Claremont Insider: Mean Girls

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mean Girls


We've noticed that the brand of bullying practiced most often by the Claremont 400 has a decidedly feminine component. The coterie that runs things in this town has long been dominated by women. Former mayors Judy Wright, Diann Ring, Ellen Taylor, Sandra Baldonado, and ex-commissioners Barbara Musselman and Helaine Goldwater have called the shots for far too long. And we can add former Claremont Assistant City Manager Bridget Healy (photo, right) to this list.

Just because the style is a dominated by a womanly kind of aggressiveness, though, that doesn't mean it's limited to people of the female persuasion. If you'll recall, men like Claremont Human Services commissioner Butch Henderson, former mayor Paul Held, former planning commissioner Bill Baker we especially nasty in their leadership of the Preserve Claremont campaign in the 2005 City Council race. (Not coincidentally, they are all also very much involved with current city council candidate Robin Haulman's campaign.) And the person who tapped into all that aggression to use it for his own purposes was a man, former City Manager Glenn Southard.

We've always thought the psychodynamic undercurrents in Claremont were worthy of academic research, and it turns out there's actually people who study the kind of female aggression at play here. We found an old NPR Talk of the Nation segment from February 27, 2002, the topic of which was just the sort of bullying practiced by the Claremont 400. (You need the free RealPlayer if you want to hear the discussion.) The segment's description said:

Girls are not all sugar and spice according to some researchers. The latest study on girls says they may be AS likely to use aggression as boys. Rather than fists, girls express it through manipulation, exclusion and gossip-mongering. It's become quite a problem in some middle and high schools, but what's the solution?


People who study such things, psychologists and anthropologists and the like, say that among children and teens, male aggression tends to be more straightforward and less complex than the sort seen in girls. Female aggression is generally indirect and has a strong social component, with the most aggressive girls leveraging their social intelligence to get their friends to ostracize girls they don't like, usually through gossip and whispering campaigns. Female aggression relies on the mastery and manipulation of social relationships to isolate and ostracize, hence the term "relational aggression."

The pressure of wanting to fit in, coupled with the relief at not be the one targeted, causes weaker girls in a group to join in or to at least remain silent, and the group comes to be dominated by the girls who the most socially adept but who have the lowest empathy, the ones who are capable of the most cruelty.

One of the panelists on that NPR show was seventh grader Nicky Marewski from Poukeepsie, NY, who described what she observed at her school:
The girls who are sort of in charge of all this, they figure out who they don't like and who they just don't think are acceptable, and they tell their friends.

That seems to be the general Claremonster modus operandi, which makes us wonder if we're just witnessing a collective case of arrested development. From what the relational aggression experts say, there seems to be some anecdotal evidence of this behavior continuing on through life. It can express itself in the workplace in the form of office politics or, in the case of the Claremont 400, in just plain old politics in general.

It's really empathy, or rather its absence, that seems to be the key factor, and that's certainly something that's been lacking among the Claremont 400, though they seem to be blind to their own shortcomings. Time and again, we've seen them unable to step outside of their own groupthink, unable to place themselves in their opponents' shoes, with the result that they have no openness to ideas that don't comport with their own preconceptions.

Let's go back to the 2002 Talk of the Nation show for a moment. Kaj Bjorkqvist, a Finnish professor of developmental psychology, remarked:
If you combine it [social intelligence] with low empathy, then it turns into indirect aggression. Girls who are high in both social intelligence and empathy tend to use more constructive strategies for solving conflict.

And that's exactly why we're caught in this odd community dance of anger. The people in power leverage their high social intelligence and dominate city elections so that they control the City Council and all the city commissions. Similarly, they control organizations like the Claremont Chamber of Commerce and various local charities. That's why you see someone like Preserve Claremont donor and former Claremont Board of Education member Michael Fay again and again, as treasurer of current council candidate Joseph Lyon's campaign or treasurer of the failed $95 million Measure CL school bond.

Or you see Preserve Claremont spokesperson Butch Henderson listed as an honorary co-chair of council candidate Robin Haulman's campaign and PC donor Bill Baker listed as Haulman's treasurer.


If you want to observe relational aggression in action, go to a city council meeting. You're likely to see Helaine Goldwater seated in the back row knitting away like Madame Defarge as she watches the little melodramas she creates get played out.

At one recent council meeting, Sandy Baldonado, Barbara Musselman, and Robin Haulman were in the audience, all in a row like crows on a telephone line. Baldonado and Musselman, along with Bridget Healy, are backing Haulman as step one in their plan to get Healy elected to the council in 2013.

Recall that Healy lost badly in the 2009 city election, but rather than accept defeat, she and her friends began an image rehab program by getting Healy a position on the the Claremont Chamber of Commerce board, having her prominently involved with the Claremont Area League of Women Voters and by having her make appearances at City Council meetings to speak, along with Musselman, about the poor performance of current City Manager Jeff Parker, whom they accuse of gutting and outsourcing city services.

In their long range plan to shove Bridget down our throats, they've adopted more than a few positions they fought against when Baldonado was on the council and Healy working in City Hall as Glenn Southard's right hand woman. To listen to them now, they've replaced the secrecy they coveted with concerns for governmental transparency and have claimed to be champions of the people where once they had nothing but contempt for the public.

We can never forget, though, that Healy once authored a city staff report outlining a proposal to have a social worker or psychologist stationed at City Council meetings ready to rule on whether people trying to speak during public comment represented imminent threats to the council, commissioners and staff. The idea was to have a process for removing speakers from the council chambers. Then there was Baldonado, who with her trademark classiness, once told members of the public who were observing a council retreat to "get a life."

As strange as it sounds, the Baldonado-Musselman plan seems to be working. Haulman (photo, left) stands a good chance of getting elected, and people have cut her a lot a slack. At candidate forums she's been unprepared and has read canned responses from a notebook she continually flips through (she's working on fixing this and a few of her other obvious shortcomings), but to hear the after action reports, one would think she's a regular policy wonk when it comes to city issues. People, too, have forgiven Healy and are willing to overlook the ethical conflicts of interests she would have on the council on important issues such as employee pensions.

We'll see how much Claremont has really changed since Healy last worked here. Our guess is that the mean girls still have the run of the town.