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California politicians face rampant threats. Some want to use campaign cash for protection

Sameea Kamal, CalMatters

Last spring, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan received a letter calling for him to be lynched because of a bill he introduced to change how ballot measures are presented to California voters.

It’s not the only time he’s been subjected to threats or harassment. Bryan said he and fellow Assemblymember Mia Bonta received hundreds of threats when they didn’t vote in a committee on a bill increasing penalties for child trafficking, until it added language that he said would protect victims. 

“The one that I’ll probably forever remember is a suggestion that my fiancé and mother should be human trafficked so that I understand how serious this is — which, for a legislator who travels four days out the week and leaves my loved ones at home, you know — that was not taken lightly,” Bryan told CalMatters. 

Currently, to use campaign funds, lawmakers have to file a police report. But threats happen “all the time,” Bryan said, and legislators just need “basic security…protection that you need to do this job.”

That’s why the Culver City Democrat supported a bill last year by Bonta that would have made it easier for local and state candidates and elected officials to use campaign funds for security. 

The Legislature passed the bill, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it, saying it lacked clear definitions of security expenses. “This bill could have unintended consequences and could lead to use of political donations for expenditures far beyond what any reasonable donor would expect,” he wrote in his veto message last October. “We must ensure political donations are utilized in a manner consistent with their intended purpose.” 

But for Bonta, the issue remains worth addressing. She revised and reintroduced the bill, which passed the Assembly on a 72-0 vote last week and is before the Senate. Because Assembly Bill 2041 would amend the voter-approved 1974 Political Reform Act, it requires a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and Assembly to pass. If Newsom signs this version, it would take effect immediately, making it available to those currently campaigning for the November election. 

Under current law, elected officials or candidates can get reimbursed for the costs of a home or office security system if they have received threats to their physical safety that are verified by law enforcement. But they can’t be reimbursed for more than $5,000 for their entire career — which the bill’s supporters say hasn’t been adjusted to reflect the current costs for home alarm systems or other security measures. 

The new bill would eliminate the lifetime dollar limit, and allow money to be spent on protection for family members, if the threats are related to duties of a candidate or elected official. 

Bonta, an Oakland Democrat, told CalMatters the feedback received from the governor’s office on last year’s bill was late in the legislative process. The new bill was amended to clarify what can be considered a security expense and tightened up disclosure requirements to ensure transparency. Specifically, it does not allow the funds to be used for firearms, and would require the politician to maintain detailed records.

The bill also removes language requiring verification of threats by law enforcement, instead allowing expenses on “reasonable costs.”  

The city of Beverly Hills, while acknowledging that more needs to be done to protect elected officials, opposed last year’s bill unless there was a financial cap. The city expressed concern that the protection for immediate family members and staff could be abused “without better safeguards in place,” including a narrower definition on whom the campaign funds can be expended on for security.

Concerns for how campaign funds are used aren’t unfounded. Former U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter pled guilty in 2019 to misusing funds on resort stays, jewelry, video games and, perhaps most notoriously, $600 in airline fees for a pet rabbit. And last November, former Orange County Assemblymember Bill Brough was fined $100,000 for using campaign funds on family vacations, as well as on supplies he took home when he left office: a $1,300 custom cigar humidor, a custom bourbon cabinet and a portable ice maker, according to a Fair Political Practices Commission report.  

Threats target lawmakers unevenly

Being able to use campaign funds could help fill gaps in the security provided by the Legislature. 

For events, lawmakers must request security in advance and explain why it’s needed, and can request ongoing security from the state. But they can’t always anticipate when they’ll need security, especially when they’re out in their districts. 

Security efforts are coordinated between the Legislature’s sergeants, California Highway Patrol and local law enforcement so legislators can do their job and serve constituents, Erika Contreras, secretary of the Senate and Lia Lopez, chief administrative officer of the Assembly, told CalMatters in an email. 

They also noted that they increase security when needed, and that, in recent years, there have been heightened levels of concern. “We manage those concerns and take appropriate action on a case-by-case basis,” they wrote. 

The state, however, would not release data on the number of threat assessments based on reports by lawmakers, citing an exemption to the Legislative Open Records Act that allows the state to withhold records of complaints or investigations that it conducts, or security procedures. 

Still, there have been some high-profile examples of attacks on elected officials and their families, including the 2022 attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in their San Francisco home.

Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, has spoken out about numerous incidents, including emailed death threats he received in 2022.  

Bonta said local candidates and fellow legislators had shared their own personal experiences or those of their staff that she felt prompted the need for the bill — as well as an experience of her own. 

“I’ve had an instance of being on my front lawn, and having somebody text me from an unknown number to say that I looked really good on my lawn,” she said. “Those are all things that make us, just, not feel very safe.” 

A report by the University of San Diego’s Violence, Inequality, and Power Lab and the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement found that of the 328 local elected officials surveyed, 75% reported being threatened or harassed and 35% said it happened monthly. 

The survey also found that women were more impacted than men: 82% of female local elected officials, compared with 66% of men. 

That’s largely in line with national trends reported by the Brennan Center for Justice, which released a report in January that documented a “barrage of intimidating abuse” against state and local elected officeholders. 

“Threats and attacks constrain how freely officeholders interact with constituents, narrow the spectrum of policy positions they feel safe to support, and make them less willing to continue in public service,” said the report, based on surveys of 1,744 local officeholders and 354 state legislators. “Unaddressed, the problem stands to endanger not just individual politicians but, more broadly, the free and fair functioning of representative democracy — at every level of government.” 

It’s harmful for gains in diversity, too, the researchers note. Women were three to four times as likely as men to experience abuse targeting their gender, while elected officials of color were more than three times as likely as white office holders to experience abuse targeting their race. 

That’s for those who are already in office. Threats, harassment and intimidation are also rampant on the campaign trail

A 2023 study conducted by the California Women’s list found that 42% of women encountered stalking at least once while running, with almost one in five experiencing it frequently or very frequently — 15 times higher than what’s reported by men. The rate was higher among women of color — 55% — and LGBTQ+ women, at nearly 53%.

Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a Democrat from Van Nuys, introduced a bill to allow candidates to use campaign funds for mental health services. The language of Senate Bill 1170 aims to help those running for office who aren’t incumbents. 

She said that the law, first passed in 1974, needs to continue being updated to reflect greater diversity among public officials.

“Things about childcare … weren’t an issue because you didn’t need to think about including those issues, because it was mostly men,” she said. “We’re looking to address things that weren’t considered, because we weren’t considered as a possibility to be in elected positions.”

“If we want a diverse representation on all levels of government, then we need to provide support.”