People with vile things to say about Adam Kinzinger tend to call his office at night, when it’s virtually guaranteed no one will answer.
“I think they want to leave a [voicemail] because they know what they’re saying is inappropriate. If you don’t actually have to speak to a person, then maybe it’s easier,” said Theresa Reed, who serves as Kinzinger’s communications director.
Earlier this month, the Republican congressman from Illinois shared a video on social media. Created by his interns, it compiles some of those swear-laden messages, like “I hope you get terminal cancer, you motherf---ing pig.”
Callers threaten his family, including his 6-month-old baby. “Gonna get your wife. Gonna get your kids,” one says.
And that is just a taste. “We could have made that video 30 minutes long. We just had to cut it to three,” said Luke Sandlin, a legislative correspondent who handles constituent outreach.
Angry messages are not a new phenomenon in politics. But staffers in Kinzinger’s office, particularly the young interns who typically answer the phones, have seen bad go to worse. Their boss is making headlines this summer as he sits on the Jan. 6 select committee investigating last year’s attack on the Capitol.
“Gonna get you and Liz Cheney,” a caller warns, referring to the only other Republican on the committee. Another describes him as a traitor to his party and a “backstabbing son of a b----” for speaking out against former President Donald Trump.
“We posted it to check the temperature on where we’re at right now — to show that the temperature is rising,” Sandlin said of the video. “People are getting a little bit more aggressive, and it’s something that we should all be aware of.”
The video is like a PSA of what not to say when you call a congressional office, Sandlin said. For one thing, callers should know their audience.
“I’ve had people think I was the congressman. They don’t know they’re talking to staffers. They don’t know they’re talking to interns who are 18,” he said.
Students come to the Capitol for internships to learn about the legislative process, but one of their first lessons is how to handle verbal abuse. Reed said interns are taught to tell callers they will disconnect the line if they swear or threaten them. Hanging up doesn’t always work, though.
“Sometimes we hang up, and these people call right back,” Sandlin said. “They’ll call, and then you hang up again because you recognize the number. Then they’ll say ‘I’m coming to the office’ or ‘I know where the congressman lives’ or something awful like that.”
The office notifies Capitol Police about threatening phone calls, Reed said. Such incidents are on the rise. Last year, the force saw an estimated total of 9,600 disturbing messages and direct threats against members of Congress, compared to 8,613 in 2020.
Chief J. Thomas Manger said at a hearing in January that his agency was “barely keeping our head above water” with the investigations because of staffing shortages.
CQ Roll Call earlier this year asked every member of Congress whether they had received a death threat since 2020. Of the 147 who responded, 110 — about 75 percent — said yes. That included 74 percent of Democratic respondents and 77 percent of Republican ones.
“This is life as a Capitol Hill staffer right now. We’re not alone in this,” Sandlin said. “We put out that video not only to say ‘Woe is Adam Kinzinger’s office’ but ‘Woe is literally every single congressional staffer that has to pick up these phones and every single intern.’”
Kinzinger was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021 for “incitement of insurrection” after he roused his followers with false claims of a stolen election. CQ Roll Call reached out to some of them this month to ask about the vitriol they face, along with the remaining members of the Jan. 6 committee. They either declined to comment or did not respond.
It’s hard to know how rising threats will affect a generation of interns and their odds of entering public service. For now, staying healthy is a top concern, Reed said. Because listening to sinister messages can cause stress, senior staffers in her office make sure interns know about free counseling and other services available to them through the House Office of Employee Assistance.
From January through June, that office had 3,400 interactions, including individual counseling sessions and mental health trainings, according to the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. That comes after a record 12,200 interactions in 2021, including 5,600 counseling sessions.
Kinzinger’s interns can also take mental health breaks if they want, and they have weekly check-ins with staff members.
Reed wishes this didn’t have to be part of their internship experience.
Constituent messages are “a huge part of the legislative process that I think a lot of folks who haven’t been part of it maybe don’t understand,” she said. “It’s unfortunate they’ve had to get some of these nastier phone calls. People are swearing at them and being quite unpleasant. This shouldn’t be part of the process.”
Reed emphasized that Kinzinger does get supportive phone calls, too. The sixth-term congressman announced last fall that he would not seek reelection in 2022, joining a trend. Of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach in 2021, four decided not to run, and one has already been knocked out in a primary.
For Sandlin, the calls motivate him to “stay on this ship.” But he finds himself drawing on his previous work experience, before he entered public service.
“I sold cars when I was 18 years old, so I might be a little more used to being called names,” he said.