Presidential Candidates Are Trying to Prevent Sexual Misconduct—in Their Own Campaigns

Some 2020 hopefuls are already dealing with #MeToo controversies.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks during the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) stands to her left.Jose Luis Magana/AP

Veteran campaign staffers are likely to notice some big changes around the office when they report for work in the 2020 Democratic primary. The campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, will be conducting anonymous surveys of employees to gauge how they feel about their work environment. Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential team is touting an open-door policy that allows any staffer to meet with their manager’s manager at any time. And Sen. Bernie Sanders’ organization has contracted with a third-party hotline that employees can call to report workplace misconduct, a measure carried over from his 2018 Senate reelection bid.

Welcome to campaigning in the #MeToo era. In 2016, Donald Trump’s presidential hopes were nearly derailed by a video in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women—and by accusations from more than 20 women that Trump had indeed engaged in sexual misconduct. Since then, dozens of politicians from both parties have faced allegations related to their own actions or their failure to adequately address misconduct by members of their staff.

A number of the Democrats seeking to take on Trump have dealt with controversies. A female aide in Gillibrand’s Senate office accused the senator’s team of ignoring her allegations about a senior staffer’s unwelcome advances. Sen. Kamala Harris weathered criticism after it was revealed that California had settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against a longtime staffer who worked for Harris in the state attorney general’s office and the US Senate. Sanders, meanwhile, has been plagued by complaints that his 2016 campaign failed to adequately address staffers’ reports of workplace misconduct. And just last week, Lucy Flores accused former Vice President Joe Biden of inappropriately touching her shoulders, smelling her hair, and kissing the back of her head at a campaign event during Flores’ 2014 run for lieutenant governor of Nevada.

Stung by the negative headlines, and facing pressure from Democratic activists and women’s groups, the 2020 campaigns say they’re taking unprecedented steps to establish safe working environments in the notoriously chaotic world of electoral politics. Mother Jones reached out to 12 Democratic campaigns to ask about the issue; five of them provided at least some details about their efforts to prevent misconduct. While the end result of these practices is yet to be seen, operatives say they’re optimistic that a new approach has emerged—one that will help ensure the values spelled out in candidates’ platforms will also be reflected in their own organizations.

A presidential campaign is a veritable HR nightmare. The successful nominee will flip from a dozen-person startup to a billion-dollar corporation operating in all 50 states in less than a year, a timeline that outpaces even the most ambitious Silicon Valley ventures. That rapid growth is largely predicated on hiring a workforce so young that it collectively can barely drink, let alone rent a car. Issues that arise span from the mundane—like bailing out an organizer who gets too many speeding tickets—to the grave: During President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection bid, a staffer collapsed and died at the Chicago headquarters.

And then, of course, there’s sexual misconduct. Instances of staff-on-staff harassment arise. But more common, according to some past campaign workers, are incidents between staff and influential outsiders, such as local politicians or big-dollar contributors.

“It’s not shocking to imagine that the power disparity between a young female fundraiser and a wealthy donor can be very uncomfortable,” one former Democratic presidential campaign staffer says.

In a campaign’s early stages, small teams are deployed to remote areas, a situation that can lend itself to problematic interactions with local power-brokers. Former presidential staffers say a competitive mindset across the early state teams can stifle complaints. “You don’t want to do anything that makes Team New Hampshire look bad, because you feel like you’re fighting for resources with Team Nevada, Team South Carolina, and Team Iowa,” one of them explains.

“It’s like doing sales,” this former staffer says. “It’s not the culture any campaign wants. But I think that’s the culture of campaigns sometimes because of the pressure to win.”

The general election offers a new set of challenges. The campaign will join the “coordinated campaign,” a partnership that integrates the candidate’s staff with employees of state parties and the Democratic National Committee. This can create confusion over which organization a staffer actually works for and which organization’s standards of conduct might have been violated.

The responsibility for managing this chaos is typically left to the operations directors assigned to each of the candidate’s state teams. According to the five senior Obama and Hillary Clinton alumni who spoke with Mother Jones for this story, human resources is just one of the myriad responsibilities these positions entail. In addition to hiring, firing, and onboarding, they also set up computers, negotiate real estate deals for regional offices, and oversee supply chain management. Despite all these responsibilities, operations directors are typically chosen for their political savvy, not their HR expertise.

“The problem is, there isn’t a lot of overlap between people who choose HR as a career path and people who choose politics as a career path,” a former staffer says.

Former staffers say the Obama and Clinton campaigns had policies resembling what you’d find in a typical corporate workplace at the time. Each had their own handbooks and escalation procedures, which relied mainly on alerting one’s direct supervisor to any incidents. If serious concerns arose, lawyers and the campaign’s most senior staff were looped in to resolve the concern—something staffers say Clinton’s camp leaned on more heavily than Obama’s, given the heightened level of scrutiny Clinton and her organization endured.

As for sexual harassment trainings, Clinton’s employees were required to watch an educational video and answer questions about it, something some former staffers recall as more of a box-checking exercise than an active learning experience.

But when problems have occurred, the campaigns’ responses have at times proved inadequate. The New York Times reported last year that Clinton chose to continue employing a senior member of her 2008 campaign after he’d been accused of sexually harassing a subordinate.

Sanders’ 2016 organization also faced heavy criticism. Former staffers told the Times last year that senior campaign officials failed to properly address allegations of sexual misconduct and that the campaign’s “disorganized and decentralized” operation left some employees without any effective means for reporting incidents. The campaign told the Times that it had taken steps during the 2016 race to address the issue, including employee counseling and “a set of procedures and guidelines for workplace conduct that staff members were required to read.”

Box-checking won’t cut it this time around. The #MeToo reckoning has exposed weaknesses in both the legal standards and conventional wisdom that have informed workplaces’ approaches to these matters. “One of the things we find is that campaigns are generally following the letter of the law, but the law hasn’t caught up to the culture,” says Dallas Thompson, the founder of Bright Compass, a firm that advises Democratic and progressive organizations on their HR practices.

That was on the mind of Emma Boorboor, the deputy organizing director of UltraViolet, a national advocacy organization that works to end gender discrimination. As the 2020 Democratic campaigns began to build out their platforms over the last several months, a few approached the group for advice on public policy issues surround gender equality. While UltraViolet officials were happy to assist, they also had a different question: What steps were the campaigns taking to combat harassment in their own workplaces? In other words, would they practice what they were going to preach?

“If progressives in particular can’t get it right in our workplaces, we lack the moral authority to end the epidemic of sexual violence,” Boorboor says. “For 2020 Democratic candidates to believably advocate for policies to make workplaces safer, they need to create their own safe workplace cultures.”

The initial responses from campaigns amounted to good intentions—but also betrayed a lack of clarity as to how an unwieldy and fast-paced organization would achieve those ends, says Boorboor. From those early conversations emerged a set of guidelines intended to help Democratic candidates and their campaign managers foster a safe work environment. Among the recommendations in the three-page packet were in-person sexual harassment trainings and a third-party service to receive complaints and conduct investigations.

The response from the campaigns, Boorboor says, was one of gratitude.

“One thing that was apparent to me is that the infrastructure of campaigns is built and goes away, and then we reinvent the wheel every four years,” Thompson notes. Bright Compass, which piloted its project with Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) reelection effort in 2018 and recently worked with the DNC, is in conversation with presidential campaigns and other candidates seeking office in 2020.

Indeed, a cottage industry has emerged to help these workplaces get it right. In addition to UltraViolet’s guidelines and Thompson’s Bright Compass, there’s Works in Progress, an organization founded by Robyn Swirling that trains and certifies progressive groups in practices that combat gender-based harassment. (Swirling also assisted UltraViolet on its guidelines.)

Operatives say they’re encouraged by these emerging businesses, particularly because there are so many Democrats running and only a limited number of staffers to go around. “That’s what’s concerned me the most about 2020,” one former Democratic staffer notes. “We have 15 candidates setting up shop, and there’s no way everyone is going to have someone in each state who is experienced on these issues.”

Even more important, experts say, is a workplace culture that shows zero tolerance for harassment. Candidates have to set the tone, and senior staff need to make sure that attitude is carried into the campaign’s day-to-day operations.

“It can’t be that you’ve got one person doing these trainings, and then they disappear—you won’t get that culture change,” Swirling warns. “Anyone who’s doing this work well has made it an integrated part of the campaign.”

To that end, Booker’s campaign is in the process of developing an employee handbook that will detail the policies, procedures, and trainings the campaign requires of its managers, employees, and vendors. “If there is an investigation, if an employee or vendor, no matter their rank or title, is found to have intentionally discriminated or harassed another employee, that employee or vendor relationship will be terminated immediately,” the campaign says.

Some of the Booker campaign’s policies echo the UltraViolet guidelines. In addition to allowing staffers to break the chain of command to register complaints—a procedure that’s key in the event that a direct supervisor is the harasser—the campaign maintains a whistle-blower policy that prohibits retaliation against anyone who comes forward. And, Booker’s team notes, they’re trying to go beyond preventing harassment to foster an inclusive work environment—for example, offering employees 12 paid weeks of parental leave.

The Gillibrand campaign also provided details of robust human resources policies to Mother Jones. All staff members are required to read and sign the written sexual harassment policy in the employee handbook before work begins, and they must attend an in-person or video harassment training within a month of being hired. Once the campaign ramps up in mid-summer, managers will undergo additional trainings on these subjects.

Gillibrand’s campaign has also conducted an anonymous survey to gauge how the staff feels about the current workplace environment and the polices in place; it plans to periodically reissue the survey, likely once a quarter.

This time around, Sanders’ campaign—the first major party campaign with a unionized workforce—says that allegations of workplace harassment will be handled both by both the union and by dedicated HR staffers. The campaign says it has an established procedure for reporting harassment and that the third-party hotline installed during Sanders’ 2018 Senate reelection bid will also be used for the 2020 races. All staffers will be required to undergo sexual harassment training.

The Harris camp also says it’s taking a zero-tolerance approach. Its written policy includes mandatory reporting, a formal investigation of all allegations, and multiple reporting options to ensure employees aren’t deterred from filing complaints about their supervisors, according to an aide. New hires must complete a sexual harassment training.

The campaign for Elizabeth Warren did not describe its personnel procedures with specificity, but offered this statement: “We take this very seriously and are putting in place the appropriate trainings and policies to create a safe and inclusive organization that lives the values we fight for every day.”

Republicans have been thinking about the issue, too. Michael Glassner, the chief operating officer of Trump’s reelection campaign, tells Mother Jones—in a Trumpian-sounding statement—that the organization has “best-in-class” sexual harassment policies with the “highest ethical standards.” These include “protocols for reporting allegations, which include numerous options for reporting such as a telephone hotline that will be prominently posted in our offices; and clear and appropriate consequences for violations of the policy, including termination. All employees will be thoroughly briefed on our personnel policies as a requirement of their employment.”

If the campaigns follow through on these promises, it would be a major leap forward. “HR was non-existent in campaigns until the MeToo movement,” says a female Republican consultant who has worked on presidential and Senate campaigns. “If HR was a thing on any of the campaigns I’ve ever worked on, I’m completely unaware of it.”

“For the longest time politics has been a boys club, and women have had to just deal with it as it comes,” she added. “And that’s not the case anymore. And it’s awesome.”

Pema Levy contributed reporting to this story.

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