As Bernie Sanders gears up for a likely second presidential bid, accounts of sexism, harassment and pay disparity from female staffers on his 2016 campaign have surfaced, raising questions about his “progressive bona fides,” the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday evening, Sanders said he was unaware of these issues during the 2016 campaign, both because it “exploded” from just a few staffers to over 1,200 over the course of a few months, leading to a lack of organization and formal avenues for such complaints, and because he was “a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”
“I am not going to sit here and tell you that we did everything right in terms of human resources, in terms of addressing the needs that I’m hearing from now, that women felt disrespected, that there was sexual harassment which was not dealt with as effectively as possible,” he said. “What I will tell you is that when I ran for reelection in 2018 in Vermont, we put forward the strongest set of principles in terms of mandatory training, in terms of women, if they felt harassed, having an independent firm that they can go to.”
“I certainly apologize to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately, and of course if I run, we will do better next time,” he said.
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Women’s rights in general, and workplace sexual harassment specifically, have been major topics of discussion for Democrats and the Left in the Trump era — from the Women’s March to #MeToo. So if Sanders isn’t able to make a convincing case for his promise to “do better,” it could hurt his standing in what’s shaping up to be a crowded, competitive Democratic primary.
Indeed, the Sanders campaign isn’t the only progressive organization to come under fire recently for failing to bring their work culture up to par with their public message and core values.
“Progressive groups and activist organizations, especially those that have formed since 2016, preach a level of inclusivity that we’re not fully living up to,” Asher Novek, an organizer who works in progressive local and national politics, tells Rolling Stone. “While the movement itself is comprised of women and people of color, leadership roles are still predominantly white and predominantly male.”
Also during the 2016, while the Center for American Progress, a core organization of the Democratic establishment, was putting out policy memos for how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace — and speaking out loudly in opposition to Donald Trump’s continued success even after the Access Hollywood tape was leaked — they were also dealing with a workplace sexual harassment scandal of their own. A 2018 report by Buzzfeed News revealed that staffers faced not only sexual harassment, but retaliation for reporting.
In an exit memo explaining why she was quitting after management failed to take action when she reported harassment, one former junior staffer wrote that “CAP’s culture obscures its mission,” and that she “surely expected better out of an organization that housed a national campaign on sexual assault.”
CAP told Buzzfeed News that the memo was the first time the outgoing staffer reported retaliation, and that it had investigated her initial allegations. “We found no retaliation, no additional cases of harassment, and no further inappropriate conduct on the part of CAP employees,” CAP said.
Just last month, the New York Times reported on a pregnant employee at Planned Parenthood who told the newspaper she wasn’t given time to take breaks, despite providing nurse’s notes saying that her high blood pressure was putting her pregnancy at risk and she needed to rest as much as possible.
“I had to hold back tears talking to pregnant women, telling them to take care of their pregnancies when I couldn’t take care of mine,” the medical assistant told the Times. “It made me jealous.”
The article about Planned Parenthood also included several other organizations and companies that bill themselves as supporting women, and then mistreat, sideline, or discriminate against pregnant employees. “Some of those employers saw accommodating expecting mothers as expensive and inconvenient,” the report reads. “Others were unsympathetic to workers seeking special treatment.”
These incidents present a challenge for progressive organizations to lead by example by reforming their own approaches to the very issues they’re fighting for.
“We need to be looking internally and doing more internal work around equity and inclusion,” Novek says, “and realize that disenfranchised groups have been doing this work and facing these issues for decades.”