January 22, 2016 at 12:12 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Sanders walks back remarks after calling HRC ‘establishment’

Bernie Sanders, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, Vermont, Democratic Socialist, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) walked back after saying the Human Rights Campaign is an “establishment” organization. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Democratic presidential candidate Bernard Sanders has walked backed comments in which he called the Human Rights Campaign — as well as Planned Parenthood — “establishment” organizations in their aftermath of their endorsements of Hillary Clinton.

Sanders’ clarification aired Thursday on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the same program in which Sanders earlier in the week dubbed the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood “establishment” groups. The remarks echoed comments Sanders campaign spokesperson Michael Briggs made about the Human Rights Campaign to the Washington Blade on Monday immediately the nation’s largest LGBT group announced it had endorsed Clinton.

During an interview with MSNBC’s Casey Hunt, Sanders denied ever calling the organizations part of the establishment, saying, “No, I didn’t. That’s not what I meant. That’s not what the question was. The question was the endorsement.”

“I am a very, very strong supporter of Planned Parenthood,” Sanders continued. “I think they are doing a fantastic job under very difficult circumstances. I’m a very strong supporter of NARAL, the Human Rights Fund, and I have, I think, 100 percent voting record for all of these organizations.”

Sanders said he intended to draw a contrast between these groups’ endorsements of Clinton and grassroots supporters of the organizations who instead back his campaign.

“What I said in response to a question about endorsements is, I think, that sometimes the grassroots are asking how does it happen?” Sanders said. “If somebody has a 100 percent voting record in support of your issue and doesn’t get endorsed, and that sometimes the leadership of an organization may look at the world a little bit different from the grassroots.”

Sanders blamed the Clinton campaign, saying, “But in terms of those organizations, I know we’re a week out at election, and the Clinton people are trying to spin these things. I am a fierce supporter of Planned Parenthood, NARAL and gay rights in this country.”

Asked to clarify if the organizations aren’t part of the establishment, Sanders replied, “No. They aren’t. They are standing up and fighting the important fights that have to be fought.”

Much as he did in initial remarks about the Human Rights Campaign in appearance on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Sanders misstated the name of the organization, calling it the Human Rights Fund.

After Sanders made the initial remarks earlier this week, Clinton tweeted out an objection to him calling Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign “establishment” groups, which both publicly criticized him on Twitter. At at event in Burlington, Iowa, Clinton said she was “somewhat confused” by Sanders calling these groups part of establishment, saying, “I wish it were.”

In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, Michelangelo Signorile, a New York-based gay advocate and radio host, avoided the issue of Sanders calling the Human Rights Campaign “establishment,” but noted many people are unhappy with the LGBT group endorsing Clinton.

“But here we are less than two weeks from Iowa, and Sen. Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, looking like he will take one or both,” Signorile writes. “He has many LGBT donors and supporters, many of whom are HRC contributors who are, judging from Twitter, bewildered and angry.”

Dawn Laguens, vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement to the Washington Blade her organization is happy with Sanders change in comments.

“We are glad to hear that Senator Sanders agrees that reproductive health care and rights, and the full equality of LGBTQ people, are important fights, and core progressive values that should unite us all,” Laguens said.

Laguens emphasized, however, Planned Parenthood’s endorsement decision “didn’t come out of Washington” and was the result of consultation throughout the nationwide organization.

“Each candidate was interviewed by patients, providers, staff and volunteers, and leaders from our affiliate state action funds across the country discussed and voted on the endorsement over a period of months,” Laguens said. “We held forums across the country engaging thousands of our supporters and volunteers to weigh in on and shape our federal policy goals and discuss an endorsement. In the end, our organization chose Hillary Clinton because she has shown through both words and action that she will protect and advance reproductive health care and rights.”

Brandon Lorenz, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson said, “We appreciate Sen. Sanders’ clarification and remain grateful for his longstanding support.”

The Blade placed a call in with the Clinton campaign to ask whether they’re satisfied with Sanders clarification of his remarks.

Despite the controversy of Sanders’ remarks, the candidate now enjoys a lead in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. A CNN/ORC poll published Thursday night found Sanders has an eight-point lead over Hillary Clinton, leading her in Iowa 51 percent to 43 percent among likely Democratic presidential caucus-goers. Earlier this week, a CNN/WMUR poll found Sanders trouncing Clinton in New Hampshire, with the Vermont senator leading the former secretary of state by 27 points, 60 percent to 33 percent.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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