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Bernie Sanders apologizes for allegations of sexism in 2016 campaign

“If I run, we will do better next time.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Las Vegas, Nevada in October 2018.
Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, in October 2018.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Amid speculation he might make another run for the White House in 2020, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has come under scrutiny for allegations that his 2016 presidential campaign fostered a hostile environment for women. Sanders apologized in an interview with CNN on Wednesday night, saying he was “a little bit busy running around the country” in 2016 to be aware of any harassment issues on his campaign but pledged to “do better next time.”

The New York Times published a story on Wednesday afternoon detailing stories of mistreatment of women and gender pay disparity from former Sanders staffers. Some women who worked for the Vermont senator said their complaints about sexual harassment were ignored or brushed aside, or that they were “taken aback” to see how much less female staffers made in comparison to their male counterparts.

Sanders in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday addressed the matter. He apologized “to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately” and said that if he does run in 2020, his campaign “will do better next time.” But he didn’t issue a complete mea culpa, explaining that the operation grew very fast and he was so occupied with running for the White House he wasn’t aware of some of the inner-workings.

“I’m very proud of the campaign we ran in 2016,” Sanders said. “You know, we started at 4 percent in the polls, we ended up winning 22 states, 13 million votes, I think we changed the nature of political discourse in this country, raising issues that are now kind of mainstream, which were then considered extreme and fringe.”

When his campaign began, there were just three or four employees, Sanders said, and over a few months it “exploded” to some 1,200 employees.

“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,” Sanders said.

He added that in his 2018 reelection campaign for US Senate in Vermont, he put forth the “strongest set of principles” for ethics training, including giving women an independent firm to go to if they felt harassed. He described it as the “gold standard” for what should be done.

Asked by Cooper if he knew about what was going on in 2016, he replied, “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”

It’s not clear how much of a problem this might be if Sanders does run in 2020

Questions about the gender dynamics of Sanders’s 2016 campaign — and what they might mean for 2020 — have persisted as the senator and onlookers weigh what’s ahead.

Politico in December reported that more than two-dozen men and women who worked on the 2016 bid sent a letter to Sanders and senior advisers requesting a meeting to “discuss the issue of sexual violence and harassment on the 2016 campaign, for the purpose of planning to mitigate the issue in the upcoming presidential cycle.”

The Times reported that two delegates who backed Sanders in 2016 have told his staff he can’t make a 2020 run without addressing the issue of sexism, with one telling a Sanders strategist in a December email that there was “an entire wave of rotten sexual harassment that seemingly was never dealt with” last time around.

Jeff Weaver, who managed Sanders’s 2016 campaign and is still a close adviser, told the Times that anyone who committed harassment in 2016 “would not be asked back” and acknowledged that the campaign had been “too male” and “too white.” He said it would be a “priority to remedy on any future campaign.”

Sanders echoed the air of contrition in his Wednesday interview.

“I certainly apologize to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately,” he said, “and, of course, if I run, we will do better next time.”

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