joyce Warshaw of Dodge City, Kansas was bombarded with so many vitriolic and threatening messages that she resigned, fearing that his safety was in danger. It was a heartbreaking end to a decades-long career in public service, most of which was spent as an elementary school principal in the community.
Mayor Lauren McLean of Boise, Idaho last month issued a statement recalling his own encounters with violent bullying. “I understand the decision to leave public service because I still feel intense fear, frustration and helplessness to watch my two children quietly hearing about foiled threats against me and learning that they too were being targeted and tracked online.” In her statement, Mayor McLean recounts having to hide her fear from her children as people with torches paraded past her living room window, and how death threats prevent her from running early in the morning on the trails she she has been enjoying for 24 years.
A recent report of the National League of Cities found that 81% of local public officials surveyed had experienced harassment, threats and violence, and 87% had seen an increase in harassment, threats and violence during their tenure.
The decision to run for public office is already beset by the ugliness of what can be expected from modern political campaigns. Attacks on his career, his family and his character are commonplace. That’s enough to drive away many capable leaders, deciding for good reason that it’s just not worth it. Add to that the violent bullying we see now, and I genuinely worry about how the cities, towns, and villages across our country will attract and retain the talent we need.
As we have seen during the pandemic, good leaders matter. Tackling public health, affordable housing, crime, equity, infrastructure and many other pressing issues requires talented and committed public servants. If we allow our legitimate disagreements to turn into hatred and violence, we all suffer. Fighting this escalation requires an effort from all of us to stay in control of our passions and speak up when others take things too far, especially when it comes from people we agree with.
After discussing this issue with local officials across the country, there are three areas where I think action can be helpful.
First, municipalities should step up security at council meetings and, where possible, install metal detectors and ballistic glass. Second, knowing the impact of the current situation on the well-being of public servants, localities should hire mental health professionals to help public servants deal with trauma and more effectively support communities that are also going through crises. And third, we must recognize that the spread of misinformation and disinformation is an ongoing reality. Different levels of government can coordinate their fact-checking sources to improve online engagement, adopt and post codes of conduct in government buildings, and develop violence mitigation policies.
“I think you see a lot of people choosing not to hold public office anymore,” former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said. mentioned in response to the results of the NLC’s investigation, as its term was coming to an end. “People are choosing emotional and mental health and well-being over public service, and that’s a dangerous point for us as a country.”
Our leaders and their families deserve better. Local government is the foundation of America, and we must ensure that the people who step in to serve and better our communities are not pushed out. If they are, we are all losers.
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