Any political candidate has to weather some amount of abuse, but Jenna Wadsworth is hearing from people who wish she'd be raped or killed.
The abuse started after Wadsworth, a bisexual woman who's the Democratic nominee for North Carolina commissioner of agriculture, posted a TikTok video in early October noting the irony of Donald Trump contracting COVID-19 after he downplayed the pandemic and made fun of people for wearing protective masks.
In the video, she asked if the announcement of Trump's diagnosis was viewers' "favorite or most favorite October surprise," went into his response to the COVID outbreak, and explained that an October surprise is something that occurs late in a political campaign that can sink or save a candidate. Some saw the video as celebrating the president's illness, but Wadsworth says that was definitely not her intention.
"According to CNN, an 'October surprise' is defined as 'a game-changing event that can irreparably damage one candidate's chances and boost the other's,'" she said in a statement issued shortly after the video started to draw backlash. "President Trump contracting COVID is an October surprise. The purpose of the video was not to celebrate the President testing positive; it was a reaction to such a game-changing event occurring a month before the election. Since day one, I have stressed the seriousness of the virus and the importance of wearing masks. I hope anyone contracting COVID recovers and is free of any long-term effects, including the President and First Lady. I would never wish harm on anyone with this illness. My commentary was on the irony of the President contracting the virus after not taking it seriously enough. Nothing changes the fact that more than 200,000 people have died because of his administration's lacking response."
Now, speaking to The Advocate, Wadsworth says the video was taken out of context, but she's not walking back her criticism of Trump. "I absolutely believe that he was derelict in his duty to the American people," she says. She has deleted the video, but someone apparently recorded it because copies are still circulating, including on her opponent's website.
And the reactions the video has drawn go far beyond critiques of Wadsworth's message or tone. "We hope that tragedy befalls you, and you die a horrible and painful death," one online commenter wrote; Wadsworth shared screen shots of this and other comments, plus recordings of threatening voice mails, with The Advocate. Another said, "I hope every member of your family dies a horrific death in front of your face."
Yet another expressed the hope that she'd be gang-raped, and one said, "Why don't you walk out in front of a speeding bus!" Others have called her a "bitch" or the c word, some have used racial slurs or questioned her gender, and one told her to watch the brake lines in her car. North Carolina TV stations covering the matter have noted that some of the comments were too extreme for them to put on the air.
Her Republican opponent, incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, posted the video to his campaign website, with the comment, "It's unfortunate that my opponent has posted this deplorable video. This video shows my opponent's youth and inexperience, and it also shows a character flaw. I do think it's deplorable that somebody would do something like that. As a Christian, the hardest part of the Christian faith is to love thine enemy and that's really hard. I do wish she would go to church and that God would change her heart."
Troxler, she says, has no business attacking her faith and values. He has condemned the threats toward Wadsworth but refused to take down the video, on the grounds that it's been widely circulated elsewhere. "He's definitely perpetuating this cycle of violence," Wadsworth says. She hasn't been able to spend the night in her Raleigh home since this all started, and she makes sure she is never alone, she says. The police have told her they can't do anything unless someone says outright that they plan to injure or kill her, she adds.
She has received some criticism from fellow Democrats too. The North Carolina Democratic Party called the video "not appropriate," and Clay Aiken, the out singer and former congressional candidate, tweeted that it was "uncalled for and immature," but said he'd still vote for her. She says the party has thrown her under the bus, and no party officials have checked to see if she's OK since the threats started coming in.
Wadsworth says she believes the attacks on her represent a reaction not just to the video but to the fact that she's a different kind of candidate -- a young queer woman (she's 31) and an unabashed progressive. If she wins in November, she would be the first person from the LGBTQ+ community elected to a statewide constitutional office in North Carolina -- that is, any statewide position other than a judicial one. She would also be the youngest out statewide elected official in the country. She's been endorsed by LGBTQ+ groups including the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Equality North Carolina, and LPAC, and other progressive groups such as the North Carolina Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic, EMILY's List, and several labor unions.
About her bi identity, she says, "I'm proud of who I am, but I feel like it's one of the less interesting things about who I am as an individual." She has broken political ground before, having been elected to the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors in 2010 at age 21, making her the youngest woman ever elected to public office in North Carolina. She is still on the board, to which she has been reelected twice.
She grew up on her grandparents' North Carolina farm, which raised corn, soybeans, tobacco, cattle, cotton, and hogs. She still assists her father in managing the family land, much of which is leased out now. Her platform is big on helping small farmers as well as agricultural and meatpacking workers, many of whom are Latinx immigrants and work in deplorable conditions, she says. "My heart is just absolutely breaking, and we have a man in office who looks the other way," she says.
She also wants to develop plans to help farmers deal with natural disasters and climate change. Troxler, she says, is a climate change denier. Her other priorities include addressing food insecurity, which is a huge problem in North Carolina even though it's a major producer of food, assuring that the state makes a meaningful investment in rural health care, and expanding internet access in rural areas, Wadsworth says. She's a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and the Green New Deal, and she has taken no money from corporate PACs or police associations.
Much of what she seeks to do would involve lobbying legislators and working with other state officials, but she believes she could succeed in producing progressive change. For instance, regarding immigrant workers, she says, "I think that having someone in this office who's actually a friend of the Latinx community would make a difference."
Troxler has been in office for 15 years, and when he was reelected in 2016, he got more votes than Trump, who carried the state, and also more votes than Roy Cooper, the Democrat who won the governorship that year. But Wadsworth, who bested two men in the Democratic primary, says polling shows she's competitive against Troxler, so she's optimistic going into the election.
"The Republican Party and my opponent wouldn't have spent the time and resources attacking me if they didn't know he was vulnerable," she says. "He's running scared for the first time in a long time."