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How attack on Pelosi, violent threats to Bay Area lawmakers inspired an unusual bill

Assembly Bill 37 would allow Calif. lawmakers to start using unlimited campaign funds to hire bodyguards or install security systems.

Alec Regimbal, SF Gate

On April 21 of last year, a convoy of roughly 20 truckers gathered outside the Oakland home of state Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, with the express purpose of intimidating the Democratic lawmaker. They crowded the streets in front of her house, honking and demanding through bullhorns that Wicks, who was home at the time, come outside. After police arrived, the convoy departed.

Two months later, police searched the San Francisco home of state Sen. Scott Wiener for bombs after his office received a threatening message that said the senator “will die today.” Three months after that, in September, a San Ramon man was convicted of several felony charges for sending Wiener a message that said the senator could expect “a visit from me and my rifle.”

Those events and others like them are the inspiration behind an unusual bill that’s currently working its way through the California Legislature: Assembly Bill 37, which would remove the cap on how much campaign funds state and local lawmakers — as well as those who are running for such offices — can put towards security, and would for the first time allow candidates to use political donations to hire bodyguards.

State Assemblymember Mia Bonta, the bill’s author, told SFGATE during a phone interview that she felt such measures are necessary given the rising rate of political violence across the United States. “We’ve somehow exchanged political discourse for political hate, and oftentimes people who are public servants and public figures are at the wrong end of that kind of vitriol,” she said.

A 2022 analysis by Time Magazine found that there were more than 9,600 threats made against members of Congress in 2021, a nearly tenfold increase from 2016. The same analysis found that threats made against federal judges have increased by 400% over the last several years. And a recent survey by the University of California, Davis found that nearly one in five adults agree that "because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country."

Under current California law, elected officials and candidates are able to use up to $5,000 in campaign funds for security expenses. Bonta’s bill would remove that cap, allowing for unlimited security-related expenditures while broadening the existing law’s definition of “reasonable expenses” to include the hiring of security personnel. The bill would also extend security coverage to a politician’s family and staff, and would scrap the current requirement that says threats must first be deemed credible by law enforcement before campaign funds can be used.

The reality that lawmakers and candidates may have to spend fundraising dollars on security expenses, potentially diluting their investment in political advertisements during campaign season, is not lost on Bonta. “Today’s political toxicity does cause good-trouble candidates and lawmakers to potentially expend precious campaign resources to protect against those who feel entitled to threaten others for their political stances,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “It’s a very sad state of affairs.”

Bonta said her goal is to give lawmakers and candidates more peace of mind, and specifically cited Wicks and Wiener as two officials who could greatly benefit from the bill’s passage. She said removing the need for law enforcement to review and record threats before the disbursement of security-related funds would provide immediate relief to lawmakers.

“That process is incredibly outdated,” she said. “Given the nature of social media, we’re living more public and exposed lives…I wanted candidates and electeds to feel like they had the ability to move through the process more swiftly and ensure that they have a sense of safety.”

Wicks and Wiener told SFGATE in separate phone interviews that their offices receive threats and other vile messages through phone, email and social media on a near-constant basis. Wicks estimated that she’s received “hundreds” of threats over the past few years, and Wiener said he regularly has to turn correspondence over to police.

“Some are very graphic in what they intend to do to me,” Wiener said. “Body mutilation or torture or rape. Some are more just like, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ without all the graphic stuff.”

Wicks said she believes she’s often targeted because of her work on vaccine legislation and bills that deal with abortion; she said the convoy that showed up outside of her home last year was there to protest a pair of bills she had sponsored in the previous legislative session. “It was this strange mix of anti-vaxxers meets anti-abortion activists meets Qanon conspiracy theorists who showed up,” she said. “…I had gotten a couple death threats around that time as well.”

Wiener said he’s become a target because of his work on LGBTQ issues. “I’m regularly demonized by right-wing media and right-wing social media accounts with large followings, and the death threats are overwhelmingly linked to my work to support LGBTQ in general, and trans people in particular,” he said.

Later, in an email to SFGATE, he added, “The sensationalism of right wing media — and the related right-wing social media ecosystem — is absolutely responsible for the thousands of death threats I’ve received. In a just world, these right-wing platforms would be forced to pay for the security systems that their vitriol necessitates. But that’s not the world we live in.”

Both lawmakers said their years in office have hardened them to the reality that threats come with the job, but expressed sympathy for their staff, who are often the ones fielding correspondence from the public. Wiener said he regularly has high school and college students serve as interns in his office, and worries that their experience in dealing with threatening messages may leave them feeling disillusioned with the idea of a career in politics.

“It’s hard on them,” he said. “We have to train people ahead of time about what to do when they see an incoming threat or a really vile message, and they shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

Bonta is no stranger to threats, either. She’s married to state Attorney General Rob Bonta, who was a member of the state Assembly for nearly a decade before being appointed to his current post. Mia said her first real experience with the possibility of political violence came before she was in office, when Rob was facing opposition to a gun safety bill he had sponsored.

Rob sat Mia down on the couch and told her that the family would have to be more careful because they had received death threats. Specifically, she said, someone had told Rob that they would show him what it meant to not have a gun to protect his family. “In that moment, I realized that — as a spouse and as a mom — his service as an assemblymember had serious ramifications for our overall safety,” she said.

Assemblymember Bonta said she was also inspired to author the bill because of other high-profile instances, including the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as last year’s attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, who was bludgeoned by a man wielding a hammer who said he had broken into the couple’s San Francisco home with the intention of torturing Nancy.

Bonta lamented that her bill is needed at all, but said more has to be done to protect elected officials and candidates at the local and state levels, who do not have the same security benefits as their counterparts in higher offices. “I’m coming from a place of hope around how we can be better as an electorate,” she said. “I wish that there was a day when this bill is irrelevant. I don’t know that that will happen any time soon, but in the meantime, I’m glad that both candidates and electeds will be able to have this resource available to them.”

The bill passed out of the state Assembly on a vote of 70-0. It’s now in the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee, where, if approved, it will head to the Senate floor for a full chamber vote. If it passes the Senate, it will go to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for a signature.

Bonta is optimistic about the bill’s chances in the Senate, but said that regardless of whether it ultimately passes, she won’t be deterred from pursuing policies she believes in, a sentiment echoed by Wiener and Wicks.

“I’m not going to stop doing what I do because of threats,” Wiener said. “Otherwise, the bullies win.”