He Was Accused Of Attempted Rape. He Became A Progressive Star Anyway.

For more than a decade, women alleged that Clay Johnson, a leader in political tech, physically and verbally abused them.
Photo Illustration: Ji Sub Jeong/HuffPost; Photo: Pete Souza

On April 28, 2008, Sarah Schacht received an email that terrified her. The Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group, had invited Schacht, the head of a budding good-government nonprofit, to join a conference call. There on the invitation list was Clay Johnson — a man she says once tried to rape her.

Reeling, Schacht called a friend at Sunlight, who told her the foundation had just hired Johnson. Within an hour, she said, she was on the phone with Sunlight’s executive director, Ellen Miller.

Schacht said Miller received her story with a stern voice and a battery of excuses: “Well, I’m sure there was some confusion, it was so long ago, he was so young at the time, and now he’s in this great relationship,” Schacht recalls Miller saying. In her disbelief, Schacht blurted out that she wasn’t Johnson’s only victim, but that didn’t seem to faze Miller either. “I left the phone call shaking,” Schacht said.

Although Miller insists no such call ever happened, the conversation Schacht remembers must have been repeated many times. For more than a decade, women have accused Johnson, a leader in the world of political technology, of physical and verbal abuse. They’ve complained to some of the most powerful people in Washington’s nonprofit and progressive circles — only to watch, horrified, as Johnson became a powerful figure, too.

During Johnson’s first job in politics, on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, Schacht and a fellow campaign worker separately accused Johnson of sexual assault. Word of both women’s complaints reached several of Dean’s top deputies. But Johnson kept his job, and his work on the campaign became his ticket to a high-profile career.

He went on to co-found a pathbreaking political consulting firm. Powerful groups and people sought his thoughts on the future of tech in politics; his Twitter banner shows him cracking a joke to a roomful of government officials including President Barack Obama. Despite Schacht’s warning about his behavior, the Sunlight Foundation chose him to head its flagship technology division. He left amid a staff insurrection over his lewd and menacing behavior. And still, he rose higher.

His reputation seemed to be an open secret.

“People would go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Clay,’” said Erie Meyer, a tech worker who said Johnson harassed her at a 2013 conference. “And I’m thinking, ‘How have you all been letting him wander the halls of progressive power and know he’s like this?’”

HuffPost spoke with more than two dozen of Johnson’s former supervisors, peers and colleagues, many of whom talked on the record, in search of an explanation. The answer implicates not only Johnson as a serial abuser but a constellation of progressive and good-government groups that failed to put their values into action. On the eve of the most consequential midterm election in a decade, it also raises grave questions about how prepared politicians are to protect the people who get them elected. Nearly 20,000 people will work in the local and national campaigns this year, and as many as 5 percent of all registered voters will volunteer. Should they face harassment or abuse, few of them will have any recourse.

“We just pass creeps from campaign to campaign,” said Meg Reilly, vice president of the Campaign Workers Guild, a new union seeking to organize political workers across the country. “The excuse becomes, ‘We’ll deal with this once the candidate gets elected.’ People tell themselves that if they’re working for this candidate who’s really fantastic, who opposes sexism and racism, then everyone on the campaign is immune from committing the same sins.” Once the election ends, little prevents abusive employees from starting a second act in government, political advocacy or nonprofits.

Johnson, in interviews with HuffPost, described his history in the workplace as “awful” and said it filled him with shame, hurt and regret, although he disputed the details of most of his accusers’ stories.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said when asked if he had sexually assaulted two women on the Dean campaign. “What I can tell you is, I had two women complain to management on the Dean campaign about sexual harassment, and I was given a warning.” Later, he said his memory of his encounter with Schacht didn’t include anything he would describe as “assault.”

“My entire career was littered with treating people very poorly,” he continued. “Whether that was the Sunlight Foundation, the Dean campaign, or anywhere else I worked. I did not behave appropriately. I was awful to people, to nearly every single person, and I really wish I hadn’t been.”

Howard Dean's presidential campaign, where Clay Johnson and Sarah Schacht both worked, was the cutting edge in online political organizing.
Howard Dean's presidential campaign, where Clay Johnson and Sarah Schacht both worked, was the cutting edge in online political organizing.
Jason Reed/Reuters

In the summer of 2003, the Howard Dean campaign felt electric with promise. Although the former Vermont governor’s presidential bid would later be remembered for the Dean Scream, at the time people noticed the groundbreaking way his supporters met and organized online. Schacht, who was raring to work in political tech, joined the campaign as an intern in New Hampshire. “I thought, wow, I really want to work with those guys, on that team,” she said. “I wanted that experience to be the start of my career.”

Specifically, Schacht wanted to work with Clay Johnson, who had joined the Dean campaign earlier that year, first as a volunteer and then full-time in the Burlington, Vermont, headquarters as its lead programmer. Johnson, who is more than 6 feet tall, had a domineering personality and usually spoke without a filter. But he struck Schacht as smart and ambitious. When he said he could look for an opening for her on his team, Schacht recalled, she moved to Vermont. She spent 10- and 12-hour days doing odd jobs as a volunteer for the finance and youth outreach teams. At night, she crashed in one of the Dean campaign’s ubiquitous group houses.

One night in late fall, she was staying at an apartment that Johnson rented. She was sleeping on an air mattress in the living room when he woke her up by stumbling against the walls, she said. Schacht recalled worrying that he was sick or so drunk he might hurt himself, and she got up to ask him if he was all right.

“He kissed me, and I was surprised. But before I could say anything, the next thing I remember is I was pinned on his bed,” she said. He was trying to have sex with her. “I’m saying ‘No!’ I’m saying ‘Stop.’ I’m saying, ‘Don’t do this, stop.’”

Schacht said she brought her knees to her chest and with all four of her limbs tried to shove Johnson away. She doesn’t know how long she held him off, she said, but it felt like an excruciatingly long time. He didn’t let up until he passed out drunk, she said, and she pushed him off her.

The morning after Johnson’s alleged assault, Schacht said, she abandoned the air mattress and checked into a hotel.

Johnson said his memory of that night is “radically different”.

“It’s not a recollection that would involve the word ‘assault,’” he said. “That said, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she has pain over this encounter, and I have caused her that pain.”

I asked Johnson if he was saying sexual assault is a matter of interpretation.

“I think that there is a clear line, but the line gets much less clear after 15 years of memories,” he replied.

Later, in an email, Johnson claimed he and Schacht never discussed the idea of her joining his team but that they went on several dates “with what I believe to be romantic intent” before the night in question. “On our first date, she stopped me on the way into a restaurant and kissed me. I started to avoid Sarah after that.”

Dean campaign organizer Zephyr Teachout passed along the accusations against Johnson to higher-ups in the campaign but felt like nothing would be done.
Dean campaign organizer Zephyr Teachout passed along the accusations against Johnson to higher-ups in the campaign but felt like nothing would be done.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Within weeks, Schacht told several of her colleagues about the incident, including a Dean campaign employee, Amanda Michel, who let Schacht share her rented bedroom once the hotel became too expensive. (Schacht slept in the walk-in closet.)

Michel confirmed to HuffPost that Schacht told her about Johnson’s alleged assault; in all, HuffPost spoke to six people who said Schacht told them Johnson had assaulted her. Michel also said that a second woman told her Johnson had sexually assaulted her and that Schacht and the other woman did not seem to be aware of one another at the time. (Michel was director of HuffPost’s OffTheBus project in 2007 and 2008. The second woman declined to speak for this article; HuffPost is withholding her name because it does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault without their consent.)

Alarmed, Michel told her boss, Zephyr Teachout, who was the campaign’s director of online organizing and nominally Johnson’s supervisor on some projects, although Teachout didn’t believe she had the authority to fire him. Teachout doesn’t recall being aware of the second accuser. But she alerted at least two members of Dean’s inner circle — Bob Rogan, the deputy campaign manager, and Joe Trippi, who oversaw the entire operation — that Johnson faced a serious allegation of sexual assault. Two former Dean staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity said they got word of the second accusation to Rogan.

Teachout asked what the accuser should do. Trippi essentially waved her aside, Teachout said. “My impression was that he had no plans to do anything about it and no suggestions for what an accuser should do,” she said. Rogan, whom she met with separately, was more diplomatic but no less evasive. “I left feeling like nothing would be done,” Teachout recalled. “It was totally demoralizing and radicalizing and unacceptable. I had nothing to tell anyone about what they could do with accusations, no recourse, no process, no recognition. It haunted me.”

Schacht was in a daze. “I just didn’t know what to make of what had happened to me,” she said. “I knew it was wrong. I knew I had fought him off. I just didn’t know where to go or what to say.” She realized her future could depend on being part of Dean’s team. She decided to stay with the campaign and take a new, paid position in Iowa. She was 24.

That winter, Schacht said, she received calls from a lawyer for the Dean campaign and a female campaign official. They asked questions about her encounter with Johnson that made her deeply uncomfortable. “I ended up reporting that he had attempted to rape me.”

Johnson couldn’t recall anyone asking him questions about his behavior. But there had been one repercussion, he said: Rogan, in the presence of his co-deputy campaign manager, Tom McMahon, gave Johnson a warning. “They were like, ‘This complaint has come in, so like, cool it,’” Johnson said. “I would say it made me more defensive. I’m not sure I would say it altered my behavior.”

“They were like, ‘This complaint has come in, so like, cool it.’ I would say it made me more defensive. I’m not sure I would say it altered my behavior.”

- Clay Johnson

Rogan, who is now the chief of staff for Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), said he didn’t recall any discussions he may have had about Johnson. Neither did McMahon. Trippi, who has worked on dozens of Democratic campaigns since, didn’t recall a conversation with Teachout either. But he doubted it would have lasted very long. “It would have gotten like a nanosecond of me even recognizing what she was saying,” he said. “I dealt with the bigger strategy. If it was about money or people, it would have been, ‘Go talk to Bob.’”

The Dean campaign was not unique in lacking a process for dealing with complaints of harassment and abuse. Unless the people in charge make a conscious decision to put rules in place, chaos is a campaign’s default setting. Political campaigns are short-lived organizations where every dollar and body is applied toward the singular goal of winning. The pay is low, the hours are grueling, and the whole operation collapses after Election Day. Typically the only people willing to work under these conditions are true believers — young ones whose expectations about work are still unformed.

The Dean campaign, former staffers recall, combined all these factors. Dean’s was the Bernie Sanders or Barack Obama campaign of 2004 — the one attracting scores of 19- to 25-year-olds who had never worked in politics. A former official recalled pleading with staffers not to drink and drive through the streets of Burlington. “You’re wearing shorts and T-shirts,” said one Dean campaign worker. “Your furniture is whatever you pulled out of the garbage. You’re not doing it for the money, so you don’t see it as a job … although it is.”

“I regret to say that I didn’t know what to do when she told me.”

- Sarah Schacht's supervisor on the Dean campaign

That campaign worker was one of the first people Schacht spoke to about Johnson’s alleged attack. In the chaos of the campaign, he was loosely considered Schacht’s supervisor. He asked for anonymity to be candid about how he responded to her report.

“I regret to say that I didn’t know what to do when she told me,” he said. “Maybe because I’d never had a real job — I was always on campaigns — I really wasn’t sure what you do. … I almost felt like I was in college and somebody told me they’d had somebody cross the line. But looking back now, Jesus Christ, it’s pretty simple, you do A, B, C.”

Dean, by all accounts, was never involved in any of the discussions about Johnson. “This is the first I’m hearing of it,” the former candidate said.

He said if a campaign receives a complaint, it ought to fire the accused campaign worker immediately. It’s possible the person being fired did nothing wrong, he continued, but it’s more important to keep the campaign running smoothly. “In politics, unfair things happen to people sometimes,” Dean said. “There’s a greater cause [at stake], and it’s the campaign.”

But the same mentality makes it difficult for campaign workers to report abuse. “What if it goes public and takes down the campaign?” Michel said. “No one wants to be the story or be part of the story that takes down their candidate. Not when you’ve sacrificed so much.”

Asked how future candidates could change that mentality, Dean had little to offer. He suggested that candidates make their values clear and post rules of conduct in the campaign office.

“Look, you just don’t have time to straighten these things out,” he said. “Campaigns are chaotic. … There’s not going to be a campaign where there’s going to be a process.”

Johnson said something similar. “Campaigns are strange creatures,” he said when asked if he was surprised he wasn’t fired. “They don’t live very long. There’s not a lot of time for investigation and fact-finding.”

Later, he emailed to say he’d reconsidered the question. “Yes,” he said, he was surprised. “If anybody that worked for me acted the way I did on that campaign on any given day, but especially given those allegations, I would fire them.”

Blue State Digital's website brags of the firm's progressive values.
Blue State Digital's website brags of the firm's progressive values.
Blue State Digital

The Dean campaign collapsed in February 2004, but its reputation for revolutionizing politics online endured. Buoyed by this legacy, Johnson and three other Dean alums — Joe Rospars, Jascha Franklin-Hodge and Ben Self — founded a lucrative consulting firm, Blue State Digital.

The firm easily attracted top-tier clients, such as the Democratic National Committee (where Dean was elected chair in 2005 and McMahon became his executive director) and a presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama. But multiple former Dean staffers — men and women alike — said they passed up opportunities to work with Blue State Digital because of Johnson’s reputation. Their hesitancy seems warranted. Two of Blue State’s early employees said Johnson was an unmitigated bully. One of them recalled witnessing Johnson tell a pregnant Blue State employee, “You’re going to push that baby out under the conference table because that’s as much maternity leave as I’m going to give you.”

“I don’t believe I said that,” Johnson said. “I did say, ‘I’m glad that we’re not eligible for FMLA.’ I made an obnoxious comment, but not that obnoxious comment.” (FMLA refers to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers of a certain size to provide eligible workers unpaid leave for the birth of a child.)

“You’re going to push that baby out under the conference table because that’s as much maternity leave as I’m going to give you.”

- Johnson's alleged remark to a pregnant Blue State employee

Blue State said it wasn’t aware of Johnson’s “unacceptable” comment and that it has always offered paid parental leave, including to that employee.

While Johnson launched into the next phase of his career, some of his former Dean colleagues continued to agonize over his abusiveness. “I felt like we had totally failed,” Teachout said. She felt hesitant to tell Johnson’s future employers about an accusation she had heard secondhand and thinks it’s even possible she provided a positive reference. Occasionally, she and Michel discussed how to stop serial abusers from moving from one campaign to another and wondered why the national party didn’t have a hotline or a system in place. (“Yeah, there could be a role for the party,” Dean said.)

At the end of 2007, Blue State Digital forced Johnson out. “Clay was asked to leave the company because his partners didn’t want to work with him anymore, not because of any allegations of inappropriate behavior,” the firm said in a statement. “Clay would not be hired today, we’re glad we fired him over a decade ago and we regret he was ever associated with the company.” The firm wouldn’t provide further details.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation in 2008, said she doesn't remember Schacht making any accusation against Johnson.
Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation in 2008, said she doesn't remember Schacht making any accusation against Johnson.
Sunlight Foundation

By spring 2008, Johnson had been quietly hired by the Sunlight Foundation — at the time, the center of gravity for the open-government movement. Johnson started work at Sunlight that summer overseeing its digital technology lab. He gave the impression that he’d left Blue State a wealthy person, several former Sunlight employees said, and it was clear from the outset that he played a significant role in helping the nonprofit raise money and attract grants.

Schacht had fallen into Sunlight’s orbit, too. In the years since she worked on the Dean campaign, she had founded a small but scrappy nonprofit, Knowledge As Power, that offered a free legislative tracker to local governments. “Thinking about her capabilities, and planfulness, and knowledge, I kind of view her as a visionary,” said Gary Pollack, who worked for KAP starting in 2010. “She has this vigor and this capacity to keep the forest and the trees in her sightline.” In January 2008, Sunlight extended KAP a small grant. More significantly, Ellen Miller, the foundation’s executive director, gave Schacht glowing introductions to numerous potential donors and collaborators.

But Schacht claims there was an abrupt change in the relationship after she told Miller that Johnson, Sunlight’s star new hire, had once attacked her. The flattering introductions stopped, and Schacht got the impression she no longer had Sunlight’s imprimatur.

It started with the email inviting Schacht and Johnson to a conference call. The call was to discuss an upcoming Sunlight conference, and Schacht contacted a friend at Sunlight, John Wonderlich, to make sure she and Johnson wouldn’t share any panels. Schacht heard Wonderlich gasp. Sunlight had just hired Johnson, he said. Wonderlich, who is now Sunlight’s executive director, said he felt obligated to tell Miller, and he arranged for Miller and Schacht to speak. By then, Schacht had spoken directly to Johnson’s other accuser from the Dean campaign, and she told Miller both of their stories.

Miller seemed unmoved, Schacht said. Later that year, Schacht claims, Sunlight shut down KAP’s request for a larger grant, and it announced plans to launch a legislative tracker that Schacht felt was in direct competition with hers.

Miller said there was no chilliness and no such phone call. Sunlight made hundreds of small grants to groups like KAP, she said, but rarely, if ever, gave out larger sustainable grants. It’s true that she stopped introducing Schacht to potential donors, but that’s because there were only so many donors to introduce.

“It only happens once, at the beginning of the process, and that’s all there really is to the story,” Miller said. As for the phone call: “I simply do not recall either a phone call or an interest in having a conversation with her about Clay Johnson. I would have remembered a serious accusation like that one, I would remember that, and I would tell you I remember that.”

In response to Miller’s denial of the call and Johnson’s claim that their relationship was ever romantic, Schacht said, “Their statements do not match my interactions with them.”

“She’s perhaps the one person I can think of in the world that has a real issue with me.”

- Johnson in a 2008 email to Miller referring to Schacht

Johnson said he wasn’t aware of any hasty phone call between Miller and Schacht. But he emailed Miller in June 2008 to warn her that he and Schacht had a history from the Dean campaign. “She hates me,” he wrote, in an email he shared with HuffPost. “Absolutely despises me. Happy to talk to you about it in person, but it’s mainly gossip, innuendo, stale and old. It is weird, I’m happy to talk about it with you. But the short story is: It was a presidential campaign, it was Vermont. She was like 22, I was 26 and we were both shamefully less professional in the workplace. You can put the rest of that story together. I promise there’s not a long slough of disgruntled female campaign staffers in my closets. But there is one, and it is her.”

Johnson added that Schacht was very talented and smart and that Knowledge As Power was an impressive project. “That being said, she’s perhaps the one person I can think of in the world that has a real issue with me.”

Johnson claims he told Miller in person that Schacht had filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Dean campaign. Miller insists this isn’t true: “He didn’t say anything about a sexual harassment claim against him at the Dean campaign, I’m certain.”

Many of Sunlight’s staff members would come to have issues with Johnson as well. Johnson routinely made obscene comments toward his co-workers, according to multiple former Sunlight employees. Nisha Thompson, one former employee, described him as “leery” and “a bully.” Once, she ran into him at a bar outside of work. As soon as she said hello, she claims, Johnson replied, “I’m going to fuck you in the ass.” He sought her out at work the next day to say he’d been blackout drunk, Thompson said.

Johnson’s most frequent target was a young digital designer who reported directly to him. Her desk was next to Johnson’s, and other members of the labs team said she was the butt of all his lewdest comments. In summer 2010, he said something so inappropriate that the team, in dramatic fashion, dragged her desk away from his and surrounded her with their own desks. No one could recall the exact comment. But both the designer and a former Sunlight employee, Hafeezah Abdullah, said the incident involved Johnson spraying the designer in the face with a can of compressed air used for dusting keyboards. The designer and at least one other team member told HuffPost they complained to the head of operations, who was Sunlight’s de facto HR rep.

Johnson didn’t recall his barside run-in with Thompson. It was possible it happened while he was blacked out from drinking, he said; he’s now in recovery. He remembers spraying the designer in the face, but he doesn’t remember making a lewd remark. “I can see how my actions toward her made her uncomfortable,” Johnson said. “I looked at her like a kid sister. I made comments like, ‘Hey, those are great shoes,’ and I probably did so too frequently. … I’m really sorry that in our professional relationship, I did not treat her with the respect of her talent that she deserved.”

Sunlight didn’t ask Johnson to leave over the spray-can incident, he said, but it gave him a warning. He quit the next day out of anger and defensiveness after seeing the rearranged desks. Sunlight, he said, “asked me to stay.” Former staffers said Sunlight never addressed the staff about his behavior or departure. The foundation, saying it could not discuss personnel matters, declined to respond to a list of detailed questions.

Multiple former employees said Sunlight’s failure to address Johnson’s behavior emboldened other men whose conduct also crossed lines. “Because of Sunlight’s lack of response, things escalated,” an ex-employee said. Said another, “It became a totally permissive culture.” A few of the senior men on staff hit on new female hires as a matter of course, two former employees recalled, and made sexually inappropriate comments. On a work trip, one senior staffer told a young female employee he had a genital piercing.

Sunlight struggled with these issues long after Johnson was gone. “An issue I was very disappointed to encounter at Sunlight was the lack of clarity around how to handle hostile work environment or sexual harassment issues,” an employee wrote in a 2015 exit memo obtained by HuffPost. “It became clear to me that, as colleagues came to me with examples of these issues they actively faced at Sunlight, they did not feel there was anyone in the organization they could turn to for addressing the issue.”

President Barack Obama meets with Clay Johnson and other Presidential Innovation Fellows in 2013. Johnson uses this photo as the banner on his Twitter page.
President Barack Obama meets with Clay Johnson and other Presidential Innovation Fellows in 2013. Johnson uses this photo as the banner on his Twitter page.
Pete Souza

After Sunlight, Johnson moved into a covetable role as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, part of a group of tech luminaries enticed by a signature Obama administration program to dedicate six months to improving government technology. He published his book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, and became a fixture at conferences where lecturers spoke grandly about technology’s role in making government more transparent and accountable.

All this time, “his party trick was bringing women down a notch,” said Erie Meyer, the tech worker. At Personal Democracy Forum in 2013, Johnson humiliated her by saying to a group of CEOs she was meeting for the first time, “This is Erie Meyer. She’s Gray Brooks’ fiancée and she has herpes.” She was neither engaged nor did she have a sexually transmitted infection, but “this was Clay’s way of letting people know that I was a plus-one — I was not a person of note.” Meyer sobbed in a stairwell and skipped the rest of the conference.

A year later, Johnson became a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “We heard no reports of any kind of inappropriate behavior before, during or after Clay Johnson’s time at CAP and would have acted if the case was otherwise,” a spokesperson told HuffPost.

The Presidential Innovation Fellows program didn’t respond to requests for comment. No one provided evidence that either CAP or the fellows program was warned about Johnson’s behavior — although plenty wondered how his reputation could have escaped them.

Today, Johnson and his family live in his home state of Georgia. He worked as a senior vice president at the international volunteer organization Points of Light from 2016 to 2017 until, according to him, the commute into Atlanta became too long. He said he now mostly keeps to himself, writing Medium and Twitter posts for a sizable online following.

He said he regrets his past behavior and left Washington to get off the destructive path he was on.

Asked if he was surprised to have had a successful career despite that behavior, he said, “Am I surprised or shocked at what I was able to accomplish and how I was able to do it? I don’t know, I don’t have an answer.”

But he has been thinking about how politics could treat men differently.

“There’s no one that ever said to me in Washington, ‘Hey, Clay, you have a problem and you need to get some help.’ That’s not to say I’m not responsible for my actions, but [a cultural change] there, especially amongst young men, to watch out for this kind of behavior and to have the courage to say something could really go a long way.”

“Young men in particular are able to, in politics, ascend very, very quickly and with almost no executive coaching,” he continued. “I had never been through any training in sexual harassment. I had no idea how to treat women in the workplace. Most of the people my age that found power and success in that community were also the same way, meaning no one had any form of mentorship.”

“I had never been through any training in sexual harassment. I had no idea how to treat women in the workplace.”

- Johnson

I suggested that many of his former colleagues hadn’t required coaching to treat one another with decency.

“I’m not trying to defend myself,” Johnson said. “There are people who figure out how to run marathons on their own and there are also people who need help.”

“To the women that I know that have had issues with me, if they would have anything to do with me or want to be near me, I would extend an apology immediately, and I do not blame them for not” wanting to encounter him ever again, he said. “If these people are still feeling pain as a result of an encounter with me, or knowing me, or me being in their lives, even for a moment, that’s fucking awful, and there’s not an excuse for that. There’s not something I can do to make that go away.”

Although Johnson avoided self-destruction, he left a trail of devastation behind him. Numerous people recalled avoiding work opportunities — especially at Blue State Digital — that would place them in Johnson’s path. Because Schacht remained in the same industry, she was forced to see him occasionally, but she steered clear of events and projects where she might encounter him one-on-one. A few years ago, the lack of funding for Knowledge As Power forced her to shut it down. Johnson’s other accuser from the Dean campaign left politics altogether.

“The fact that I’ve seemed to encounter people across my career who think he’s problematic, the number of people who are concerned about him but are flies on the wall to his behavior, I find that so incredibly disturbing,” Schacht said. “To know that in the Dean campaign, to now know that there were two reports, and nothing was done? And that kicked off his career and led to all of these other things? It’s appalling.

I hope other organizations and people who are putting together campaigns take a lesson from what happened here,” she continued. “I’m a powerful person. I get shit done. For me, who was physically powerful enough to physically hold a massive man off of me, and overcome my fear, and find any opportunity to keep doing my work, but still have to dodge and weave this guy — that’s too much to ask of even the strongest of us.”

A change could take a while. After the incident at Personal Democracy Forum, Meyer emailed the most prominent CEO who had been present for Johnson’s herpes remark. “Why didn’t you say anything or stand up for me?” she asked. “What went through your mind?” At first, the executive, whose identity Meyer promised to keep secret, was dismissive. “Because in the 5 minutes prior he repeatedly called me a child molester,” he replied. “Like 5 times.” When she pressed him, he replied, “I took what he said to you to mean you were part of the circle, you were cool and I should pay attention to you. I actually thought *more* of you not less,” he wrote. But he added, “I understand why you were offended.”

That was several days following the conference. In the moments after Johnson spoke, nobody had said a word.

The story has been updated with comment from the Center for American Progress.

Clarification: Language in this story has been amended to describe Amanda Michel’s previous role at HuffPost more specifically.

HuffPost is dedicated to uncovering more stories about working conditions in political and mission-driven organizations. To reach Molly Redden, email molly.redden@huffpost.com.

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