Amid the postmortems the day after Gov. Phil Murphy delivered his State of the State speech was criticism leveled by female legislators of his call to change “the pernicious sexism and abuse” that afflicts women in government across the state.
“Misogyny is alive and well,” Murphy said, in the address that marked the midway point of his first term. “But, together, we can change that. We can do this, we must do this and we must do this together.”
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who has been among the loudest critics of his administration’s handling of the rape allegation leveled against a colleague by former campaign volunteer Katie Brennan, said she was not swayed by the governor’s comments, saying they did not go far enough.
“I think it needs more than recognition that it exists, which is really all we heard from the governor yesterday,” said Weinberg (D-Bergen), the majority leader in the upper house of the Legislature, who was among a group of female lawmakers who withheld their applause during that part of Murphy’s speech.
During a post-address interview with NJTV News, Murphy reiterated his call, saying the status quo is “completely and utterly unacceptable,” and that any attempt to change the culture must include both government and society in general.
Governor: ‘We have to burn down the system’
“The stories we read and hear about what women go through, we have to burn the old system down and rebuild a new one,” he said.
Weinberg announced plans to form an ad hoc committee to explore possible solutions within hours of the recent publication by NJ Advance Media of a report detailing harassment, groping, and sexual assault of women in state and local politics.
In the interview with NJTV News, Murphy offered qualified support of Weinberg’s group.
“We endorse it as long as it’s action-oriented and it’s whole of government,” he said, noting that Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver has sent a letter to Weinberg, offering names the administration believes should be included on the panel.
“We don’t only want to endorse it, we want to be part of it,” he said.
Weinberg said she welcomed the governor’s commitment, and his willingness to sign legislation created by the Legislative Select Oversight Committee she co-chaired that found the administration had failed Brennan “every step of the way” in its handling of her sexual assault complaint.
But, she added, Murphy’s speech failed to recognize structures already in place.
“He might have just mentioned the fact where he got those bills that he was signing,” he said.
Others were cautiously optimistic, but see Murphy’s comments as a genuine appeal for change.
“There’s not a bill on this topic that we’ve advanced through the Legislature that he hasn’t signed,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “So I know there is an intention here for all of us to do this work together.”
Teffenhart also sits on the Governor’s Advisory Council Against Sexual Violence. Just last year, the group tackled issues related to toxic masculinity and worked with the Attorney General’s office to update crisis response standards, she said.
But Teffenhart says, change will not come easy.
“The reason why we haven’t done anything is because what we’re really asking is for the machine to dismantle itself,” she said. “We are really talking about the influence of the patriarchy and misogyny and the role that plays for all of us who are honestly not white men in power.”
Meanwhile, Murphy said Wednesday his administration has made nominations to reinvigorate the New Jersey Advisory Commission on the Status of Women created nearly two decades ago, which was dismantled under Chris Christie.
“We nominated 11 people … on May 17, and one of them was confirmed by the Senate, I think the other day,” he said. “So that’s a question for the Senate. We want to see that fully staffed up.”
The Senate Majority office said it’s unaware of any stalled applications.
“I do know that when the governor is interested in nominees, that he helps those of us who are interested in moving forth nominees to make sure they don’t get lost in the bureaucracy or some senators’ desks,” Weinberg said.
The senator from Bergen County echoed Murphy in his call for everyone to work together on the issue.