By Kerri Barber, Board Member
(Reprinted with permission from DailyKos)
Harassment by a person in leadership is both shocking and demoralizing yet all too common in political organizations. When it happens, the target of that harassment may not know what rights and resources are available to them. Our experience over the last year may help protect others who can learn from what we did and what we could have done differently.
Late last September, my local party chairman shared his views on how he sought to run the organization. He said, “I view it as a corporation and run it that way.” This idea seemed very much at odds with the actual structure of a loose group of unpaid volunteers, many of whom were new to the political process and unfamiliar with even basic civics. These were eager, energetic people looking for a way to get involved and make a difference – not employees of a corporate structure trading a salary for a semblance of authoritarian, no-questions-asked, structure where even some civil and privacy rights are suspended.
His comments helped explain what happened next.
When I voiced concern over how specific decisions were being made, calling for greater transparency, etc., I was quickly labeled a “troublemaker, divisive,” and what followed was his strategically orchestrated, “whisper campaign,” of slander and harassment that continued for almost a year targeted me, my business, and my business partner. Our response had to be tempered with discretion as we were now fully engaged as volunteers working with several political campaigns.
This proved a distinct disadvantage because we felt it unfair to our candidates as a distraction to address the behavior openly. Looking back, that may have been our biggest mistake. Lies thrive in the dark and our silence only served to allow the behavior to continue unchallenged.
The steps we took were drawn from a fundamental misunderstanding of what protections actually exist in these situations. There are far fewer options than you might imagine, most of which are only available if you have the money to fight back. Still, no one should be subjected to slander, harassment, or intimidation. There are some powerful tools you can use to protect yourself.
Armed with Information
Know the Warning Signs
- Remarkably, some of the same warning signs and behaviors in harassment look identical to other relationship warning signs of abuse. Familiarize yourself with key signs before a situation arises. 7 Signs of a Workplace Bully (link)
- Patterns of behavior are similar in Cluster B and Narcissistic personalities. It is not uncommon for these personalities to be attracted to political organizations where attainment of title and prestige are easy to achieve and fulfill the goals of these disordered personalities. Be familiar with these behaviors, especially those dealing with narcissism, in order to recognize the behavior if it should surface in your organization. Guard yourself against aiding in their toxic behaviors. Podcast series features on dealing with Narcissism (link)
- Leadership doesn’t help educate members on the process, procedure, and laws that govern the political process.
- Leadership often uses terms like, ‘We have been here longer,” or “We know better than you,” to stifle dialog and sharing of ideas.
- Leadership spends time and resources giving themselves awards, praise.
- Party meetings do not follow Robert’s Rules of Order or include member comments, etc.
- Leadership makes decisions behind closed doors and party votes are a mere formality.
Document and Confide:
- Document everything: date, time, location, who you spoke to, what was said and what happened next. Every contact should be written down because memories fade and we forget small details that become relevant later.
- Tell someone you trust what is happening right away. Choose a person that is objective and unattached to the situation to help provide a meaningful opinion on what was said or done. Our own emotional response can make a situation seem worse than it may be or the shock of an event causes us to doubt the severity of the actions taken by others. This person may then become a witness for you, should you need one later.
Know the Law:
- In your state, there are civic resources for campaign law and ethics that every organization involved in political activity must follow. These are the written rules you need to be familiar with even as a volunteer. For federal campaigns, this agency is the FEC. If you cross the line in any area, you may be personally liable for that error, not the organization you volunteer for.
- There are a lot of regulations based on common sense that disproves the notion of, “It’s just politics,” and anything goes. Here in Illinois, we already have a well-earned historical reputation for dirty tricks. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. Know the difference between a bribe and a contribution, what conversation you can have between campaigns and political groups, PACs, and national organization as well as what can be said in confidence and what is a matter of public record. Knowing these rules also protects you from someone who suggests you broke a rule as a means of gaining control.
- In your state, there are administrative agencies tasked with enforcement of these rules. That doesn’t necessarily mean they can and do issue punitive measures, however. Most agencies are understaffed and underfunded. In short, they have no teeth with which to do the actual enforcement. They are good resources for information and further recourse by providing assistance in documenting issues that may arise and filing formal complaints if needed.
- Understand the laws of your state concerning video recording, privacy and cyberstalking. Every state is different in what they classify for each category and exactly when and where you can record video and audio. For example, in Illinois, it is a felony to record a private citizen without their permission, especially when they are in a private location away from a street view. However, elected officials and public locations are different circumstances altogether. Know the difference. Some states permit only one party to of a conversation to be aware of the recording while others require both parties to have knowledge of the recording being made.
- Be familiar with your own local party by-laws or Constitution. What powers are given to the executives and what process must be followed to file a complaint? Is there an ethics policy on file? Do these rules conform to state law?
One problem we ran into was one of jurisdiction. The state party could not decide if they had influence or authority over the behavior of the county party leadership. Their reasoning was the filed business structure for the state versus the county entities. That isn’t entirely true, we found. Do not expect the state party apparatus to be on your side, either. We were clearly on our own while the state party was addressing massive allegations of harassment throughout their ranks and across the state.
Civil Vs Criminal
- The decision to hire an attorney without a criminal charge puts you squarely in the realm of civil litigation. This can be effective for assistance with formal legal documents such as drafting affidavits, cease and desist orders, and demand letters. These also serve as additional documentation to assist your effort to prove you have attempted to stop the behavior. Be prepared to have all of these ignored if the other party is particularly emboldened by their status, their perception of your inferior resources, or if they are getting cover from someone above them. Discuss a strategy with your attorney before you decide to take action and know exactly what the costs will be upfront, if possible.
- If the behavior becomes threatening – physically or through a written threat, even the suggestion of physical harm- call your local police department and file an incident report. Show them images, if you have them, and be prepared with specific details: who, what, when, how, etc. Stick to the basic facts to help them properly address the issue. Be patient with your officer, too. Many times they are caught in the middle of domestic disputes where both parties are at fault and it is the officer’s job to be a little skeptical. Remain calm and resolute and you will get the assistance you need. Record the incident report number, date and time. If you can get a copy of their report, do so.
There were several situations where we should have filed a police report and didn’t know then that it was a good option. Now, we do. This is where the statute of limitations comes into play. Most of our criminal allegations have a one-year limitation while others have a three-year limit. Be aware of these timelines.
In our case, we spent thousands of dollars in legal fees along the civil litigation route to stop the worst of the activity. Unfortunately, their slander and harassment continued. Despite that, we used all of our documentation and evidence to build a very strong, albeit costly case.
Justice, no matter how warranted, is not free.
It is just this hard truth that emboldens harassers knowing they can stall and outlast anyone without adequate financial resources. This fact, unfortunately, keeps many people from speaking up or wanting to get involved and risk further retaliation.
Our hope is that by sharing our lessons learned from this experience and basic facts it may help other volunteers plan ahead and be better prepared to address harassment and intimidation because it can happen to anyone.