The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders launches ‘Our Revolution’ with electoral targets — and a few critics left behind

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Bernie Sanders launched his long-awaited post-primary movement, Our Revolution, with the fanfare of a presidential campaign. He was introduced by the environmentalist Bill McKibben, who described Sanders as "the most popular politician in America" with plenty of unfinished tasks. For a full hour, Sanders told an audience in Burlington, Vt. — and tens of thousands of online viewers — that they had moved the center of American politics to the left, and could join him in backing "over a hundred candidates" and "seven key ballot initiatives" around America.

But the announcement was preceded by two days of negative stories about how Our Revolution will actually work, and grumbling about how Sanders has spent his political capital. The new organization powered through a staff revolt before the official launch, and Tim Canova, one of the highest-profile congressional challengers endorsed by Sanders, had accused the senator of abandoning him.

Our Revolution is structured as a 501(c)(4), which means it may collect unlimited money but must focus on "social welfare." While a deadlocked FEC has allowed that term to be rendered meaningless — "social welfare" groups run ads identical to campaign spots — Our Revolution's surface resemblance to the "dark money" organizations Sanders led to turmoil.

As Politico's Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti first reported, eight of the group's initial staff of 15 bailed in the days before the launch. In an interview with MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald, one said that the arrival of Sanders's former campaign manager Jeff Weaver was the last straw. While some around Sanders saw Weaver as the perfect leader to get Our Revolution past the 501(c)(4) compliance issues, younger staffers blamed Weaver for what had gone wrong in the long Democratic primary.

"As a campaign manager, Jeff was a total disaster who failed Bernie's supporters with his mismanagement," said former organizing director Claire Sandberg. "We're organizers who believed in Bernie's call for a political revolution, so we weren't interested in working for an organization that's going to raise money from billionaires to spend it all on TV."

In an interview, Weaver expressed confidence that the group would plow ahead. There were discussions at the beginning of last week about him coming on board, and he did so Thursday, after being approach by Sanders's wife Jane.

"I think people wanted to go in a different direction, [and] they have every right to do that," said Weaver. "There’s no reaching out to the Koch Brothers or Exxon Mobil. The truth of the matter is we’re going to rely primarily on small donations.”

In his Wednesday night speech, Sanders pointedly praised Weaver and described him as the right man to get Our Revolution going. "I'll never forget Jeff walking in the door," said Sanders. "He had very, very good qualifications — he had just been expelled from Boston University for protesting the racist apartheid conditions of South Africa."

Since the departures, Our Revolution has built back up to 10 staffers, and continued working with Revolution Messaging, the "punk rock" firm that crafted the Sanders campaign's image. Among those working with Weaver are Shannon Jackson, former Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen, John Robinson, and former campaign Latino outreach coordinator Erika Andiola. A separate 501(c)(3), the Sanders Institute, will focus on policy, and Sanders's existing leadership PAC may become more active in specific races.

But on Wednesday night, one race was pointedly missing from the discussion. Toward the end of his speech, Sanders name-checked a series of candidates that had won his support, from a school board hopeful in Nebraska to a congressional candidate in upstate New York. He did not mention Tim Canova, whose race to topple Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) in south Florida has galvanized many of his supporters.

That has baffled Canova, a former Hill staffer and current economics professor whose fundraising surged after Sanders endorsed him. In an interview this week on The Young Turks, a progressive video network, Canova suggested that Sanders had "galvanized the establishment" by endorsing him, and convinced Wasserman Schultz's allies — including Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — to campaign with her.

"We have nobody coming here to campaign for us," said Canova. "When Bernie endorsed me, he called me up, gave me his number, and said ‘stay in touch and please call.’ And I have. And I’ve been waiting for Bernie to return my call ... it might be that he put his faith and trust in the Clinton camp, and though that ours was a race to sacrifice."

Spokesmen for Sanders have neither commented on or ruled out a possible appearance in the Florida race. But in an earlier interview with The Washington Post, Sanders emphasized that he had spent much of his time since the Democratic Convention working on a book, to be published after the general election, and that he would hold rallies for Democratic candidates — including Clinton — when he hit the trail.

The Sanders who showed up in Burlington on Wednesday was campaign-ready. Rolling up sleeves that stubbornly traveled down his forearms, Sanders regaled his audience on everything from the importance of electing progressives to school boards to the story of how Uruguay fought the cigarette industry. And just as he'd done before the primaries ended, he asked activists to consider how they'd given Democrats the most progressive platform in their party's history.

"If anybody thinks that document, and what is in that platform, is going to be on a shelf collecting dust, they are sadly mistaken," said Sanders. "We are going to make that document the blueprint for moving forward in this country. We changed the conversation regarding the possibilities of our country. That is what we changed."