Even for an older white man speaking at an event for women of color, the reception Bernie Sanders received at the recent She the People summit was chilly. Unlike the other 2020 candidates at the forum—including another white man—several of Sanders’ responses were met with groans. At one point, he answered a question about the recent increase in hate crimes by turning it back to a conversation on universal health care, drawing boos.
The reaction to Sanders did not surprise women’s rights advocates. The senator has one of the strongest and longest records on reproductive rights and pay inequality of the 2020 contenders, but he’s often criticized for not taking leadership on or prioritizing these issues—and, more recently, for failing to learn from his past missteps.
“You can put lipstick on the pig, but in the end the senator is someone who is actually very proud of not changing his ideas,” Sarah Slamen, a Texas organizer and Sanders’ 2016 state campaign coordinator in Louisiana, told The Daily Beast.
“I want to believe that old dogs can learn new tricks, but I don’t see it with this dog,” she added.
Sanders is a longtime supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and set the standard for demanding 12 weeks of family leave during his 2016 presidential campaign. He co-sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act and included pay equity for women workers on his economic agenda. He spoke about the need for equal pay as recently as last month, at a campaign stop in Alabama.
He also was one of the first to vote against the Hyde Amendment, which blocks Medicaid funding for abortion. (Joe Biden, Sanders’ closest competitor in the polls, recently said he still supports the amendment though he changed his position on Thursday night.) A 1972 article from Vermont’s Bennington Banner newspaper shows the senator vocally backed abortion rights even before Roe v. Wade was decided. Both Planned Parenthood and NARAL give Sanders their highest rating on reproductive rights—though Planned Parenthood noted in 2016 that Sanders has not introduced any women’s rights legislation himself.
“Bernie has been a decades-long champion for women’s rights and as president he would be a tireless advocate for gender equity, diversity and inclusion in policy and in practice, as he is today,” the campaign said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
The problem for some, however, is not with Sanders policies, but the way he presents them. His laser focus on economic issues has pushed his stance on gender issues to the background, at a time—post-#MeToo movement, with more women in Congress than ever before—when many feel they should be at the forefront.
“It can't just be the polices,” said Destiny Lopez, co-director of the All* Above All Action Fund, who attended the She the People summit. “You have to be able to engage in a dialogue about race and gender and the inequities in our system as a result of those two dynamics in particular.”
“We have to be able to talk about it, because we're never going to be able to address those issues head-on just through policy,” she added.
One example came last month, as states like Alabama and Georgia passed a series of extreme abortion restrictions. Candidates including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris rolled out extensive proposals to protect abortion rights, promising to codify Roe v. Wade in law. Warren’s plan includes a federal law enshrining the right to abortion access, while Harris’ would require some states to obtain federal permission before passing abortion restrictions.
Ironically, many of the plans drew from bills that Sanders has already supported—and even co-sponsored—in the Senate. In a campaign swing through the South, Sanders made a well-received plea for men to get involved in reproductive issues. He also posted tweets calling the abortion bans “disgraceful and “unconscionable.” But in an off-the-cuff moment on May 19—just days after Alabama passed its near-total ban—he outraged reproductive rights advocates by telling NBC’s Chuck Todd that so-called “sex-selective” abortions were a serious issue.
Advocates have long maintained that sex-selective abortions, or abortions based on the gender of the fetus, are more of a right-wing talking point than a quantifiable issue in the United States. Sanders, however, played straight into conservative hands.
“That, I mean, that’s a concern,” he said in response to Todd’s question on the issue. “Well, that’s not a, I wouldn’t use a restriction on, that’s an issue that society has got to deal with, and it is of concern.” Sanders later clarified that he would not support a ban on any kind of abortion.
Lucy Flores, who worked with the senator’s political action organization Our Revolution and recently spoke out about uncomfortable interactions with Joe Biden, told The Daily Beast that Sanders’ comment was an example of his failure to update his rhetoric—something she said could hurt him in 2020.
“One of the problems that Bernie has had on all issues, not just anything related to women, is that it takes him a lot more time than necessary to adjust his language and to adjust his thinking and approach,” she said.
“Bernie struggles with conversations of intersectionality and that’s why I think he struggles with language and really should be more informed about silly, made-up right-wing rhetoric.”
For some, it dredged up memories of Heath Mello, the Omaha, Nebraska, mayoral candidate Sanders campaigned with in 2017, despite the candidate’s history of supporting anti-choice legislation. Reproductive rights groups condemned the incident at the time, but Sanders has yet to retract his declaration that abortion rights should not be a litmus test for Democrats.
The campaign said in a statement that Sanders has made abortion rights “foundational” to his 2020 campaign, including a vow not to nominate any federal judge who would not uphold Roe.
“Bernie has been among the most outspoken candidates against recent draconian abortion bans, including in Alabama itself,” a spokesperson said. “He has spoken to the depth, danger, and national coordination of these attacks on women's rights.”
In a more recent, much-criticized incident, Sanders responded to a question about whether he could truly represent the diverse Democratic party by saying that voters should not make their decisions based on gender or race.
"We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age," he said Vermont Public Radio in February. "I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a non-discriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for."
The response was seen by many as a rejection of the importance of identity at best, or, at worst, an insinuation that he was being discriminated against as a white man.
Masha Mendieta, a former Latino outreach strategist for Sanders’ 2016 campaign, was frustrated by what she saw as the senator’s inability to learn from such gaffes. The She the People episode, she said, reminded her of a 2016 town hall at which Sanders said college sexual assaults should be investigated by the police—a position at odds with most campus anti-rape activists.
“To me it shows that this already hit you four years ago and it didn’t change,” she said. “You didn’t think, ‘Oh, I should probably look into women’s issues and change my response.’”
She added, “After all the sequence of events of the last year’s politics, why did you not take it seriously enough?”
Some supporters feel Sanders’ record on women’s rights speaks for itself. Flores, the former Our Revolution board member, said the senator would “always be on the right side of history.” She also praised him for rolling out a comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policy for his 2020 campaign staff.
In fact, Sanders’ response to allegations of sexual harassment on his 2016 campaign was heralded as a positive sign. The campaign flew volunteers to Washington, D.C., to address the issue in January, and later rolled out a comprehensive sexual harassment policy for 2020. Deemed the “Campaign Equity Blueprint,” the policy instituted trainings on sexual harassment, introduced defined tiers for compensation, and expanded vetting for new hires.
Though he first claimed to have been too busy to know about the harassment in 2016, Sanders later apologized repeatedly for the misconduct and admitted his campaign had been “too white and too male." The majority of 2020 campaign staff are now women, according to campaign officials.
But several former staffers involved in the sexual harassment discussions said they didn’t engender much confidence. Samantha Davis, a former campaign staffer in Texas and New York who raised the issue in 2016, said some of the most outspoken staffers on the issue were almost excluded from the January conversation. When they asked to be included in a January meeting on sexual harassment, Davis said, Sanders’ Senate staff stalled in ordering them plane tickets and reminded them they did not have to come.
Recently, Davis said, she learned that a current staffer had briefed team members on the positive campaign improvements in regards to sexual harassment. The person giving the briefing, Davis said, was someone whom staffers had flagged to management for protecting abusers. She said the news made her question the campaign’s commitment to tackling sexual harassment.
“To me, punishment would be having to go out and hustle for a job like everybody else—like all the women had to go do,” she said. “Not being coddled and kept on the campaign.”
In response to the complaint, Sanders campaign officials said the organization arranged for both round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations for the meeting for over two dozen participants. While they admitted the large-scale project was a lot for a small group of staffers to take on, they emphasized that Davis—and any other staffer who was interested—traveled to and attended the meeting at no cost to themselves. They declined to comment on the staffer who gave the sexual harassment briefing, citing confidentiality agreements.
“Bernie is thankful for the 2016 alumni who shared their stories. He listened and then responded by empowering an internal and external team of experts to make long-term, meaningful investments in order to enact the necessary cultural and structural changes to his campaign,” a campaign spokesperson said.
Sanders has increasingly spoken up on women’s issues in recent weeks, traveling through the South to speak out on abortion restrictions and endorsing businesswoman Marie Newman in her primary challenge against an anti-abortion Democrat. (NARAL President Ilyse Hogue thanked him on Twitter for his speech in North Carolina.) On Wednesday, Sanders rallied with Walmart workers who pointed out that the company’s lowest-paid workers are overwhelmingly female, black, and Latinx.
But the former campaign staffers say it may be hard for Sanders to catch up with candidates who have made women’s issues a fixture of their campaigns. While Sanders generally polls equally well with men and women, his favorability rating with women dropped more from 54 percent to 42 percent between November and March, according to a Harvard Harris Poll.
Some of this may be due to the entry of Joe Biden into the race. Despite controversy over his handling of the Anita Hill hearing and criticism of his touchy-feely style, Biden still gets the support of nearly half of all black women in polls. But Sanders’ poll numbers may also be due in part to the growing popularity of Elizabeth Warren, who received a standing ovation at She The People.
“To me, that says that he has a certain type of supporter and he’s hit a ceiling because he ran last time,” Slamen, the former Louisiana coordinator, said. “The ideas that he has are appealing, but he’s not necessarily the one who needs to deliver them anymore.”
“He can have a new logo, he can hire a new campaign manager, but he steers that ship and I don’t think he’s changed,” she added.