A woman who runs for office in today’s political climate can find herself navigating a minefield of hostile, threatening public behavior, and she will face higher levels of harassment and danger than her male counterparts.
In a first of its kind survey, the California Women’s List collected more than 100 responses from various gender identities that ran for office between 2016 and 2022. The reported showed that women received a greater level of hostility—65.38% compared to 50% toward men.
“Alarmingly, 42.31% of all women experienced stalking at least once during their campaign (and nearly one in five women experienced stalking frequently or very frequently), a full 15 points higher compared to 27.27% of men,” the report stated.
In Santa Clara County, women serving in office are looking deep within and choosing whether to stay in politics or put the safety of their families first. The choice isn’t easy, as three local politicians—San Jose Councilmember Dev Davis and Santa Clara County Supervisors Cindy Chavez and Sylvia Arenas—have discovered.
Here are their stories:
San Jose Councilmember Devora “Dev” Davis
District 6 San Jose Councilmember Dev Davis began her first term in 2017 and terms out in 2024. She served as chair of the San Jose’s Early Care and Education Committee, president of the North Willow Glen Neighborhood Association and public relations chair for the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Playground Committee.
But being on the San Jose City Council has shaken her to the core. Davis has received angry anonymous letters via mail and personally dropped off at her house. She thought the first one was an anomaly, until she received another and installed cameras.
She has received vulgar comments on social media, and implications that she’d committed a sexual act to get Mayor Sam Liccardo’s endorsement, she said.
In 2020, following George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, more than 150 protestors gathered outside her home after she voted to maintain the city’s curfew. She said because all San Jose police were assigned to the protests, none were available to protect her at home.
“Whatever was going to happen was going to happen,” she told San José Spotlight.
When she ran for mayor last year, a bomb was placed outside her home and had to be recovered by the San Jose Police Department bomb squad.
“Any time your home is attacked … you feel unsafe,” she said. “I have to think of my family’s safety. I’m not going to run again. I don’t want to risk my or my family’s safety to serve the public anymore.”
Davis said serving on the city council is the most fulfilling job she’s ever had, but not worth putting her family in harm’s way.
“Do I have thoughts about the chilling effect of violence against elected officials? Yeah, I have major concerns about that,” she told San José Spotlight. “I have major concerns about women not wanting to run because of s— that happened to me or s— that’s happened to others. I hate that there are still people in our country, in our city, for whom might makes right. I want good people to step up and run, but I also understand why they might not want to do that.”
Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez
Cindy Chavez, a veteran politician who terms out of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 2024, has served in this role for 10 years. She served on the San Jose City Council from 1998 to 2006, and was head of Working Partnerships USA and the South Bay Labor Council. Chavez is no stranger to vicious attacks on her personal and political life.
When she ran for mayor against Matt Mahan last year, Chavez had an unnerving personal encounter when she was roughly grabbed and shaken by two men. The incident shocked her.
“I was walking through a lobby of a downtown building and these two guys stopped me to talk… and grabbed me hard enough to leave bruises,” she told San José Spotlight. “People really shouldn’t put their hands on other people.”
Another time, while riding in a convertible during a community parade, two men ran up yelling obscenities and blasted her with water.
“They just doused me,” she said. “You’re dressed up, you’re waving at people … and two folks run up and start yelling at you.”
Chavez said experiences like that are dehumanizing and attacks at her home make her concerned for the safety of her family, but she’s committed to public office.
“Being a mother and a wife, I want to protect my family. That is very important to me and weighs heavily on me,” she said. “I weigh my own fears and pressure against what we can do for the community. I believe personally that I’m just obligated to stay strong and … push back on that kind of inappropriate behavior by not being pushed out of service. I look around at what we’ve been able to accomplish, and I just dig in.”
Chavez has received vulgar emails, social media comments and faced acts of aggression intended to frighten, demean and embarrass her, she said.
“They can be very, very violent and very vile,” she said. “It’s disconcerting to tell your husband and your son, ‘We got a couple of threats today. We have a restraining order on someone. Don’t open the front door of the home you love.’”
Santa Clara County Supervisor Sylvia Arenas
Sylvia Arenas became a San Jose councilmember in 2016 and was elected to the county board of supervisors last year. She’d like to see more women and women of color run and bring their perspectives into local politics, she said.
Arenas said women have to be strong and know their purpose given the mean-spirited climate people have to work in today. But she’s committed to this career.
“It won’t matter how many doors I get slammed in my face,” she told San José Spotlight. “I’m here to serve my community. Being a public servant fuels me and keeps me motivated.”
But it doesn’t mean she hasn’t had moments that gave her pause.
“When you feel threatened, when you feel like somebody closed a door a little too hard or shouted at you a little too long, you do think, ‘Is this person going to follow me? What else is this person going to do?’” she said.
Arenas has received disturbing phone calls and messages in which people told her they were coming after her. Twice, a threatening message was left at the door of her home.
“It makes you think about who’s been on your property and how many more times will somebody feel comfortable enough to come onto your property and violate your space that way,” she said.
She had people demean her for being a stay-at-home mom and others say she should be home taking care of her young children while running for office.
“I should run because I have small children,” she told San José Spotlight, “because I want a better life for them. There is so much that we have to overcome as women.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].