Robert Gehrke: These Utah legislators have received threats, a scary example of our toxic politics

Robert Gehrke

Last week, Sen. Kathleen Riebe joined a growing group of legislators — those who have received threats of violence over their position on policy issues.

After she voted against a bill requiring warning labels on pornography, she was contacted via a burner account by someone who called her a “pervert and hoped my family is in a freak accident and drowns.”

Riebe responded that it was cowardly to threaten her family and he replied, “I’ll just come to your office,” she told me Wednesday. “It is kind of shocking to think some random person could be looking to drown me in the nearest body of water.”

This wasn’t an isolated incident.

Rep. Angela Romero said she has been on the receiving end of harassing and degrading messages this session, some of which she construes as threatening.

Two years ago, when she was sponsoring a domestic violence bill, she made sure Utah Highway Patrol troopers were on hand for hearings to watch an individual who she said had made veiled threats.

This year she has been peppered with insulting messages and voicemails in response to a bill she is sponsoring that would require clergy to report suspected child abuse — a bill that has never received a committee hearing.

She turned one voicemail, in which the caller used a device to disguise his voice, over to staff. In other cases, she has sent them to the Utah Highway Patrol (UHP), which provides security at the Capitol.

“A lot of it has to do with the fact that I run legislation that makes people uncomfortable,” she said. “I think a lot of it has to do with my gender and a lot of it has to do with my political affiliation, because they feel comfortable calling me a b---- and a lot of other words.”

Female Democrats from Salt Lake City are not the only ones to face these scary messages. Some Republicans and men have, too.

Last week, after he voted against a bill to expand school breakfast programs, Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, played a message for his colleagues from an angry out-of-stater referring to him as a “son of a b----.”

Last year, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, said she received threats and “vile messages” after she hijacked a bill to ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

And Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said he has received threatening messages this year over a bill he is sponsoring that would ban almost all abortions — assuming the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and turns the issue back over to the states.

A few years ago, on another bill, he got a call from a blocked number that explicitly said the caller would kill him and his children, referencing each of his daughters by name. He was alarmed and referred it to local police and UHP.

The UHP receives about 30 emails or messages a year that legislators consider threatening, Lt. Gregg Holley, who is in charge of Capitol security, told me. The frequency obviously spikes during the 45-day legislative session.

The office has a dedicated investigator who looks into every one of them and can partner with the Utah Bureau of Investigation if additional resources are needed.

“Nearly all of them turn out to be one of two categories,” Holley said. “Either people with mental health issues, or the bigger majority are people who don’t know how to control their anger.”

If needed, they can assign a trooper to watch out for a legislator when he or she is at the Capitol and, in egregious cases, station troopers at a legislator’s home.

Part of this likely stems from the prevalence of social media, which lawmakers are using more frequently and enables easy anonymous bullying.

But it also reflects a toxicity in our political dialogue, one that, at least anecdotally, is most often directed at female lawmakers.

It’s got to stop.

I get that people can be passionate about issues, especially those that directly affect their health or livelihood. But bullying and disparaging and even threatening legislators, who do make considerable sacrifices in many cases to do the job, is counterproductive.

More than that, even our most detested legislators at the Capitol — and I shouldn’t have to say this — deserve to be treated with a basic level of decency.

“We can disagree on policy and still be respectful of each other,” Romero told me. “I may not agree with you on political ideology, but that doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a human being.