Lorena González had encountered sexism in the workplace before. The Seattle councilwoman frequently had heard such comments in her previous career as a successful civil rights trial lawyer. Trial law can tend to be male-dominated, an old boys’ club.
But González had never experienced anything like the venomous fallout from a vote on a land-rights issue last week.
Local entrepreneur Chris Hansen, the head of Arena Co., wants to revive the NBA’s SuperSonics, so he planned to develop a half-billion dollar arena in Sodo, a neighborhood in Seattle’s Industrial District. Seattle has badly wanted basketball back since the Sonics skipped town to Oklahoma City, eventually becoming the Thunder in 2008. The venue was also proposed for an NHL team.
People around Seattle, and Washington state, watched the May 2 vote closely. The Seattle City Council knew there would be backlash no matter which way the tally swung. But this decision — in which the council, in a 5-4 vote, rejected Arena Co.’s alley vacation plans to build a new sports stadium — was the first time the all-women majority had blocked a vote. González’s no decided it.
Things quickly turned ugly. The five female city councilmembers, all of whom had rejected the plans, began receiving hate mail and threats from disappointed sports fans.
“Get back in the kitchen,” Debora Juarez was instructed in one such message, which labeled her a derogatory term for a female body part and included, “Get on your knees.”
“I can only hope that you each find ways to quickly and painfully end yourselves. Each of you should rot in hell for what you took from me yesterday,” wrote Jason M. Feldman, who also made an “on your knees” reference. “Please don’t misunderstand me. I TRULY pray for nothing but horrible things for each of you moving forward. You have made this world a worse place by whoring yourselves out to the highest bidder. Please Please Please do the honorable thing and end yourselves. Each of you are disgraceful pieces of trash that deserve nothing but horrible outcomes.”
Feldman signed the letter, “Warm Regards.”
González was taken aback.
“Slight or overt sexism is certainly not something new to me,” she said last week, “but I would say this is the first time that I have felt that myself and my female colleagues on the council have been clearly subjected to threats of violence and other sorts of hateful rhetoric based on our gender.”
González said her personal and private social-media accounts and email were flooded with vitriolic messages.
“As part of being an elected official, irrespective of your gender, you know you can’t make everybody happy, and because you can’t make everybody happy, there will be a certain level of backlash or pushback or disappointment expressed by constituents because of your vote on a particular issue,” she said. “What was concerning to me about this is I never came into this position with the expectation that I’d be told to kill myself or that I deserve sexual violence.”
Feldman, the attorney who sent the “end yourselves” email, is currently appealing a 2.5-year suspension by the state bar association after a client accused him of sexual assault. His email to the councilwomen caused Seattle pot activist Ben Livingston to file a complaint with the state bar association. Feldman’s attorney, Marc J. Randazza, said there have been no new developments in that appeal and that it has only gained new attention because of last week’s email. Randazza forwarded The Post a statement on behalf of his client, saying Feldman regrets “demonstrating a lack of impulse control” in sending the email.
Fellow councilmember Rob Johnson said he had heard about such responses almost immediately.
“What’s unfortunate about this is that I was not surprised,” Johnson said. “What it has done here in Seattle is elevate the discourse about the kind of emails directed at my female colleagues on a very regular basis.”
Seattle prides itself on being progressive, councilmembers said, on being inclusive. It was one of the first cities to pass a $15 minimum wage and allocated $1 million to help the homeless through services like shelters. On May 4, Mayor Ed Murray released a statement in response to the rage directed at the councilmembers.
“All of us have seen on the national stage the use by some candidates of sexist rhetoric for political advantage,” the statement read. “Many of us, no matter our own political leanings, have stood up to condemn it. This language has no place in civil discourse. …
“Whatever side of this issue you are on, you must recognize that Council engaged in a respectful debate about the future of our city. The disappointment some felt at the outcome of the vote is understandable. But to bring gender into the conversation is wrong. To spout sexist rhetoric about our councilmembers is wrong. This vitriol must stop. I condemn it and we must all raise our voices against it.”
Deeply disappointed to see some supporters of SODO street vacation lash out w/ misogynistic sexist vitriol toward members of @SeattleCouncil
— Ed Murray (@MayorEdMurray) May 4, 2016
Regardless of how you felt about the proposal, there is no place for this kind of hateful rhetoric.
— Ed Murray (@MayorEdMurray) May 4, 2016
Hansen, the entrepreneur behind the arena proposal, also released a statement.
“While we are all naturally frustrated with the outcome, I know that the vast majority of our passionate and dedicated supporters agree with me that such comments have absolutely no place in our community,” Hansen said in the statement. “While we may not agree with the Council’s vote, misogynistic insults, vile comments and threats are unacceptable and need to stop. We should all show respect for our elected officials and the legislative process, even if we disagree with their decision.”
Hanna Brooks Olsen, one of the co-founders of Seattlish, a hyperlocal news site that first broke the story on the backlash, said she wouldn’t normally cover a basketball-arena issue but that this exploded into something else entirely.
“It’s like the men thought that you could be so angry that sexism was justified,” she said. “I’ve covered a lot of issues, specifically homelessness in our city, and I’ve never seen the kind of vitriol and explicit misogyny that I saw in response to this land-use vote.”
Once Olsen saw the backlash, she called upon locals hopeful about the NBA’s return, including Sonics Rising, a movement trying to bring the team back to Seattle, to condemn the reaction.
“When you allow the other people in your movement not just to talk to women like this but perpetuate that if a female politician does something you don’t like that the first thing you call her is a b—-, it’s not an effective way to get policies passed,” Olsen said. “It’s not an effective way to talk to each other, and it’s an unacceptable avenue for anger.”
As noted in the mayor’s statement, both González and Juarez said they think divisive political rhetoric at the national level — specifically referencing comments by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — makes people think it’s okay to use such language.
Juarez’s staff has kept track of all the hate. They’ve put the messages in what they’ve deemed the “Misogynistic File.”
Juarez, though, is planning to move forward.
“As a woman of color, where I got today, you just move on,” she said. “Part of being brave, part of being strong is you recognize what you have to do and you keep doing it. You don’t allow this kind of stuff to stop you.”
On Wednesday, the five councilwomen co-authored an op-ed in the Seattle Times, writing, “We are not deterred. We will not be silenced with threats, not today, not tomorrow and not ever.”
“Beyond that, I think it’s a matter of continuing to work as female elected leaders and civil leaders in our community, in hopes that any of the young women and girls that have heard these horrific messages understand that this is not the Seattle they live in,” González said. “We want them to be successful and run for office and be civil leaders — and know that they may have to struggle in their journey to get to that level, but not that they shouldn’t do it or that they’re not capable of doing it.”