Rank-and-file women in politics have posed the question, quietly and through backchannels, for years. Is the new guy in charge a creep?
But as the Me Too movement heightens the expectations for political candidates and their campaigns, another much more powerful set of people has begun to do the asking: top aides to the many Democrats considering running for president in the 2020 election.
“We’re starting to ask those questions very, very directly, in ways where, previously, you’ve maybe just hinted at it,” said a senior staff member to a potential 2020 candidate. “Now you’re stabbing right at it. It’s a complete cultural change.”
The staffer and other senior aides to potential 2020 Democratic candidates spoke on condition of anonymity because the campaigns they are discussing haven’t officially launched. But behind the scenes, they said, the campaigns-in-waiting are undertaking a never-before-seen effort to screen prospective hires for a history of harassment or sexual misconduct.
This new effort shows how the Me Too movement against workplace sexual harassment has altered expectations for political candidates and their campaigns. For 14 months, the cascade of truth-telling about sexual harassment in politics and other industries has ended careers, prompted new workplace protections, and emboldened questions about whether candidates for office are living their stated ideals. Countless stories have exposed how the campaign trail can be a dangerous or alienating place, where the drive to win overwhelms concerns about people’s safety from sexual assault and racism.
And that was in the off-season. The 2020 race will be the first presidential contest fought on this changed political landscape, with all of the intense scrutiny that a presidential campaign entails. For Democrats, likely to engage in the most crowded primary brawl in decades, the stakes are even higher, aides and activists said.
Weeding Out Hypocrisy
The Democratic primary may include candidates like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.), who have championed reforms to sexual harassment laws and drawn a hard line against public figures accused of misconduct, including former Sen. Al Franken, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump. That invites scrutiny of every Democratic campaign for evidence that the party’s contenders are practicing its principles.
“It’s a signal, right? Your campaign structures signal your policies,” one progressive activist said. “Now you have another criteria: How do you demonstrate that you believe women, via your campaign structure?”
One close aide to a possible 2020 contender said their camp is asking nearly everyone auditioning for a top role to disclose any past complaints about workplace behavior. Another said she is performing a battery of “soft background checks” by placing calls to activists — mostly women — who serve as the informal nerve center for whisper networks.
“Any campaign will have to ask these questions, for sure,” another senior aide to a potential 2020 candidate said. “And I don’t think it’s just because of a fear that someone is going to get ‘caught.’ I think that they know it’s important to ask what constitutes a workplace that is inviting.”
Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist, is fielding a related set of inquiries: “Send me resumes of competent people that aren’t just white guys.”
Campaigns are sincerely seeking women and people of color for positions of power, Katz said.
“It used to be that campaigns wanted to look a certain way on the outside, but internally it was still the white boys in charge of the work,” Katz said. “And that is changing fast. … I’ve been in this business for over two decades, and all I can say is, finally.”
Several people with a role in the staffing process said they found it striking that the 2020 campaigns were focused on such a specific issue so early. In the past, most presidential campaigns have spent the frenzied months before they publicly launch with a laser focus on essentials — their overarching message, funding, logistics — and the competition to lock down the most talented staff. Anything considered granular thinking is off the table.
“The fact that this is one of the things they have to think about as a 100-percent must-have this early in the cycle? That is in and of itself a sign of the power of the Me Too movement,” said one progressive activist. That is doubly true, given that the competition to hire top-tier talent will be more intense in a crowded primary, the activist said.
The vetting of potential aides is not the only sign of a possible shift. At least one potential candidate went as far as revamping a sexual harassment policy for the campaign trail “months ago,” said a senior staff member. And revelations last week that a top aide to Harris had settled a sexual harassment suit before joining her Senate staff forced the aide to resign immediately. Harris, who has proposed legislation to strengthen rights for alleged targets of sexual harassment, claimed she was unaware of her aide’s history.
Whisper Networks And The Hunt For ‘Total Creeps’
Aides and activists insist that screening for workplace issues and building more diverse staffs isn’t just a matter of avoiding political liability. The past year, they said, was an awakening for many of the men who still dominate politics — and therefore, key hiring decisions — that one abusive employee can cripple an entire operation. Several consultants and activists who campaigns are asking to pass along trusted names say it’s not the first time they’ve received such calls. It’s just the first time they’ve received them from powerful men.
“Women have always had these whisper networks,” said the former campaign staffer. “Women have always done the unauthorized background checks to see if the people coming to work with them are total creeps. I think what’s different now is management will listen. There’s a return to the risk women take when they are honest about their professional lives.”
What exactly that return will entail isn’t yet clear. The world of campaign politics has no official organization for recording and vetting workplace complaints, and the workplaces themselves dissolve as soon as the election is over. As a consequence, aides and activists said, a campaign’s ability to vet prospective employees is only as good as its political connections.
It’s a system that easily disregards people who have no political capital and are especially vulnerable to workplace transgressions.
But to make no effort, said one activist, would be worse.
“If serious Democratic candidates for president and their campaign managers aren’t thinking about how to have a strategy related to violence against women and sexual assault and harassment in their campaigns and their policies — what are you even doing?”