I grew up overseas, the daughter of an American diplomat posted to various countries that held strategic interests as trade partners or war-time allies. It was an invaluable experience living under different political regimes with lessons that have never been forgotten.
As a kid, I lived under martial law after a military coup in Pakistan during the Russian-Afghan war. There, it was commonplace to see police officers on street corners armed with assault rifles and road checkpoints scattered throughout the city. The country was on high alert due to a massive war effort on the Western border and hostile relations with India to the East.
Tensions were always high and efforts to maintain a semblance of control were swift and sometimes cruel. We knew we were followed, our phones tapped, and often surrounded by informants. These realities were just a part of life.
Our situation improved slightly when we moved to Thailand, a country ruled by a monarchy where love of king was absolute. Everyday occurrences like going to the movies meant standing for the national anthem as photos of the royal family were displayed across the screen. When they addressed the country via radio broadcast, all activity stopped. Tourists and expats alike were expected to participate and show the upmost respect at all times.
From there, we moved again to Hong Kong, a group of small islands that compromised a colony in the waning years of a British rule just before Communist China was to take over. The anxiety of the people with a proud heritage, people who considered it an insult to be called Chinese, was palpable knowing Communist were already inserting themselves into daily operations. The outward sign of this was a massive building project for the Bank of China being erected in the heart of the city center. We lived on the hillside behind it and watched the daily progress of its construction. In response, neighboring buildings erected their own stone foo dog statues to ward off the ‘evil’ the building itself represented.
Tensions were high as so many feared losing rights and freedoms while they continued to quietly negotiate for autonomy, an argument bolstered by the massive commerce and profit center the tiny island port had become. Student protests were tolerated, but only to a point, while great efforts were made to inject good will for Chinese culture and Communist “prosperity” to bring the Canton Provence back into the fold. At no point would China tolerate another problematic situation as they had with Taiwan.
The Minder Was Always Watching
In all of these places, it was understood that words could have dire consequences. Diplomats were largely office workers themselves whose influence was only as good as relations between their home and host country. Diplomatic immunity meant that a major transgression guaranteed you and your family an immediate flight home, often unemployed, homeless, and facing charges upon arrival. And at no point were you ever to embarrass your host country by speaking critically of their leadership.
This was, in part, thanks to the presence of government agents whose job it was to monitor everything said in public spaces. Sometimes these “minders” revealed themselves to shut down a play, a movie, or other public gatherings if the words were too provocative to be tolerated. It was made clear that nothing we did should ever provoke one of these people to action.
I had not encountered this level of coordinated suppression of free speech since moving back home to the United States until October 1, 2017 when it happened once again, here in my own living room in Illinois.
Retaliation and Threats
My husband served as the elected district chair for the McHenry County Democratic Party, one of six in the county, responsible for growing the party, training volunteers, and providing everyone with information about the party to help elect more Democratic candidates to office. He had been elected to this role while I ran for office in 2016.
By October 2017, he had helped grow the number of active PCs from four to twenty-one, recruited nine election judges, six candidates and was now focused on training PCs to become powerful advocates for the party.
So why would some in our own party want him gone?
On October 1, 2017, our district PCs and volunteers within the county were gathered at our home for another training session. So it was surprising that our county chair chose that same date and time to call an executive board meeting with a single agenda item, “leadership change”.
The entire executive board was aware of the meeting in our home as it was openly advertised and they themselves had sent this Congressional Candidate to join us to meet district PCs. They also knew this scheduling made it unlikely my husband could attend their executive board meeting in person.
“For the good of the party, you should step down.”
Oddly enough, these executives were also reticent to allow him to participate by phone. When he persisted in attempting to join remotely, they relented. It was then he discovered there was a new agenda provided only to participants in the room at the executive meeting that read, “Removal of Doug Barber”.
Their meeting ran in parallel to the training session now underway in our home. His meeting was on speakerphone and passersby his office could hear various leaders within the party make a case as to why they wanted him gone, citing retaliation for things I had said online while calling for greater participation and transparency within the party as the main crime, while some executives also cited his discontent with their postcard parties, that he openly shared the plans of the board with PCs, that he seemed angry and on and on. It was a contrived witch hunt that culminated in their asking him to step down as district chair.
He refused, reminding them that it was the PCs who had the right to vote for their own leadership. Predictably, the executives on the board next threatened to humiliate him if he didn’t comply. Threats of this nature are felony violations in Illinois. (10 ILCS 5 Section 29-18 “Conspiracy to Prevent a Vote”)
Again he reminded them of our own party bylaws regarding the power of PCs. They pressed on, now blaming him for what they themselves decided to do next – remove 20 appointed PCs from office to rig the vote to remove him.
In Illinois, an appointed PC must serve, “… as if elected,” (10 ILCS 5/7-9 “County central committee; county and State conventions”) for the full term unless they move outside of their precinct. The law is intended to prevent this exact kind of retaliation the executive board was proposing.
Those at the meeting all voted to move forward with this dubious plan, except one. The notes from this meeting even included their reason for taking this action in one word, “retaliation”.
Just as the call concluded, we adjourned our training session with the PCs and volunteers. My husband stood before the group and explained what had just happened in the executive meeting and what party leaders planned to do next. He stressed that he would leave the decision up to the PCs, that their right to vote was paramount, and they alone had the right to choose their own district chair.
And that is when the first minder spoke up, “For the good of the party, you should step down.”
This man had never attended a meeting before today. The room was now silent and it was evident he was here for this one purpose. This man would later be named the interim district chair.
Then from across the room, the Congressional Candidate spoke in the same monotone voice, “For the good of the party, you should step down.” Other candidates at the meeting had left when training concluded, but this one had stayed. Now it was evident why.
The third minder, herself an appointed PC, exchanged her pen as notetaker when the meeting adjourned to take up her smartphone. She was witnessed surreptitiously recording the exchange by several attendees. In fact, she would record much of the conversation, including a private conversation between my husband and his legal counsel. In Illinois, eavesdropping is a felony (720 ILCS 5/14-2 “Eavesdropping”). She would later become a district chair, running unopposed.
These complex political maneuvers confused the new PCs who had been eager to participate in the coming “Blue Wave”. Some said they, “didn’t want to get involved”, others were upset at the political maneuvering and disappointed at the events as they understood them. The damage had been done through a carefully coordinated sabotage perpetrated by members of our own party.
The executive board did remove the district chair through a rigged vote, and remove voting rights for 20 PCs, myself included. To do this, the county party chair sent a new list of Democratic PCs to the County Clerk, informing her office that the list of Democratic PCs had changed. That list would then be revised once more after the improper vote was held on October 26.The vote itself was taken of the two remaining PCs; the first minder and another executive who had voted previously to remove my husband in retaliation.
I was not among those PCs reinstated on that revised list at the end of October.
This was not the first time my own party leadership worked to undermine progressive causes. That work had begun in 2016 and only increased throughout the next election cycle while we were busy helping Progressive candidates who stepped up to run for office. By 2017, the tactics were honed to a level befitting Illinois’ well-earned reputation for political corruption.
Targeted harassment and threats continued as I seemed to be a favorite target of party leaders who called me a “community leader.” I wasn’t – just a volunteer actively helping candidates.
Over the next eighteen months, I was a continued target for harassment along with my business partner, our company’s reputation, and even our families. Aiding in this were former allies within my own party who, acting in zealous disregard of ethical fairness and in some cases, the law itself, assisted in the harassment as if we had somehow become a threat to the party.
They operated openly, even bragging about their deeds, “good riddance” and “they are trash,” they wrote publicly.
While they used party funds to give themselves awards for the ‘Me Too’ movement, our small woman-owned business was being targeted. While they spoke of unity, they were openly harassing our Progressive candidates. While they professed love for Progressives, even adopting that description for themselves, they systematically began co-opting independent Progressive groups.
These people were so brazen, it was prompting others to come forward and share their stories with us out of empathy. Some of these people were sitting judges, some elected Democratic party leaders, some volunteers themselves. Most were afraid to speak openly out of fear of retaliation, and some, like us, had tried to get help from the state party with no success.
Out of these stories, a pattern emerged that had the effect of suppressing Progressive voices and discouraging participation in the democratic process. Awareness of these methods can help protect volunteers and candidates from falling victim to the same behaviors that sabotaged good campaigns in the 2018 cycle:
- Discredit campaign staff through reputation targeting with the goal of removing them from a campaign, including slander and libel actions
- Providing campaign staff to a campaign to control and even sabotage that campaign
- Party notaries may improperly apply signatures and seals to ballot petitions in hopes of invalidating an entire page of signatures
- Plant subversive volunteers to disrupt campaign actions and cohesion
- Recruit candidates to run during a Primary only to force them to drop out during the general election
- Cyberstalking campaign staff online for the purpose of harassing them or the candidate
- Removing campaign resources: limit party funds, suppressing fundraisers or eliminating legal resources for ballot defense
- Purposely scheduling conflicting events on the same day, same time as events set for Progressive candidates
- Unwillingness to advertise candidate events, or host a candidate at party events
- Withholding party resources such as voter lists and other support tools or making access to such contingent upon direct action by the candidate or campaign staff
- Dark money PACs used to purchase defamatory collateral sent to voters
- Misrepresenting where a candidate works and the job they perform
- Calling a candidate’s employer with the goal of getting them fired, and once fired, openly criticising the candidate for the termination
- Threatening volunteers, their employment, and other personal relationships
- Threatening a candidate who accepts help from Progressive groups
By April 2018, my business partner and I had lost everything and heard enough stories similar to ours that we decided to file a civil lawsuit. Prompted by a lack of accountability within our own party, we recognized that this behavior continues to thrive simply because it is unchallenged. Even the criminal nature of these actions are being ignored.
Further, if we were ever to grow our party, instill trust among independent voters, and help ensure everyone has access to participate in the democratic process, someone had to stand up and say, “Enough”.
Consider that every taxpayer is financing the activities of political parties, including ballot access and the voting cycle. Therefore, at a minimum, these parties should be held to a basic standard of ethical conduct and oversight as any other state organization. Today, that is not happening and that is by design.
Without addressing this significant and pervasive issue, no volunteer or campaign is safe from suffering the same events we have endured.
Fixing this only takes the will to make things right. This accountability is necessary for protecting activists, volunteers, and candidates regardless of party affiliation.
Without addressing this significant and pervasive issue, no volunteer or campaign is safe from suffering the same events we have endured.
In our case, we decided all that is required is for a few good women to do something.
Kerri Barber is the former business partner of Heroic Media Group, LLC, a small boutique marketing firm that assisted small business owners and Progressive candidates. She and her business partner have filed a Civil Defamation case in Illinois’ 22nd Court. 18LA000135 HEROIC MEDIA LLC, ET AL VS BISSET, MICHAEL, ET AL This case is ongoing, along with the related case involving Westbend Mutual Insurance company (2018-CH-06436) who has countersued the same defendants in Barber’s Civil Case.
Barber and her business partner have a Go Fund Me account for those interested in helping support their legal defense. https://www.gofundme.com/help-fight-harasment-retaliation