‘He was a bully.’ KS Dems director made toxic workplace, ex-employees say. Party stands by him

·8 min read
Neil Nakahodo/The Kansas City Star

Days after quitting her job at the Kansas Democratic Party in October, Rachel Hayden checked herself into a mental health treatment center.

After working on campaigns across the country, she had moved back to her hometown of Lawrence to work as field director for the state party. It was her dream job.

But it took less than three months for Hayden to quit, pushed to her breaking point by a boss that made her feel “belittled, mentally abused and gaslit,” she said.

“I felt so isolated,” Hayden said. “I was completely devastated.”

Hayden is one of four former KDP employees who told The Star they quit at least in part because of a toxic work environment fostered by Executive Director Ben Meers. A complaint filed by three of these former employees resulted in an internal investigation from the party that partially corroborated their concerns.

However, nearly three months after the investigation conducted by Stinson LLP in Kansas City was completed, Meers continues to run day-to-day operations of the party. The elected party chairwoman said policy changes came from the report but did not provide specifics.

“He was a bully,” Katie Sullivan, a former finance and communications assistant and one of the complainants said. “Us as Democrats, we preach fair treatment, and honestly the party must hold its leaders accountable for the values that we preach.”

The Kansas Democratic Party denied The Star’s repeated requests to review a copy of the internal investigation report, but the party confirmed the investigation took place and said in a statement that it strives for a “welcoming and inclusive workplace environment.”

“When the employee complaints were brought to leadership, we worked swiftly to address these allegations and did an independent, third-party investigation. The KDP recognizes workplace improvements must be made, and since the investigation concluded, the KDP has implemented multiple policies, including communications improvements, and required mandatory management training to improve the organizational and workplace environment for all employees,” Chairwoman Vicki Hiatt told The Star in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the party refused to respond to questions about exactly what policies were enacted. The party declined to make Meers and Hiatt available for interviews. Reached by phone Thursday, Meers did not immediately comment.

Hayden, Sullivan, and former digital director Alex Brase, outlined their concerns in a 29-page complaint sent to Hiatt on Oct. 23. They forwarded the complaint to The Star earlier this year. A fourth former staffer also told The Star Meers’ behavior contributed to that employee’s decision to quit but asked not to be identified by name.

The complaint, which included screenshots and recordings of the employees interactions with Meers, described a boss that contacted employees at all hours, and who berated employees to the point of tears.

In emails to Hayden and Sullivan in March, Hiatt said that parts of their accounts had been corroborated by the investigation.

“Though we could not confirm all of your allegations, our investigation largely corroborated the allegations you made,” said the emails, which were shared with The Star. “Although privacy considerations limit our ability to share confidential information with you about other employees, I can tell you that appropriate action is being taken to ensure that such conduct does not repeat itself. We will continue to monitor the situation carefully to ensure that there is no repeat of any of the conduct you described.”

The state’s highest-ranking elected Democrats also didn’t weigh in on the treatment of staff. Gov. Laura Kelly and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids both declined to comment.

The complaint, investigation and accounts of the former employees paints a picture of a party facing consistent turnover among staff as it prepares for a major election cycle that is expected to be an uphill battle for Kansas Democrats who are defending the governor’s office and a competitive Kansas City area congressional seat.

“Why did they not tell us that they were actually taking action in the workplace to ensure that this didn’t happen again? If they’re striving to harbor a welcoming inclusive environment, why are they protecting someone who has a record of being abusive toward staff for many years,” Hayden said.

Former staffers blame departures on party’s executive director

The staff members who spoke to The Star described a sense of isolation, fear and belittlement in their time working for the state party. Each said they felt singled out by a boss who could be erratic at times and did not respect personal boundaries.

Sullivan said she was reprimanded for not providing enough advance notice when she had to take time off to attend the funeral for her partner’s grandfather.

Another time, Meers abruptly walked into her office angry and asked whether she was crying after he’d sent her an email with edits on a fundraising communication.

Frequently, Sullivan wrote in the complaint, Meers would call her and speak so sternly he reduced her to tears. However, he never went into depth about concerns with her work and often compared her to other employees.

“The phone calls just seemed to be a result of his short temper,” she wrote. Sullivan quit after six months with the party.

Hayden started at the party in August of 2021. She left in October.

Throughout her time with the party, Hayden said, her relationship with Meers became tense and uncomfortable. In the complaint Hayden wrote about never being certain where her relationship stood with her boss.

She said she seldom received real feedback, despite “pleading.” And that Meers made her feel as if he was watching her outside the work environment.

“He wouldn’t say when things were bothering him or when he was not happy with the way something was done and then he would just reserve all of it until he got to the point where he would kind of explode,” Hayden told The Star.

When she asked for feedback, Hayden said, Meers would tell her she was doing fine. Then, he would later compile a list of things she was doing wrong and send it to her in writing with the chair copied on the email, she said.

Meanwhile, Hayden said, Meers made a point of mentioning to her when he saw her at a concert the night before but that he hadn’t said hi and would never speak to her outside work. Weeks later, he sent her a picture of the back of her car while she was driving.

Brase described passive aggressive behavior after he told Meers he planned to begin looking for a new job before the next election cycle.

At one point, Brase said, Meers criticized him in an email that several party employees were also copied on. Their relationship became increasingly tense— at one point, Brase said, Meers called him and said that if he had a “comprehension issue” with his job then “I guess I can’t help you.”

Party activists defend Meers

Some party activists said they’d had nothing but good experiences with Meers and attributed the concerns to the general nature of political work.

Ty Dragoo, vice chair of the 2nd District, said turnover at state parties is normal.

“Every time I have concerns, issues or problems he’s quick to respond fast to handle it,” Dragoo said.

Justin Shore, a Clearwater councilman who is active in the party, said hard work and long hours is normal in politics where there never seem to be enough resources.

“You’re always underfunded, you’re always overtaxed,” he said. “It definitely can come off as toxic. I don’t think that’s necessarily the intent.”

But Sullivan, Brase and Hayden each said they hit a breaking point after months of “bullying.”

All three reported serious negative impacts to their mental health. Hayden’s well-being was so damaged that she sought inpatient treatment. Sullivan said she was so stressed by the time she left that she could hardly eat. Brase said he experienced heart palpitations as a result of anxiety.

“I was constantly under the impression that my work wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t doing enough,” Sullivan told The Star. “I felt like Ben was eagerly anticipating my mistakes, me slipping up no matter how small it could be.”

“His temper would come out of nowhere so I felt always on edge.”

Hayden checked herself into a mental health facility after quitting. She’d worked in politics for years, including Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, but said Meers treatment stood apart from the high stress roles she was used to.

“I felt so isolated and kind of bullied and I was feeling like I had moved back for this job that was supposed to be my dream job and all of a sudden I was experiencing someone who was being extremely harsh and being extremely unkind then also semi stalking me at the same time,” Hayden said.

Hayden and Sullivan have left politics since leaving the KDP.

Hayden, Brase and Sullivan participated in the internal investigation, but they said they worry it hasn’t led to real changes.

“There’s just a fear that he’s able to skate by and keep treating more and more people this way for years to come,” Brase said.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting