NEW YORK — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his chief lieutenants are offering contrition as some of his 2016 campaign staffers face allegations of sexual harassment that threaten to derail a second White House bid before it begins.
Hours after a New York Times report detailed allegations of unwanted sexual advances and pay inequity on his first campaign, Sanders apologized late Wednesday “to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately.”
“Of course, if I run again, we will do better next time,” Sanders told CNN.
Yet there were immediate signs that the allegations, which did not directly involve Sanders, could hurt the self-described democratic socialist’s 2020 ambitions in the midst of the (hash)MeToo era. In the wake of the report, some Democratic activists and operatives complained about the aggressive culture during the first campaign when male staffers and supporters were sometimes labeled “Bernie bros.”
“I’m not the least bit surprised,” National Organization for Women President Toni Van Pelt told The Associated Press, noting she was forced to block Sanders’ supporters from her social media feed in 2016. “To me, it was really clear this was the way they were running the campaign.”
She blamed Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, at least in part, on Sanders and his supporters.
“It wasn’t just Trump, it wasn’t just the Russians, it was also the sexist people that ran his campaign,” Van Pelt said.
The timing could not be worse for Sanders, who is gearing up for a second presidential bid. His senior adviser told the AP last month that Sanders would run a “much bigger” operation and would start out as a front-runner if he ultimately decided to run.
Yet the 2020 Democratic field would have little in common with that of 2016, in which Sanders emerged as the anti-establishment alternative to Clinton.
Should he run again, the 77-year-old would enter a crowded field that features multiple prominent liberal women. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has already launched a presidential exploratory committee. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has been a central figure in Washington’s reckoning with the (hash)MeToo era, is considering a presidential run. Sen. Kamala Harris of California could also be a leading contender.
Even before the Times’ story was published, Politico reported that more than two dozen former campaign workers and volunteers had requested a meeting with Sanders to discuss sexual violence and harassment that occurred during the 2016 campaign.
The Times detailed one situation in which a campaign surrogate touched a strategist’s hair in a “sexual way,” among other unwanted advances. The Times also reported that in some cases, women were expected to sleep in the same quarters as men they didn’t know. Others discovered examples of men who were paid significantly more for doing similar jobs.
Sanders’ wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, said the meeting with concerned former staff and volunteers would take place in a matter of days, although it had not yet been scheduled as of late Wednesday.
“The fact is if somebody didn’t feel safe in any way, it was a failure. I, we apologize profusely. This is not acceptable,” she told the AP. She continued: “I welcome hearing from the individuals that had such problems because we need to talk about this. And women need to feel and to be safe on campaigns, in their workplaces, on campuses and in their homes.”