In Benicia: Targeting the Mayor and other incivilities

By Roger Straw, August 27, 2019

A call-out on trash politics in my home town

Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

Oh, where to start?  I’ve needed to write about this for a loooong time.

Back in 2007, I met City Councilmember Elizabeth Patterson, who had announced her candidacy for Mayor.  She seemed bright, and I was looking for something to do in my recent retirement.  So I volunteered to help.

Elizabeth is now a three-term mayor in Benicia, due in large part to her own energetic campaigning and exemplary leadership and service on the Council.  But you can’t get to be Mayor three times all on your own.  The community has risen to support her, volunteered, rallied, chipped in financially, and organized to get out the vote.

And yet, consistently over all these years, one very loud voice has publicly targeted and trashed our Mayor in the local newspaper and online media.  The frequency of invective (definition: insulting, abusive, or highly critical language) on the Forum Page of our paper has caused any number of residents to unsubscribe.  And one can only guess how many residents have chosen NOT to run for public office lest they be publicly and repeatedly abused.

That mean-spirited voice has not been entirely alone.  The usual political spectrum of varying opinions, indeed the common dualism of right and left, has surfaced here.  The variety is welcome, and mostly positive, but we have seen a number of disrespectful voices as well, some less subtle than others.  Even some of the Mayor’s colleagues on Council have occasionally seemed to express distaste rather than simple opposing opinions of substance.

Why?  It’s not all about this particular Benicia mayor.

Governing.com recently published a fascinating article, “Targeting the Mayor” which relies on a new study published in the journal State and Local Government Review.  The study “finds that most mayors contend with verbal hostility or physical intimidation at rates above those of the general workforce.”  And mayors who are women are abused more often than others.

“In all, 79 percent of mayors reported at least one form of “psychological abuse,” which the survey defined to include harassment, being demeaned or receiving threats. Disrespectful comments or images on social media were by far the most frequent means of abuse. Nearly half of mayors similarly experienced harassment, while 13 percent reported threats of violence directed toward them.

“…While it’s not at all surprising that mayors encounter negativity, some face much more frequent offenses than others. The only factor that predicted both psychological abuse and physical violence was gender, with women more than twice as likely to experience such incidents as men….”

Mayoral abuse may be common, but it’s not right.  And gender bias may still motivate many, but it should have no place at City Hall or in our public discourse.

It is time that Benicians take on civility in our local politics as an issue to be faced openly and dealt with publicly and persistently.

The local newspaper must begin to assert it’s journalistic prerogative, taking responsibility to ban not only libelous content and trash talk, but also to specifically end the long-standing targeting of individuals.

Editorial responsibility is NOT censorship.  Mary Susan Gast wrote a beautiful explanation of this in her 2018 letter to the Benicia Herald editor:

As individuals and groups we are free to speak our beliefs and opinions to anyone who will listen; that’s freedom of speech. Freedom of the press is freedom from interference by the government in reporting.  Freedom of the press is not an author’s right to have his or her works published by other people.  As the journalist A.J. Liebling has said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”  Legal historian Lucas A. Powe offers further clarification:  “Freedom of the press gives the printer or publisher exclusive control over what the publisher chooses to publish, including the right to refuse to print anything for any reason. If the author cannot reach a voluntary agreement with a publisher to produce the author’s work, then the author must turn to self-publishing.”   [from The Fourth Estate and the Constitution:  Freedom of the Press in America, 1991]

And it’s not just the newspaper and social media.

In 2020, Benicia will enter into another round of electoral campaigns.  There was some trashy advertising by organized labor and Valero Benicia Refinery in our last election, repeatedly targeting one candidate.  Benicia’s Open Government Commission has proposed strengthening the public campaign finance ordinances to help guard against undisclosed outside corporate interests influencing our elections.

Stronger city ordinances will help, but I doubt they will be enough.  In an era dominated by a trash-talking President, how can we expect our neighbors — individuals or corporations — to exhibit civil behavior during a consequential election?

Well, we can.  And we must.  The candidates themselves can help.  Each candidate in next year’s contest should highlight the need for civil discourse and respectful exploration of differences of opinion.  Every candidate forum should begin with a moderator’s call to civil discourse and a shaming of trash politics.  Churches, civic organizations and local political groups could weigh in.  And yes, during campaign season, our local editors will need to be up to the challenge.

Let’s make Benicia a city with politics that make us proud!

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