As Bernie Sanders prepares to launch an organization meant to carry on his presidential campaign’s political revolution, it’s been jolted by legal questions, abrupt leadership changes and mass resignations.
The group, dubbed Our Revolution, is set to debut Wednesday evening. But eight of the group’s 13 or so staffers resigned over the weekend after former campaign manager Jeff Weaver was brought in to run the group. The remaining staffers, some of whom stayed for personal reasons, all sent letters to Sanders expressing concerns with Weaver and solidarity with those who quit.
The departures were first reported by Politico and BuzzFeed, but new details uncovered by NBC News from multiple sources close to matter reveal the depth of the turmoil inside the organization that controls Sanders’ lucrative email fundraising list and which many progressives hope will become a powerful force on the left wing of the Democratic Party.
The dispute is both strategic and personal. The staffers who quit had clashed with Weaver on the campaign, calling him domineering and questioning his judgement, and they joined Our Revolution only on condition he would not be involved.
They say they envisioned Our Revolution as a small-dollar-funded group that would use grassroots organizing to help elect progressive candidates, along the lines of Democracy for America, which grew out of the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign.
Weaver has other ideas. He wanted to supplement the group's organizing and online fundraising efforts with independent expenditure TV advertising and larger checks from major donors. Internal critics say that contradicts the spirit of Sanders' movement, which was built around fighting big money in politics.
The shakeup reflects a long-running rift in the Sanders campaign between its older leadership, like Weaver, and its younger staffers, who saw themselves as more ideologically committed to the revolution and thought the consultants at the top were using the campaign to line their pockets.
Weaver and his defenders say political campaigns need decisive leadership and clear chains of command, and that while he might be tough, he was also effective in pushing Sanders to surpass all expectations in the Democratic Primary.
Weaver was sanguine about the departures, telling NBC News he wished those who left well. “Not really much to it. New organization. Putting together the A team here. Big event tomorrow. Should be great,” he said in an email.
"There might be some I.E. work,” he said, referring to third-party TV ads supporting or attacking candidates. “The organizing work will continue.”
“The goal here is to continue to advance the agenda that Bernie Sanders spoke about during the campaign, and that’s what we’ll do,” Weaver added.
And Weaver has the confidence of Sanders himself, who disregarded the objections in elevating him. Weaver has also brought back into the mix Revolution Messaging, the highly successful digital fundraising firm that worked with Sanders’ campaign, but had previously not been involved with Our Revolution.
But the fallout over Weaver’s hiring has wiped out nearly all of Our Revolution’s former staff.
"Those of us who resigned left because we felt the organization couldn't make good on Bernie's promise to keep the political revolution going under Jeff's leadership. 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."
The group's entire organizing team quit, as did much of its digital team -- the group’s two pillars -- including longtime Sanders digital director Kenneth Pennington, who sparred often with Weaver on the campaign.
Several of the staffers who resigned had received personal promises from Sanders that Weaver would not be involved, and he later called several to try to get them to stay, unsuccessfully, according to multiple sources.
Each staffer who quit sent personal letters of resignation to Sanders and executive director Shannon Jackson, several of which were obtained by NBC News. Many expressed regret and said they hoped Our Revolution would be successful, but each said they couldn't work with Weaver for various reasons.
“I share the concerns that much of the staff have about Jeff's competence and vision for OR, and don't want to be part of facilitating that vision,” former data and analytics director Paul Schaffer wrote to Sanders.
Former volunteer engagement manager Ceci Hall told Sanders she had nothing personal against Weaver, but said she criticized his leadership skills and found his vision for the organization “completely contrary” to what she signed up for.
Hall told Sanders she was “trying not to cry as I write this,” but continued: “I cannot in good conscious continue to work with thousands of volunteers and guide them towards an inevitable failure under his direction. That is how strongly I feel that Jeff should not be involved in Our Revolution.”
Weaver’s elevation to manager was announced last Monday on a conference call led by Bernie and Jane Sanders, who chaired the group’s board.
Weaver had already been advising Our Revolution, but Jane Sanders wanted the former lawyer to run the group after legal questions surfaced about whether its activities for candidates were pushing the boundaries of its tax status.
The group is organized as an entity known as a 501(c)4, which severely limits its involvement in elections and how much money Sanders can solicit for it, as noted in an ABC News story published later.
Weaver's elevation was met with immediate resistance on the call, especially after Weaver said he was on his way to California to meet with aides to billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer. Others on the call came away with the impression Weaver was interested in soliciting funds to run independent expenditure TV ads. (A source familiar with the meeting said it was not about finance, and that Weaver did not meet personally with Steyer, but rather that he discussed a program run by Steyer's NextGen Climate to engage with millennials to elect climate hawks).
On the call, Sanders’ wife also announced she would be resigning her chairmanship of the group’s board, in part of out of legal concerns over how close the senator should be to the group.
That left the board consisting entirely of white men from Vermont (Weaver and two of Sanders’ longtime friends and advisers), along with the campaign’s lawyer -- a composition the former staffers found to be unrepresentative of the progressive movement.
Before they left, the organizing team helped find 2,500 people to host house parties across the country so Sanders supporters could listen to the senator deliver a live-streamed speech announcing the launch of Our Revolution Wednesday evening.
But the organizing team left before they could fully promote the event, raising doubts about how many people will actually show up. Revolution Messaging has stepped in to help advertise the kickoff and Weaver said he's not worried about attendance.
Update: This story has been updated with new information about Weaver’s meeting with Steyer aides.