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Bernie Sanders' New Political 'Revolution' Faces Bumpy Beginning

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders cheer during a protest near City Hall in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention in July.
John Minchillo
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders cheer during a protest near City Hall in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention in July.

Bernie Sanders is launching a new political organization. It's called Our Revolution. It aims to support candidates and, according to its website, "advance the progressive agenda that we believe in."

But the revolution is getting off to a rocky start.

Eight key staffers abruptly resigned over the weekend in a dispute over the group's leadership and legal structure.

Among the departures was the group's organizing director, Claire Sandberg, who also worked on the Sanders presidential campaign. Sandberg is critical of Our Revolution's director, former Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver, for structuring the group as a 501(c)(4) (the section of the IRS code for a "social welfare" organization).

Sandberg charges that Weaver did that so "he could take big checks from billionaires."

But the 501(c)(4) status also means the group can't contribute directly to candidates many Sanders backers support, such as Tim Canova, who is running in Florida's Democratic primary against former Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The incumbent has been a target of Sanders supporters, who charge she improperly backed Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

Allowing unlimited contributions from anonymous groups is also the polar opposite of the presidential campaign, in which Sanders rarely failed to point out his average contribution was $27.

But Weaver says there is a difference between a presidential campaign and a group like Our Revolution. In a presidential race, he said, "You don't want somebody elected, who is beholden to wealthy individuals or interests."

But in the case of a nonprofit like Our Revolution, Weaver added, "I have nothing to offer people in return for their support" other than pushing forward the progressive goals and agenda that those who supported Sanders share.

There is another reason for the walkout at Our Revolution: Weaver himself.

Sanders supporters like Sandberg blame Weaver for Sanders' coming up short in his quest for the nomination. She said bluntly that those who worked on the campaign "saw that his failed leadership is what cost Bernie the nomination."

Weaver shrugs off the criticism, saying he, too, was disappointed by the outcome, and that "if it's cathartic for people to sort of make me the lightning rod for their upset about not having won, I'm certainly willing to play that role for them."

Sanders voiced strong support for Weaver during a speech to supporters Wednesday night, saying that he had "the utmost confidence that this leadership team and the board being assembled shares the progressive values that we all hold, and I expect big things from them."

"Jeff has worked with me for most of the last 30 years, since he first volunteered to work on a gubernatorial campaign I was running way back in 1986," Sanders said. "He had just been expelled from Boston University for protesting the racist apartheid policies that then existed in South Africa. I thought those were pretty good qualifications for the job."

Sanders said he wouldn't have a leadership role in Our Revolution. As a federal officeholder, Sanders faces limits on the kind of fundraising he can do for other candidates.

Weaver said Our Revolution aims to tap into the enthusiasm that led to Sanders' winning 23 primaries and caucuses, by supporting candidates for down-ballot races and working to train future candidates to create, as he put it, "a progressive bench."

Sanders said seven ballot initiatives and more than 100 candidates would be supported this year; of the handful he referenced, the most prominent was Russ Feingold, who is running to reclaim his U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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