Workgroup proposes remedies for ‘toxic’ culture, sexual harassment in NJ politics

Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg says legislation could provide ‘fear factor’ that would stop mistreatment
Feb 11, 2020: The first hearing of the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics

New Jersey’s political parties and campaigns should adopt anti-harassment policies and the state’s election watchdog should get the power to investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment in political campaigns, parties and lobbying, a committee investigating the state’s toxic political climate recommended.

The ad hoc Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics was created a year ago in the wake of allegations of assault and misogyny against then-candidate Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign and a news report on the political culture in the state. Its 76-page report, released Thursday, followed several public hearings and discussions.

Other recommendations include requiring all elected officials, candidates, party officials and workers to complete anti-harassment training, prohibiting practices that would keep complaints secret, monitoring events that have proven particularly problematic and enacting a package of bills to improve the treatment of assault victims by the criminal justice system.

Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who formed and chaired the 15-member group, all women, said changing the culture is difficult but the recommendations — and in particular, enactment of legislation — could provide the “fear factor” to hopefully stop people from mistreating women.

“We might not always change the hearts and minds of people; we can only make it illegal for them to act out,” she said Thursday in an online meeting at which the report was introduced.

Catalog of abuse

A survey of 500 people who have worked in politics or government in New Jersey  — conducted as part of the group’s work — found that 57% had experienced harassment at some time, with verbal sexual harassment, sexist or misogynistic remarks and unwanted touching the most common forms. In public and in private, the group heard of women being propositioned, groped, told how to act and vote when serving on county political committees and being made subservient to male running mates who had raised more money than them.

Read the full report here. 

Laurel Brennan, secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO labor union and a member of the workgroup termed the culture “a real pervasive evil.”

“As in most states, politics in New Jersey is a male-dominated hierarchy where power and control are jealously guarded,” states the report. “Harassment, unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault are intertwined with issues of power and control. It is those who are in a superior position in an organization, those who control promotions, nominations or raises, who feel empowered to press their advantage. Complaints or appeals need to be brought to party leaders, candidates or campaign officials … Those who are the victims of harassment, sexual assault or misogynistic behavior too often decide not to complain because the most likely outcome is that they will be side-lined or find their careers damaged, while their abuser will be protected and most likely continue the pattern with others in the future.”

That’s why the report’s first recommendation, soon to be embodied in legislation, is so important, several members of the workgroup said. The members decided there needs to be an independent body to which people involved in the political arena can report allegations of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination and have them investigated, but creating a new office or committee to do that could prove problematic. Giving that power to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission seemed to fit the bill.

How to investigate

“Any commission that you put together is still comprised of political people and still speaks to people in politics,” said Julie Roginsky, a group member who early last year told her story of “the most toxic workplace environment I have ever seen in 25 years of working on political campaigns” while working on the Murphy campaign. “ELEC seemed to be the only structure that was independent enough to fill that role (investigating allegations) for people on the political side.”

Weinberg said ELEC, which already has some oversight of campaigns, parties and lobbying, would need additional staff with appropriate training and funding to carry out this new mission. In addition to investigating allegations, ELEC would be empowered to publicly release its findings and refer cases to law enforcement when appropriate. Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) is expected to introduce legislation soon.

Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC, called the issue “very important,” but said he could not comment because he had not seen the report or legislation.

The workgroup also called for swift passage of a multi-bill package designed to protect the rights of sex assault survivors, improve law enforcement and judicial case management and training, and codify harassment and discrimination policies that came out of the group’s work. Eight of the bills passed the Senate last month unanimously. The Assembly is expected to take them up next month.

Katie Brennan’s input

That package of bills was developed in consultation with Katie Brennan, who in 2018 accused former Murphy campaign staffer Al Alvarez of sexual assault while she was volunteering for the campaign. Brennan, who was chief of staff at the state Housing Mortgage and Finance Agency when she made the accusation public, said the Murphy administration gave Alvarez a high-ranking position despite knowing about her complaint. This led to legislative hearings, Alvarez being pushed out of a job in state government and, earlier this year, a $1 million settlement in Brennan’s lawsuit against the state.

Weinberg co-chaired the hearings on the Brennan matter and that was one reason why she formed the workgroup.

Other recommendations from the report are:

  • Political party organizations and campaigns at all levels should adopt policies barring harassment, bullying and discrimination that include meaningful sanctions for serious or repeat offenses, including the denial of funding and endorsements;
  • All elected officials, party leaders, candidates and political consultants, staff and volunteers should complete anti-harassment training;
  • Prohibit mandatory arbitration clauses and mechanisms akin to non-disclosure agreements, now barred in New Jersey, designed to keep complaints and their resolutions secret;
  • Monitor reforms put in place by the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce to address the “toxic climate” at their largest events to ensure they are being followed and are effective.

Members of the workgroup said that the release of the report is not the end of their work. While Weinberg earlier this week announced her retirement from the Senate as of next year, she said she will remain involved with the workgroup, which plans to continue meeting as needed.

“This problem that we have is not going away just because we’re going to introduce bills,” Laurel Brennan said. “We’re going to keep working on it until we see some real, real gender equality … where women and men will not have to always be looking over their shoulders and will not have to worry about their job security.”

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