Key staffers quit amid lingering tensions from the Vermont senator's campaign.
By Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti
08/23/16 05:14 AM EDT
The revolution is already tearing itself apart.
Less than a week before its official launch on Wednesday, Bernie Sanders’ new political group is working its way through an internal war that led to the departure of digital director Kenneth Pennington and at least four others from a team of 15, and the return of presidential campaign manager Jeff Weaver as the group’s new president.
“Kenneth chose to leave the organization. He’d worked on the campaign from the very beginning … he decided to do something else I guess,” Weaver said Monday evening, but “we’re very happy to be putting the A-team back together.”
People familiar with what occurred say that the board, which is chaired by the Vermont senator’s wife Jane, was growing increasingly concerned about campaign finance questions being raised over the last week. Their concern reached a breaking point, one person deeply involved with the Sanders world said, with a story last Friday from ABC News about how the group would handle the particular tax questions raised by having a senator so closely associated with a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization that has strict restrictions on its political work.
Underlying all this, though, are deep, still-raw tensions left over from the presidential campaign which by the end had become a war between the older aides who felt that their experience and planning explained Sanders’ ability to translate his message into votes, and younger aides who felt dismissed by older aides whom they felt didn’t appreciate how much of what Sanders achieved was because of their digital and organizing prowess, which turned the senator into a sensation.
Weaver shrugged off the suggestion that the group was already falling victim to a caricature of liberal infighting.
“This is an organization that’s a couple of weeks old, and every new organization has to find its footing,” he said.
There isn’t an aide closer to Bernie and Jane Sanders than Weaver. But he became a lightning rod for the criticism of the younger generation who felt that he was curt, dismissive, and overmatched. So when Jane Sanders asked Weaver, who was already involved as a legal adviser to Our Revolution, to take on a greater role early last week — before the ABC News story — Pennington and others immediately protested. They issued what amounted to an ultimatum: him or them.
“A majority of the staff quit as a result of Jeff joining,” said one person familiar with the situation, who added that they had joined with a promise from Bernie and Jane Sanders, and executive director Shannon Jackson, that Weaver wouldn't be running it and had asked for this promise specifically.
They claim as well that there was a specific argument about fundraising strategy.
Weaver said he had a vision that included more traditional — not just grassroots — fundraising, the person familiar with the situation said.
"It’s about both the fundraising and the spending: Jeff would like to take big money from rich people including billionaires and spend it on ads," said Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organizing director of the campaign and the organizing director of Our Revolution (whose entire department of four left) before quitting. "That’s the opposite of what this campaign and this movement are supposed to be about and after being very firm and raising alarm the staff felt that we had no choice but to quit."
The argument came to a boil in a conference call last week between Pennington, Weaver and Jane Sanders. After airing his complaints about Weaver without managing to move the senator’s wife, Pennington decided to quit — along with key staffers from the organizing, data, outreach and political teams with him.
Though Jackson, who was until recently the senator’s body man, will remain the executive director, the staff walkout leaves Our Revolution understaffed and with giant holes to be filled just days before the formal kickoff event, which will consist of a series of house parties that Sanders will address via livestream.
“The board asked me last week to come in and be the head. I’m very proud to do it,” Weaver said. “The board knew that I shared Bernie’s vision and I’d be true to it.”
One of the staffers who left described multiple phone calls and emails to board members expressing their dismay.
"Over the last few days, almost the entire staff resigned from the organization because they would not work for Jeff Weaver or help to enact Jeff’s vision for the organization in any way,” the former staffer said.
Also coming back aboard is Revolution Messaging, the firm that was the backbone of the Sanders campaign’s fundraising and outreach operation. Pennington had often sparred with Revolution Messaging during the campaign, with the person deeply involved in Sanders world describing Pennington as trying to hog credit. That came to a head, according to several sources, when, under Pennington’s direction, Revolution Messaging was not retained to be part of Our Revolution. The firm didn’t design the website or any of the emails that have gone out for Our Revolution to date.
Reached by email Monday, Pennington declined to discuss what occurred with his departure in detail. He disputed that he had done anything but share credit, arguing that seeing it otherwise was “taking Jeff's word.”
“Rev is great. Tim [Tagaris], Michael [Whitney], and Robin [Curran] certainly are the A-Team when it comes to email fundraising,” Pennington wrote in the email. “Can't think of anyone I'd rather have.”
Our Revolution is aiming to have a long term impact on races all the way down to the most local. They say they’re hoping to start this year, getting the voters activated by Sanders involved in Senate, House and other campaigns.
But Sanders himself has yet to campaign for any candidates whatsoever aside from one rally for Eric Kingson — a New York House hopeful who subsequently lost his primary to the Democratic party's favored contender.
Sanders' attempts to get his work for other candidates off the ground has already been sputtering. Around the time he campaigned for Kingson, for example, Zephyr Teachout specifically asked him not to come and campaign for her until he ironed out his eventual endorsement of Hillary Clinton.
Revolution Messaging is already working with the campaigns of Zephyr Teachout in New York and Tim Canova in Florida, which according to the firm’s analysis on Open Secrets are the House candidates with the highest small-dollar donor percentages. Sanders has vocally supported Canova, who is challenging former Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Revolution Messaging argues that this shows it’s already proven how to model the presidential campaign’s success down-ballot.
"We're honored to begin a new chapter with Our Revolution to support Sen. Sanders' vision to elect progressive candidates up and down the ballot,” said Revolution Messaging founder and CEO Scott Goodstein. “Looking forward to getting the band back together."
Still, even the case of Canova is far from a clean example of Sanders' potential down-ballot influence: his campaign's top media advisors—Tad Devine, Mark Longabaugh, and Julian Mulvey, who were also top players on the Sanders campaign—left the Canova camp less than two weeks after joining it earlier this month. And polls show Canova well behind Wasserman Schultz.
Weaver said he is optimistic.
“Millions of people voted for Bernie Sanders, hundreds of thousands volunteered, millions donated,” he said. “People are very excited about continuing the work that was done on the campaign and making sure we bring Bernie’s progressive vision to reality.”