Work starts on changing ‘toxic’ culture in New Jersey politics

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg at press conference Thursday (NJ Spotlight)

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg at press conference Thursday (NJ Spotlight)

New Jersey’s longest-serving and highest-ranking female legislator launched an effort Thursday to change what she has termed a “toxic culture” for women in New Jersey politics, but said not to expect any easy or quick reforms.

“I don’t want to use the word solution,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the majority leader in the upper house who formed the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics, at a press conference Thursday. “I’m old enough to know this is not going to happen in two hours or two days, in a few months or three years, perhaps in my lifetime … This is just the beginning of change and we are going to change things, bring the spotlight on the things we think need change.”

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

Watch NJTV News video report of Thursday’s press conference

The report painted a grim picture. From the floors of both legislative chambers in Trenton to the annual NJ State League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City to the NJ Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Walk to Washington” on a special Amtrak train, harassment and misogyny have been rampant in New Jersey politics for decades.

“Everyday, everywhere,” is how longtime political strategist Julie Roginsky, who with former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson co-founded Lift Our Voices, an education and advocacy organization focused on putting an end to nondisclosure agreements (“NDAs”) that silence victims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

‘Our guard is constantly up’

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

“In today’s political environment, there are defensive steps we must take in order to protect ourselves,” said Sabeen Masih, vice president of public affairs at Capital Impact Group. “We create group texts to check in with our colleagues at conventions and conferences. We never walk alone or accept drinks from anyone but ourselves. Our guard is constantly up and we have to evaluate if one more event, one more connection, one more part of our night is worth walking into the unknown.”

Changing ingrained attitudes can be hard but there may be momentum to do so. The impetus began with allegations by Katie Brennan, a volunteer on Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign, that she was sexually assaulted by campaign staffer Al Alvarez who later was given a job in the administration and since has left. This prompted legislative hearings, co-chaired by Weinberg, that led to the introduction of a package of bills designed to correct problems the committee identified.

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

The Legislature in September 2018 also passed a stricter anti-harassment policy.

‘Pernicious sexism’

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

Murphy has yet to detail how he plans to change the culture in New Jersey government, though he wrote in a bill-signing statement earlier this week that he is unhappy with the Legislature’s refusal to subject itself to new laws that protect state government workers — for instance, the one he was signing to create a hotline workers can call to report harassment.

“I remain disappointed that the Legislature refused to include themselves in the scope of these reforms, and rejected the amendments that were repeatedly offered by my staff that would have applied these reforms across State government,” Murphy wrote.

One legislative staffer 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 staffer noted.

Murphy said Thursday he supports the workgroup’s goals and is glad Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Oliver is a member.

“Assuming it is a whole-of-government approach and it’s action oriented, we are all in to cooperate with Senator Weinberg,” Murphy said during an unrelated press conference.

At the press event announcing the workgroups’s plans, Oliver said women need to support one another.

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

Working on reforms, offering support

While not an official body, the workgroup is planning to propose 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 the lobbyist firm Kaufman Zita Group, in answer to a question of whether men in Trenton should be afraid.

Almost 70, LaRue said she is no longer a target of harassment, but thinks it’s important to help younger women so they won’t have to continue to suffer.

“Now we all get an opportunity to try to protect the young women and hear their stories and develop procedures and resources that help them, so they don’t have to fast forward to 30 or 40 years from now and stand at a mic and tell these stories again,” she said.

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

In addition, the group is working with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault to conduct an online survey of people’s attitudes about — and personal experiences with — sexual harassment and misogyny in politics in the state. In particular, the survey is targeting government and campaign staffers, elected officials, lobbyists and others involved in politics. NJ CASA is going to make a special push to publicize the survey during next month’s Chamber train trip to Washington.

Past attempts to deal with the problem have gone according to a “patriarchal playbook,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of NJ CASA.

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

Teffenhart said getting data from the survey will help inform the discussion and make the case for change.

“We’re done allowing those who have the power to make real change turn away because they’re uncomfortable,” she added.

Teffenhart called on men involved in politics to “step up, intervene, lead male peers by example, make sure women are included as equal contributors at decision-making meetings, create, sign and enforce codes of conduct for campaigns.”

Lingering dispute over nondisclosure

Not discussed during the press conference was the controversy over recent remarks by Roginsky in the Star-Ledger, calling the Murphy campaign “the most toxic workplace environment I have ever seen in 25 years of working on political campaigns.” Roginsky said she could not discuss specifics because Murphy was holding her to a nondisclosure agreement.

Murphy said Thursday that Roginsky “is entitled to her own opinion” and declined to elaborate on a statement released earlier this week, in which he said the NDA only applies to “proprietary information” and that he “directed lawyers from the campaign to make it clear to anyone that they are legally free to speak about workplace issues on the campaign.

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

Members of the workgroup said they are serious about doing whatever they can to change the environment in politics so women feel safe and on an even footing with men.

“Yes, this is a warning,” LaRue said. “If you are actively intimidating, harassing and assaulting women, we will find out who you are. And there are systems that deal with that. And we’re going to develop the resources that these women need to go forward in their careers.”

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