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Pro-Bernie Sanders group cancels Hillary Clinton protest

To Clinton allies, the event was evidence that Sanders and his supporters are obsessed with tearing her down.
Image: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton speak with each other on stage before the start of the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada on Oct. 13, 2015.Luke Sharrett / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A pro-Bernie Sanders group has canceled an anti-Hillary Clinton protest, its organizer told NBC News on Monday.

The event, created by the leader of a local chapter of Our Revolution, prompted backlash from Clinton allies, leading Sanders' top adviser to condemn it and disassociate his boss from the group, which grew out of Sanders presidential campaign.

The episode shows that, two years later, Democrats still can’t quite shake the ghost of 2016 and the hard-fought presidential primary between Clinton and Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont. And it's another demonstration of the challenges Sanders faces in leading a movement that acts in his name but is often beyond his control — even as he reportedly prepares for a second presidential bid in 2020.

Ellen Faden said she had no idea her protest would cause such an uproar.

The founder of the Hazlet, New Jersey, chapter of Our Revolution objected to the fact that Rutgers University is paying Clinton $25,000 for an upcoming speech, so she thought she'd use the event to make a point about money in politics.

Faden had organized a similar demonstration outside a Bill Clinton event in California, where she used to live, that drew little attention and attracted only about a dozen participants. So she expected similarly low turnout when she posted an event listing on Our Revolution's website inviting people to protest Clinton's Rutgers speech on March 29.

“When I put it up, nothing happened for about a week or more. And then all of a sudden, I got one comment, and then it was like hundreds of comments," Faden said. “It did absolutely touch a sore spot with us, with Democrats, because I do consider myself a Democrat."

Over the weekend, the event caught fire on Twitter among Clinton and Sanders supporters, who still regularly duke it out on social media.

To Clinton allies, like her former spokesperson, Philippe Reines, who played Donald Trump in her debate prep sessions, it was evidence that Sanders and his supporters are obsessed with tearing Clinton down and dividing the party, even when it seems to play right into Trump's hands.

Democrats of all stripes called on Our Revolution to remove the event from the group's national website, saying progressives should be focused on fighting Republicans, not each other.

The event listing remained online, but a disclaimer was appended reading: “Events are created by local grass-roots organizers and are not necessarily endorsed by Our Revolution National."

In the past, Clinton has donated honorariums from public universities to charity, including the Clinton Foundation. A spokesperson for Clinton confirmed Monday that she will donate the honorarium for the Rutgers speech, as well.

Late Sunday night, Sanders’ former campaign manager and current senior adviser, Jeff Weaver, entered the fray to make it clear that Sanders himself did not condone the event.

“Our Revolution and Senator Sanders operate independently. Our Revolution has autonomous chapters all across the country," Weaver said in a statement. "That being said, this is no time to be protesting Hillary Clinton or any Democrat."

On Monday morning, Our Revolution’s high command called Faden, who then told NBC News she would cancel the event and was working to remove it from the website and Facebook.

"I’m still going to go myself, just as a private citizen, but with nothing whatsoever to do with Our Revolution," she said. "I don’t want to jeopardize anything with Our Revolution. I really didn’t expect this to happen."

In a statement, Our Revolution President Nina Turner said the organization did not endorse the event, but that the decision to cancel it did not come from on high.

"The Rutgers protest of Secretary Clinton was created by one local group, not an event endorsed by the national organization or myself," Turner said. "With almost 600 local groups, Our Revolution encourages a wide range of opinions and respects everyone's right to peaceful protest. This group has decided, on their own, to cancel this event. We are open to working with individuals and groups who believe in the founding principals of our Revolution."

It’s not the first time Sanders has had to publicly distance himself from his own group.

Our Revolution, which shares its name with Sanders’ book, spun directly out of his presidential campaign. Weaver initially helmed the organization before turning it over to Turner, a former Ohio state senator, and other Sanders surrogates.

But campaign finance rules prohibit Sanders from exerting much influence over the group, which prides itself on bottom-up decision-making driven by grass-roots activists, who often chafe at pressure from above.

Both Sanders and Our Revolution benefit from their perceived association, so neither is exactly keen to advertise their independence. But the status has created awkward situations where Sanders and Our Revolution have diverged.

For instance, last month, Sanders was compelled to put out a statement breaking from Our Revolution after they endorsed former congressman Dennis Kucinich in the Ohio governor's race.

"Our Revolution is doing a great job, but I am not involved with it, and it would be illegal for me to be involved. Let me be very clear: Bernie Sanders will make endorsements, and Our Revolution will make endorsements," Sanders said. "I’ve known Dennis Kucinich forever. I consider him a friend. But I am not making an endorsement there."

It’s a similar situation to the one his fellow Vermonter, Howard Dean, found himself him in when the group that grew out of his 2004 presidential campaign, Democracy for America, endorsed Sanders while Dean himself backed Clinton.

But as the 2018 midterms heat up, tensions may only become more apparent as Our Revolution and Sanders make more endorsements in competitive Democratic primaries across the country.