As America slouches toward the midterms, there is some trepidation over what rough beast will be born. A recent poll showed that Democrats have lost ground to the Republicans, while President Donald Trump’s approval rating has clawed up to 41 percent. With a blue wave less of a sure thing, the activities of various political groups have come under the microscope, particularly those that are aiming to shake up Democratic politics and push the party to the left.
Bernie Sanders’s 2016 primary campaign gave rise to a constellation of left-leaning organizations. Combined with his burgeoning media machine, it was a sign that leftists, social democrats, and others were getting serious about winning elections. But veterans of the Sanders campaign have not been able to consistently translate grassroots energy into political success. Meanwhile, the mission of the Sanders Institute, a think tank launched in 2017, remains unclear: Though it achieved recent acclaim for a thorough report on the viability of a federal jobs guarantee, it may be hobbled by the kind of questionable personnel choices that have dogged other lefty groups (the presence of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who has voiced support for Narendra Modi and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, among its “fellows” does not encourage much confidence).
The biggest of those Sanders-inspired groups, Our Revolution, was founded to support candidates who adopt the Sanders platform as their own—and it is facing its own share of problems. On Monday, Politico reported that Our Revolution’s fundraising has declined, that it has “shown no ability to tip a major Democratic election in its favor,” and that it is being roiled by controversies surrounding its president, Nina Turner, who critics say has used Our Revolution as a vehicle for her own political ambitions.
Staffers were particularly incensed by Turner’s recent decision to hire a personal friend and Sanders campaign veteran, Tezlyn Figaro, to work for the organization, despite the fact she has taken some dubious positions in the past:
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.
The Politico piece had been live for barely an hour when Figaro started publicly attacking Lucy Flores and Catalina Velasquez on Twitter. Flores is a former state lawmaker in Nevada who stepped down from Our Revolution’s board in April following disagreements about the group’s outreach to Latinos; Velasquez, a founding board member, is an undocumented immigrant. Both are quoted in Politico’s piece. Figaro’s public attacks on Flores and Velasquez are more than troubling, as they occur in a political era marked by White House xenophobia and rising deportations. And all of this reinforces concerns about Turner’s leadership of the great legacy institution of the Sanders campaign.
This is not the first time Our Revolution’s private problems have gone public. Eight staffers resigned the day Sanders announced the group’s creation, mostly due to campaign manager Jeff Weaver’s role as president and the decision to make the group a 501(c)(4). As Eliza Newlin Carney wrote for The American Prospect at the time, some believed the group would have been more effective if organized as a PAC.
Turner replaced Weaver in 2017. Joining Our Revolution made sense for Turner, a former state lawmaker in Ohio who had been out of political office for a year when she endorsed Sanders in 2016. At the time, Turner’s endorsement made national headlines: She’d enthusiastically backed Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton sent a fundraising letter on her behalf during a failed bid to become Ohio’s secretary of state. But her tenure at Our Revolution has been marked by accusations of mismanagement and self-interested careerism. Turner has done little to dispel concerns about her political ambitions: Questioned directly by Politico, she would not confirm or deny that she plans a presidential run in 2020 if Sanders sits the race out. If she did, she would presumably use the invaluable voter database that the Sanders campaign built.
Another staffer concern is that Our Revolution’s endorsement process is frustratingly opaque. Some of the races Politico cited, most conspicuously Doug Jones’s race against Roy Moore and Ralph Northam’s race against Ed Gillespie, don’t quite count as knocks against Our Revolution: Both Democrats are significantly to the right of the organization, and an endorsement would have undermined the organization’s stated political principles.
Still, Our Revolution has issued some troubling endorsements. Among them: Ohio gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich, who once delivered a paid speech to a group that supports Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and Texas’ Laura Moser, who recently hired conspiracy theorist Leah McElrath to be her campaign’s communications director. (McElrath once memorably speculated that child rape could be the Russian government’s “kompromat” on Donald Trump.) It isn’t clear how, or even if, Our Revolution factored Kucinich’s speech in its endorsement process.
In some respects, this is just what happens when political movements lose their figureheads; Barack Obama’s Organizing for America, for example, drifted after it dropped ties to Obama himself, squandering the grassroots work his campaign had done. And Our Revolution isn’t the first organization to endorse candidates with questionable judgement. The DCCC and the DNC are frequent culprits, embracing candidates who oppose abortion rights; who are antagonistic to workers’ rights; who repeat tired, poor-shaming rhetoric about welfare dependency and personal responsibility.
But to the extent that the Democratic Party has moved left since the 2016 election, it is largely thanks to pressure from its left flank. The question isn’t whether or not the party needs a revolution. It’s whether Our Revolution and groups like it can actually compel the institution to change. For that to happen, the House of Sanders needs to put its affairs in order. Our Revolution could be a superior alternative to centrist institutions, and indeed it often is, but voters need consistency and deserve transparency. Our Revolution hasn’t achieved either objective. It might not, without better leadership.