‘Is someone going to kill me if I do this?’: State Sen. Scott Wiener

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

An empty Senate chamber in the California State Capitol building is seen on May 31, 2014. “Politics can be toxic enough as it is, and then you throw on the threats and the potential violence? It's no wonder that some people decide to take a pass, and that again is really bad for democracy,” says California State Senator Scott Weiner. Photo by Shutterstock.

Today, David DePape was charged with attempting to kidnap House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and assaulting her husband, Paul. Police say DePape broke into the couple’s San Francisco home in the early morning hours on Friday. He reportedly screamed, “Where is Nancy,” then started beating Paul Pelosi with a hammer, fracturing his skull. U.S. attorneys say DePape intended to interrogate Nancy Pelosi and break her kneecaps to make her a lesson for other Democrats. He was also carrying rope, gloves, duct tape and zip ties. This incident highlights the growing threat facing U.S. elected officials. U.S. Capitol Police investigated nearly 10,000 incidents of threats and “concerning statements” last year. 

Also last month, a California jury convicted a man of threatening the life of State Senator Scott Wiener, who also represents San Francisco.
The man was convicted on six counts of gun charges and sentenced to two years of felony probation.

Wiener says he’s received thousands of death threats over the last few years. And while some look ridiculous or come from distant places, the recent incident stood out.

“He was from the East Bay, said he was going to come find me with a rifle. He put his return address [as] the Moscone Center. George Moscone was the mayor of San Francisco in the 70s, who was assassinated. And then when they went to search him, they found rifles in the trunk of his car. So that was very specific and tangible,” says Wiener.

The state senator says threatening elected officials degrades democracy.

“The only things that we should have in mind is what's the best policy, and what is best for my constituents, what my constituents want. And here we have a third factor, which is, is someone going to kill me if I do this? And that should never be in the back of an elected official's head. Because that completely undermines democracy,” Wiener says. “It'll never stop me. But it's unfortunate that I have to factor it in terms of, ‘Okay, if I do this, my staff and I have to be prepared for the consequences.’”

Wiener says there’s little security for the majority of Congress members, despite the number of death threats they get. In the California Senate, legislators do have some protection from the California Highway Patrol, but he says there are limits.

He adds that local officials, such as city council and school board members, are also harassed.

“They have access to no resources whatsoever. And the resources required to provide every elected official meaningful security has to be extraordinary. And I'll be honest, I don't want 24/7 security. That's not how I want to live my life,” he says.

Following Pelosi’s attack, Wiener’s mom demanded he wear a bulletproof vest. He points out that this culture of threats might sway others from running for office.

“I politely told her that I was not going to do that. But people have a lot of concerns. There are a lot of good people who may consider running for office who would be excellent candidates and excellent elected officials, who decide, ‘You know what? It's not worth it. I don't want to put myself or my family in the middle of this toxicity.’”

He adds, “Politics can be toxic enough as it is, and then you throw on the threats and the potential violence? It's no wonder that some people decide to take a pass, and that again is really bad for democracy.”