By Jordy Yager - 06/04/08 05:25 PM EDT
Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) remembers the day a piece of mail was a little heavier than usual.
That’s because there was a bullet casing taped to a letter in one of the parcels his office receives.
The casing had been flattened, and the letter read: “If you continue to push for statehood for Puerto Rico and the admission of those people into our country, you’re going to end up as flat as this casing.”
“That one was scary,” said Serrano, who has received numerous threats throughout his political career. “The FBI just dealt with it. But that one was scary because when you see an actual shell casing you say, ‘So if I step out this door, is this guy going to be out there?’ For a while I caught myself looking behind me.”
Threats are common to people in the public spotlight, but politicians often find themselves a target. And that leads to the difficult task of trying to decide when a threat needs to be taken seriously.
“We never know if any angry comment can become more than that,” Serrano said.
The irony of Serrano’s situation was that the letter’s sender had misinterpreted the Puerto Rican-born congressman’s stance on the issue. The sender believed a statement Serrano made about Puerto Rico was a call for statehood when, in reality, Serrano said the U.S. territory should have the right to choose its status for itself.
Though the threat maker made a mistake, authorities operated under the “better safe than sorry” belief and handled it accordingly. Serrano said only that the situation was resolved.
Serrano isn’t alone in potential danger. Less than two months ago in Dallas, police arrested a man for allegedly stalking Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) at her home. Reportedly, it was not the first time the man had been seen on Hutchison’s property.
Real or not, most politicians have gotten threats, but some say they do not take them too seriously. Take presidential candidates Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), both of whom have received numerous threats.
“I’ve just gotten silly threats,” said Paul. “Nothing I’ve ever taken seriously.”
“I don’t pay any attention to them,” Kucinich said.
Serrano take threats seriously, but he says he does not let them get in the way of his job.
“You have to be careful,” he said. “But I honestly believe, and I don’t want to sound like a big hero or something, but the minute you let someone scare you into not discussing your issues is the minute you should get out of this profession.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has received several threats by mail, is of a similar mind.
“With 300 million people in America, there’s some people who are dangerous out there,” he said. “I choose not to think about it. There’s enough in this country to worry about. You ask for the job, you ask for the challenges that come with it.”
On trips back to New York, Serrano experienced the price of such threats.
“I remember on a couple of trips [a security detail] went with me and I got up to go to the bathroom during the trip and a person followed me. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m just going to the bathroom.’ He said, ‘No sir, we have to do this right,’ ” said Serrano.
Many lawmakers don’t want to discuss threats they have received because they believe it focuses too much on the negative aspects of their job.
“I could [tell you about specific threats I’ve received] but I don’t think that would be constructive,” said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.). “I don’t really talk very much about that. Generally, people who make threats tend to do it a little more casually than they should and what we found is that once we make clear that this isn’t something to joke about, the threats tend to disappear.”
Cuban-born Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) was cryptic when it came to discussing the threats he’d received, suggesting that the Cuban government has been behind them.
“The Cuban government is on the state-sponsored terrorism list and they’re very involved and very active in Washington and they’re very much on the Hill also,” Diaz-Balart said. “I’m not going to go into it. I’ll say just that it’s a unique situation. I know they’re here and they are state-sponsored terrorists, but I can’t go into conversations I’ve had with the FBI.”
Both the House and Senate sergeant at arms declined to comment, citing security reasons, as to how they assess the validity of threats or procedures for dealing with potential threats. They did say news of a potential threat can be discovered through office staff or by law enforcement personnel themselves. After its discovery, the member’s safety is in the hands of the federal security detail established to protect the lawmaker.
“I had a couple of instances where communications, some by mail, were perceived to be dangerous,” Sessions said. “Sometimes it’s not exactly how overt the threat is, sometimes it takes a person trained in that to see that it’s either serious or not serious based on the tone of it. We had a letter that we perceived to be possibly threatening and we referred it to the sergeant at arms. There have been occasions when federal investigators would interview us.”
Some lawmakers have been fortunate enough to leave the world of threats behind with their former jobs.
Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) received threats on his life while mayor of Somerville, Mass., but says nothing came of them.
“I got some threats when I was mayor, but never to the point where I felt my life was in danger,” Capuano said. “[They came] from nuts. You know, a nut’s a nut. I’d call the police and they’d take care of it, because you just never know what might be real.”
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) also received two to three serious threats as governor of Nebraska.
“I haven’t got any since I’ve been in the Senate, but as governor I got threats against my life,” Nelson said. “I had 24-hour security protection and they took care of it.”
Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) can’t recall any threats he has received, but said when he was a teenager, his father, a commonwealth prosecutor, was on a list of about 20 people a local man wanted to kill. That man died in a firefight with law enforcement after murdering his wife and his daughter. Goode is convinced he and his family were in real danger.
“He would’ve done it if he could have,” Goode said. “I can remember for a period each one of us sleeping with a firearm beside the bed.”
Neither the House nor Senate historian’s office has kept track of threats against lawmakers over the years, though politicians have been known to make threats against fellow politicians.
Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) recently threatened fellow committee member Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) during a committee hearing on May 20.
“I will have you physically removed from this meeting if you don’t stop,” Waxman yelled after pounding his gavel above Issa’s protests. Issa was not removed and the hearing carried on.
Waxman has received some threats himself, though nothing too perilous.
“I think I’ve had some cranks who’ve sent threatening messages, but I just turn them over to authorities,” said Waxman. “And hey, I’m still alive.”
Perhaps the most peculiar threats have been those made towards Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
“I’ve gotten quite a few after-death threats, like: ‘You’ll burn in hell for the rest of eternity.’ ” Frank said. “Who am I supposed to report them to, God?”