It’s no surprise that sexual harassment is rampant in political campaigns, where powerful men (and the occasional powerful woman) can directly or indirectly foster an environment that focuses on results at all costs and allows bad behavior to flourish. While that may be changing, the stories emerging from Bernie Sander’s 2016 presidential campaign illustrate just how pervasive it is, often regardless of a campaign’s stated politics, and how much more needs to be done.
Giuulianna Di Lauro’s story, which she shared with the New York Times, is telling. Di Lauro was a Latino outreach strategist for Sanders’s campaign in 2016. Here’s what she says happened when she reported that she had been harassed by Marco Antonio Regil, a game show host from Mexico and a Sanders campaign surrogate:
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.
She also reported the incident to other campaign officials, including Rich Pelletier, the national field director, according to the Times. The Times reports that campaign officials did not take claims of harassment seriously, with reports being passed around senior leadership, but little done to address the underlying issues. Bill Velasquez, who managed the team Di Lauro worked on, told the Times he took steps to address Di Lauro’s concerns and also told Arturo Carmona, a top staffer on the Latino outreach team, about her complaints, who then reported it to Pelletier as well. But according to Di Lauro, “It was as if nothing happened.”
In a post on Medium, Masha Mendieta, another staff person on the Latino outreach team, wrote that she and others had asked for Carmona—who she said was known to “demean the female staff” and “treat us like his personal assistants—to be fired. Instead, Mendieta wrote, he was “demoted up” to a new position within the campaign. (Another telling anecdote she shared: “I remember being told by a Latino staffer that the first question Arturo asked when he hired me was: ‘Is she cute?’ When I looked horrified, he clarified: ‘He asks that about all the women he hires!’”)
Other women who worked on Sanders’s campaign told the Times that they also experienced sexual harassment and discrimination, from being invited to a supervisor’s hotel rooms (and then being retaliated against when saying no) to being paid much less than men on the campaign:
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.
And while some Democratic candidates looking to run in 2020 are reportedly beginning to vet staffers for sexual harassment and misconduct, it’s clear that more needs to be done to change campaign culture.
Sanders, who is reportedly considering running again in 2020, addressed the allegations in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday evening. When asked if he knew about the harassment allegations, he blamed the problem in part on the rapid growth of the campaign. “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, that was not dealt with as effectively as possible,” Sanders said. He added that in his most recent campaign in 2018, his campaign had implemented greater checks around mandatory training and resources for staff.
When asked if he knew about any reports of harassment during the 2016 campaign he added, rather dismissively: “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”(Sanders did not immediately respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.)
His apology was remarkably tepid (note his repeated use of the word “felt”): “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.