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Harassment of local officials on the rise: "Lawful, but awful"

How local politics is getting more toxic
How local politics is getting more toxic 03:29

Reno, Nevada — When Beth Smith joined the Washoe County School Board, she expected rigorous debate. But she didn't anticipate a level of vitriol and toxicity more commonly associated with higher office in Washington, rather than her city in Nevada.

"What you don't expect is harassment and intimidation and attacks on you, constantly screaming, swearing messages, that people know where you live, where your kids go to school," Smith told CBS News in an interview for "Eye on America." "I have to have conversations with my kids …nobody goes to the door, the front door stays locked."

And Smith isn't alone. A recent study from Princeton University found harassment and threats to local officials increased by 55% in the past two years. The research found that both Democrats and Republicans reported hostility equal amounts, but women and people of color typically bear the brunt of the hostility.

Federal office holders like senators and members of Congress, for better or worse, have grown accustomed to the harassment, and often have the security infrastructure in place to address it. But local officials, who are most often closest to the communities and constituents they serve, are inherently more vulnerable. 

"They're more proximate…They shop at the same grocery stores, their kids go to the same schools, and that makes them part of this kind of frontline of democracy, but it also makes them often at higher risk," said Shannon Hiller, the executive director of the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University who ran the study. 

Hiller describes much of the increased hostility at the local level as "lawful but awful," noting that harassment — like doxing, stalking or general threats — are not always illegal, but it can have a negative impact on the ways local officials can engage in democracy.

"Only a small percentage of this behavior is actually going to have a law enforcement or a legal solution," said Hiller, "but it could be effective in terms of pushing people out of public service, closing down space for engagement and dialogue and really disrupting democratic processes at their most local level."

The data also can serve as a warning. "These sort of persistent and rising rates of threats and harassment could be an early sign that we're at risk of other types of more severe violence, "including physical violence," said Hiller. 

But it can also be successful in its own right — disincentivizing public meetings, posting on social media, or even running for office. Nearly 40% of surveyed officials said they weren't likely to run for reelection. 

A CBS News investigation compiled video evidence of harassment against local officials across the country, from city managers and mayors, to county clerks and commissioners. For example, in Taylor County, Texas, last year, a man protested in front of a city manager's house with a rifle in the back of his truck that was pointed at the house. According to a video he posted on Facebook, the man says: "These are the people that are screwing us over as citizens," before the police ask him to point the gun away from the official's house.

In 2022, a county clerk in Erie, Pennsylvania, reported that an unknown individual threw a partial pipe bomb into her family's house as they slept, along with a message saying the next pipe bomb would be live, according to local reports. 

Earlier this year, a Texas mayor received a threatening package containing a noose and a note that read, "get out of the race now." These are just a few examples from the more than 900 incidents reported in a two-year period between 2022 and 2024 analyzed by the Bridging Divides Initiative. 

And in Washoe County, recent elections have seen a spike in harassment toward local officials. In 2022, both a candidate for the county commission and the mayor of Reno found GPS trackers on their cars. CBS News obtained video of police questioning a private investigator who wouldn't say who hired him but did admit the devices had been placed for "political" reasons.

Suspicions have centered on Robert Beadles, a wealthy local political activist. Beadles and his PAC spent several thousand dollars on private investigators and investigative services during the period when the politicians were under surveillance. He also authored a blog post, now taken down, which said, "We opted to use professional services to dig into allegations of numerous people throughout the county and state." 

When reached for comment, Beadles denied any involvement in surveilling local politicians. Beadles, who says he made his money in cryptocurrency and real estate, has become a known agitator in Washoe. In 2021, he attended a school board meeting and announced he would use his financial resources to drive board members out of office. 

"God has blessed me. I have a s***-ton of money," he said. "And I am going to [do] everything I f****** can to remove all of you." 

Beadles has focused his ire on Smith, the school board member. He authored a blog post detailing her painful divorce, and posted altered images of her dressed as the grim reaper — images, Smith says, that are intended to make light of her recent battle with cancer. 

"Recently, I did face my mortality when I had cancer, and I had to look at my children and tell them that there was the chance I wouldn't be able to watch them grow up," Smith said. "So, when I see messaging with death imagery…, I know that it's part of their attacks to get me to stop doing this work."

When asked about these and other claims of harassment, Beadles scoffed at those making the complaints and said they "sound like little sissies."

"If they're running for office, and they can't take the truth about them being told in whatever light, … maybe they shouldn't be running for office," he told CBS News. 

In Washoe, the school board has become the center of political discontent, as it has in much of the rest of the country. Washoe County GOP Chair Bruce Parks says the party is prioritizing school board races because "that has a ripple effect across our entire community." 

When asked about the tactics employed by Beadles, who serves on the Washoe GOP's executive committee, Parks suggested that they are effective. 

"If you wanna bring light to something, do you just whisper the information to somebody or do you want to get their attention? He gets attention."

Even as the political climate in Washoe continues to heat up, Smith says she is going to stick it out for now: "I beat cancer and I definitely will not stop because of this." 

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