An ad hoc group looking into the treatment of women in New Jersey politics heard Tuesday about lewd comments, groping, intimidation and bullying as well as promises of imminent reforms to improve the political culture in the state.
Even before the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics began its first hearing, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that he will be implementing changes in state government soon and apologized for any ways his 2017 gubernatorial campaign failed women. The workgroup was formed by Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).
“We built that campaign based on the tenets of equity, justice, fairness and respect for all New Jerseyans, and we know that those ideals must be achieved in both word and deed, both externally and internally. To those we failed in that mission, I apologize,” Murphy told reporters following an unrelated event Tuesday.
Follow this link to watch NJTV News report on the hearing
He did not mention anyone by name, but former Murphy campaign operative Julie Roginsky had recently spoken publicly about her experiences on the campaign and called it “the most toxic workplace environment I have ever seen in 25 years of working on political campaigns.” In 2018, former campaign volunteer Katie Brennan accused staffer Al Alvarez of sexual assault and complained that the administration had hired him anyway for a high-ranking position. Both Roginsky, who is a member of the workgroup, and Brennan were at Tuesday’s hearing in Fort Lee but neither spoke.
Murphy called “disturbing” stories of the mistreatment of women in politics and vowed both state government and any future campaigns of his will “be a model of a respectful workplace” and that he will work to “ensure … everyone is empowered, respected and safe to be full partners in moving our state forward.”
Deborah Cornavaca, Murphy’s deputy chief of staff, appeared before the all-women workgroup to provide a preview of reforms centered in part on new, interactive sexual harassment and discrimination training that the Murphy administration is expected to unveil later this week.
“Our work will begin with bringing in experts in the area of workplace culture and climate to thoroughly review and challenge the foundations of our current approach,” said Cornavaca. “We will rely on research and empirical evidence of what promotes equity and inclusion in the workplace … We are going to develop both new content and new approaches to implementing essential trainings.”
She said the state will also work on building an equity-based work climate with “safe” systems for reporting issues and consequences for those who violate rules.
“We must move beyond the current framework which implicitly affirms men who hold power as inherently more powerful,” Cornavaca said. “Instead we have to start with the premise that all people in the workplace must be treated with equal dignity and respect.”
Democratic Party reforms
Saily Avelenda, the new executive director of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee, said the party too will be implementing reforms, including giving “robust” training and creating independent platforms for reporting abuse or harassment.
“We will evaluate our structures and find opportunities to create true equity and inclusion,” she said. “We need actual sustained change in how we do business.”
Based on the stories told by several women at Tuesday’s hearing, change is needed.
One told of being mistreated by her running mate for an Assembly seat several years ago. The man, she said, insulted her intelligence in a public speech as she stood behind him and would often put an arm on her lower back or around her waist. But she had to apologize to him for complaining about how he treated her because he had raised more money toward their campaign. And others told her she had been mistaken about any unwanted physical contact because he had only touched her arm.
“I can assure you that I do not overreact when someone touches my arm,” said the woman, breaking into tears at times as she spoke. She had asked for anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation she described. “I wonder for how long or how much we are expected to remain silent for the sake of our campaigns and political careers.”
She said the political parties need to do a better job vetting candidates and funding campaigns.
“We must think about the implications this has for a power imbalance and resulting opportunities for abuse,” the woman added. “If we expect young women and women of color to put themselves up for office, we must pave the way for a more equal footing in all possible aspects and acknowledge the ways in which we put them at risk.”
Propositioned and ‘groped’
Amanda Richardson, 35, an international women’s rights attorney and chair of the Harding Township Democratic Committee, said she was “shocked” by what she encountered when she first got involved in local politics after the 2016 presidential election, including both in-person and online harassment, with implied or outright suggestions of having sex. She said she was both propositioned and “groped” at last November’s NJ State League of Municipalities annual convention in Atlantic City.
“A lot of being a woman in politics seems to me to involve walking a line between being fun and flirty, someone the men who still seem to be the majority of those in charge wanted around and didn’t see as a buzzkill and being serious and staid enough that those same men didn’t make assumptions about where the night was leading,” she said.
Richardson offered suggestions for how to change things. Political leaders must prioritize creation of a welcoming environment for women and do more networking outside bars and without alcohol. She also called for mandatory sexual harassment training and independent mechanisms for reporting incidents. And, further suggested Richardson: “Make sure that everyone, even older men, understand the standards of consent. And I want to point out I’m talking about enthusiastic consent.”
Other women addressed the hearing not on sexual harassment but on other topics the group is studying.
Liz Foley, director of online content with the grassroots group Action Together New Jersey, told of the disillusionment of women who enthusiastically got involved in county committees over the last few years only to be bullied by the political leaders.
Ordered to vote in particular way
“They took their seats and they were immediately ordered how to vote, told what to think and not to ask questions, told that if they did anything, stepped out of line, they would be removed from the committee,” Foley said.
She said such actions and attitudes are rooted in the state’s political structure, a top-down system that has very powerful party bosses and county chairs.
“I really do want to be clear that this sort of toxic atmosphere exists in a lot of places, but it’s real special in New Jersey,” Foley said.
Fran Ehret, a staff representative with the Communications Workers of America, also alleged bullying related to Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), both as Senate president and when he was freeholder director in Gloucester County and by U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st) when he was a state senator. She recounted several instances when she and others were opposing policies either by the freeholders or state Legislature in which she said union men tried intimidating her and others. Both Sweeney and Norcross have been union officials.
At one meeting about the contentious cuts in public worker pensions and benefits signed by former Gov. Chris Christie that Sweeney and other Democrats had backed, Sweeney “stood up, pointed a finger at me and said, ‘If you were a man, I would take you outside and kick your ass,’” Ehret said. “That is sexism and that is abuse of power.”
In a response to reporters, Sweeney said that Ehret had organized actions against him.
The 13 members of the workgroup did not question or comment on any of the testimony, instead using the hearing as a listening session to let women tell their stories.
They also will be considering results of an online survey being conducted by the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault of people’s attitudes about — and personal experiences of — sexual harassment and misogyny in politics in the state. Weinberg said 360 people have already filled out the survey.
There is no question that the workgroup has its work cut out for it in proposing ways to change behavior and improve the lot of women in politics.
“We are all products of this misogynistic society, this patriarchal structure,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of NJ CASA and a member of the group. “We’ve got a tough job ahead of us, we all know that we do.”
“We are taking this role very seriously,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, another group member. “It is our hope that by the time we finish our work, we will be able to produce a document that can guide those who are in leadership positions.”
Oliver thanked those who spoke before the hearing for speaking up, saying it takes courage, then added, “I think, in 2020 we have learned that as women we have to step up and be courageous.”
Another hearing is planned for early next month, likely in Middlesex County.