Newsletter: Facing harassment as a female mayor

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon
San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon.
(Timothi Jane Graham)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Jan. 16, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

If you are a woman who is so bold as to inhabit a vaguely public stage, chances are high that you will be called a lot of things that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. And then some.

It’s a truism that unfortunately appears to transcend industry or geography. Exist in public, and eventually an online mob will nitpick your looks, rate your sexual desirability in relation to your ability to do your job, and probably make threats vague and specific — regardless of whether you’re a female journalist, the founder of an indie game studio or trying to run a small city on the Central Coast of California.


San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon was fed up when she finally took to Facebook last Monday morning to call out the constant harassment she receives.

“The amount of cruelty, rudeness, threats, sexism, stalking, body shaming, rude/threatening comments towards my children, etc. I receive are unbelievable,” she wrote. She felt torn between her ability to use social media for constructive good and the toxic online sludge that often comes her way there.

A few hours after Harmon published her Facebook post, a man was arrested at City Hall for trying to force his way into the mayor’s office. The man, who has reportedly been romantically fixated on Harmon, knocked a city staffer to the ground before being restrained by the city manager.

[See also: “Mayor Harmon calls out harassment. Then a man is arrested charging into her SLO office” in the San Luis Obispo Tribune]

But Harmon, who was fortunately not at City Hall at the time of the incident, is far from alone in her experiences.

A recent study published in the academic journal State and Local Government Review found that mayors — women and men — face greater levels of physical violence and psychological abuse than those in the general U.S. workforce, with social media being the most common channel for that abuse.

Female mayors were not only much more likely to face some form of violence or abuse, but they were also more likely to experience abuse of a sexualized nature.

[See also: “ ‘Worthless. Gutless. Loser.’ Online Attacks Escalate When the Mayor Is a Woman.” in the New York Times]

“Women are facing more of this kind of abuse and violence, and more types of it,” Sue Thomas, a research scientist and co-author of the study, told me. “That differential is what concerns us about the kinds of people who will represent us in the future.”

Harmon also said that she worries about the young women who may opt out of public service because of what officeholders like her face.

Speaking over the phone, Harmon told me that she was particularly troubled to see an Instagram comment saying she “deserved to be sexually assaulted” appear after last Monday’s incident at City Hall.

“It’s completely devastating to see that even in the light of serious threats against me that people would still comment in that way,” she said.

Harmon was careful to draw a distinction between “differing opinions,” which she welcomes, and “abuse,” which has led to family members calling with concerns about her safety.

Some of the abuse is explicitly gendered and, at times, even graphically sexual — like a local anonymous Instagram account that recently reposted a photo Harmon had shared of herself with a bloodied knee from a bike accident, with added text suggesting that she’d received the injury while engaged in a sex act with the governor.

But in Harmon’s view, even many of the non-explicitly gendered attacks — like the people who call her “trailer trash” because she lives in a mobile home, or those who mock her because she worked as a housecleaner while raising her now grown children — are still “rooted in misogyny.”

Much of it comes via social media, but Harmon said she also often experiences comments from men — her constituents — that are of an “inappropriately sexual nature, or even just focused on my looks as a general category” while out in public, doing her job.

In those instances, she often feels torn about how to proceed. How do you call someone out for inappropriate comments while also trying to build consensus and focus on the meaningful work you’re trying to accomplish for your city? “It puts me in a really tough position,” she said.

She recalled a particular incident from a few years ago, when she was introducing someone whose work she admired at a local event. After the mayor walked off stage, the man grabbed the microphone. The first thing he said was, “Wow, how great it must be to live in a town with a kissable mayor,” Harmon recalled.

His words were, as Harmon put it, “theoretically complimentary,” but they also took away her power and reduced her to an object.

Harmon said that she has played the incident over in her head many times since, especially in light of recent events. Each time, she would wonder what she would do differently had it happened now.

“I think I would have walked back on stage, asked him nicely for the microphone back and just named it,” she mused. She would tell him why it wasn’t OK, and why it was a misogynist comment, she said.

“I am not here to be kissed,” she continued. “I’m here to lead this city and to create policy for the people in this community.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

California Supreme Court Justice Ming W. Chin will step down on Aug. 31, giving Gov. Gavin Newsom an early opportunity to put his stamp on the state’s highest court. The Pete Wilson appointee was considered a moderate voice when he joined what was then a conservative court nearly 25 years ago. Now the seven-member court has a Democratic majority for the first time in decades, and Chin is considered its most conservative member. The next appointee will give the court five of seven justices appointed by Democrats. Los Angeles Times

USC questioned whether Lori Loughlin’s daughters were really athletes a year before the admissions scandal broke. In March 2018, several high schools contacted USC, puzzled that certain students were being admitted as recruited athletes. Los Angeles’ Marymount High School, attended by actress Lori Loughlin’s two daughters, “doesn’t think either of the students are serious crew participants,” a USC employee wrote in an email. Los Angeles Times


A radio call to the LAX control tower raises more questions about Tuesday’s jet fuel dump over a school. The pilot told air traffic controllers he did not need to drop fuel before returning to LAX, but the plane eventually dumped fuel over a residential area minutes before descending. Los Angeles Times

Gustavo Dudamel has extended his L.A. Phil contract through 2025-26. During the decade that Dudamel has been at the conductor’s podium, the L.A. Phil has grown into one of the world’s most important orchestras. Los Angeles Times

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the L.A. Phil.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The rise of the “dancefluencer”: These L.A. dancers show how the internet is helping nontraditional talent break into the industry. Los Angeles Times


Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) are among the House members who will prosecute President Trump during the Senate impeachment trial, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Wednesday. Los Angeles Times


A federal judge revoked the bail of Los Angeles attorney Michael Avenatti and ordered him jailed while awaiting trial on three indictments, saying new allegations of fraud and money laundering show he poses a danger to the public. Los Angeles Times


In a wildfire, animal rescue can be messy; untrained volunteers add to the chaos. When the Camp fire hit Paradise, Calif., scores of volunteers wanted to help, but good hearts are not a defense against danger. Los Angeles Times

A video showing a “Naked and Afraid” survivalist eating a dead baby dolphin on a Laguna beach has spurred an investigation. Laguna Beach lifeguards said they became aware of the incident after seeing a post on TMZ. Long Beach Press-Telegram

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The San Francisco ficus fracas: An elected official wades into the yearslong battle between community advocates hoping to spare dozens of ficus trees and the city agency pushing to ax them. Mission Local

Advocates for minorities and low-income people fear that Uber’s recent overhaul of its ride processes could lead to discrimination against people traveling to neighborhoods that some drivers perceive as less desirable. San Francisco Chronicle

For many residents on the verge of homelessness, Fresno’s motels are their last chance at housing. A new ordinance focuses on inspecting the oldest and most run-down properties. CalMatters

Yosemite’s “firefall” glow lasts only two weeks. Here’s how to see it. Los Angeles Times


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 62. San Diego: partly sunny, 62. San Francisco: rain, 51. San Jose: rain, 50. Sacramento: rain, 48. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Nina Hall:

I was 7 and felt very satisfied because I’d recently memorized my phone number. Just as I was in the groove, San Diego got a new area code. Instead of 714, we would now be 619. This was devastating to my second-grade self. No matter how much I practiced, I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. During a visit to the bank, the teller asked for our number and I proudly blurted ‘916 …' She gave a condescending smile and said, ‘I think you mean 619?’ My first public humiliation. But I’ve remained a 619 person ever since.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.