Rumors and suspicions about endemic and pervasive sexism during the Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign have been circulating almost since he first emerged as a credible threat to Hillary Clinton (rumors that Clinton staffers have admitted they helped to fan to try and undermine Sanders’ upstart challenge). But just as Sanders and a handful of other potential Democratic 2020 contenders are preparing to make their final decisions about whether to run for the nomination in 2020, it appears the #MeToo movement has finally come for Sanders and his legion of “BernieBros”.
In an expansive expose that included on-the-record comments with a handful of former female Sanders’ campaign staffers, the New York Times portrayed the Sanders campaign as a boys club where complaints about sexual harassment were largely ignored or not taken seriously, and where male employees were regularly paid more than their female counterparts.
Some of the women who worked on Sanders campaign have reportedly taken to a Facebook group where they have been sharing their stories, and all are demanding that, should Sanders choose to again seek the Democratic nomination in 2020, that he must ensure that these issues are addressed – or some of the financial backers and delegates who supported his campaign won’t be returning.
According to the Times, the complaints have raised questions about whether Sanders is capable of adequately fighting for the interests of women.
At the start of its story, the Times shared an anecdote where one regional Latino outreach strategist complained to her boss that she had been harassed by a Sanders campaign surrogate. But instead of taking her complain seriously, the director responded with a snide remark, and promptly dismissed her claims.
She said the surrogate told her she had “beautiful curly hair” and asked if he could touch it, Ms. Di Lauro said in an interview. Thinking he would just touch a strand, she consented. But she said that he ran his hand through her hair in a “sexual way” and continued to grab, touch and “push my boundaries” for the rest of the day.
“I just wanted to be done with it so badly,” she said.
When she reported the incident to Bill Velazquez, a manager on the Latino outreach team, he told her, “I bet you would have liked it if he were younger,” according to her account and another woman who witnessed the exchange. Then he laughed.
Accounts like Ms. Di Lauro’s – describing episodes of sexual harassment and demeaning treatment as well as pay disparity in Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign – have circulated in recent weeks in emails, online comments and private discussions among former supporters. Now, as the Vermont senator tries to build support for a second run at the White House, his perceived failure to address this issue has damaged his progressive bona fides, delegates and nearly a dozen former state and national staff members said in interviews over the last month.
One former female campaign official said the campaign’s disorganized structure made it difficult to now whom to turn to with complaints about harassment – but this didn’t stop her former supervisor for sidelining her after she declined an invitation to his hotel room.
“I did experience sexual harassment during the campaign, and there was no one who would or could help,” said Samantha Davis, the former director of operations in Texas and New York, who also worked on the campaign’s advance team. She said that her supervisor marginalized her after she declined an invitation to his hotel room.
The experience has prompted some of Sanders’ most dedicated female supporters to abandon the democratic socialist icon and declare that he doesn’t need to vessel for the movement that he helped to create.
“I don’t think he has to be the vehicle or the platform for the movement that emerged from his campaign,” said Sarah Slamen, who worked for the campaign in Texas, was the state coordinator in Louisiana and helped build out Our Revolution, a progressive organization born from Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign.
“Do you know how hard that is for me to say after working so hard for him?” she said.
Ms. Slamen quit the organization at the end of 2016 after she said she was berated by a male member of the Our Revolution steering committee for suggesting an organizing plan. In emails reviewed by The Times, she raised issues about sexist behavior with committee members who saw the incident and Our Revolution’s national board of directors. She said she received no reassurance that anything would change.
A lack of transparency surrounding the campaign’s pay structure resulted in many female employees being paid far less than their male counterparts.
Some former staff members said there was little pay transparency, and employees often negotiated their own salaries – practices that tend to favor men, who often feel more comfortable requesting higher compensation packages.
Ms. Davis, the former state director, said that she was originally paid about $2,400 a month as a senior staff member and saw in the campaign’s records that a younger man who was originally supposed to report to her made $5,000 a month. She said that she brought the issue to the campaign’s chief operating officer, who adjusted her salary to achieve parity.
“I helped at least a dozen women request raises so that they would be paid on par with their male peers,” Ms. Davis said.
In one of the most shocking anecdotes, a female employee described being assigned to stay at a campaign house in Chicago. After arriving, she learned that she would be sharing a room with three men whom she had never met. She described “shaking in fear” at the prospect.
Ms. Mendieta was among the Latino outreach team members who she said were expected to stay in a run-down house in Chicago in March 2016. When she arrived, she said she was told she was supposed to sleep in a room with three men she did not know.
“I was shaking with fear,” she said. “Literally, I remember thinking to myself, ‘What am I going to do?'” She said she reported the incident to Mr. Pelletier.
For what its worth, Sanders former campaign manager acknowledged the campaign’s shortcomings, and claimed that Sanders and his team are already working to correct them in case he decides to run again.
Jeff Weaver, Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign manager and currently a top adviser, said in an email that “anybody who committed harassment on the campaign would not be asked back” and expressed regret for some of the operation’s shortcomings.
“Was it too male? Yes. Was it too white? Yes,” he said. “Would this be a priority to remedy on any future campaign? Definitely, and we share deeply in the urgency for all of us to make change. In 2016, as the size of our campaign exploded, we made efforts to make it a positive experience for people. That there was a failure pains me very much.”
The timing of the story, at the beginning of a month where Sanders and dozens of other Democratic contenders could announce their plans to run, is certainly inauspicious for Sanders. And if anybody stands to benefit from this story, it’s Elizabeth Warren, the ever-so-slightly less progressive female candidate who could seek to capitalize on Sanders’ misfortune. But while this might not quash Sanders’ hopes for a successful run in 2020, one thing is for sure: Somewhere, Hillary Clinton is staring at her phone and laughing.