When Bernie Sanders endorsed Cenk Uygur’s congressional bid in Southern California on Thursday, it was not altogether surprising. Uygur, a founder of the left-wing Young Turks network and outspoken critic of campaign finance corruption, is one of Sanders’s loudest and most prominent supporters in the media.
But the backlash, particularly among the Vermont senator’s allies on the left, was swift and overwhelming, triggered in part by Uygur’s history of sexist and otherwise offensive comments. By Friday, Uygur claimed he was no longer taking endorsements, and Sanders withdrew his blessing.
The net result was a negative two-day news cycle for a Democratic presidential hopeful who often lambastes media outlets for ignoring his candidacy. The campaign looked amateurish and had alienated some of its closest supporters in the process.
“In the big picture, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist who has not endorsed any presidential candidate. “But it’s just one more thing added to the pile where people feel that [the Sanders campaign] doesn’t have their stuff together.”
Part of the problem for the Sanders campaign was the timing of the announcement. HuffPost reported on Wednesday that some progressive activists were galled that Sanders has yet to endorse Jessica Cisneros, a progressive immigration attorney challenging conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, even though Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and a host of mainstream liberal groups have already gotten behind her.
Endorsing Uygur a day later immediately raised liberal eyebrows at what critics characterized as Sanders’s baffling endorsement process.
After Sanders retracted the endorsement, Yasmine Taeb, a human rights attorney and Democratic National Committee member from Virginia, thanked him on Twitter. Then she asked him to consider endorsing Cisneros, an “inspiring progressive leader.”
It is unclear why Sanders chose to endorse Uygur on Thursday rather than at a date closer to California’s nonpartisan “jungle” primary. On March 3, voters in California’s 25th Congressional District from both major parties will decide on the top two contenders to succeed former Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned in late October after private photos of her were published. (Voters will cast their ballots for candidates in the presidential primary on the same day.)
Even Uygur suspected it would take time to get Sanders’s endorsement. He told HuffPost last month that he expected to receive the endorsement “eventually” but that he would have to “earn” it.
Asked whether the campaign timed the endorsement to counter the perception sown by HuffPost’s report Wednesday that he was out of touch with elements of the activist left, a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign flatly denied it.
“The endorsement was not in reaction to the HuffPost story,” said Sanders campaign spokesperson Mike Casca.
Casca did not provide any insight into the campaign’s vetting process prior to endorsing Uygur and declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind the endorsement or its timing.
A source familiar with Sanders’s thinking, however, said he chose to endorse Uygur because of his long-standing relationship with the YouTube star and shared commitment to progressive policies.
But the comments that Uygur made that have gotten him in hot water ― such as misogynistic blog posts and commentary ― had mostly been common knowledge. The left-wing group Justice Democrats ousted Uygur in December 2017 when his sexist blog posts from the early 2000s surfaced. (Uygur has apologized publicly for those writings.)
“It was really, literally heartbreaking to see my political hero turn around and endorse a guy who is not from our community and who ― if we’re being polite ― has a record of saying things that are incendiary.”
And since he announced his congressional candidacy in mid-November, the campaign of Uygur’s chief opponent, California Assemblywoman Christy Smith, and the various Democratic Party organs supporting her, have bombarded reporters with other controversial snippets from the endless hours of footage of Uygur available on YouTube. Democratic activist M. Mendoza Ferrer has also combed through old episodes of Uygur’s show and unearthed clips of him speaking explicitly about sex, including telling lewd jokes.
Perhaps not surprisingly then, the Sanders campaign personnel closer to the ground had a more acute sense of the danger of endorsing Uygur. Politico reported that Sanders’s California staff had warned the national campaign against backing him.
But Sanders, who is famously loyal to people who supported him before he was a household name, went ahead with the endorsement. Then a new batch of incriminating items landed Friday on the pages of the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
Uygur seemed to worsen the problem in comments to the Los Angeles Times that sounded like he was justifying one of his sexist remarks. The newspaper revealed that in one episode of his show, Uygur had said the 2016 Harvard men’s soccer team was “not guilty” of assembling ratings of women’s looks that later surfaced publicly. Because the students had made the rankings privately and they emerged only afterward, he reasoned, it was not his role to “police what their private comments were.”
In an interview with HuffPost on Friday, Uygur clarified that he had not meant to sound like he was approving of what they did, merely that, had the rankings remained private, they would not be the subject of public concern.
“If you just take three clips out of the 40,000 videos, it doesn’t offer the full context. The overwhelming majority of this show is dedicated to fighting for progressive priorities,” he said. “If we go and play this game of trying to nitpick every out-of-context quote, there’s no end to it.”
Uygur also noted that earlier in the race, Smith had blasted Uygur for being too progressive, but she is now trying to imply he is not progressive enough through the surfacing of his old video clips.
But regardless of the merits of Uygur’s arguments, the pressure proved too great for the Sanders campaign. And perhaps more influential in its decision than the negative media coverage was pushback that Sanders got from some of his California supporters.
Logan Smith, a Sanders supporter in Santa Clarita who is backing Smith, is particularly peeved at what he believes is the Sanders campaign’s refusal to communicate with voters in California’s 25th District. (Uygur does not yet live in the district but plans to move there.)
“It was really, literally heartbreaking to see my political hero turn around and endorse a guy who is not from our community and who ― if we’re being polite ― has a record of saying things that are incendiary,” Smith said.
Smith immediately shared his views with Sanders volunteers who were text-messaging him about campaign opportunities when he heard of the Sanders endorsement.
Smith’s concerns reflect the peculiarities of California’s 25th, a swing district north of Los Angeles that stretches from North Hollywood out to Santa Clarita and Palmdale ― a vast, mostly exurban patch of land that sent Republicans to Congress for years before 2018. Smith admits that Assemblywoman Smith is not as progressive as Uygur on issues like health care and climate change, but he believes she has a better grasp of the issues facing the district.
“Christy’s been there doing the legwork that allowed us to build the progressive infrastructure to make these districts competitive,” he said. “Before Christy came along, you didn’t even mention you were endorsed by the Democratic Party when you were running for school board.”
Criticism of the endorsement has come from other quarters as well. Shortly after Sanders announced the endorsement, Armen Abelyan, a Los Angeles-based Sanders supporter who runs the same-sex marriage legalization group Equality Armenia, started a petition to get Uygur to rename his YouTube network because The Young Turks was the name of the Turkish political party that perpetrated the genocide against Armenians. (Uygur insists that the name uses the term in the more colloquial American sense of reform-minded insurgents.)
Abelyan communicated his dismay about the Uygur endorsement to friends who work for the Sanders campaign, but his dedication to the Vermont senator was never in doubt.
“I am really happy with Bernie Sanders. Even if he didn’t retract his endorsement, my support for him wasn’t going to change,” he said.
Other Berniecrats are less sanguine. “I just wish he hadn’t given the endorsement in the first place,” said Tania Singh, a Sanders supporter from California’s Inland Empire who serves on the executive board of the state Democratic Party. “The bad publicity that the campaign got from it is already out there.”
And though Smith welcomed the retraction, the incident has shaken his confidence in Sanders’s candidacy.
“I am not going to lie and say I’m not evaluating my decision as a voter. I’m going to be watching the campaign from here on out,” he said.
Jessica Schulberg contributed reporting.