By Sarah Pulliam Bailey, The Washington Post
Hillary Clinton’s former faith outreach adviser has been accused of repeatedly sexually harassing a woman in Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president, according to a report from the New York Times.
Clinton reportedly chose to shield Burns Strider, who led her religious outreach efforts, instead of firing him as her campaign manager recommended.
Clinton, who has taught Sunday School and raised money for charity, often struggled to talk comfortably about her United Methodist faith on the campaign trail, saying she didn’t come from a tradition where people wore faith on their sleeves. Strider, a gregarious Southern Baptist, emailed Clinton daily Bible readings every morning during her 2008 campaign and served as a liaison of sorts to religious groups. Politico in 2014 described Strider as “a Hillary Clinton favorite.”
Strider did not respond to phone messages from The Washington Post.
“The complaint against Mr. Strider was made by a 30-year-old woman who shared an office with him,” the New York Times report states. “She told a campaign official that Mr. Strider had rubbed her shoulders inappropriately, kissed her on the forehead and sent her a string of suggestive emails, including at least one during the night, according to three former campaign officials familiar with what took place.”
The Times reports that the complaint was taken to Clinton’s campaign manager at the time, who suggested Strider be fired. Clinton declined.
“Strider was docked several weeks of pay and ordered to undergo counseling, and the young woman was moved to a new job,” the report states. The woman, who was not named in the report, has not spoken publicly about her experience.
Strider was part of a small group that has pushed the Democratic Party to expand its faith outreach. While outreach to religious voters has come naturally to many in the Republican Party with many of its leaders such as Vice President Mike Pence open about faith, the Democrats have struggled to formalize outreach outside of appearances in black churches. The Democrats’ faith outreach began to formalize in the mid-2000s on Howard Dean’s campaign and later under John Kerry’s campaign.
“When it comes to religion outreach in terms of the trust she placed in him and his skill at knowing all the players, he was the very best,” said Amy Sullivan, author of “The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap.” “He could counter the stereotype of cold, godless Democrats because he was a white good ole boy from Mississippi who had a thick, Southern accent and had a story of coming to Christ. That’s not something most Democrats walking into evangelical spaces knowing how to do.”
Strider also knew who specifically he could target within religious circles who would be open to a Democratic candidate. For instance, Sullivan said, he could explain the differences between Southern Baptists and the more progressive Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Strider in the mid-1990s spent three years as a youth minister with a Southern Baptist mission in Hong Kong. He has long been part of a group of Democrats pushing candidates to speak more about their faith and to make a more confident run for voters who say religion is a priority.
Along with Mara Vanderslice Kelly, who worked for Kerry, Strider was one of the first to implement the Democrats’ strategic outreach to religious voters. He set up conversations between Pentecostals and Clinton, figuring that since many Pentecostals had women in church leadership that they might be more receptive to a female candidate. He also helped the behind-the-scenes work that led to a 2008 conversation between Clinton and then-candidate Barack Obama at Messiah College where Clinton spoke openly of her faith.
But Strider, who formerly worked for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was mostly absent from Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Strider spoke about his work for Clinton at a gathering at Calvin College in the spring of 2017. There he said he continued to work for her “even after she stopped paying me.” He said Democratic campaigns would only set up meetings in black churches instead of reaching beyond their usual base to white churches.
Strider co-founded one of the few faith outreach consultancies to Democrats, called the Eleison Group.
Strider led an independent group that supported Clinton’s 2016 candidacy called Correct the Record, but he was fired after several months for workplace issues, including allegations that he harassed a young female aide, according to the Times’s report.
People close to Strider say he was a key adviser to Clinton, and he would often be the go-between setting up conversations with such faith leaders as megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s wife Kay Warren and popular author and speaker Tony Campolo. Several people who have done faith outreach for the Democratic Party told The Post that the party does not seem particularly interested or eager to do much outreach to religious voters at the moment. Some fear that this kind of publicity directed toward Strider doesn’t help the cause.
He was in the first wave of Clinton hires during the 2008 campaign and built a specific kind of trust and closeness, Sullivan said. He served a pastoral-like role, praying with her and for her.
“It doesn’t excuse anything he might have done, but I don’t think this is a matter of Hillary Clinton protecting just any staffer,” Sullivan said. “I think she would’ve been extra hesitant to let him go.”
The Post’s Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.