Capitol Alert

‘Hurry up and die’: Threats, racism intensify against California officials

The letter begins with “Dear Corrupt Mexican” and ends with “hurry up and die.” It’s signed “White Power.”

The words were typed on a note card and sent to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León’s Capitol office earlier this year. His staff members put the letter in a file now full of racist and threatening mail in the receptionist’s desk.

The Senate leader says backlash comes with the territory as an elected official. Since his freshmen year in the Assembly, radical opponents occasionally add derogatory ethnic slurs and references to their complaints, he said.

Since November, however, he and other politicians say it’s been more frequent and hostile.

A stranger accosted Sen. Ricardo Lara outside Ella, a restaurant on K Street, earlier this month and screamed profanities and racial epithets in his face, he said. Sen. Holly Mitchell’s Los Angeles district office representatives report getting a call once a month from someone who uses the n-word to describe her or her staff members – something they said didn’t happen before the election.

A fervent group of Trump supporters, who disrupt Democratic town halls and other political forums in Southern California, called de León an “anchor baby” and “illegal alien scumbag” at a Latino summit in May at UC Riverside, where academics and community leaders gathered to strategize ways to fight Trump’s agenda. The protesters continue to post YouTube videos of themselves heckling politicians.

“In my mind there’s no doubt that Donald Trump has opened up this Pandora’s box,” de León said. “There’s no question about it because he’s done nothing as president of the United States to temper it down or heal the nation.”

As de León noted, racism against legislators is far from a new phenomenon.

“We dealt with it pretty much throughout my entire tenure,” said Fabian Núñez, who served as Assembly speaker from 2004 to 2008. “The more high profile you are, the more of these attacks you get.”

Yet from town halls to Twitter, threats and inappropriate communication to legislators have increased since the start of the session in January, said Debbie Manning, chief sergeant-at-arms for the California Senate. Last year her team investigated about 200 total threats and inappropriate contacts with legislators. Manning said the Senate sergeants have already surpassed that number in the first seven months of 2017.

Her office doesn’t tally whether the threats or contacts are racially motivated, although she said it’s clear that some legislators are targeted based on their ethnicity more than others.

The Senate sergeants are tightening security at town halls and other events. They conducted 16 security details at legislative events outside the Capitol in 2016, excluding hearings and the pro tem’s events. So far this year, they have done 25, Manning said.

“There’s an upswing in angry outbursts and angry behavior overall,” Manning said.

The Bee reviewed correspondence sent to de León, some of which is too profane to publish. He received one letter sent in April from someone claiming to be a “decorated U.S. Marine sniper” threatening to hunt liberal legislators down like dogs.

“Not today, not tomorrow, maybe in 15 years when you feel safe, I will be your worst nightmare come true,” the letter said.

The writer also bragged that there was no DNA or fingerprints on the note.

“Mexico looks like Mexico for a reason, señor. – TRUMP all the way!” read one card sent to his office. Another letter suggests he join the late farmworker rights activist Cesar Chavez in hell.

Arthur Schaper, wearing glasses and a “Make America Great Again” hat, is a staple at rowdy Democratic town halls. At the UC Riverside event, he waved his finger at de León and shouted “cities are for citizens!”

A Trump supporter who rejects the use of the word “undocumented” – he insists on “illegal” – Schaper says the election served as a rallying cry for the right.

“Trump has excited so many disaffected conservatives and angry citizens in general,” said Schaper of Torrance. “More people are getting out there. They’ve seen the damage that has been done to this country by eight years of radical leftism from the Obama presidency.”

Schaper says he isn’t racist, and denies having knowledge of racist comments his group has directed at politicians. He’s affiliated with a number of anti-illegal immigration and nationalist organizations such as We the People Rising, American Children First and The Remembrance Project. He was recently mentioned in a report on California’s “anti-immigrant lobby” published by the Center for New Community, a pro-immigrant organization based in Chicago.

“We go (to public meetings) to ensure that Trump’s agenda is continued,” Schaper said.

Trump ran his campaign on calls to erect a wall between the United States and Mexico and make Mexico pay for it. He promised to tighten immigration enforcement and deport undocumented Latino immigrants, whom he referred to as rapists and drug dealers.

California, known for its immigrant-friendly policies and environmental consciousness, is one of the most liberal states in the country and a natural antithesis to the Trump White House. De León has sought the spotlight as a leader of the “resistance” in the Golden State, publicly criticizing the president’s actions and appearing on television programs as a voice of opposition.

De León introduced Senate Bill 54 at the start of the Legislative session in response to Trump’s deportation threats. The policy bans local and state law enforcement from using their resources to help the federal government enforce immigration violations against undocumented immigrants who have not been convicted of a violent offense.

About a dozen Trump supporters followed de León as he walked to his car after the Riverside talk. They screamed “shame on you” and chanted “build that wall,” the anger in their voices rising.

“I have never seen such vitriolic hatred,” de León said. “You could just feel it.”

Lara’s bills this year prohibit public employees from sharing information with federal authorities about someone’s religion, nationality or ethnicity, meant to curtail Trump’s promise to create a registry of Muslims. He’s also working to ban local governments from contracting with private companies that operate immigration detention centers, among other measures aimed at protecting immigrants.

Lara says he’s been subjected to racism since he was elected in 2010 and began introducing pro-immigrant legislation. He’s gay and the son of former undocumented immigrants, both of which also draw hateful mail and comments.

The same band of Trump supporters that followed de León in Riverside – Schaper said they draw from a pool of more than 50 people – can be seen in videos from Lara’s office or district events. As the November election approached, he received a death threat that sergeants investigated.

Lara expects disagreements over his policy perspectives. He believes the behavior is an attempt to intimidate him from doing his work.

“It gets tiring and nerve-racking,” Lara said. “This is what we get confronted with because we’re doing the right thing and fighting for some of the most vulnerable Californians.”

Núñez believes people have a predisposition to think the worst of politicians of color.

“Most people who aren’t people of color just assume you’re a crook or a drug dealer,” Núñez said.

When he served as speaker, his staff called newspaper editors a couple of times a week to ask them to remove racist remarks about Núñez in the comments section of online stories. Núñez didn’t shy away from immigration bills, but said he also got backlash when he wrote a bill about bathroom cleanliness at schools.

Then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger “brushed off” the volume of hate mail Núñez received, said Steve Maviglio, who worked as Núñez’s deputy chief of staff. So in 2005, Núñez’s staff printed out and copied thousands of emails and letters to show to the governor.

“We printed them out to say, ‘You know what, it’s significant,’ ” Maviglio said. “It’s a lot different being Austrian than it is being from Mexico.”

Mitchell said she was reminded of the world in which she lives in December when Assemblyman Travis Allen inaccurately claimed that one of her bills legalized prostitution. Social media exploded. “It went from I legalized prostitution to direct racial comments, no question,” Mitchell said.

Her reactions to racism, inadvertent or blatant, vary.

“Every time I have to take a quick assessment: Will this lead to me hitting this person in the face and going to jail? Will this lead to me increasing my blood pressure and having a heart attack right here? Will this lead to a meaningful dialogue?” Mitchell said.

A small body of research suggests that politics can ignite and embolden racist behavior.

Anti-immigrant policies and initiatives can trigger hostility toward immigrants, according to a study on the health effects of societal events published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June. Teachers also reported an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities were the verbal targets of presidential candidates in the wake of the 2016 election.

Schaper says he has been going to town halls for years, but now he feels like he has a president on his side.

A half dozen people, including Schaper, went to de León’s district office in May, as depicted in a video they posted online. They complained that a flier in the window was written in Spanish and questioned a paper that explained the rights of undocumented immigrants.

“Those are illegals,” Schaper said. “They don’t have rights.”

An employee said the office was closed. Schaper and others refused to leave. After a California Highway Patrol officer arrived, Schaper unfolded and held up a flag that said “President Donald Trump” and “Make American Great Again.”

“This is Trump territory, folks, even in de León’s office,” Schaper said. “This is our country.”

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna