As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) weighs a possible second bid for the White House, his political standing has grown shakier amidst an account of alleged sexual assault and accounts of alleged misconduct by staffers on his 2016 campaign.
Some former aides to that campaign had already balked at joining another run. And while outside groups are actively drafting him again—with meetings scheduled across the country this weekend—Sanders remains notably behind some of his Senate colleagues in the process of launching or preparing to launch a presidential bid. Even some of his former aides acknowledge the worsening political conditions.
“I think he still runs and I do think it’s going to be a lot harder,” a former staffer, who had decided not to return to the campaign prior to the surfacing of any of the allegations, told The Daily Beast.
None of the hurdles facing Sanders are impossible to overcome, especially considering the deep reservoir of support the senator enjoys among progressives and the robust political infrastructure he still possesses from 2016. But they all do present thorny problems, none more so than the various allegations of staff misconduct that have recently surfaced.
For weeks, former staffers had been having private conversations about allegations of sexual harassment and unwanted advances on female staffers by Robert Becker, the head of Sanders’ Iowa operation. Those conversations primarily centered around ways to ensure that another bid didn’t bring the same problems as the previous one, including naming the 2016 bad actors and establishing a better structure for dealing with any such claims in a 2020 campaign.
On Thursday, a Politico story aired some of those claims about Becker, who has denied them, including allegations of forcible kissing, ogling prospective hires and a $30,000 settlement stemming from a federal discrimination complaint.
Friends of Bernie Sanders, the principal campaign committee, said in light of the story that Becker would not be part of any campaign. And on Thursday, Sanders took it upon himself to forcefully apologize and acknowledge that the campaign infrastructure was not built well enough to properly address such allegations.
“To the women in our campaign who were harassed or mistreated I apologize,” Sanders said. “Our standards, our procedures, our safeguards were clearly inadequate.”
“What they experienced was absolutely unacceptable and certainly not what a progressive campaign or any campaign should be about,” he added.
The statement was better received by former staffers than Sanders’ initial apology, in which the senator also told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he was unaware of the allegations at the time.
“It means a lot to read that and to hear that,” Masha Mendieta, a member of Sanders’ 2016 Latino outreach team told The Daily Beast when she saw the statement.
But, she added, “it shouldn’t have taken him as long to say those words.”
Mendieta said she was upset that the women making accusations hadn’t yet heard directly from the senator or his team. Last month, she had penned a Medium post expressing outrage that another 2016 campaign alum, Arturo Carmona, had been photographed at a Sanders Institute gathering in Vermont. Mendieta had accused Carmona, who ran for Congress in a special election, of sexual harassment, an allegation that he has denied.
Mendieta and another staffer also said that they had concerns about Rich Pelletier, Sanders’ former national field director, remaining in the senator’s political orbit. The New York Times reported that Pelletier allegedly failed to act swiftly after Giulianna Di Lauro, a Latino outreach strategist on the ‘16 campaign, complained to him of harassment by a campaign surrogate in Nevada.
“I want full confirmation that Rich Pelletier will never work for Bernie again,” Mendieta told The Daily Beast.
Sanders and those around him have made recent efforts to address these concerns. Organizing for Bernie, the outfit hoping to cajole Sanders into running again, told The New York Times that Pelletier was no longer with the group, which The Daily Beast confirmed. And a source with direct knowledge said on Thursday that the campaign had reached out to the person who spearheaded a letter signed by alumni seeking to have a meeting with top political staff about “the issue of sexual violence and harassment on the 2016 campaign.” Sanders, the source added, will be present at that meeting.
Additionally, Jeff Weaver, the former campaign manager, said this week that he will not reprise his role should Sanders run again in 2020. The decision had been previously in the works and was not in response to the surfacing of harassment and assault allegations, sources said. But Weaver did acknowledged that a future prospective campaign needed more diversity.
“Was it too male? Yes. Was it too white? Yes,” he told The New York Times. “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.”
The Sanders camp has begun looking for someone to take Weaver’s spot. Names that have been discussed, Sanders-world sources tell The Daily Beast, have included: Ari Rabin-Havt, who currently serves as his deputy chief of staff; Julia Barnes, who ran his New Hampshire campaign and served as national field director in 2016; Shannon Jackson, who has worked with Sanders in various capacities for years; and former chief of staff Michaeleen Crowell.
“We’ve talked to a lot of folks and want to be prepared if he decides to move forward,” said Sanders’ senior adviser in 2016, Mark Longabaugh, who declined to name any possible individuals in consideration out of respect for the senator and his current lack of decision.
As recent stories have come out, some individuals in Sanders’ orbit have complained that press coverage has been more concerned with Sanders’ horserace position than with the issues they say he is seriously working to address. The same individuals also note that much of that coverage has failed to acknowledge that these issues are pervasive across political campaigns. A senior aide to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) resigned late last year after a sexual harassment settlement emerged (Harris said she took full responsibility). And Hillary Clinton kept a faith adviser on her campaign in 2008 following an allegation of misconduct against him.
“The corporate media unfairly focused on Sanders—casting the harassment that happened within his campaign much differently than similar cases with other campaigns—implicating his personal ethics in a way that they’ve declined to do with other politicians,” Di Lauro wrote in The Intercept on Thursday.
The hope is that out of the current turmoil, something positive can emerge for staffers, not only on Sanders’ possible bid but for all 2020 presidential campaigns and beyond.
“Bernie’s staff and Bernie women in particular: We’re hardcore organizers,” a former staffer told The Daily Beast. “It’s in our blood and we know when we can use our collective voice and power to move what we see needs to happen.”