Work begins to change ‘toxic’ culture in New Jersey politics


State Senator Loretta Weinberg at a press conference Thursday

New Jersey’s oldest and highest ranked lawmaker on Thursday launched an effort to change what she called a “toxic culture” for women in New Jersey politics, but said she didn’t expect any changes. easy or quick reforms.

“I don’t want to use the word solution,” said Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the majority leader in the upper house who formed the task force on harassment, sexual assault and misogyny in the New Jersey Politics, at a press conference. conference Thursday. “I’m old enough to know that it won’t happen in two hours or two days, in a few months or three years, maybe in my lifetime… This is just the beginning of the change and we will change things, shine the spotlight on the things that we believe need to change.

Weinberg, who began serving in the Assembly in 1992 before moving to the Senate in 2005, noted that the group – currently a dozen women but likely to grow – is not a creature of the legislature or the government, but an independent effort that she decided to undertake after reading a NJ Advance Media Report on the stories of 20 women involved in politics who have been harassed or sexually assaulted.

Watch NJTV News video report of Thursday’s press conference

The report paints a grim picture. From floors of the two legislative chambers in Trenton to the annual convention of the NJ State League of Municipalities in Atlantic City to the annual “Walk to Washington” of the NJ Chamber of Commerce on a special Amtrak train, harassment and misogyny are rife in New Jersey politics for decades.

“Everyday, Everywhere,” is how longtime political strategist Julie Roginsky, who, along with former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, co-founded Lift Our Voices, an education and advocacy organization. rights to end non-disclosure agreements (“NDAs”) that silence victims. sexual harassment and discrimination.

“Our guard is constantly up”

While longtime lobbyist Jeannine LaRue, formerly of the New Jersey Education Association, said many of the worst actors have died, retired or left the legislature, young women say sexual harassment continues today. ‘hui.

“In the current political environment, we need to take defensive measures to protect ourselves,” said Sabeen Masih, vice president of public affairs at Capital Impact Group. “We create group texts to check with our colleagues at conventions and conferences. We never walk alone and never accept drinks from anyone other than ourselves. Our guard is constantly up and we must assess whether one more event, one more connection, one more part of our night is worth walking into the unknown.

Changing entrenched attitudes can be difficult, but there can be momentum to do so. The momentum began with allegations by Katie Brennan, a campaign volunteer under Gov. Phil Murphy, that she was sexually assaulted by campaign staff member Al Alvarez, who then went on to get a job in the administration and has been gone since. This sparked legislative hearings, co-chaired by Weinberg, which led to the introduction of a package of bills designed to correct the problems identified by the committee.

Murphy enacted all but one of those bills, and Weinberg said she expects lawmakers to reintroduce the measure, which would allow one state employee to tell others about a discrimination complaint. or harassment filed by the worker, and to satisfy the governor’s concerns to get he signed into the law. She also said New Jersey has the strictest law in the country prohibiting nondisclosure agreements in cases of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

The legislature in September 2018 also adopted a stricter anti-harassment policy.

“Pernicious sexism”

In his State of the State post last week, Murphy proclaimed that “misogyny is alive and well” in politics and government, and called for an end to “pernicious sexism and abuse” that women face.

Murphy has not yet detailed how he plans to change the culture in the New Jersey government, although he wrote in a invoice signature statement earlier this week, he is unhappy with the legislature’s refusal to submit to new laws that protect state government employees – for example, the one he signed to create a hotline that employees can call to report harassment.

“I remain disappointed that the legislature refused to include itself within the scope of these reforms and rejected amendments repeatedly proposed by my staff that would have applied these reforms to the entire state government.” , wrote Murphy.

A member of the legislative staff said the reforms would not apply to legislative employees because the legislature is a separate branch of government; the legislature also has its own policy, the staff member noted.

Murphy said Thursday that he supports the goals of the task force and is happy Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver is a member.

“Assuming this is a whole-of-government approach and is action-oriented, we are all prepared to cooperate with Senator Weinberg,” Murphy said at an independent press conference.

At the press conference announcing the task forces’ plans, Oliver said women need to support each other.

“We know we have the strength among us, collectively, to change the culture,” she said. “I think we have enough women, especially in the state of New Jersey, to force a culture change.”

Work on reforms, offer support

Although not an official body, the task force is considering proposing ways to change the culture and help women who have already been harassed.

“They should be very, very, very nervous,” said LaRue, now senior vice president of lobbying firm Kaufman Zita Group, in response to a question of whether the men in Trenton should be scared.

Nearly 70, LaRue said she was no longer the target of harassment, but believes it’s important to help young women so they don’t have to continue to suffer.

“Now we all have the opportunity to try to protect young women, hear their stories, and develop procedures and resources that help them, so they don’t have to fast forward 30 or 40. years and stand in front of a microphone and tell those stories again, ”she said.

Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, left, and Julie Roginsky spoke at yesterday’s press conference.

The task force plans to hold several public hearings to hear women talk about existing culture, and at least one private hearing where women who are embarrassed or afraid to speak openly can tell their stories. Counselors will be available at private meetings to talk to survivors about their experiences and help them if they wish to take further action.

Additionally, the group is working with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault to investigate online survey attitudes and personal experiences of people towards sexual harassment and misogyny in politics in the state. In particular, the survey targets government and campaign members, elected officials, lobbyists and others involved in politics. NJ CASA will make a special effort to publicize the investigation during the House train trip next month to Washington.

Past attempts to fix the problem have been played out according to a “patriarchal game guide,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of NJ CASA.

“As a culture, we have become accustomed to consuming women’s stories about sexual harassment, assault, humiliation and trauma,” she explained. “But when women try to tell us what to do about it, that’s when people get uncomfortable.”

Teffenhart said getting the survey data will help inform the discussion and advocate for change.

“We are done allowing those with the power to make real change to turn away because they are uncomfortable,” she added.

Teffenhart called on men involved in politics to “step up, intervene, set an example for their male peers, ensure women are included as equal contributors to decision-making meetings, create, sign and enforce codes of conduct for the countryside ”.

Persistent conflict over non-disclosure

The recent controversy Roginsky’s remarks in the Star-Ledger, calling the Murphy campaign “the most toxic work environment I have ever seen in 25 years of working on political campaigns.” Roginsky said she couldn’t discuss the details because Murphy was holding her to a nondisclosure agreement.

Murphy said Thursday that Roginsky “is entitled to his own opinion” and declined to expand on a statement released earlier this week in which he said the NDA only applied to “proprietary information” and that it “asked campaign lawyers to make it clear to all that they are legally free to speak out about workplace issues during the campaign.

Asked about this statement, and a letter from a campaign lawyer stating that Roginsky is “free to speak publicly” about “the campaign’s workplace issues,” Roginsky declined to comment, saying she did not want to remove the broader message from the Thursday press conference. She also said she would decide when to say more.

Members of the task force said they were determined to do everything in their power to change the environment in politics so that women feel safe and on an equal footing with men.

“Yeah, that’s a warning,” LaRue said. “If you actively bully, harass and assault women, we’ll find out who you are. And there are systems that take care of it. And we will develop the resources these women need to advance in their careers.


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