Political Climate with Mark Simon: Ex council candidate uses false Facebook identity to criticize opponent

in Featured/Headline/PoliticalClimate

There’s no other way to describe it, but bizarre.

For the past several weeks, Christina Umhofer, former candidate for the Redwood City Council, has been using the false identity “Ann Marie” on Facebook to post harsh criticisms of Councilwoman Giselle Hale. At the same time, Umhofer has been using her own Facebook identity to criticize Hale. Sometimes, Umhofer commented on the postings put up under the fake name.

While the Umhofer posts have been relatively temperate – the key word there is relatively – the Ann Marie posts have been almost relentless, including criticizing Hale for a post praising hometown star New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman for winning the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Award. The Ann Marie post referenced that “real” Redwood City residents have long been proud of Edelman.

When confronted by her actions online, Umhofer, in a post on Facebook yesterday, confirmed she had been using a fake Facebook identity.

Today, she posted another confirmation on her 2018 City Council campaign Facebook page that reads:

“Mark Simon of Climate Magazine reached out to me via my personal email yesterday indicating he will be publishing a column later today about a Facebook alias, “Ann Marie”, that I recently used while commenting on Councilmember Hale’s Facebook page. Councilmember Hale blocked me from her campaign page last year and now that she is a public official, has recently unblocked me upon request.

“In the interim,” Umhofer’s post today continued, “I had used an alias “Ann Marie” to respond to some of her recent posts on her Facebook page and I failed to explicitly state it was me. Once my name was unblocked by Councilmember Hale, I resumed using my Christina Umhofer profile to comment on her page; however, there was a brief time that I used both names when commenting, which was an oversight on my part for not paying attention to which account I was logged into. I own it, and I apologize for it.”

I did, indeed, reach out to Umhofer via email yesterday with a series of questions about her use of the Ann Marie identity. I asked her to reply to the questions by 2 p.m. She has not done so. The questions asked for much more detail than Umhofer provided in her posting today, including an explanation of why she was so harshly criticizing Hale.

In an interview today with Political Climate, Hale said that she had blocked a number of people, including Umhofer, during the campaign and that she lifted the block after she was elected to the council.

“In 2018, a record number of women were running for office, and many of these women experienced harassment – more than male candidates. The unfortunate reality is that I faced the same thing,” Hale said.

But once she was elected, her public communications are subject to public-access laws, she unblocked everyone, Hale said.

When she received notification from Umhofer that she continued to be blocked, Hale took the step of specifically ensuring Umhofer could post comments.

But blocked or unblocked, Umhofer “was always able to reach me by email or phone,” Hale said, “She didn’t need to create a false identity.”

Several times, in Facebook responses to postings under the name Ann Marie, Hale offered to meet with her over coffee to discuss the concerns being expressed. It’s “surprising and a little sad that a person I had invited to coffee turned out not to be a real person.”

Hale said the postings were meant as “intimidation and harassment … intended to bully someone” and that shouldn’t be a part of the public debate.

“I feel we had a robust public debate (during the campaign). The public spoke. The public voted,” Hale said. “We need to focus on the issues facing the community.” She said she would rather be talking about the issues facing the city, rather than this matter.

“I’m more than willing to work with people with differing opinions,” Hale said.

As for Umhofer’s post today, there are gaps in the explanation she offers, starting with using Ann Marie as an “alias.”

The Ann Marie Facebook page contained information that appeared intended to mislead and to convey that this was a distinct individual. That included a listing that she recently took a position at “Beauty company” and that she was married in 2009. Those details contradict information that had been posted on Umhofer’s personal Facebook page, which, incidentally, appears to have been deleted.

Umhofer also used both her real Facebook identity and Ann Marie at the same time on several occasions. In her posting today, she described that as an “oversight” but there are several instances of Umhofer actively “liking” or commenting on a posting by Ann Marie. In one instance, Umhofer asked Hale why an Ann Marie posting had been deleted.

Ultimately, the usage of both names at the same time prompted other posters to confront Umhofer. Some of them cited a photo of a leaping dog that appeared on both the Ann Marie and Umhofer Facebook pages. One poster noted that Umhofer appeared to be struggling to keep her two identities straight.

Umhofer’s posting today does not address why she has been such a harsh critic of Hale, either as herself or Ann Marie. Umhofer was an opponent of Hale’s in last year’s city council race. Hale received the most votes in a seven-candidate race for three seats. Umhofer finished fifth, nearly 3,300 votes behind Hale and more than 1,500 votes behind third-place-winner Diana Reddy.

Roughly since the beginning of the year, Hale has been posting consistently on city-related issues on an official Facebook page titled Councilwoman Giselle Hale and on a page named “I Love Redwood City” that she has been using for several months.

If there are any consistent themes to Umhofer’s postings, it is that they appear to call into question Hale’s legitimacy as a representative of the city. The postings attempt to label Hale as a hypocritical newcomer who doesn’t understand local issues or have genuine local roots.

In a posting on the issue of providing “middle housing” to protect the presence of the middle class in Redwood City, a position Hale took at her campaign kickoff, Umhofer, posting as Ann Marie, demanded to know Hale’s solution, and then criticized her for not providing details. In the string of comments, Umhofer also weighed in from the account using her real name, crediting herself for a project that met the definition of “middle housing.”

In a posting on Hale’s I Love RWC page about the Redwood City Education Foundation, a community-supported nonprofit that provides financial support to local schools, Ann Marie commented: “Giselle, we both know that RCEF is a sham. When you are sitting at one of the Board meetings, why not tell the rest of the Board to stop using the Latino-based students for RCEF’s propaganda. RCEF’s ‘leadership’ needs to stay in their lane and concern themselves with the children of our district and not promising unbridled development.”

In a posting on efforts by local school districts to build teacher housing, Ann Marie said, “Giselle, what you post, what you say, and who you received money from speak different stories.” Donations Hale received show “you compromised your decision-making.”

In an I Love RWC posting about $500 million for housing from a fund spearheaded by the Redwood City-based Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Ann Marie dismissed the money as a “dismal number.” Umhofer subsequently demanded to know why the Ann Marie post had been deleted and did not disclose that she was posting under the name Ann Marie.

Most, if not all, of the Ann Marie postings have been deleted, apparently by Umhofer. While the Ann Marie page still can be found, all information and photos on it have been deleted.

Contact Mark Simon at Mark.simon24@yahoo.com.

*The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Online.