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Sonoma councilwoman Rachel Hundley: Anonymous attack is ‘slut-shaming’

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A Sonoma councilwoman who became the national face of a fresh generation of millennial mayors found her social media history weaponized against her — a tactic she decried as “slut shaming” — in a new type of political attack that drew widespread condemnation in the normally polite Wine Country town.

Councilwoman Rachel Hundley discovered images of her clad in her underwear and attending Nevada’s Burning Man art festival posted on an anonymous website that assailed the 35-year-old’s character and attacked her role on divisive political issues.

Hundley fired back Monday in a video posted to YouTube that has more than 13,000 views, calling the effort “slut shaming” and an attempt to “silence another strong female voice.”

“I realized I had two paths I could take,” Hundley said in an interview last week. “I could either ignore it and move on and hope it all blows over, or I could use it as an opportunity to comment on a bigger issue that young women everywhere face.”

David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University, said the site is an example of “character assassination.”

“What we see with this website and her response is unprecedented,” McCuan said. “The site doesn’t have any attribution, it’s hidden in terms of who’s responsible. We would call this a hit piece. It’s unusual, not just for the city of Sonoma, but even for local politics.”

Political attacks are nothing new. But in a digital generation, politicians, especially women, can see social media used as a medium for harassment and sexualized threats — and a platform for opponents to harvest potentially compromising information. The changing tide comes in a year where a record number of women are running for the Senate, House and state offices amid the #MeToo movement, which has brought issues of sexual assault and harassment to the forefront of global conversation.

Hundley, a South Carolina native who moved to Sonoma in 2013 and was elected to the City Council a year later, said she received a threat in an Aug. 13 email to her personal account. The anonymous message from “Sonoma Citizens for Peace and Cooperation” included a link to a website — titled “Rachel Hundley Exposed” — and told her to reconsider her candidacy or be faced with a campaign that is “one of full disclosures to all Sonoma.”

The website, which was taken down Thursday afternoon, copied images that Hundley said she had “proudly posted” to her public social media accounts and blended them with accusations about her personal and public behavior, long staples of political attack ads. Among other claims, it alleged she partook in “lascivious, drunk and drug addled behavior,” that she “fired” planning commissioners on an “assassination list,” and that she must be removed “like cancer.” It referenced her preparing to go to an “orgy dome” at Burning Man.

Hundley said she was involved at a volunteer wine bar at one of many consensual, “sex positive” theme camps at the festival, where sexuality is celebrated. She denounced allegations of political wrongdoing.

The Press Democrat was unable to verify ownership of the website because the domain was registered anonymously. Hundley and four others familiar with the site could not identify the person or group behind it.

“The only thing I know for sure is that they don’t want me to be on City Council, and will go to great lengths to make that happen,” Hundley said.

She has contacted local and state authorities about the site. The domain name was purchased in April, three months before she announced that she pulled papers to run for reelection, she said.

Hundley said she had posted all but one of the images to social media prior to her election, but she doesn’t plan to change her social media habits or leave the race. She said a photo of a woman smoking cannabis was not her.

In her more than four-minute response on YouTube, Hundley characterized the attack as “slut shaming,” a term used to describe criticism of people, mostly women, for their appearance and perceived or actual sexual behavior.

“The #MeToo movement highlighted the effects of the longstanding power dynamics where people thought women could be controlled or manipulated because they had less power — the website assumes the same is true for me,” she said. “They think they don’t have to challenge me on things that are factual … they can tarnish my reputation by presenting me as a morally inferior person.”

Hundley said she’s received supportive comments and will continue to focus on city issues, like housing and developing the city’s general plan. Social media users labeled the conduct as “harassment,” “weak” and “disgusting.”

Jennifer Gray Thompson, executive director of the Rebuild North Bay Foundation and a female leader in Sonoma, condemned the website as “tasteless” and “ineffective.”

“The message to a woman was very much to put your clothes on and be quiet … it was incredibly stupid politically,” said Thompson, a former aide to Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin. “It was crass and it was slut shaming in the age of #MeToo. All of us, men and women, both had the same reaction.”

Alan Ramey, president of Wine Country Young Democrats, an advocacy group of Democrats ages 13 to 36, applauded Hundley’s response.

“It’s important to call it what it is — to have her shamed unnecessarily is horrendous,” he said. “I’m happy I don’t recall any other candidate having to deal with this, but it’s really important to have her stand up and have everyone stand up in support of her to denounce this type of activity.”

The effort was criticized by Hundley’s fellow council members, three of whom said the attack doesn’t match the tenor of the small town’s politics.

“This has never been seen in the town of Sonoma before, this level of nastiness … it’s a complete focus on cynical gossip,” Vice Mayor Amy Harrington said. “The people who I have talked to who have seen it said it would work completely against that group. This isn’t what the town of Sonoma is going to stand for.”

Councilman Gary Edwards called the website “unfortunate” and referenced a larger shift in Sonoma politics as growth brings fresh faces. He pointed to a recent email from a cannabis advocate to a councilman using violent terms to express displeasure over a decision to delay a cannabis dispensary initiative past the Nov. 6 ballot.

City Manager Cathy Capriola said she cannot comment on election issues.

Hundley received national attention when she was profiled in a 2017 Washington Post story as a millennial political leader, part of a series on people living inspired lives. Hundley, who previously co-owned a food truck, practices municipal law.

While some, including Gray and Harrington, speculated the scandal would cause the community to rally around Hundley, Sonoma State professor McCuan said it’s too early to tell what impact it will have on the election. Still, he said social media is a powerful tool that has “benefits and detractions” for politicians. In the current political climate, attacks like the one on Hundley will become “more normal or even accepted,” he said.

Hundley said she hopes her message will inspire other female politicians.

“I’ve heard from young women who work in politics who told me stories about similar experiences, and women who have been in politics for a while who basically said ‘welcome to the club’ … I don’t think that’s the way it has to be any longer. It’s only successful if it’s something they can’t talk about and have to suffer in silence.”