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Clinton addresses her decision not to fire faith outreach adviser accused of sexual harassment

Burns Strider has been seen as one of the best faith outreach advisers in the Democratic Party.

Hillary Clinton addressed a report last week suggesting she shielded a former campaign staffer responsible for faith outreach who was accused of sexually harassing a woman on her campaign. In a lengthy Facebook post, Clinton wrote, "If I had it to do again, I wouldn't." 

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 last week from the New York Times. Clinton reportedly decided not to fire Burns Strider, who led her religious outreach efforts, against the advice of her campaign manager. 

On Tuesday, Clinton wrote that she believed at the time that firing was not the best solution. She said she believed his punishment, including a demotion, a dock in pay and mandatory counseling, "the message to him unambiguous." 

"I also believe in second chances. I've been given second chances and I have given them to others. I want to continue to believe in them. But sometimes they're squandered." 

She said she has been asking herself questions about whether things would have been different had she fired Strider. 

She also took a swipe at the Times, which suspended former White House correspondent Glenn Thrush for two months following sexual harassment accusations. He returned to work on Tuesday to cover "the social safety net in the age of Trump," according to the newspaper. 

"Indeed, while we are revisiting whether my decision from a decade ago was harsh enough, many employers would be well served to take actions at least as severe when confronted with problems now - including the very media outlet that broke this story." 

She wrote that a "seismic shift" has taken place, due to the women who have spoken out about their experiences, including the woman who made the allegations on her campaign. 

"For most of my life, harassment wasn't something talked about or even acknowledged," Clinton wrote. "More women than not experience it to some degree in their life, and until recently, the response was often to laugh it off or tough it out. That's changing, and that's a good thing." 

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," and he is listed in her acknowledgements in her post-election book "What Happened." 


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. 


Clinton's then-campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle told CNN that Strider's behavior was investigated at the time and that she believed Clinton had "made the wrong call" by keeping him on the campaign. 


"Firing a high-profile person on the campaign would have certainly made news and caused a distraction," she said. 


Clinton tweeted on Friday night that she was "dismayed when it occurred, but was heartened the young woman came forward, was heard, and had her concerns taken seriously and addressed." 


However, Clinton did not address the report's suggestion that she decided to keep Strider on the campaign. She said she called the woman who made the allegations today "to tell her how proud I am of her and to make sure she knows what all women should: we deserve to be heard." 


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 like Vice President 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 ol' 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 faith leaders like 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 Washington 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."

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