Weinberg panel hears repeated accounts of NJ’s ‘toxic’ culture

BY Briana Vannozzi, Senior Correspondent |

One by one, they came forward with a torrent of stories about inappropriate behavior, harassment and sexual assault at the first public forum held by an ad-hoc group impaneled to shine light on the workplace culture women face at all levels of government and politics in New Jersey.

“I saw women flinching away from men who continued unwanted touching. I received texts and Facebook messages that implied or outright suggested sex,” said Amanda Richardson, chair of the Harding Township Democratic Committee.

“As someone who is new to New Jersey, 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,” said Lizzie Foley, director of online content for Action Together New Jersey, a grassroots advocacy group for progressive causes.

The Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics was put together by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg in the wake of revelations about misbehavior by powerful men. Present at the group’s debut hearing in Fort Lee were political operative Julie Roginsky and Katie Brennan, who have both leveled allegations against men involved in the election campaign of Gov. Phil Murphy.

But the bombshell moment Tuesday came when a labor official accused Senate President Steve Sweeney, one of the state’s most powerful politicians and a frequent Murphy sparring partner, of intimidating and threatening her in 2010 during negotiations on public worker pension and benefit reforms.

“The Senate president stood up, pointed his finger at me and he said, ‘If you were a man, I would take you right outside now and kick your ass,’” said Francine Ehret, staff representative of the Communication Workers of America. “When a man who is so much bigger than you, towers over you and threatens you with violence, that is not OK. That is sexism. And that is abuse of power.”

In a statement, Sweeney shot back: “This is someone who has organized public rallies against me, has tried to drown me out, shut me out, and shut me down,” said the senior legislative leader, who has clashed harshly with public-section unions. “She has been the ringleader in trying to silence different views, she has no credibility at all.”

Earlier Tuesday, before the panel met, Murphy announced that he will be implementing changes in state government soon and apologized for any ways his 2017 gubernatorial campaign failed women.

“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.

He did not mention anyone by name, but Roginsky had recently spoken publicly about her experiences as a consultant for the campaign, calling it “the most toxic workplace environment I have ever seen in 25 years of working on political campaigns.” In 2018, Brennan accused staffer Al Alvarez of sexual assault and complained that the administration had hired him anyway for a high-ranking position. Neither women spoke at the hearing in Fort Lee.

Those who did testify laid bare a culture where they say victims are expected to stay silent for the sake of campaigns and career.

“A lot of being a woman in politics seemed to me to be walking a line of 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,” Richardson said. “And being serious and staid enough that those same men didn’t make assumptions about where the night was going.”

One woman in her 20s, who requested anonymity, spoke tearfully of her experience during a bid for state office a few years ago. She described being groped, harassed, propositioned and verbally abused by members of her party. Afterward she said she believes she’s been able to continue working in politics because she had not spoken up.

Members of the panel didn’t ask questions or comment on the testimony, saying instead that the purpose wasn’t to adjudicate allegations, but simply to listen and inform the work moving forward.

Among those who spoke about the future was Deborah Cornavaca, Murphy’s deputy chief of staff.

“I think we have to acknowledge that if current sexual harassment and discrimination trainings were sufficient, we would not still be mired in decade-old problems,” she said. “So 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.”

The new leader of the state’s Democratic Committee said change is already in the works.

“We will review and update policies, strengthen procedures and create independent avenues for reporting,” said Saily Avelenda, the group’s executive director.

Patricia Teffenhart, the executive director of the state Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said more than 360 people have filled out an anonymous online survey about their experiences working in politics in New Jersey.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “The people who shared their experiences here today represent so many people that will never feel empowered or are still intimidated.”

Two more public listening sessions are being scheduled for March in the southern and central parts of the state. The panel plans to take this testimony and produce a document to help political leaders change the culture.

“This is just the beginning,” Weinberg said.

NJ Spotlight’s Colleen O’Dea contributed to this story.