Bernie Sanders’ top operatives formed “Our Revolution” after he lost the 2016 primaries to keep his army organized and motivated — and potentially prepare for another presidential run in 2020.
But an extensive review of the Sanders-inspired group depicts an organization in disarray — operating primarily as a promotional vehicle for its leader and sometimes even snubbing candidates aligned with Sanders. Our Revolution has shown no ability to tip a major Democratic election in its favor — despite possessing Sanders’ email list, the envy of the Democratic Party — and can claim no major wins in 2018 as its own.
The result has left many Sanders supporters disillusioned, feeling that the group that was supposed to harness the senator’s grass-roots movement is failing in its mission. The problems have also fueled doubts about Sanders’ organizational ability heading into 2020, even after his out-of-nowhere near-march to the nomination two years ago. Critics of the Vermont independent had been worried he’d have a juggernaut-in-waiting to fuel a second presidential campaign, but that anxiety has faded after watching Our Revolution the past year and a half.
“Our Revolution is going through growing pains,” acknowledged Jane Kleeb, the group’s treasurer, while arguing that progress is being made. “Creating a grass-roots organization is different from running a presidential campaign.”
The group writes on its website that “the next step for Bernie Sanders’ movement is Our Revolution,” and uses his name, quotations and photos in its material under a logo of the colors and font Sanders used in his 2016 presidential campaign. But Sanders, who is legally separated from Our Revolution, does not keep up with its day-to-day activities and has expressed discomfort with attacks by affiliates of Our Revolution against some politicians.
Among the findings of POLITICO’s examination of Our Revolution, based on interviews with two dozen sources inside and outside the organization:
- Board members and Sanders presidential delegates from 2016 have raised questions about whether the group’s president, Nina Turner, is using her position to prepare for a presidential run of her own, and to settle scores with the Democratic National Committee from 2016.
- Two weeks ago, the group’s board of directors nixed Turner’s attempt to install her personal political consultant and friend as her chief of staff, even though the person had no experience in political organizing and had praised President Donald Trump repeatedly and attacked immigrants on Fox News.
- Monthly online fundraising totals have plummeted to just one-third of the group’s take a year ago, based on an analysis of processing fees reported to the IRS by Act Blue, the tool Our Revolution uses, and verified by several people familiar with its finances. Our Revolution maintains that it’s still running a surplus and that repeat donations are steady.
- Amid the poor fundraising, Our Revolution earlier this month filed paperwork to launch a PAC so Sanders can help it raise money directly and so the group can coordinate directly with campaigns.
- A founding board member resigned last month, saying Our Revolution wasn’t paying adequate attention to Latino candidates and issues of importance to Latinos.
Some Sanders stalwarts worry that Our Revolution’s performance could have a harmful spillover effect if he runs again: Though Sanders himself continues to reshape Democratic politics, with many presidential contenders signing on to his “Medicare for All” bill and primaries across the country being fought further on the left’s turf than in decades, supporters warn that the senator himself will suffer if the group formed in his name is seen as weak and floundering.
“What Bernie has to be careful about is that perception having an impact on his support going into 2020. He needs the enthusiasm,” said one Sanders 2016 delegate closely involved with one of this year’s primary races.
One early warning sign came in the Virginia governor’s race, last year’s marquee election. Our Revolution endorsed former Rep. Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary and offered to send two fundraising emails on his behalf using Sanders’ massive email list. Officials assured the campaign the emails would net between $150,000 and 300,000, according to two Perriello aides.
But weeks went by before the emails were sent. And when they were, the total combined haul was $50,000, according to the aides.
Perriello lost the primary to the more centrist Ralph Northam, who went on to win the general election. Our Revolution declined to back Northam.
It also sat out Doug Jones’ upset Senate win in Alabama last year, and Conor Lamb’s triumph in a Western Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump carried by 20 points.
Though Jones and Lamb were ideologically to the right of Our Revolution, the group also had no part in either of the Sanders wing’s big primary wins a week ago. In Pennsylvania, Sanders endorsed Braddock Mayor John Fetterman in the lieutenant governor’s race; he went on to beat the incumbent Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, without the endorsement or backing of Our Revolution.
And in Nebraska, Kara Eastman, who was backed broadly by progressives, upset former centrist Rep. Brad Ashford in a House primary. Our Revolution skipped that election as well.
Our Revolution has frustrated Democrats by staying on the sidelines of so many races. Northam’s 2017 general election campaign was “the World Series of politics,” said Virginia Democratic Party chairwoman Susan Swecker, “and they chose not to go to the game.” It’s also left the group without tangible successes to point to or allies in power who’ll be able to help it or Sanders down the line.
In other races where it has endorsed, including for Ohio governor and Illinois governor, Our Revolution’s preferred candidates have lost.
Meanwhile, Our Revolution backed Texas House candidate Laura Moser only after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to torpedo her primary bid.
Our Revolution leaders said that what they’re building goes much deeper than winning elections. The focus, said Larry Cohen, the group’s volunteer chairman, “is not that scoreboard. The focus is: Can we grow in actually measurable ways in this movement?”
He described efforts to help 600 local chapters grow, get trained and employ technology such as personalized text messages and emails. Those tools, Cohen said, make Our Revolution more potent than people may realize if they’re paying attention only to traditional or surface-level politics.
Our Revolution, for example, said it texted 35,000 supporters on behalf of Dennis Kucinich‘s failed campaign for governor in Ohio, and sent 11,000 texts backing successful gubernatorial primary winner Paulette Jordan in Idaho.
But most of what Our Revolution has become known for in campaigns is an active and often combative Twitter account.
Both fans and detractors of Sanders pin Our Revolution’s problems on Turner, the former Ohio state senator who became the group’s president and public face a year ago. Though some sources involved in Our Revolution said she’s been an effective spokesperson, several others told POLITICO they think she’s seeking to increase her profile and collect chits to run for president herself as the leader of the Sanders movement if the 76-year-old senator ultimately sits out 2020.
“Based on the amount of time that she has spent doing that outward-facing work, that would be a logical question to ask,” said Lucy Flores, the board member who resigned in April. “At some point the question is … ‘Do you want to focus on running this organization and making sure it is transparent, building it up’” or on raising her profile? “You do have to make that decision.”
Asked if she’s interested in a White House run, Turner said she is supporting Sanders. “I hope he runs again; I am right with him,” she said.
But what if he doesn’t? Turner took a long pause.
“If he doesn’t, we’ll see what happens with other candidates,” she said.
Members of the national board, meanwhile, have griped privately that Turner has used the group to advance her own causes.
In a conference call two weeks ago, the board’s executive committee overruled Turner’s attempt to install her consultant and friend Tezlyn Figaro as the group’s chief of staff, according to people on the call. Not only had Turner sprung the decision on the board, but Figaro had no experience building a political organization.
Board members flagged Figaro’s frequent appearances on Fox News praising Trump. She has said on the network as recently as the end of April that the president’s critics mostly don’t like that he’s shaking up the system. And last year she said immigrants are “coming into the country and getting benefits that Americans do not get,” and getting away with crimes while African-Americans go to prison.
“It’s a red flag,” said founding board member Catalina Velasquez. “If I know someone is inflammatory, using hate speech at a time when all oppressed people need to come together, it puts me in a very difficult position.”
They also asked why Turner had sprung the hire on the board.
“She was on our payroll, and I didn’t know that. Apparently no one knew that,” Flores said.
“I do have purview over staffing, and that’s just it,” Turner said. “I have the organization’s best interests in mind, and all of my board members know it.”
“That is not completely true,” Velasquez said. “The board can get involved at any time when any decision by the staff compromises the mission and vision of the organization.”
Turner did not deny that she had been overruled on Figaro’s hiring. Figaro has remained on as a consultant, though board members have been told her contract will end soon.
A shrouded endorsement process
As Turner has led protests against the Democratic National Committee for being a closed, insider game — with a combativeness that has unsettled some on her own board — many Our Revolution endorsements have been issued with limited or no conversations with competing candidates.
Local chapters have been overruled by the national organization, often without warning, people involved say. The picks, those sources complained, are sometimes at odds with people promoting policies that Sanders supports. They’ve also frustrated supporters with scorched-earth attacks on some Democrats who don’t receive the group’s endorsement. In February, for instance, when Our Revolution endorsed Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, it issued a lengthy statement blasting her primary opponent, Stacey Evans.
“The failed electoral strategy of pursuing legacy dixiecrat voters and their sympathizers must be consigned to the dustbin of history,” the statement read, referring to Evans’ campaign.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, a Sanders delegate in 2016 who was endorsed by the senator in his race for Atlanta mayor last year and is backing Evans, said he was taken by surprise both by the endorsement of Abrams after a process that was cut short — it came down before Evans finished her questionnaire — and by the approach once the pick was made.
“I’m kind of dumbfounded at where we are now with how this endorsement went down,” he said. “The Georgia chapter of Our Revolution was established by several people who were former Bernie delegates to the convention, but I was not involved, nor was I even aware that Georgia Our Revolution was doing the endorsement.”
Turner appeared at a campaign kick-off event for Abrams last fall. Our Revolution’s endorsement was issued in February, before Evans had submitted her questionnaire, and she was never interviewed by the group, according to a campaign spokesman. (Sanders himself endorsed Abrams late last week.)
Other candidates describe a similar experience.
“There was no endorsement process,” said Joe Schiavoni, a liberal Ohio state senator who’d been working to get Our Revolution’s endorsement for a year before the group suddenly announced it had picked Kucinich when he jumped in late to the gubernatorial primary earlier this year. “I kept hitting the meetings, talking to the people, hoping that in a true grass-roots way I could earn the support of these grass-roots groups. Then all of a sudden, Our Revolution endorsed Kucinich.”
Turner said she was “surprised” to hear either of those complaints. Told that Fort had raised these concerns, she pointed out that he had been endorsed by Our Revolution last year and said, “What if someone leveled that same accusation when we endorsed him?”
Several active Democrats in Ohio contended that Turner, a former elected official in the state, had her own interests in the race, noting that she is close friends with the woman Kucinich picked as his running mate. Sanders himself remained neutral.
Even after all that, Kucinich came in a distant second, with under 23 percent of the vote.
One former Ohio Democratic official who watched the race closely said the episode reflected poorly on Sanders, despite his separation from Our Revolution.
“The process in which they chose Kucinich was not at all transparent, and the anemic performance and turnout for him — even though [Sanders] didn’t endorse — added up to something that undermines his own brand,” the person said.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager and closest political adviser, said the senator is satisfied with how Our Revolution is being run, though he stressed “they don’t act in his name.”
“Our Revolution is doing a phenomenal job around the country, helping energize the grass roots, and helping to democratize the Democratic Party. And that is a service to the nation,” Weaver said.
Weaver was Our Revolution’s president for about a year. He took over just before its official launch in August 2016, amid questions of how closely Sanders would be involved, whether they were prepared to handle campaign finance issues and a burning fight between the former campaign manager and many younger aides. Weaver handed the baton to Turner last June. He said he no longer has ties to the group and is not being paid by it.
As for Our Revolution’s record in elections, Weaver said, “They’re trying to focus on getting the right shade of blue — they’re not always focused on the transactional approach of ‘electability.’”
Kleeb, who also serves as the Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman, argued, “We have about a 50 percent win record, which I think is a miracle given the fact that we usually endorse the underdog, or a woman, or a person who comes from a community of color.” (The win record is closer to 40 percent.)
That level of recruitment wasn’t enough for Flores, a former Nevada assemblywoman who quit the Our Revolution board’s political committee in mid-April. She said she had complained internally for six months that the group was giving short shrift to getting Latinos involved in it, and to speaking to Latino issues on the Our Revolution Twitter account.
“I felt that Our Revolution was not headed in the direction I felt comfortable with,” Flores said.
Velasquez, a co-vice chair, said she has considered resigning herself.
“It deeply saddens me because I am an undocumented immigrant, and [Figaro’s] comments were very harsh,” Velasquez said.
Board members said they believe the complaints about the endorsements are the product of inadvertent mistakes in a large organization that‘s quickly coming together, and of people both in local Our Revolution chapters and beyond not understanding the process. They take recommendations from local groups, and, inevitably, some people won’t get what they want.
Still, Our Revolution has acknowledged internally that the process needs fixing. At an April board meeting in Washington, attendees were shown a presentation on how the process was being formalized to include candidate interviews and questionnaires as standard practice going forward, and a set process for recommendations coming from local affiliates to the national political committee. This came after months of board members raising complaints that there wasn’t even information on the website about how to get endorsed.
Last week, Our Revolution endorsed actress Cynthia Nixon in the primary for New York governor after she filled out a questionnaire and did an interview with a local affiliate. But an aide to her opponent, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who last year was joined by Sanders at an event promoting a state initiative on the senator’s signature issue of free college, said his campaign knew nothing of the process and learned of the endorsement from a press release.
Cohen acknowledged that there have been “bumps in the road” for Our Revolution, but he said that’s to be expected when trying to realign American politics this quickly.
“If you don’t do messy, you can’t do party building. If you don’t do party building, all you get is a treadmill of candidates,” he said. In 30 years as an organizer and labor activist, Cohen added, “I have never been prouder of any organization or any group of staff.”