Over the past several years, as the nation has reckoned with racism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry, progressive institutions and campaigns have sought to construct mechanisms for resolving internal conflicts with an eye toward a more just society. The process of restorative justice shifts the focus away from mere punishment and retribution. It brings the victim and the perpetrator together in conversation, talking out why the aggrieved was wronged and how the assailant can take accountability before not just the person who was directly harmed, but also in some cases before the entire affected community.
Nobody was better positioned to model such a process than Brandy Brooks, a racial equity and environmental justice consultant running for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland. She’s the founder and CEO of Radical Solutions LLC, a consulting firm that offers “training, coaching and consulting for progressive organizing leaders who are working on multiracial, cross-class, movement-building electoral and issue campaigns.” The firm’s “focus [is] on supporting and centering the leadership of women and femmes of color.”
On March 14, Brooks learned that she herself was the subject of a complaint of a hostile work environment from a member of her campaign staff. What made the process feel especially difficult — but also resolvable through a restorative justice process — was the source of the complaint: a person she considered a longtime close friend. We’ll call them Sam.
Serving on the County Council is a serious job — its nine members set policy for a county of roughly a million residents — but bordering a city that serves as the world’s power center, it is not, without being unkind, a position that Washington’s power brokers spend much time thinking about. Still, it would be a foot in the door for the rising democratic socialist movement in the area, positioning Brooks for a future run for county executive, a statewide position, or even Congress. She was a contender from the start, having run previously in 2018. The top four finishers in the Democratic primary go on to win council seats, and she fell 1.5 percentage points short, or less than 6,000 votes, of making the cut.
In 2020, as Brooks explored a second campaign for a council seat in the well-to-do suburb of Washington, D.C., she naturally turned to her closest friends and family to form a “kitchen cabinet” of advisers. First among them were her sister and mother, followed by Sam.
Sam, who uses they/them pronouns, is, like Brandy, a fixture of the Montgomery County activist scene. They have worked for local labor unions for years, and served on the steering committees of both the MoCo branch of Democratic Socialists of America and the umbrella chapter, Metro D.C. DSA. Brandy, a tenants rights activist in addition to her work as a racial and environmental justice consultant, first met Sam in 2017 and developed a close friendship beginning in 2018. Sam volunteered for Brandy’s 2018 campaign, while working professionally for a county executive candidate. (Though they spoke publicly at a widely attended DSA meeting, Sam asked the Washington Post not to use their name. The Intercept reached Sam, but they declined multiple opportunities to be interviewed, and we’re also not publishing their name. Brooks’s recollections are central to this article, but The Intercept reviewed all key documents and messages and talked to multiple people who knew them both.)
“They’ve just been really super, super close friends, and even like playful physical close friends,” said one mutual friend of Brandy and Sam, who asked to remain anonymous because of the fraught situation.
In December 2021, Sam told Brandy they were excited to fill out the questionnaire for the DSA endorsement. The region’s DSA chapters have quickly built themselves into a political force through the dint of their shoe-leather work on behalf of candidates they support: phone banking, door knocking, and otherwise putting in crucial volunteer hours in races often decided by just a few thousand votes. Given Sam’s standing in the organization, and the fact that Brandy was also a member, the endorsement was a slam dunk.
With Sam’s help, Brandy put together an unusually broad coalition for a democratic socialist. She earned the backing of the powerful Montgomery County Education Association; CASA Action, an immigrant rights group; and Jews United for Justice. The small campaign staff quickly formed a union, with Sam serving as shop steward.
Text messages the two exchanged over the years provide a window into the type of witty banter mixed with emotional connection that characterizes so many friendships forged in the political world, whether it was rehashing a day trip to the beach at Sandy Point State Park on the Chesapeake Bay, or joking about reality TV shows or movies they both watched, or gossiping about other local political figures.
Brooks shared years’ worth of the messages with The Intercept on the condition that Sam’s not be reproduced. Tracing them through the years, it would be hard for an outside reader to distinguish between when Sam was on the campaign as an unpaid member of the kitchen cabinet (starting in December 2020), a part-time deputy campaign manager (June 2021), and a full-time deputy campaign manager (January 2022). The banter and emotional depth remained roughly the same, with ups and downs.
In the fall, a plumbing leak kept Brandy out of her home for six weeks, and she went through an emotionally rough patch. Sam invited Brandy during that time for a day trip to Sugarloaf Mountain in western Maryland, but the day before it, Brandy offered Sam an out, telling them she was feeling down and was “not going to be engaging or fun company.”
Brandy suggested instead that they just play board games in her hotel. “I’m kind of in that mode where I want to talk with someone else deeply about the hard things in our lives and cry together and hold hands and just be really vulnerable with one another. And I want to respect that might not be your vision of how you want to spend Sunday afternoon,” she said in a text that later appeared in the Washington Post.
Sam bowed out, and Brandy invited over a female friend for the type of evening she was looking for: tears, hand-holding, and self-exploration. That Sunday night, just after midnight — technically Monday morning — Sam reached back out to start a long conversation about the virtues of wool dryer balls.
Sam later said — to the Washington Post and others — that they understood the request for mutual crying and hand-holding as an unwanted romantic advance. Without invalidating Sam’s perspective, a mutual friend said that she had seen Brandy say similar things to people of all genders, not meant in a romantic way. “That’s how she interacts with her very close friends, and I felt it was really taken out of context,” the friend said.
As the head of the campaign, she had suggested something inappropriate either way, Brandy has since acknowledged. That the relationship was already unprofessional is not in dispute, and Sam hadn’t even joined the campaign full-time yet.
That happened in January, and the two also talked about a potential job in the event of a victory. “Either I asked or they indicated that they would have an interest in working in my council office and I was like, ‘OK, what kind of things would you be interested in doing?’ And they talked about doing policy work, which is what they were doing on the campaign already. And we talked about the position of chief of staff, and we talked a little bit about this, and I said, ‘Yeah, you know, I would definitely be interested in exploring this with you. And we should keep talking about this,’” Brandy said. “And that was our conversation, maybe 15 minutes.”
On January 18, Brandy and Sam talked about how working together full time would affect their friendship, with Brandy lamenting they’d be able to spend much less time together socially.
Sam agreed with the concerns and cautioned that they should remember that the campaign was temporary but their friendship would endure, Brandy said — a sentiment that is confirmed and repeated in messages they exchanged.
After nearly two years of a pandemic, the mood in the campaign office was warm and close, people on the campaign told The Intercept, and the closeness between Brandy and Sam was often on display. “We would goof around and joke and laugh and make memes and be sarcastic with each other,” Brandy said. Sam “had a stuffed animal that we would toss around and play with and they would make faces at me with. And as good friends also do, we hugged each other. They gave me back rubs.”
“And then there are also things that in the face of a campaign environment, when you’re in that kind of proximity, where we would be sitting really close, next to each other — and neither of us would move away from that situation.”
On January 24, Brandy and Sam had lunch at a Chipotle in Rockville, a check-in that evolved into one of their long discussions that ranged widely from the personal to political to emotional to professional and back again.
“We were talking about being glad that we’re friends with each other, and that we can talk and have these deeper conversations. And one of the things that I said is, it’s often harder for me to be in emotionally vulnerable relationships, because I feel a lot of vulnerability and a lot of anxiety about that. And then I also said, I think that’s increased, unfortunately, in cases where I experience romantic and sexual attraction.”
In context, it was clear she was talking about Sam, and she instantly wished she could take it back. “I regretted it as immediately as I said it, because it wasn’t planned. It was something I blurted out. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is like, not the time or place for this conversation.’ And then I kind of tried to shut down that part of the conversation and move on to other stuff, because I felt really embarrassed that I had said it.” Brandy asked Sam not to respond and changed the subject.
In hindsight, she said, giving voice to her feelings flowed from her approach to relationships. “One of the things that I try to do is be really intentional in my friendships and my working relationships. And when there’s an issue or a thing going on, to try and name it,” she said. “I didn’t know if they knew [my feelings] or not. I think I had a thought that they might, especially with some of the kinds of contacts that we both exchanged in the office.”
She never went beyond merely sharing her feelings and never asked Sam out nor otherwise made any physical advance. “I fully knew they were in a relationship with someone else. I wasn’t asking them to not be in that relationship. I wasn’t asking them to be in a relationship with me. I wasn’t asking them to have any kind of sexual contact with me,” she said.
As she reflected on their relationship, realizing things had crossed a line, Brandy told Sam they needed to draw boundaries — that the professional and social blend needed to be filtered out.
They set up time to talk on February 7. “I think maybe we need to consider our relationship more of a comradeship, where it’s about the work and we that value each other as organizers and we have so much we want to accomplish in the public realm. Maybe the personal stuff just isn’t the right fit,” Brandy recalls telling Sam. They also communicated by text about the same idea.
Sam pushed back, Brandy recalled. “They said they didn’t like that binary, that they blended friendship and working relationships and didn’t want to separate it.” Indeed, blending friendship and working relationships is a central component of progressive organizations such as DSA, where happy hours, canvassing, and phone-banking are all social as well as political activities. Successful community building can hardly be done absent socializing, and all successful movements have been cauldrons in which lifelong friendships and other relationships are forged. But they have also been the birthplace of animosities that can last for generations.
A few days later, on February 11, Sam responded, saying they no longer wanted Brandy to communicate with them outside of work. To Brandy, it looked like Sam was wounded by her attempt to draw a boundary and responded by drawing a firmer and brighter one. But Sam also routinely broke it, sending memes and other missives to Brandy at off hours. Brandy said she abided by the agreement, but said it seemed like Sam was only honoring it when they felt like it.
According to Brandy, she told Sam that the firm boundary married with frequent incursions across it felt like a “betrayal of trust” — another phrase that would later appear in the Washington Post. After Sam sent Brandy and Michelle Whittaker, Brandy’s sister and campaign manager, a goofy meme after 8:00 p.m. one evening, Brandy reminded them of the boundary they had drawn. Brooks said Sam apologized and thanked her for the reminder. “I indicated to them that I wasn’t OK with setting this really hard boundary, which felt really hard and hurtful to me, and then continuing to try and engage me emotionally in a way that felt really good. They were trying to use my emotions, but not be in a mutual relationship with me. And so it felt like a betrayal of our friendship.”
More hourslong, emotionally fraught conversations followed. In one, Brandy talked about her tortured relationship with men or people who present as masculine, and Sam told her that suggesting they presented as masculine “wasn’t affirming of their gender identity.” Brandy apologized.
The next day, in another long conversation, Brandy again said that they needed to stick to professional boundaries. According to Brandy, Sam asked two questions. First, did she regret hiring them? And second, was the chief of staff job still on the table?
To the first, Brandy said absolutely not. Sam is a well-regarded and well-connected organizer in Montgomery County, and the work they’d done to bring endorsers on board the campaign had helped build the broad-based coalition behind Brandy that was poised to elect the first countywide democratic socialist representative in the contemporary era.
To the second question, she recalled saying, “I don’t know. It was a question before, I think it would be an even bigger question, given how difficult these last few weeks have been for us. So it’s something that we would have to really talk about, before we made that decision.” This answer has since become central to a public indictment of Brooks, who is accused of rescinding a job offer in retaliation for a staff member rejecting her romantic advances. But Brandy said she had never made a firm job offer and also never took it off the table.
“I didn’t say, ‘No, you can’t have this,’” she said. “At no point during this was their current job in jeopardy.”
On March 14, Sam came to Whittaker, Brandy’s sister and campaign manager, to make a complaint of a hostile work environment. Whittaker asked if they wanted to file a formal complaint, and they said no. Whittaker took steps to cease contact between Brandy and Sam and recommended mediation to them both.
They both agreed, and the campaign brought on the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County to mediate two sessions. The pair came to an agreement, one they both signed, which rested on Brandy drafting an “accountability statement” that she would read to her full staff and kitchen cabinet — only after Sam had approved it.
Versions of restorative justice have roots in a variety of Indigenous cultures on multiple continents, but in the contemporary era in North America it began percolating around the 1970s. Mediation, conversation, and accountability are at the core of restorative justice. Progressive institutions, meanwhile, are badly in need of more effective and more just conflict-resolution mechanisms in an era of increasing hostility and toxicity amid a crisis of mental health. The movement is attempting to reconcile sometimes competing values: On the one hand, the abolition of prison and the deconstruction of the carceral state, a radical move away from strictly punitive or retributive justice. On the other hand, an all-out assault on racism, misogyny, and other forms of bigotry — a crusade that, in its more vulgar form, is derided as cancel culture. Restorative justice offers the promise of reconciling those two values, while also allowing communities to emerge from conflict and crisis stronger and healthier, rather than riven with animosities or left with a feeling that one party was wronged.
Mediation gave both Sam and Brandy a space to share the ways in which they felt they had been harmed by the other, and it was a place where Brandy was able to see from the perspective of Sam the way she had put them in an untenable situation by not immediately drawing professional boundaries. Whether those boundaries ought to have been drawn when Sam joined as a kitchen cabinet informal adviser, or later when they came on as part-time staff, the conclusion was clear: The interactions had been inappropriate, and Brandy took responsibility.
It seemed like the kind of thing a sophisticated progressive movement invested in the concept of restorative justice could handle through good-faith mediation.
The sessions helped Brandy craft her statement of accountability. At the second mediation, Brandy read a draft of her statement to Sam, who told her, according to Brandy, that it was beyond what they had expected, and they accepted it without amendments. The two jointly signed a mediation agreement on March 22, 2022. “[Sam] and Brandy Brooks agree to keep mediation discussion and written products confidential except for a limited circle of close advisers,” reads the agreement. “[Sam] affirms that the campaign and Brandy Brooks handled this situation in good faith with a clear intention of restorative justice and will not make any further requests of Brandy Brooks or the campaign pertaining to the complaint of March 14.”
She read it aloud to staff on March 26. “Brandy spoke for a grueling 10 minutes about how sorry she was,” said one of the roughly nine staffers in the room.
“One person cried. Everyone else who made a comment put it in chat and thanked her for a transparent process. [Sam] then said thank you everyone for coming together and listening to this.”
Brandy shared the statement with me, wanting to counter the charges that were circulating about her handling of the situation, and it is shared below — minus a bullet that involves Sam’s personnel records and a portion that is deeply private to Brooks, the inclusion of which was unnecessary to make its point. “This is a deeply personal document, meant to be shared in confidence with my close community,” she said. “I’m sharing it now because of how thoroughly the letter and spirit of the mediation agreement has been broken by the other party, and to be clear how seriously I took my responsibility to be accountable.”
Over the past 15 months, since the end of December 2020, I have been working with friends and colleagues to build out my campaign. One of those colleagues, who I consulted and engaged in the process from the outset, [Sam] was a non-binary socialist and labor organizer who also lives in the County. [Sam] and I first met each other in 2017 during my first run for office, and in 2018 began a personal friendship as well. I invited [Sam] to be part of my Kitchen Cabinet in December 2020, and hired them as a staff in the spring of 2021.
On Monday, March 14, 2022, [Sam] outlined for Michelle documentation of a harmful workplace environment caused by me. Michelle informed me of the issues raised and immediately made arrangements around campaign meetings and work activities so that [Sam] and I had no further contact with one another. It is my understanding that Michelle suggested voluntary mediation to [Sam] as an option for seeking to resolve the situation and that [Sam] consented to voluntary mediation; Michelle also made the same recommendation to me, and I accepted. That same day, Michelle contacted the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County to handle our mediation.
The following agreements resulted from our mediation sessions on March 18 and March 21:
- Brandy and [Sam] will not communicate without a 3rd party present, and will only discuss professional issues for the next 12 months at least.
- Brandy Brooks will convene a meeting of her staff and kitchen cabinet at which she will read in full the statement shared with [Sam] in mediation, without amendment.
- [Sam], if able, will attend that meeting.
- Brandy Brooks will also be responsible for seeking to ensure all staff and kitchen cabinet attend the original meeting, or, failing that, a follow up meeting, with [Sam] notified and in attendance.
- Brandy Brooks will share a copy of her statement with [Sam] in pdf format, via email, with Michelle Whittaker copied.
- [Sam] and Brandy Brooks agree to keep mediation discussion and written products confidential except for a limited circle of close advisers.
- [Sam] affirms that the campaign and Brandy Brooks handled this situation in good faith with a clear intention of restorative justice and will not make any further requests of Brandy Brooks or the campaign pertaining to the complaint of March 14.
Per these agreements and my own desire to pursue a healing process for both [Sam] and myself, this statement shares my accountability for the workplace incidents that led [Sam] to experiencing sexual harassment.
I made a grave error in not putting an immediate stop to the escalating pattern between [Sam] and me of exchanging physical affection in the workplace. It is clear now, and ought to have been manifestly clear to me at the time as a supervisor responsible for the wellbeing of my employees, that this behavior should have been halted; it was my responsibility as a supervisor to do so. In addition to creating a damaging pattern between a supervisor and an employee, where power dynamics and lack of full consent could not help but to be experienced by [Sam], it was also creating deep emotional confusion and distress for me.
Although I was aware of the fact that these interactions were resulting in feelings of romantic and sexual attraction that I did not feel were healthy, as well as the fact that I was repeatedly welcoming of these interactions and unwilling to stop them, the powerful emotional validation that these interactions provided became an overriding need, and I continued to both permit and engage in them.
In many aspects of my life, I consistently struggle with the belief that I am not good enough — not worth being loved, listened to, or followed. The extreme public vulnerability of running for office exacerbates these fears; while at surface levels I am able to project a high degree of confidence and sometimes actually believe in myself and my leadership, I have not conquered these fears at their root. They most frequently manifest as regular self-doubt with periodic bouts of depression and suicidal ideation, but in this case the harm was externalized through my relationship with [Sam].
Beyond our physical interactions, [Sam] and I also engaged in deeply personal conversations outside and inside the workplace. These conversations included discussion of our perspectives on childbearing, our relationships to our parents and friends, and our dating histories and current dating situations. These conversations occurred in personal social contexts on the phone on nights and weekends or while riding public transit together after work; however, there were also conversations that occurred as social chat during canvassing events and deeper conversations during mentorship meetings in the office. In particular, a conversation on January 24 clearly crossed boundary lines by combining a performance check-in, deeply personal conversations held in a highly public setting, physical contact, and a confession of romantic and sexual feelings; regardless of intent, this conversation constituted sexual harassment.
It’s impossible to state how deeply I regret these interactions. Reflecting on them grieves me deeply. The actions I both took and failed to take have resulted in the destruction of both a deeply valued professional relationship and a friendship that was important to me, and both of those losses are profound. I have expressed my deep regret to [Sam] directly in mediation, and I apologize for how I have caused them harm.
This experience has led me to understand how clearly and deeply gendered trauma from past familial and other relationships continues to impact me. It’s something that I had recognized as impacting romantic relationships, but failed to recognize how it could operate within professional relationships — and especially a supervisory relationship — to create an extremely toxic dynamic. I was also very naïve about how power and privilege dynamics around positional and perceived power, age, gender identity and expression, and sexuality all remain operative in a workplace, regardless of how close a friendship existed prior to the employment relationship or how collaborative a work culture we sought to create within the campaign.
It’s difficult not to simply respond to all of this with shame and self-loathing. However, I believe that shame and self-loathing from a sense of past abandonment due to my perception that I am not worth enough for people to love me are the root of how we got to this situation, and resolution requires a different path. To start, I acknowledge the seriousness of this trauma and its impacts on me and others, and I will take the following actions and precautions:
- I will refrain from physical contact with staff members, with the exception of my mother and sister, regardless of any personal relationships we may have outside of the office.
- During the remainder of the campaign, with the exception of my sister and mother, I will not discuss any sensitive personal issues with staff members or with volunteers outside of my Kitchen Cabinet and Sanity Circle.
- If I wish to discuss sensitive personal issues pertaining to my emotional or mental health, my experience of romantic and sexual relationships, my gender trauma, or any topic that invites emotional intimacy with any members of my Kitchen Cabinet or my Sanity Circle, I need to inform them of the nature of the conversation in advance and ask for their express consent.
- I will share this document with my staff, active Kitchen Cabinet members, and Sanity Circle members.
I do not believe that people who have committed sexual harassment are irredeemable or unfit for leadership. Trauma affects each of us in many ways, and I believe in trauma-informed practice with the goal of healing and restoration, not casting people out of the community. I believe the keys to this are:
- Creating ways for people to be honest and reflective, without shame, about the traumas they have experienced and the impacts that those traumas have had and continue to have on themselves and others;
- Creating restorative justice spaces where people can acknowledge, be accountable for, and repair harms they have done without fearing that such acknowledgement will automatically result in them being removed from or shunned by their communities (personal or professional);
- Ongoing community training around trauma-informed and restorative justice practices within communities so that we know how to create and hold these spaces and shift from existing models of retribution and throwing people away.
This is what I wish to create and model for myself and for others. It feels particularly important for me because of the way that anti-Blackness operates in our willingness to recognize people’s trauma and support them in navigating it rather than punishing and discarding them. Black people are automatically considered by our society to be dangerous and criminal in their character. This manifests in a wide variety of ways, including but not limited to: fearing to raise issues or offer critical feedback to Black people in the workplace; requiring Black people to exhibit perfect behavior in order to be worthy of support and punishing them more severely than others who exhibit damaging behavior; and reducing Black people to their worst moments or faults. Black people are also often treated as if they do not experience harm or pain, whether physical or emotional, at a severity that may account for either their struggles to show up or their need for support.
Additionally, when it comes to Black women’s sexuality, they are either expected to be asexual carers (the “Mammy” stereotype) or, if they display sexuality, considered an immoral seductress (the “Jezebel” stereotype). The mere existence of Black women’s bodies and sexuality are regarded as problematic unless they are tightly controlled and only accessed as others deem beneficial to them — regardless of the cost to the woman herself. I name these things because I believe that they both impacted the development of this situation and may impact people’s response to this document, and I want us to be honest when that is showing up.
These are complex, incredibly challenging conversations that are ultimately about us fighting against oppression on multiple fronts. They are not easy, and I don’t know how well we will accomplish restorative justice in this case. But I hope that this process offers us all some insight about what our collective liberation can look like.
Shortly afterward, Brandy and the campaign began to field calls from people who had endorsed her, or others in the progressive community, saying they had heard damning stories about her behavior on the campaign, specifically that she was offering jobs to staff in exchange for sexual favors, and retaliating when the overtures were rejected. Montgomery County’s rumor mill was running wild, and Brandy tried to tamp down the speculation.
Sam, meanwhile, stepped away from the campaign, according to campaign sources. Brandy, citing personnel rules, wouldn’t discuss the departure. “When we first entered mediation, I’d hoped we could find a way to continue working together. To not only lose a close friend but also a key staff member was very hard, for me personally and for the campaign,” Brooks said.
On the night of April 7, a Thursday, Brandy’s campaign learned that the local Jews United for Justice chapter was discussing the situation and considering dropping their endorsement. The next day, Brandy called her endorsers to let them know as much as she could: There had been a complaint of a hostile workplace environment, and it had been resolved in mediation.
On Saturday, April 9, Brandy got a call from a member of the Metro D.C. DSA steering committee, its leadership body, inviting her to join a call on Tuesday, April 12, to respond to what they said were disturbing allegations they’d been hearing.
That Monday, Brandy did a second reading of her accountability statement to two kitchen cabinet members who had missed the first meeting. Sam was present for that too and told Brandy afterward that the statement was no longer acceptable and more accountability was needed. Brandy said she offered to reenter mediation, but Sam told her the only way they’d do so would be if Brandy withdrew completely from the race. It’s an open question what, exactly, prompted Sam’s change of heart, but Brandy calling her endorsers to tamp down the rumor mill may have played a role. Brandy said Sam couched her departure from the campaign not as a demand but simply a necessity. “I’m not asking you to do this, I’m just saying this is the only way,” was the posture, according to Brandy.
Dropping out, Brandy responded, was not an option, for a number of reasons, including her faith that her campaign was best positioned to serve the million people of Montgomery County she would represent. Beyond that, the campaign was publicly financed to the tune of $175,000 from local taxpayers. Ending the campaign early would mean Brandy would be personally on the hook for that amount, plus interest.
Brooks was told on Tuesday evening at the Metro DC DSA steering committee meeting that the committee would be voting soon on whether to recommend its membership unendorse her campaign, and would halt work on her behalf for the time being. The committee told her it was aware of evidence that she had confessed to sexual harassment — presumably a reference to her accountability statement — and Brooks again took responsibility for what she had done but denied actively seeking sex or retaliating in any way. Losing their ground support would be hard, Brooks knew, and a public denunciation would be difficult to overcome. “Out of respect for the privacy of those who informed us, and in accordance with mediated agreements, we cannot provide additional detail, but want to affirm that the evidence gave us significant concern,” a statement Metro DC DSA would release on April 14 explained.
On Wednesday, DSA convened a meeting of other local progressive organizations — including Jews United for Justice and CASA Action, the immigrant rights group, among others — which some of those who attended saw as an attempt to organize a mass rescinding of the endorsement. “The purpose of the meeting was to inform our coalition partners that we were beginning our unendorsement process, and explaining what that looked like as a membership organization. It was not to get everyone on board with unendorsing at the same time, as Metro DC DSA had not yet made that decision,” said Carl Roberts, a spokesperson for Metro D.C. DSA.
Brooks’s campaign posted a statement Wednesday afternoon saying that “increasingly inaccurate and malicious reports of my behavior are spreading within our community,” a reference to rumors that Brandy was attempting to trade job offers for sexual favors.
Starting today, I am taking a period of two weeks to care for myself and reflect with my trusted advisors about an ongoing issue.— Brandy Brooks for County Council (@brandy4moco) April 13, 2022
My team and I are seeking to be as transparent as possible in light of this sensitive personnel matter. You can reach out via email or phone. pic.twitter.com/PpqR6RihgR
The next day, DSA members put forward a resolution to unendorse Brooks, arguing that the only way for her to be held accountable was for her to end her campaign. “Whereas,” reads the resolution, “evidence has been brought forward that while an internal campaign mediation process was undertaken in an attempt to seek accountability from the candidate for the harm caused, the outcomes of the process were insufficient and it is our belief that true accountability cannot occur amidst an ongoing campaign for office.”
A steering committee meeting was held that evening to discuss the resolution. Sam spoke at the steering committee meeting, laying out the allegations. One attendee asked by chat if Brandy, as a long-serving DSA member, was entitled to due process. “Endorsement is a privilege, not a right of membership,” a steering committee member said in response. Brandy was not so privileged.
From the time DSA’s steering committee met with Brandy and the time that members, supported by the steering committee, put forward a resolution calling for her to end her campaign, two days had elapsed.
Much of the public condemnation of Brooks was organized around the straightforward power dynamic at work between a boss and an employee. While the dynamic was painted as black and white in this instance, in others, the left has been able to construct increasingly sophisticated power maps that get at the gradations of power differentials at play in different relationships. Race and gender are significant factors, yet there’s no evidence DSA examined the potential for implicit bias at work against Brandy or in the favor of Sam.
“We’re disappointed to now see her twist the language of abolition and restorative justice to try to deflect from her actions,” DSA’s public statement read.
“My work to be vulnerable and accountable and transparent, and show up the way that we want our leaders to show up, absolutely got weaponized,” Brooks said.
While it’s true Brandy was Sam’s employer and admitted to creating a hostile workplace for them, the power dynamics aren’t as straightforward as a rigorous boss-employee analysis would conclude. If power is considered to be held by the person who can destroy, and therefore exert control over, the other without harming themselves, the well-connected senior staffer on a short-term campaign for a relatively unknown candidate holds significant power. As the liaison between the campaign and outside endorsers, and as a high-level activist in both the Montgomery County branch and the larger Metro DC DSA chapter, Sam held in their hands the power to control the narrative around what happened, likely dooming the campaign, and to heavily influence Brandy’s personal and professional reputation in the long run. Sam would have known that as a Black woman, Brandy would face a much more hostile public as she attempted to move forward from any scandal. And while Brandy indeed held employment sway over Sam through the primary on July 19, or through the general election in November, Sam, given their relationships, quickly landed a new job.
That the dynamic between the two on the campaign was inappropriate isn’t in dispute. But in real-time and in hindsight, it seemed like the kind of thing a sophisticated progressive movement invested in the concept of restorative justice could handle through good-faith mediation. Indeed, if something like this can’t be resolved through such a process, what can? Instead, Brooks’s agreement to enter mediation became the very evidence against her and formed the foundation of the DSA’s resolution for unendorsement. “I cannot emphasize enough that Brandy Brooks admitted to sexually harassing her employee in a meeting before her entire staff. Those facts are not in dispute,” posted one DSA member who co-sponsored the resolution on Twitter.
“My work to be vulnerable and accountable and transparent, and show up the way that we want our leaders to show up, absolutely got weaponized,” Brooks said. “There’s a lot here that has to do with how we weaponize Black women’s emotions and bodies all the time. And when I think about why it’s so hard for women and people of color, for Black women in particular, to decide to step into these leadership spaces, it’s this. This claim is being made, that for six months, someone was in a nonconsensual social relationship with me. And what that claim implies is that not only am I responsible for any actions that I took, but that I’m responsible for every call and text and action and touch that they made. Because I somehow forced them to do it. And it made me think about the stereotypes, these cultural stereotypes that we have about Black women, and there’s this way that I’m being cast as this Jezebel, with voodoo power to compel people to take actions that they don’t, that they aren’t in control of, and don’t have responsibility for. And it’s such a combination of terrible, awful stereotypes that are weaponized against Black women that it almost takes my breath away.”
The next day, the Washington Post entered the fray, with a story by Rebecca Tan, a former Vox writer, headlined, “Brandy Brooks pauses campaign amid sexual harassment allegations.”
The story was immediately devastating to Brooks’s campaign. In fact, only one allegation had been leveled:
Brandy H.M. Brooks, a progressive activist running for Montgomery County Council, is taking a two-week break from her campaign amid allegations that she sexually harassed a member of her campaign staff. She said she behaved inappropriately with an employee but denied perpetuating a “pattern of sexual harassment.” She says she does not plan to withdraw from the election.
Brooks, 45, said she told a full-time paid member of her campaign staff that she had a “romantic and sexual attraction” to them in January, adding at the time that she did not want them to respond because she wasn’t ready to be rejected.
The now former employee, who is 27 and uses they/them pronouns, said Brooks’s behavior continued for months and that Brooks eventually told them that she did not know if they could continue working together, though she had earlier indicated that if elected, she would consider them for her chief of staff. …
“For her to say there’s no pattern is completely false,” said the former employee. “This was a pattern of abuse and manipulation that centered about sexual harassment.”
The Post had interviewed Brooks and had access to her accountability statement and the mediation agreement showing Sam had initially found the agreement acceptable. In survivor justice circles, a “pattern of sexual harassment” is understood to mean multiple accusers, though only one was quoted anonymously in the article. (In insisting on a “pattern,” Sam, quoted in the Post, accuses Brandy of a pattern of behavior toward them, not a pattern toward multiple people.)
The Post, which leaned heavily into their age differential of 45 and 27, including it in the second paragraph, referenced Brandy’s text in October, while Sam was part-time, offering to cancel the Sugarloaf trip if Sam wasn’t in the mood for an overly emotional day. Readers of the Post would no doubt have found the text disturbing out of the context of their yearslong close relationship, evidence the Post referenced only fleetingly, writing, “The former employee had been friends with Brooks since 2018 and was among the first people she asked to join her campaign last year.”
The article embedded DSA’s full statement against Brandy and made multiple references to power dynamics, while omitting the reality that Sam was a longtime figure in both the MoCo DSA branch and the regional umbrella. Instead, DSA’s response was presented as merely the concerns of those committed to social justice.
The Post also made much of Sam’s claim that losing the chief of staff job amounted to retaliation. But Brandy thoroughly denied rescinding the offer. There had never been a firm offer, merely the willingness to entertain the possibility. When approached by Sam again, she had continued to insist that it remained a possibility, if a more distant one. The accountability statement that Sam signed off on as more than sufficient included no reference whatsoever to retaliation.
“When we entered mediation I had hoped one of the outcomes would be finding a way for us to continue working together,” she said.
At a public DSA member meeting on April 21, Sam spoke again, thanking everyone for their support and noted that even “elected officials” had reached out to support them. “[Sam] has hated all the elected officials forever. That was the first time [Sam] has ever spoken positively about them,” said one DSA member, a supporter of Brandy’s who joined the call. “There’s a reason they’re reaching out to [Sam]. They’re running for office.”
One member, noting that he had done employment law previously, said that he was concerned about the process and wanted more evidence in order to make a decision. He was cut off. “How dare you ask who the aggrieved person is?” a former Brandy staffer and ally of Sam’s cut in. “The evidence is all there in the Washington Post article.”
Nobody spoke on Brandy’s behalf.
On April 25, the Post weighed in again: “Brandy Brooks says she has no plans to withdraw Montgomery council bid.” This time, the Post called organizations and prominent people who had endorsed her and asked if they would be distancing themselves. The Post even pressured a renters group she’s part of, though the group told the Post they weren’t weighing in:
Brooks, a longtime tenant, continues to serve as a board member at the Montgomery County Renters Alliance, executive director Matt Losak said. The harassment allegations, he added, are “an issue between her and her campaign.”
The Post also referenced the mediation agreement. “Brooks, in turn, has accused the employee of violating the terms of a mediation agreement that they both signed earlier this year. (They said they have not.),” the paper reported.
On the night of April 25, DSA’s vote concluded, and the chapter overwhelmingly moved to unendorse Brooks, saying in a statement:
The vote followed multiple internal discussions in the chapter that began after the Steering Committee was notified on April 9 of credible allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation by Brandy Brooks towards one of her former campaign employees. We were also informed that Brandy walked back the accountability process that the campaign had internally set up. The Steering Committee met with Brandy Brooks on April 12 where she did not deny the allegations. Following this meeting, a Washington Post article was released on April 15 where Brandy is quoted confirming the allegations of sexual harassment and professional retaliation against the aggrieved party, including the rescinding of a job offer.
Those claims are either contested or untrue. Mediation documents show the process was completed to the satisfaction of both parties. Brooks did not “confirm the allegation” of “professional retaliation” in the Washington Post and continues to deny the charge. If DSA has evidence to the contrary, the organization has not presented it.
Jews United for Justice has suspended its campaigning for Brooks, and the local teachers union, which had endorsed Brooks, unendorsed her this week. CASA Action rescinded its endorsement. DSA has never explained how “Brandy walked back the accountability process,” nor has it presented evidence to back up the vague claim.
The campaign against Brandy continues. On April 26, a local activist emailed Sam’s defunct campaign account, which automatically forwarded the missive to the main campaign inbox. “If you get a sec, could you give me a call?” the activist asked. “Just want to get straight on future options vis-a-vis Brandy.”
Future options for Brandy, at the moment, appear increasingly foreclosed, as the public condemnation has not just hampered what looked to be a front-running campaign, but has badly damaged other areas of her professional and personal life. What future options Sam is considering against Brandy remain unclear. “What exactly is the definition of ‘accountability’ and ‘restorative justice’ that such efforts would be based on?” Brandy wondered.
DSA declined to comment, referring instead to its public statement announcing the unendorsement. “We are proud to be part of such a strong democratic organization,” the statement reads, “with clear processes for both endorsement and the revocation of endorsement.”
Update: May 17, 2022
After publication, Sam agreed to share their side of the story, and connected The Intercept with Marcus Vessels, a canvas fellow on the campaign. Sam said that Brandy’s focus on the conversation in Chipotle, when she shared her feelings, obscured Sam’s larger objection, which was to the way Sam felt treated when they laid out boundaries in February. “That [Chipotle conversation] in itself is not a huge deal to me, because, you know, people have feelings — it’s what we do with those feelings, how we work professionally. It was in February that I started to feel pressure, and I set boundaries around conversations and felt bullied and retaliated against for setting those boundaries,” Sam said.
Brooks had said that she couldn’t remember who initiated the conversation about a future job for Sam, but Sam said they recalled that she had prompted it, saying, “I’ve been thinking of you as chief of staff, you’re someone who shares my values. I trust you, we work well together.” The offer felt like a strong one to Sam. “I will say that her memory on this either is very patchy, or she’s trying to backfill her own narrative,” Sam said.
On the question of how the situation went from resolved-through-mediation to torpedoing Brooks’s campaign, Sam described two separate tracks.
Sam had signed a written mediation agreement affirming they would “not make any further requests of Brandy Brooks or the campaign pertaining to the complaint of March 14.” That pledge, Sam said, was meant narrowly to refer to workplace remedies and did not mean that they were OK with Brooks’s campaign going forward. “That’s saying that I’m not going to file suit against her. I’m not going to grieve. … I’m not going to file an EEO or Human Rights Office complaint against her. I’m not going to take any of the workplace processes that we have in place. I think she now is trying to interpret that retrospectively,” Sam said. “This was in lieu of a grievance. This wasn’t in lieu of accountability, and I guess that might be a philosophical difference [with Brandy].”
Sam said that Brooks told them it was important to keep the situation from leaking to the public, otherwise it would end her campaign. “She said, ‘This is something that can’t get out.’ And I said, ‘All right, fine, but you have to tell at least your closest supporters and advisers so that they can make their own decision. And we were in an OK place there; it could have gone either way. But then staff started asking me for more information about what happened. And I had very specifically said I reserve my right to talk about the working conditions and the cause of my departure. That’s one thing I will not compromise on,” Sam said.
Brooks flatly rejected that characterization, saying she sought an assurance from them that they were comfortable with her remaining in the race. “Sam and I specifically talked in mediation about whether or not they were asking me to end the campaign. In our first mediation session, I asked them to take time before the next session to deeply reflect on what they wanted, so that we could talk honestly about what they felt they needed and what I could agree to with them,” she said. “And I said very directly and clearly that it was because I wanted to be sure that the agreement we emerged with truly represented the ask they wanted to make regarding repair, and that there wasn’t going to be a surprise ask later that we hadn’t talked about and negotiated.”
Brooks said Sam spoke to the question directly. “They stated clearly that they were not looking for me to end my campaign, because that wasn’t the kind of resolution they believed matched their own values around restorative justice,” Brooks said.
Sam said that whether Brooks continued her campaign was “outside the scope” of the mediation, and Sam wanted to be clear that she should make her own decision on whether to step down. “She asked, ‘Are you asking me to drop out?’ That’s a different question. There’s a subtle difference there, but it’s two different questions: Are you asking-slash-telling me to drop out? Versus what she told you, ‘Does this solve everything?’ Those are two completely different conversations. At no point did I ask her to end her campaign. I didn’t really want to be in the position of asking her to do that. I wanted her to talk with staff and advisers about what she should do next,” Sam said. “I didn’t want to be in the position during mediation of talking about what’s going to happen with her campaign. I’m just trying to get out of the situation.”
The second track Sam pointed to that led to the derailment came from the conversations staff had separately with both Brooks and Sam after mediation and after the first reading of the accountability statement. Marcus Vessels approached Brandy to talk, saying that he had observed Sam and Brandy in the office together, and he felt like they had both crossed professional lines, Brooks said, adding that she thanked Vessels for noticing that. Marcus relayed the conversation to Sam. “Marcus asked me, ‘Did you lead her on?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’” Sam recalled. “Marcus asked her, ‘Was it two-sided?’ And she didn’t correct him.” That, to Sam, constituted walking back the mediation, while Brooks contends she had always maintained it was two-sided, including in her statement of accountability.
Vessels said he sided with Sam over Brooks on that question. “I can believe that Brandy went on retaliation,” Vessels said, arguing that if she took accountability for harassment, she should also take accountability for what Sam felt was retaliation. “What she started to do was backtrack on the accountability meeting,” Vessels said. “What I told her was … You can’t sit there and say, OK, I agree that I did these things, read your accountability letter, then when the pressure starts getting too hot, you start now backtracking and panicking and start saying you’re being thrown under the bus.”
The main beneficiary politically of the implosion of Brooks’s campaign has been Tom Hucker, a county councilmember who was running for county executive. The same week that DSA issued its public statement denouncing Brooks, followed by the Washington Post article, Hucker abruptly dropped out of the race for county executive and, just before the filing deadline, launched a campaign for an at-large County Council seat instead. Vessels is now working for Hucker.
Correction: May 8, 2022, 4:16 p.m.
This story has been updated to clarify the unendorsement process by DSA. The story originally referred to Montgomery County DSA as a chapter — it is a branch of Metro DC DSA. And it initially said that five days had elapsed between the time DSA steering committee first reached out to Brooks and when it called for her to drop out of the campaign. To be clear, the steering committee first called Brooks on Sunday, met with her on Tuesday, and by Thursday had joined members in recommending a resolution of unendorsement that insisted she end her campaign. A full chapter vote started the following week.