Elected officials in Salt Lake County worry uptick in harassment and threats will stymie public service

As the 2022 midterm elections approach, Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen plans to hire more security to protect her staff.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather at the Salt Lake County Government Center on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, to protest and support the recent mask mandate issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department and Mayor Jenny Wilson. Council member Amy Winder Newton speaks remotely as people resort to holding up signs against the glass to the chamber as the council takes another vote which kept the mandate in place.

Threats of violence. Vulgar emails. Harassing behavior.

In the three decades Sherrie Swensen has served in public office, the Salt Lake County elections clerk has never seen the kind of vitriol like what’s been aimed at her office recently.

“It’s been uncomfortable after this general election in November of 2020, I received a couple of somewhat threatening phone calls,” she said. “One of them came in very late on election night and threatened violence ... if Trump didn’t win.”

Since the 2020 U.S. presidential election, local elected officials — from county clerks to school board members — across the nation have faced an uptick of vitriol, harassment and threats.

A November 2021 study from the National League of Cities found that 87% of public officials surveyed reported a recent increase of attacks on public officials, while 81% said they personally experienced a form of harassment, threats and violence.

“Personal attacks. Physical assaults. Cyberbullying directed at themselves their children and families – all while having to manage multiple crises in their communities – this is what it means to be a public servant,” said Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities, in a recent statement about the study’s findings. “It’s too easy to forget that our local leaders are also human. Along with their titles of ‘mayor,’ ‘councilmember,’ or ‘commissioner’ – they are also ‘parent,’ ‘friend,’ ‘neighbor,’ and so much more.”

It’s a trend that’s also happening to lawmakers in the Beehive State.

The Utah Department of Public Safety recently said there was a “dramatic increase” in threats made mostly toward elected officials since the U.S. Capitol attack in 2021. Some of those threats involved government employees and most came from social media accounts and other online platforms.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Friday, March 4, 2022.

Swensen said her office has reported two threat incidents to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake. As the 2022 midterm elections approach, Swensen said she plans to hire more security to protect her staff.

Swensen, who was elected in 1991 to serve as the top elections officer in the state’s most populous county, finds the erosion of trust in the elections process devastating.

“It’s heartbreaking to see this kind of this kind of information or misinformation spread about our elections not being correct and not being trusted,” she said, adding that it’s a small group of people spreading propaganda and misinformation.

Mask and vaccine mandates

Nate Salazar, vice president of the Salt Lake City School District’s Board of Education, said he received a lot of pushback shortly after the body voted to start the 2020-21 school year remotely to stem the spread of COVID-19.

On several occasions, Salazar, who joined the school board in 2018, said individuals showed up to his home to tell him how disappointed they were about his decision. In one instance someone knocked on his door to voice displeasure. In another, someone dropped a letter off on his doorstep.

While he didn’t receive any direct threats, Salazar said, “there [were] some borderline messages and emails that came through that did raise a lot of concern relative to my personal safety.”

Aimee Winder Newton, a Republican Salt Lake City councilwoman representing District 3, said the COVID-19 health crisis has brought in a new level of emotions. Winder Newton said she received widespread criticism after voting to keep in place a mask mandate imposed by Salt Lake County during the Omicron variant surge.

The councilwoman said she worried about overwhelming hospitals in the area and keeping teachers healthy.

“I had a lot of people who fired off angry text messages or social media posts and comments, emails, and even came to our public hearing to express their displeasure,” she said. “It used to be better when people would disagree and do it in a respectful manner, and now it feels like people feel free to call names and talk disrespectfully.”

Winder Newton added that sometimes it’s easy for the public to forget that public officials are human beings, oftentimes with families.

“I have four kids,” she said. “It’s hard for my kids to read the mean things that people put on my social media. It makes them sad. It’s hard for my husband. There [are] even neighbors who have reached out to me in the past few weeks who have said it’s been hard to watch members of the public try to take me down.”

Is public service worth it?

Swensen fears the vitriol and harassment can dissuade the next generation of public servants from participating in local government.

“To have people that are responsible and competent is the major thing in the positions,” the elections clerk said. “It would be devastating to the processes.”

Salazar, the board of education vice president, said it was important to have people run for local offices who are confident and have the safety and the support to make critical decisions that impact the public.

Winter Newton believes the volatile political climate could prevent women from running for office.

“I think that this is one of the reasons why we don’t get more women willing to run for office is because they don’t want to put their families through this kind of turmoil,” she said.

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