Sexism Claims From Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Run: Paid Less, Treated Worse

As Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont considers another run for president, former staff members said he had failed to address the harassment and sexism they faced working on his 2016 campaign.

In February 2016, Giulianna Di Lauro, a Latino outreach strategist for Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential operation, complained to her supervisor that she had been harassed by a campaign surrogate whom she drove to events ahead of the Democratic primary in Nevada.

She said the surrogate told her she had “beautiful curly hair” and asked if he could touch it, Ms. Di Lauro said in an interview. Thinking he would just touch a strand, she consented. But she said that he ran his hand through her hair in a “sexual way” and continued to grab, touch and “push my boundaries” for the rest of the day.

“I just wanted to be done with it so badly,” she said.

When she reported the incident to Bill Velazquez, a manager on the Latino outreach team, he told her, “I bet you would have liked it if he were younger,” according to her account and another woman who witnessed the exchange. Then he laughed.

Accounts like Ms. Di Lauro’s — describing episodes of sexual harassment and demeaning treatment as well as pay disparity in Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign — have circulated in recent weeks in emails, online comments and private discussions among former supporters. Now, as the Vermont senator tries to build support for a second run at the White House, his perceived failure to address this issue has damaged his progressive bona fides, delegates and nearly a dozen former state and national staff members said in interviews over the last month.

And it has raised questions among them about whether he can adequately fight for the interests of women, who have increasingly defined the Democratic Party in the Trump era, if he runs again for the presidential nomination in 2020.

The former staff members said complaints about mistreatment and pay disparity during and just after the campaign reached some senior leaders of the operation.

In an interview Wednesday night on CNN, Mr. Sanders said he was proud of his 2016 campaign and attributed any missteps with staff members to the explosive growth that was sometimes overwhelming. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we did everything right, in terms of human resources,” he told Anderson Cooper.

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

Asked if he knew about the staff complaints, he said, “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”

Some women said the fledgling 2016 campaign was disorganized and decentralized, which made it hard to know whom to turn to in the case of mistreatment.

“I did experience sexual harassment during the campaign, and there was no one who would or could help,” said Samantha Davis, the former director of operations in Texas and New York, who also worked on the campaign’s advance team. She said that her supervisor marginalized her after she declined an invitation to his hotel room.

In interviews, women told of makeshift living accommodations on the road, where they were asked to sleep in rooms along with male co-workers they didn’t know. Women who had access to salary records were taken aback to learn that some female staff members made thousands of dollars less than their male counterparts.

Two delegates who supported Mr. Sanders two years ago recently told his staff that he can’t run for president again without addressing the sexism they believe surfaced in his last campaign.

“There was an entire wave of rotten sexual harassment that seemingly was never dealt with,” one of the delegates wrote in a December email, obtained by The New York Times, to a Sanders political strategist.

Jeff Weaver, Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign manager and currently a top adviser, said in an email that “anybody who committed harassment on the campaign would not be asked back” and expressed regret for the operation’s shortcomings.

“Was it too male? Yes. Was it too white? Yes,” he said. “Would this be a priority to remedy on any future campaign? Definitely, and we share deeply in the urgency for all of us to make change. In 2016, as the size of our campaign exploded, we made efforts to make it a positive experience for people. That there was a failure pains me very much.”

Friends of Bernie Sanders, the senator’s campaign committee, said in a response to questions from The Times that there were a number of actions taken during the 2016 campaign regarding harassment and sexism, including employee counseling and a campaign-wide review to standardize pay, and that there was a set of procedures and guidelines for workplace conduct that staff members were required to read. It also said it had developed a new harassment policy for Mr. Sanders’s Senate campaign last year.

Allegations of sexism surfaced during Mr. Sanders’s campaign in 2016, when many of his male fans were derogatorily dubbed “Bernie Bros” for their aggressive online attacks against female reporters and supporters of Hillary Clinton. But they did not overshadow the electrifying nature of his insurgent challenge.

Circumstances have changed since then. Mr. Sanders is no longer an outsider, but an established leader who will be held to a higher standard. And regarding the treatment of women, he must now grapple with the effects of the #MeToo movement.

Political campaigns can be grueling experiences for both the women and men involved. But some involved said they considered the treatment of women on the Sanders campaign especially upsetting because the senator positioned himself as a champion of progressive ideals and equality, according to interviews and messages shared on Facebook.

“I don’t think he has to be the vehicle or the platform for the movement that emerged from his campaign,” said Sarah Slamen, who worked for the campaign in Texas, was the state coordinator in Louisiana and helped build out Our Revolution, a progressive organization born from Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign.

“Do you know how hard that is for me to say after working so hard for him?” she said.

Ms. Slamen quit the organization at the end of 2016 after she said she was berated by a male member of the Our Revolution steering committee for suggesting an organizing plan. In emails reviewed by The Times, she raised issues about sexist behavior with committee members who saw the incident and Our Revolution’s national board of directors. She said she received no reassurance that anything would change.

In recent weeks, a Facebook group for campaign alumni has become a sounding board for complaints about harassment, lewd comments and gender discrimination. Some alumni have requested a meeting with the senator and his campaign leadership team to address the “overall toxic atmosphere of the 2016 campaign,” according to a screenshot of a post viewed by The Times. Politico first reported on the request.

Ms. Di Lauro, the former strategist in Nevada, was emphatic in her own Facebook posts. “I have to speak up about this now because I hope it will be of service to the next Sanders campaign,” she wrote on Dec. 7.

In her interview with The Times, Ms. Di Lauro said she told several people who were high up in the campaign, including Rich Pelletier, who served as national field director, about her encounter in Nevada with the surrogate, a Mexican game show host named Marco Antonio Regil. But she felt she was not taken seriously by the campaign.

“It was as if nothing happened,” she said.

Masha Mendieta, who was also on the Latino outreach team and who was with Ms. Di Lauro when she spoke with Mr. Velazquez about the incident, confirmed his comments.

Mr. Velazquez said he does not recall making the flippant remark to Ms. Di Lauro and that he took her complaint seriously. He said he assigned two women to accompany the surrogate, and he checked in with them to make sure there were no problems.

Mr. Regil said through his agent that he was honored to be a campaign surrogate for Mr. Sanders. “I sincerely apologize for any interactions or behavior on my part that could’ve made anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said.

Mr. Velasquez said he also told his boss, Arturo Carmona, another manager on the Latino outreach team and deputy national political director, about what had happened and followed up with a memo to Mr. Carmona two weeks later, detailing the incident in an email and saying that he believed Ms. Di Lauro.

Mr. Carmona said in an email to The Times that, after Mr. Velazquez notified him about the incident, he reported it to Mr. Pelletier.

The senator’s campaign committee, in its responses to The Times, said no member of the leadership above Mr. Pelletier was aware of the incident until after the campaign.

The committee said managers in some cases had not received appropriate training. “With the benefit of hindsight, the surprise explosion of the campaign resulted in there being less-than-ideal training infrastructure,” it said.

Mr. Pelletier did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment.

Pay disparity became another source of frustration among some women, according to former staff members, especially given that labor was one of the senator’s signature issues. During his campaign, Mr. Sanders earned kudos for paying his interns, a relatively unheard-of practice.

Some former staff members said there was little pay transparency, and employees often negotiated their own salaries — practices that tend to favor men, who often feel more comfortable requesting higher compensation packages.

Ms. Davis, the former state director, said that she was originally paid about $2,400 a month as a senior staff member and saw in the campaign’s records that a younger man who was originally supposed to report to her made $5,000 a month. She said that she brought the issue to the campaign’s chief operating officer, who adjusted her salary to achieve parity.

“I helped at least a dozen women request raises so that they would be paid on par with their male peers,” Ms. Davis said.

The senator’s campaign committee acknowledged that there were pay disparities but said salaries were based on experience or the nature of the job and “never determined based on any consideration of an individual’s gender or of any other personal characteristic.’’

During the campaign, the committee said, it conducted a review to try to standardize pay across the states and within headquarters.

Frustration among campaign alumni boiled over in recent weeks when Mr. Carmona, the deputy national political director and a divisive figure on the 2016 campaign, appeared smiling in a photograph in early December with Mr. Sanders’s wife, Jane, at a symposium hosted by her organization, the Sanders Institute.

In 2017, when Mr. Carmona was running for Congress, Ms. Mendieta, the woman who worked with Ms. Di Lauro, came forward with allegations that Mr. Carmona had demeaned women during the 2016 campaign. Ms. Mendieta said in a March 2017 post on Medium that Mr. Carmona treated female staffers “like his personal assistants fetching things for him and doing his errands.”

Other women backed up Ms. Mendieta’s allegations, and a letter signed by dozens of former campaign staffers and surrogates was circulated urging progressives to withdraw their endorsements of Mr. Carmona. (He lost his special election primary bid in 2017.)

In an interview, Ms. Mendieta said that she complained multiple times to Mr. Velazquez and Mr. Pelletier about Mr. Carmona and was repeatedly ignored, at one point being told by Mr. Velazquez that she should forgive Mr. Carmona’s behavior because he was “macho.”

Mr. Velazquez said that he did not remember making that remark or anything like it.

Ms. Mendieta was among the Latino outreach team members who she said were expected to stay in a run-down house in Chicago in March 2016. When she arrived, she said she was told she was supposed to sleep in a room with three men she did not know.

“I was shaking with fear,’’ she said. “Literally, I remember thinking to myself, ‘What am I going to do?’” She said she reported the incident to Mr. Pelletier.

The campaign committee said that “the challenge of finding staffer housing is one that plagues every large campaign.” It said it knew of one instance that was brought to the attention of senior leaders, including Mr. Weaver, the campaign manager, and that both Mr. Weaver and the chief operating officer “ordered that staff never be housed in coed hotel rooms again.”

Some weeks later, Ms. Mendieta and other members of the Latino outreach team shared their concerns about Mr. Carmona and Mr. Velazquez during a conference call with Mr. Pelletier, Ms. Mendieta said. The Times has reviewed an email scheduling the call, and another staff member who participated confirmed the substance of the discussion.

Mr. Carmona was promoted out of the Latino outreach group during the campaign and named a deputy national political director.

Mr. Carmona, in an email, denied the allegations that he was demeaning and said, “All sexual harassment and issues of discrimination should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.”

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