Katie Brennan offers her prescription to fix ‘toxic’ culture in NJ politics

The woman whose complaints about the handling of her accusation of sexual assault by a member of the governor’s campaign staff helped spark a sweeping effort to change the culture of politics in New Jersey addressed an ad-hoc group this week that’s dedicated to that purpose.

“No one ever told me what my options were, we can do better,” said Katie Brennan at the second public forum convened by the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics, put together by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg to address the “toxic” culture faced by women in government and politics in New Jersey.

Brennan, a former volunteer for Gov. Phil Murphy’s election organization who now serves as chief of staff for the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, says the system failed her when she went to police with allegations that she was raped during the campaign by a former Murphy campaign staffer — Al Alvarez, who has denied the accusation.

“They told me that it wasn’t that they didn’t believe me, but they couldn’t take a case that they could possibly loose,” she said Monday as the group met at Rowan University’s campus in Burlington County. “Truth and justice was irrelevant because it was hard.”

Criminal authorities declined to bring criminal charges in the case, which dates back to April of 2017. Later a legislative Select Oversight Committee found that members of Murphy’s inner circle did not conduct a thorough and rigorous investigation into her allegation against Alvarez, who went on to take a senior job in the administration.

“The people entrusted with properly and responsibly handling Ms. Brennan’s complaint failed her at every step of the way,” the committee wrote in its report.

Sitting beside her attorney, Brennan outlined more than two dozen ways the state could reform policies to make sure that other women don’t have to go through what she did. Almost all of the suggestions were based on her personal experience, which included changes to how prosecutors, judges and police handle sexual harassment complaints.

“When I called the police, four of them came towered over me, interrogated me to tears,” she said. “They proceeded to write a report, misspelling my name and misrepresenting the incident. They filed a report which I didn’t see until a year later when I could pick it up.”

The panel plans to take the testimony it receives at the hearings and produce a document to help political leaders make the necessary changes.

“Although we might not change what’s in people’s hearts or minds, we change an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to act out if there are inappropriate thoughts in their hearts and minds,” Weinberg said. “And I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ll be doing here.”

The 13-women panel is made up of women who work in New Jersey politics, including Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.

“And now we have to move torward — just as you see Harvey Weinstein — we have to begin to make people accountable, find out if they’re guilty,” Oliver said. “A victim should not feel they have to carry that trauma for the rest of their lives.”

Brennan says while there are rules in place to protect against sexual assault, harassment and misogyny, there needs to be more accountability.

“The legislative Selects Committee’s report issued last June found that we have rules and protections in New Jersey, many on the progressive forefront, but they weren’t followed,” she said. “Do not let your own fear of a difficult conversation, make an environment unsafe. Admit fault, take responsibility.

“It is never a convenient time for a revolution,and never a convenient time to smash the patriarchy. It is never a convenient time to hold your friends and colleagues accountable,” Brennan added. “But now is that time. Change is here, and change is coming.”

The next and final public forum is planned next week at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.