Sen. Bernie Sanders apologized again on Thursday to the women who have come forward in recent weeks to allege they were sexually harassed while working for his 2016 presidential campaign.
His apology marks the second time in eight days Sanders has publicly expressed regrets over the charges and pointed to steps his 2018 Senate campaign took to ensure a more robust reporting structure. On Wednesday, CNN reported his former presidential campaign manager Jeff Weaver would not return in that role if Sanders runs in 2020. The apology also comes as the Vermont senator's allies fret over his ability to effectively communicate what they describe as his sincere distress over the substance of the revelations.
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Sanders was asked at a news conference on Thursday about a Politico report which revealed allegations that Robert Becker, an operative who worked for the campaign in Iowa and Michigan and other states, forcibly kissed a subordinate who had previously worked with him.
He began by lauding the political successes of the 2016 campaign, but then quickly transitioned to an apology, thanking "from the bottom of my heart" the women who were "harassed or mistreated" for speaking out.
"What they experienced was absolutely unacceptable, and certainly not what a progressive campaign or any campaign should be about," Sanders said. "When we talk about -- and I do all of the time -- ending sexism, and ending all forms of discrimination, those beliefs cannot just be words. That, they must be based in day to day reality and in the work that we do. And that was not the case, clearly not the case, in the 2016 campaign."
He also discussed the changes to his political operation that followed the 2016 presidential bid, ahead of his successful 2018 re-election to the Senate, saying "we established some of the strongest sexual harassment policies in the country," including "training for all employees on this issue and also an opportunity for any woman who believed that she was harassed to be able to call an independent human resources firm outside of the campaign to voice her concerns."
Sanders denied having any knowledge of a $30,000 federal discrimination settlement from the 2016 campaign, reported by Politico, involving two former staffers and tied to Becker, who denied the allegations in a text to CNN.
On January 2, following a New York Times report in which several female employees from the 2016 campaign alleged sexual harassment, disparities in pay and a workplace environment they described as either uncomfortable or inappropriate, Sanders first apologized in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper.
"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 they were disrespected, that there was sexual harassment which was not dealt with as effectively as possible," he said.
But Sanders' reply when asked if he had been aware of the issues at the time -- he had been "a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case," he said -- worried allies who were concerned that those words would undermine the apology.
"It's clear that the senator took (the reports) seriously. Whether or not that kind of curt remark was necessary to say? It probably was not necessary to say," close aide and Our Revolution president Nina Turner told CNN earlier this week. "But the main thing that he said, that I apologize and my Senate campaign took steps based on what we learned from 2016, and we plan to do even more -- that is what you want somebody to say."
For both Sanders and his team, the spate of allegations have brought front and center both political and organizational challenges awaiting them if, as many believe is likely, he chooses to enter the Democratic primary.
"If he decides to run again, Bernie would have to have a campaign structure which is much more robust with a much bigger leadership team," Weaver, slated to become a senior strategic adviser if Sanders runs, said on Wednesday. "It would have to be much more diverse than was the case in 2016, when it was too male and too white."
Outside loyalists -- including a number of whom are either ideological and political allies or former staffers who support Sanders' agenda -- who spoke to CNN were uniformly insistent that Sanders takes the mistreatment faced by women on his campaign, along with the broader related issues, seriously, even if they doubted his ability to effectively convey it.
"In 2020, we're going to see how much Bernie has grown from his own limitations in 2016," Waleed Shahid of the progressive Justice Democrats, which formed out of Sanders' campaign and recruited New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run in 2018. "Can he speak to this constituency of Democrats who really care about sexual harassment and Me Too, who really care about reproductive rights being under attack, that really care about police killings of black men and women and supporting athletes like Colin Kaepernick? It's all wrapped up in the same thing of, can you authentically speak to these identity and social movements?"
"I think he's taken lots of steps toward doing that," Shahid said, "but it is always going to be something that he needs to work on."
Progressive strategist Rebecca Katz cautioned that Sanders had time to improve his posture.
"It's January of 2019. There is a long road ahead. His first time out after the news was known was not a good answer," she said. "His tweet today was good. His actual answer showed improvement."
Katz also stressed that the behavior on the Sanders campaign in 2016 was not "unique to Bernie."
"Maybe the incompetence in how they handled it (on the campaign) was, but this stuff has been going on for decades. Frankly, it's that more people have voices now and they are exercising their voice and that's great," she said. "Team Sanders now has to show how the culture there has changed."
But as political matter, the concerns over Sanders' capacity to win over voters outside his core of support have for some progressives come into sharper focus over the last couple weeks.
One progressive political strategist and consultant who has worked with Our Revolution and who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a sensitive subject expressed anxiety over what the strategist viewed as a rhetorical blindspot.
"I'm worried that there's a chance that Bernie damages the social democratic cause long-term by not being conversant in gender and sexuality and race," the strategist said. "I'm not saying he's bad on these issues -- that critique is BS, he's actively to the left on almost every single substantive policy issue -- but because our system is so individual-focused, he risks giving the people who oppose him on those issues so much ammo."
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