Though he has not yet said publicly whether or not he will run for president again, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., faced tough questions this week about his leadership and management skills should he decide to do so, in light of a handful of allegations against a few members of his 2016 campaign staff.
Close friends and allies of Sanders tell ABC News the senator has handled the negative headlines well and that clearing the air now about former staff and mistakes from the last campaign could be a positive step to ensure any new 2020 campaign is safer and stronger.
Still, other experts in Democratic politics question whether the news could reflect poorly on the senator down the road, delay any possible announcement, or turn off voters who will have plenty of options in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Over the past week, a string of stories in the New York Times and Politico have included allegations from former female staff of incidents of serious misconduct ranging from sexual assault to sexual harassment and gender disparity perpetrated by a select few male members of Sanders former campaign team.
At a press conference on Capitol Hill Thursday, after a story broke involving a senior member of Sanders' former 2016 campaign, the senator said, “The allegations that I have heard, that you have heard, speak to unacceptable behavior that must not be tolerated in any campaign, or in any workplace in our country. To the women in our campaign who were harassed or mistreated, I apologize… Our standards, our procedures, out safeguards were clearly inadequate.”
Sanders sent an apology message directly to his followers over social media as well after Politico published a story wherein a former female staffer accused Robert Becker of forcefully kissing her without her consent. Becker oversaw Sanders’ operation in Iowa and stuck with the campaign through the Democratic convention.
Becker has denied the allegations.
Sanders said unequivocally that he would not be allowed to return to his campaign.
Winnie Wong, co-founder of People for Bernie, a collective of grassroots organization that backed the senator’s in 2016 and plans to again this cycle should he announce, told ABC News she felt the Senator was “heartfelt” in his apology and taking the necessary steps to address the issues.
The senator's former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, publicly confirmed this week that he would not return led any future campaign. Wong applauded the announcement and said it would allow space for more women at the top of a potential Sanders-2020 management team.
Wong’s group has helped organize over 400 house parties among the senator’s supporters in 50 states this weekend. “This has always been about a political revolution,” she said, “It’s not about the senator; it is about the issues.”
Another former Sanders political staffer, who worked on the 2016 campaign but asked not to be named, told ABC News the stories this week could help all campaigns and potential candidates set up systems needed to keep employees safe. Last week, a group of former female staffers requested a meeting with top advisers to discuss issues from the last cycle.
“I don’t think these headlines should be politicized the way they have been,” the staffer wrote in a text message. “These are all conversations everyone in 2020 needs to be having. I know his team is working hard to make sure the meeting is productive and these stories spark change. We should be less focused on the horse race and more focused on the impact that a gold standard policy could have for all workers in 2020."
Yvette Simpson, the new chief executive officer for Democracy for America, a large progressive organization that endorsed Sanders’ 2016 campaign, told ABC News over the phone the story now was “still developing” and that it was “too early to tell” any real impacts on the voters yet. Simpson said she appreciated the Senator’s apology and understood there was a solid effort underway to “prevent this from happening again.”
“We expect to hear more things like this about all of the candidates as this race progresses, and we want to make sure we give space and grace for folks to acknowledge those things and correct those things,” she said. “We do not expect the progressive candidate or the Democratic nominee to be perfect or to have done everything perfectly, but when challenges arise and mistakes are made, we do expect them to acknowledge them and make corrections,” she continued.
Sanders team says the senator is still weighing the possibility of running for president again and has not decided either way. At least four other Democratic senators are also actively considering getting the race. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has a lot in common with Sanders ideologically, is in New Hampshire campaigning this weekend after announcing an exploratory committee at the end of last year.
Stefanie Brown James, who worked as National African American vote director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign said the stories could give average voters pause and make them question whether Sanders had a handle on his own operation. Sanders has said he was not aware until reporters started asking questions. Brown James that could raise red flags too about questions about why his close team either kept him in the dark or was also unaware.
“The story has not gone away,” Brown James told ABC News on the phone. “I think if he chooses to run this will plague his campaign for longer than anticipated.”
“Voters want to know that you can be a strong leader and takes swift action, and have the empathy to be able to respond in a way that shows you have a clear understanding of what is happening and you really want to fix things going forward,” James Brown added.
She said it was “great” he was going to have a completely new team in place. “Theoretically, if you lose an election and you run again, you would want a whole new team.”