When she first ran for election to the Lawrence school board more than a decade ago, Shannon Kimball wanted to help her community and her city’s public schools. But partway into her third term, she’s not sure she wants to run for a fourth.
It’s not that she’s lost her passion to help the schools. It’s because her most recent term, which began in January 2020, has shown her a side of the job she hadn’t seen before.
“The time since COVID-19 began has been the most difficult experience of my time as a public servant,” Kimball said.
Embroiled in controversy over how schools should react to the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice and budget deficits, Kimball and other school board members have been called child abusers and stalked. They have even received death threats over the board’s decisions about dealing with COVID-19.
“I have experienced things since March 2020 that I had not experienced as an elected official, including threats,” Kimball said. “I was followed secretly by somebody in a public place. It caused me to fear for my personal safety.”
As a result, she says, she is more careful about what information she puts on the internet, how she uses social media and how she deals with community members in her daily life.
Kimball’s experiences are not unique for those serving in local government. Elected officials are facing heightened pressure from a public that is increasingly vocal — or worse.
Shannon Portillo and her colleagues on the Douglas County Commission have been called nazis, fascists and child abusers on a regular basis in recent years.
“I would be lying if I said that I don’t fear for my and my family’s physical safety due to my work,” said Portillo, who has received sheriff’s escorts in and out of meetings and other protective measures.
She and Commissioner Shannon Reid took office in January 2021. “At this point, the majority of Commissioner Reid and my meetings as commissioners have included these attacks,” Portillo said.
The decisions made as members of government bodies are never going to please everyone. But increasingly, the attacks haven’t been about policy — they’ve been personal.
“Sometimes you have to make decisions that people will disagree with,” Kimball said. “That doesn’t make you a bad person.”
A report by the National League of Cities on the new threats against public servants cites a few reasons for the growing hostility. Political polarization has played a big part in the development of these attitudes. COVID-19, the most contentious issue in public office over the last three years, is not inherently political, but rather has been politicized by members of the community.
Another reason for the intense polarization is a growing push for representation and inclusive participation in politics, perceived as threatening those who have historically been accustomed to holding power. The National League of Cities report states that women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community, in particular, are facing targeted attacks.
Portillo has spoken about what she has faced solely due to her race and gender. She will soon make a career move to Arizona, but she remained resolved that she never thought about quitting because of what she’s faced.
“As a woman, particularly a Latina, I know that when I speak publicly about my experiences they are likely to be met with anger, disbelief and defensiveness,” Portillo said. “I have no doubts that individuals who will read this article will repeat the same racial and gendered criticisms that I’ve received since I announced my candidacy.”
Lawrence City Commissioner Amber Sellers, who was sworn in to her first term in December, said the “safety piece” was something she had discussed with her family. Though she was aware of the risk to her safety that being elected could pose, she didn’t let that dissuade her from running. And Kimball said she thinks it’s been scarier and more difficult for women in elected office during this time period.
“People have felt free to say things to me as a woman in an elected position that they don’t say to men in the same elected positions,” Kimball said, “and I think that it’s important for the public to know that this is the experience that women in public office are having.”
Threats are also rooted in a rise in misinformation and accelerated by social media, which has created or fed into deeply entrenched beliefs for many people. When local government decisions challenge this misinformation, it can lead to hostility from those who have bought into it.
“We can’t allow a lot of the propaganda that you’re seeing come out prevent us from recognizing our mission and our visions for the community,” Sellers said.
Elected officials have always had to deal with angry members of the public. But in this more contentious environment, some elected officials, including Kimball, question whether they will continue to serve.
Others say they try to work through the disagreements, no matter how unpleasant.
“We have a lot of community members who care about a lot of things and believe a lot of things,” Sellers said. “So there is pushback on things that someone may believe in … You just have to balance it.”
What does the increased tension mean for the future of local elective government?
“People who are very interested in making good public policy may not be willing to put themselves through the personal cost and turmoil that seems to be more and more frequently required to do this work,” Kimball said.
Without change, Lawrence may soon find more and more of its most devoted residents electing for peace over public office.
“If we are serious that we think we need to have diverse voices at the table and that we need to encourage women and people of color to pursue elected office and bring those voices to the table, we have to have a reckoning around the way that we treat people who choose to seek those positions,” Kimball said.
There are steps that can be taken to help improve civil discourse, including redefining the idea of what it means, and breaking down community barriers, Sellers said.
“You can share your thoughts, you can share what you believe, you can share a negative or positive to a project or initiative,” she said.
“But if you do it in a way that causes hurt or keeps the community from having a safe space to share those thoughts, that’s counterproductive. We have so much to learn and unlearn about each other and what the politics of local government is.”
If our local journalism matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters
Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.