Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders — a once and possibly future presidential candidate — on Wednesday night apologized “to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately” after a New York Times report detailed pay disparity and sexual harassment among staffers on Sanders’ 2016 campaign.
“Of course if I run we will do better next time,” he told Anderson Cooper on CNN Wednesday night in explaining that while he was unaware of the harassment at the time, his Senate re-election team subsequently instituted policies such as “mandatory training” and retaining an independent firm for future incidents.
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Among the women who spoke out in the Times report earlier Wednesday was an outreach strategist who said a campaign surrogate touched her hair in a “sexual way” in February 2016 before going on to “push her boundaries” repeatedly that day.
The woman said her manager, whom she told about the incident, dismissed it, saying, “I bet you would have liked it if he were younger.” (The manager told the Times he didn’t remember saying that and took steps to address the problem with the surrogate. A witness corroborated the manager’s comment, according to the Times.)
Another staffer, who directed operations in New York and Texas, told the Times, “I did experience sexual harassment during the campaign, and there was no one who would or could help.” She said a supervisor asked her to his hotel room and then, after she said no, minimized her contributions.
The operations director also said she and many other women were paid less than counterparts who were men — in her case, more than $2,000 less a month than one of her reports.
“I helped at least a dozen women request raises so that they would be paid on par with their male peers,” she told the paper.
Sanders’ campaign told the Times that while there were gaps in pay between employees, they were due to differences in experience or job expectations, never “consideration of an individual’s gender or of any other personal characteristic.”
A Sanders delegate said in a December email, according to the Times, “There was an entire wave of rotten sexual harassment that seemingly was never dealt with.”
Those interviewed by the Times said such accounts undercut Sanders’ political positioning — as a champion of unabashed progressive causes — at a time when he is mulling another quest for the presidency.
Speaking on CNN, Sanders was contrite but cast the allegations as the side-effect of his rocketing political profile three years ago.
“I’m very proud of the campaign we ran in 2016,” he said on CNN. “We started at 4 percent [at] the polls, we ended winning 22 states, 13 million votes. I think we changed the nature of political discourse in this country — raising issues that are now kind of mainstream which were then considered extreme and fringe.”
“But,” he continued, “when our campaign grew, from I think we started with three or four paid employees and over a period of a few months as the campaign exploded we went up to I think 1,200 employees … I am not going to sit here and tell you that we did everything right in terms of human resources, in terms of addressing the needs that I’m hearing from now that women felt disrespected, that there was sexual harassment which was not dealt with as effectively as possible.”
Speaking with the Associated Press, Sanders’ wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, said much the same.
“We didn’t hear specific things during the campaign,” she said. “We heard some of them after the campaign. We’ve heard others just now that were never reported. We were, as you can imagine, out on the road and you do delegate. But we do think at the top level, people did the best they possibly could.”
“The fact is if somebody didn’t feel safe in any way, it was a failure. I, we apologize profusely. This is not acceptable,” O’Meara Sanders told the AP. “I welcome hearing from the individuals that had such problems because we need to talk about this. And women need to feel and to be safe on campaigns, in their workplaces, on campuses and in their homes.”
A spokesman for Sen. Sanders did not return PEOPLE’s request for comment.
However, his campaign committee, Friends of Bernie Sanders, confirmed without elaborating that “a number of HR actions [were] taken” in 2016.
“As progressives we must strive to create organizations free from harassment and discrimination of all types,” the committee said in its statement to PEOPLE. “This is especially important in large, quickly-built political campaigns, even though the task of doing so can be that much harder. Friends of Bernie Sanders does not and will not tolerate harassment or discrimination of any kind.”
In that statement, Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager, acknowledged some issues with what he called an “exploding” operation.
“Speaking generally about 2016, was it too male? Yes. Was it too white? Yes. Would this be a priority to remedy on any future campaign? Definitely, and we share deeply in the urgency to make the necessary changes,” he said. “In 2016, as the size of our campaign exploded we made efforts to make it a positive experience for people. That there was a failure pains me very much.”