The Clay Johnson saga

Clay Johnson is a man who gained a powerful reputation during the Howard Dean campaign as a smart guy who knew how to use the emerging internet technology as a tool for politics. He has since gone on to be an important tech guy in Democratic and progressive politics, rising ever upward.

He also has a powerful reputation as an abuser of women. But that doesn’t matter. It never seems to matter.

Let’s begin with his apology.

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.”

What an odd “apology”. There’s no word of apology to the people he hurt, but more of an admission that he was generally awful…but not as awful as his accusers say he was.

That’s kind of a mantra with him. Sure, he was rude and crude, but never as bad as the women he victimized say. Oh, yeah, there was one woman who has a grudge against him, but it’s just stale old personal drama.

…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.”

That woman, Schacht, is someone he attempted to rape. The full, explicit details are in the article. I’ll pass on repeating it here, since, after all, it’s just “gossip, innuendo”. And it didn’t matter at all. Two women accused him of assault in the Dean campaign, but that didn’t check his career in the slightest.

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.

I guess it’s just a fact of life in politics, even progressive politics.

“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.

Responses to his increasingly egregious behavior were ineffective. Johnson himself dismissed them.

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.”

Then there’s this weird defensive behavior from his employers, even the ones who kicked him to the curb.

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.

Wait, wait, wait. They don’t want to work with him, they wouldn’t hire him again, they regret ever hiring him…but they won’t give details? They say it wasn’t because of inappropriate behavior? This is insane. This is how abusers can keep going from prestigious job to prestigious job. This is how a pattern of bad behavior perpetuates itself.

Other companies give a few details.

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.

I’m trying to imagine a workplace so dysfunctional that people rearrange the furniture to block a sociopath’s access to a colleague; where one of the workers gets blackout drunk (and admits it), and makes obscene suggestions to a coworker. I can’t. I guess I’ve been fortunate, or possibly, oblivious. It sounds to me, though, that Clay Johnson has been disruptive everywhere he works, leaving a trail of chaos through every organization he’s been associated with, and nothing he’s done has substantially harmed his career. Every setback is an opportunity for him to move upwards.

The rape story was appalling. It’s this little incident that tells you something about his destructive personality.

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.

That’s why I started with his “apology”. I can believe he knows he has been awful to people. I don’t believe he cares, except when it might interfere with his career — it’s total selfishness.

If you’ve never cared about other human beings all of your life, if you’ve treated your peers as garbage, why should I believe you’ve suddenly discovered empathy now?


  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I’m a firm believer that HR needs to take what I call the “generous hard line” in situations like these.

    Obviously in Clay Johnson’s case there are too many fucked up things happening too often for this example to matter much, but in the hypothetical case of someone whose **only** bad acts happen in a specific context (we’ll use Johnson’s “blackout drunk” for our example), then the conversation needs to go something like this:

    HR: You treated a co-worker terribly. A business requires a team to function together or we wouldn’t be hiring multiple people, it would be one person doing all this out of a home office. Your behavior is bad enough it might cause some people to quit to avoid working with you. If we’re going to lose someone, it is better for the company to lose the person engaged in bad behavior than someone looking to avoid bad behavior. Do you have any explanation at all why we shouldn’t fire you for this behavior?
    CJ: I was blackout drunk.
    HR: Okay. I understand. For the record, you’re saying that this wasn’t something you could control, it wasn’t your choice, it was the alcohol, correct?
    CJ: Yes. I’m very sorry. That’s really not me. It was the alcohol talking.
    HR: Fine. You can stay so long as you never have another sip of alcohol. Do you have an addiction? I can help you connect to rehab and medical resources.
    CJ: Wait, what? You can’t control my alcohol! Everybody drinks!
    HR: Everybody drinks, but not everybody engages in the behavior you did yesterday. That behavior is not acceptable. If that behavior wasn’t your fault, we don’t want to fire you. But if it was the alcohol’s fault, we sure as heck want to fire the alcohol. It’s your choice: is it your fault, or is it the alcohol’s fault? I’ll believe you whichever one you say, but that behavior’s never going to be in this workplace again, so whatever is responsible – your drinking or just yourself – is never going to affect our other employees again.

  2. Mark Dowd says

    Hypothetical HR shouldn’t even give that much leeway. You are responsible for the harm you cause when drunk, because you choose to get drunk. That’s why DWI is even a thing.

    You get blackout drunk and they to tape a colleague? You’ll have plenty of time to reflect on your mistake during unemployment.

    I know I know, total fantasy.

  3. Mark Dowd says

    Fucking phone keyboards, I fat finger like 3 letters per sentence.

  4. davidstarner says

    “This is Erie Meyer. She’s Gray Brooks’ fiancée and she has herpes.” Who is that supposed to embarrass? I wouldn’t associate with someone who would introduced a person to me by stating that she has herpes. The introducer clearly can’t be trusted to behave in a social context, and I don’t want them trying to throw me under the bus in the future.

  5. DrVanNostrand says


    That is a great question. If someone was introduced to me in a professional situation like that, my response would be, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”.

  6. DLC says

    HR departments are notoriously litigation-shy, and so are very conservative about punishments and very skittish about making accusations that might later have to be defended in court. So, of course they aren’t going to tell you that Johnson (or anyone) was dismissed because they committed sexual assault. They will hedge and say that the dismissed person’s behavior was not compatible with the workplace environment at the company, or that the fired one was not in compliance with company policy. It is of course doublespeak, but it keeps lawyers from becoming involved.

  7. DanDare says

    The HR behaviour is reminicent of the Catholic Church and paedophile priests.