(Written by Sydney Ember and Jonathan Martin)
For a second time in eight days, Sen. Bernie Sanders apologises to women on his 2016 presidential campaign, as he seeks to put behind him a series of damaging reports about the mistreatment of female staff members that threatens to undercut another likely White House bid.
A political housecleaning appeared underway as well in the Sanders camp: Three top advisers from the 2016 campaign either will not return if Sanders runs in 2020 or will serve in different roles, according to people close to Sanders.
One of those 2016 advisers, Rich Pelletier, who served as national field director and deputy campaign manager, was let go Thursday from the main volunteer effort trying to draft Sanders to run in 2020 after The New York Times reported on accounts that he mishandled concerns about allegations of mistreatment.
Sanders’ two apologies follow several recent articles describing harassment, sexism and gender discrimination in his 2016 campaign, including a report last week in The Times and another Wednesday night in Politico. Several of his top aides and advisers have been implicated; Jeff Weaver, his campaign manager, has said he would not return in the same role if the Vermont senator runs again.
“It appears that as part of our campaign, there were some women who were harassed and mistreated — I thank them from the bottom of my heart for speaking out,” Sanders said during a scheduled news conference Thursday about prescription drugs. “What they experienced was absolutely unacceptable and certainly not what a progressive campaign or any campaign should be about.”
“When we talk about — and I do all the time — ending sexism and all forms of discrimination, those beliefs cannot just be words. They must be based in day-to-day reality and the work we do, and that was clearly not the case in the 2016 campaign,” he added.
Some campaign alumni have requested a meeting with the senator and his campaign leadership team to discuss the treatment of women going forward, with some delegates suggesting he should not run again until he addresses the issue of sexism in his campaign.
In a statement posted on Twitter shortly after Thursday’s news conference, Sanders said: “Clearly we need a cultural revolution in this country to change workplace attitudes and behavior. I intend in every way to be actively involved in that process.”
Though Sanders has not yet announced he is running for president, allegations of harassment, sexism and gender discrimination that have emerged in recent weeks have already threatened to impede a potential 2020 bid.
The 2016 runner-up is especially vulnerable on gender-related issues because so many of his top aides were men and some of his most outspoken supporters, derided as “Bernie Bros” by supporters of Hillary Clinton, were often caustic and sexist in their criticism of the Democratic Party’s eventual nominee.
The issue is just as acute because of President Donald Trump’s widely criticized derogatory comments about women and the number of female candidates who could also join the 2020 race. Indeed, the reports about sexism in Sanders’ 2016 campaign have come as his friend and colleague, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has entered the race with the sort of assault on corporate interests and big money in politics that could appeal to Sanders’ enthusiasts.
In the Times article, former staff members described in on-the-record interviews their experiences with sexism, including harassment and pay inequity. They portrayed the insurgent 2016 campaign as disorganized and decentralized, making it hard to report mistreatment.
In an interview on CNN last week following the Times report, Sanders said he was proud of his 2016 campaign and attributed any missteps with staff members to the explosive growth that was sometimes overwhelming.
“I certainly apologise to any woman who felt she was not treated appropriately, and of course if I run we will do better the next time,” he said.
The group “Organizing for Bernie” said Thursday that Pelletier, who was a leader of group, was no longer part of it “in part due to concerns raised about personnel management related to his employment at Bernie 2016.”
As Sanders considers his next steps, he has faced criticism for seemingly surrounding himself with many of the same people who worked on his last campaign, stoking anxiety that little would change should he run again.
He still retains some of his support from the last campaign. But with some Democrats who supported him out of antipathy to Clinton already drifting away, he can scarcely afford to lose more voters in the lead up to the primary.
Sanders — who is loath to drift from his unrelenting focus on policy issues and for years has grumbled about the press’ focus on what he calls “political gossip” — plainly recognizes that he must show contrition for what took place in 2016.
What is less clear is whether he is prepared to take any more steps to comprehensively address the conduct on his campaign. Both of his statements of apology came in response to media questions following detailed articles, and he has done little else to defuse the criticism arising from the issue.
And when asked if he knew about the complaints in the interview with CNN last week, he said, “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case” — a curt response that was widely viewed as tone deaf to a sensitive issue.
Sanders’ supporters are somewhat torn, not wanting to be seen as tolerating sexual misconduct but also deeply angry about what they see as unfair treatment of the senator by the news media and mainstream Democrats.
Nomiki Konst, one of the most committed 2016 Sanders surrogates who is now running for Public Advocate in New York, said any claims of sexual harassment should be “dealt with immediately” and noted that “it always helps to have more women in leadership.”
But Konst also pointed out that former male aides to Clinton and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., had also been accused of sexual misbehaviour, and complained bitterly about what she called “the Bernie Bro smears” that erased Sanders’ female supporters.
“#Metoo is not a political weapon,” she said. “When we start to use the #metoo movement as a political weapon it starts to weaken it.”