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.