As campaigns gear up for the crowded 2020 Democratic primary, they are already grappling with how to address a major structural deficiency in their industry: how best to deal with allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct on the trail.
The lack of adequate guidelines to address these issues has been made painfully apparent over the last few months, in the wake of both the broader #MeToo movement and with revelations that such conduct was rampant across many top campaigns. In order to avoid a repeat of those instances, some of the candidates who are in exploratory phases of presidential runs have started internal conversations as to how to best protect all the members of their staff.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) campaign has pledged to have a strong policy in place, hoping to reflect the prioritization she has placed on sexual harassment and assault in the Senate. Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro’s operation has talked to lawyers about implementing a policy in the exploratory phase of his run. And a broader conversation is taking place among other prospective campaigns about enhanced vetting of hires, improving the means by which someone can report a claim, and other reforms to cultivate an environment with equitable wages and treatment.
The efforts have sped up in recent weeks amid concerns from prospective staffers that such safeguards remain absent from campaign operations. Early last year, a New York Times story detailed how Hillary Clinton shielded an adviser accused of inappropriate conduct during her 2008 presidential campaign. Just this month, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), took responsibility for a former aide’s harassment lawsuit while saying she was unaware of it at the time. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has publicly apologized twice for allegations that have been reported against individuals working on his 2016 presidential campaign.
Sanders allies have since made assurances that those individuals will not be involved in a campaign should he mount another bid. And last Wednesday, the Independent from Vermont attended a meeting with alumni in Washington D.C. to hear about their experiences and learn from them. The summit was requested in a letter from Sanders alumni to “discuss the issue of sexual violence and harassment on the 2016 campaign,” which was enough of a problem that some staffers wanted assurances of changes in order to recommit to another potential run.
While those in the room wanted to keep the conversations private to respect those sharing stories, an individual in attendance described the day as productive. The ultimate goal, the individual said, was to devise a strategy document for better campaign practices that could be used in another White House run and even shared publicly.
In order to work towards that goal, the meeting included facilitators from a company called Working IDEAL, which advises on workplace inclusion and diversity.
“It was a good opportunity for listening,” Pamela Coukos, one of the facilitators present, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “I think everyone has the goal of using this experience to identify ways that we can really think differently about how campaigns work in terms of sort of basic human resources practices, good employment and labor practices, good culture.”
Coukos said she was encouraged to see this conversation happening now, as it’s difficult for campaigns to adequately prepare for problems while in the midst of actually running. Campaigns, she added, should consider the act of devising plans for worker protections as the same type of rudimentary act as devising strategies for winning battleground states, she said.
“Campaigns make all kinds of plans,” Coukos said. “They write media plans and GOTV plans and fundraising plans and they’re all based on certain contingencies because things happen and change. But there's a whole strategy and a thought behind it. That’s the lens that you need to put on how you hire, manage, support, train and pay the people who do that work for you.”
Sanders’ team is not the only one making concrete steps to put in a new sexual harassment policy regime. The nascent campaign for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a strident advocate for victims of sexual assault, has said that properly preventing incidents of harassment and misconduct will be a huge focus as the operation begins to take shape. Though Gillibrand’s campaign team have not yet even moved into their office space yet, an aide said that the campaign had already begun to chart out a sexual harassment policy that they hoped would be one of the toughest in national politics.
"Senator Gillibrand takes this issue very seriously; for example she just helped lead the charge to overhaul and strengthen the sexual harassment policies in Congress, and the campaign will have a strong sexual harassment prevention policy in place,” Meredith Kelly, communications director for Gillibrand’s exploratory committee, told The Daily Beast.
Other operations that have had a bit more time in their preparations thus far told The Daily Beast that they have considered a number of factors to create a healthy environment for all the staff that eventually comes aboard. Those steps include diversifying top leadership and hiring people from a variety of backgrounds, which they believe could help open lines of communication and make flagging problematic incidents easier.
“The leadership of this campaign comes from the social justice movement,” Jennifer Fiore, a senior adviser on former HUD Secretary Julian Castro’s presidential bid, told The Daily Beast in an interview. She noted that Maya Rupert, who is Castro’s campaign manager, has never worked on a political campaign previously and has prior experience at HUD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Center for Reproductive Rights. That background and Rupert’s prominent role as an African-American woman at the head of a campaign helps inform how issues of harassment, pay disparities and inclusion would be addressed.
“It signals not just to the rest of the campaign world but to voters that [Castro’s] commitment here is to moving these issues forward and that’s inclusive of the feminist issues of sexual harassment policies but also of workplace rights,” she continued.
Fiore added that during the time between Castro’s announcement of an exploratory committee and his formal announcement of his run, the team worked with lawyers to develop a policy for harassment in the workplace. Additionally, she said that the campaign will have volunteers, but not unpaid interns, who would be working full-time and that they have already decided to support a union should the campaign staff decide to unionize. Having a union on a large national campaign, advocates say, can facilitate better communication among staffers and a collective bargaining agreement can ensure that every staffer knows their rights and has a representative to whom they can report issues of harassment.
For the staffers who have been working to help campaigns unionize, the 2020 contest will provide new challenges and opportunities. The Campaign Workers Guild, launched just last year, had some success encouraging and working with unions in the midterm cycle with 24 campaigns and three state party coordinated campaigns ratifying their collective bargaining agreement. That included the North Carolina Democratic Party, the gubernatorial campaign for Cynthia Nixon, the reelection campaign for Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and the campaign for newly-elected Rep. Max Rose (D-NY).
Julia Ackerly, a former Sanders and other progressive campaigns staffer who is working at the union, told The Daily Beast that the new outfit will be meeting in the coming days to strategize on how best to put pressure on candidates to recognize unions when and if their workers want to form them.
“We ultimately will unionize campaigns when workers unionize,” she said. “A large focus of our work will be making sure that we’re being proactive about sexual harassment on campaigns.”
Ackerly added that simply devising policy is not enough.
“Sexual harassment protocol set by campaign management is not enough,” she said. “There must be a mechanism to hold management accountable. Having a union gives workers a voice, allowing us to raise concerns in ways that cannot be ignored by management.”
National Nurses United, the largest organization of registered nurses in the country, also called on all campaigns recently to ensure pay equity and implement rules to protect volunteers and staffers from sexual harassment.
“It is especially important that candidates for our highest office set a standard for ensuring that sexual harassment is completely unacceptable, is fully and properly investigated, and that protects the safety and health of those harmed by it,” NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo said in the statement.