Why a New Jersey Political Ritual Got a #MeToo Makeover

Why a New Jersey Political Ritual Got a #MeToo Makeover

This train will carry more saints than sinners when it leaves New Jersey.

And that’s an order.

The state Chamber of Commerce’s Walk to Washington on Thursday is one of the biggest annual networking extravaganzas in New Jersey politics.

Elected officials — frequently from the governor on down — mingle with lobbyists, university presidents and business leaders while walking the aisle of a chartered Amtrak train to Washington, cocktails in hand.

But this year, in the face of increased awareness of sexual harassment and claims that the two-day trip’s Bacchanalian atmosphere invites drunken assaults, the event has undergone a #MeToo makeover.

No hard alcohol will be permitted. There is a hotline for women to call if they are assaulted or harassed. And all ticket holders must agree to a code of conduct that explicitly warns against everything from boorish behavior to “unwelcome sexual advances or request for sexual favors.”

The extraordinary precautions come as New Jersey is facing a reckoning over what current and former political leaders say is an entrenched culture of misogyny in state and county government.

A series of recent revelations, some tied to women who say they were mistreated during Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s campaign, has pushed the issue to the forefront of state politics.

“Hostility toward strong female leaders is endemic to the New Jersey political establishment,” Barbara Buono, a former lawmaker who ran for governor as a Democrat in 2013, wrote in an essay published Monday by HuffPost.

In it, she detailed several examples of times that she was sexually harassed — asked to bend lower over a desk in one instance, and smacked on the behind in another — as she rose through the political ranks, saying she regretted keeping silent for so long about “predatory behavior ranging from overt assault to casual verbal misogyny.”

Across the country, dozens of states have taken direct aim at sexual harassment in the last two years, initiating what the National Conference of State Legislatures has called an “unprecedented amount of legislation,” in the wake of accusations of sex crimes against the former Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, who is facing rape charges in a Manhattan courtroom.

In Albany, where sexual harassment was considered an open secret for decades, a group of seven women last summer successfully pressed for sweeping anti-harassment laws that have been hailed as some of the most robust in the nation.

More than 100 current and former employees of the New York City Council are demanding the creation of an independent authority to investigate claims of harassment and misconduct by council members.

In New Jersey, a group of powerful women announced the creation of a panel — the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in NJ Politics — and began circulating a survey to gather input on harassment.

“It’s not like we just woke up when the #MeToo movement came,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.“This has been a low simmer.”

Mr. Murphy decried the “pernicious sexism and abuse” in politics during his State of the State address in January. And on Tuesday, he threw his support behind legislation that would clarify the definition of sexual harassment, require anti-harassment training at all public and private workplaces and extend the statute of limitations for harassment claims to three years, up from two.

In addition to instituting new rules for the trip to Washington — intended to give participants the opportunity to meet with and lobby New Jersey’s congressional delegation — the state Chamber of Commerce has teamed with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault to begin holding training sessions for private companies to combat workplace harassment.

“Women are now willing to be a face of that behavior, and to talk about it,” said Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat who represents central New Jersey and served eight terms in the State Assembly before being elected to Congress.“So we can now have these conversations and figure out how can we change the culture.”

The 15-member harassment working group was created by the State Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Loretta Weinberg, and includes the lieutenant governor, Sheila Y. Oliver.

It has no subpoena power or legal clout. And, as often happens in New Jersey, political infighting and self-dealing resulted in a tug of war over who would sit on the committee.

Still, many women said that any effort to raise awareness is a welcome first step.

“Those are the two highest-ranking women in politics, and they’re both engaged in this conversation right now,” Ms. Coleman said of Ms. Weinberg and Ms. Oliver. “And that means something.”

Several recent incidents have drawn new attention to the issue, including a news report in December by The Star-Ledger that detailed claims of abuse, assault and rape by 20 women who work in fields related to politics, most of whom were not identified by name.

Earlier this month, two key aides on Mr. Murphy’s campaign were fired from the host committee for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee over complaints that they had created a hostile work environment. The dismissals revived talk of their roles in New Jersey at a time when Mr. Murphy’s national profile is on the rise as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

A lawsuit by Katie Brennan, a volunteer who worked on the Murphy campaign and told the authorities she was sexually assaulted by a colleague, has continued to haunt the administration with allegations that her complaints were ignored by the governor and his top aides.

And Julie Roginsky, a political consultant who was a key architect of Mr. Murphy’s campaign, said recently that she was fired after being called a vulgar word by the campaign manager, Brendan Gill. Mr. Gill has strenuously denied the claim, and said Ms. Roginsky, who works with a brother of Mr. Murphy’s main political foe, is “weaponizing this issue for political gain.”

Mr. Murphy’s campaign responded by releasing emails that chronicled a brewing personal animosity between Mr. Gill and Ms. Roginsky, who, in one July 2017 exchange, complained that he was dismissive of her role in a way that “smacks of rank misogyny.”

Mr. Murphy also issued a blanket apology to “those we failed” during the campaign.

Ms. Coleman, who is not a member of the working group, said electing more women is fundamental to fixing the problem.

In New Jersey, that is often made more difficult by a male-dominated system of county leaders, many of whom rule with tight fists and reward loyalty. Of the state’s 21 counties, five Democratic women and four Republican women chair their party’s county committees.

“That makes a difference in who gets to run and who gets considered,” Ms. Coleman said.

Twenty years ago, when Christine Todd Whitman was governor, New Jersey ranked 42 out of 50 states for its number of female lawmakers.

“We were at the bottom 10, with states like Alabama and Mississippi,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Ms. Whitman recalled how her comments were often ignored during meetings when she was governor, only to be praised when parroted soon after by a man.

“There was very much a sense of being unwelcome,” Ms. Whitman, a Republican who was governor from 1994 to 2001, said in an interview. “We have to put up with you, so we will. But we really don’t want you here.”

Since then, the number of women has grown: There are now 37 in the Legislature, about 31 percent of the 120 seats.

Yet New Jersey is still only 21st in the nation for its number of elected women. This reflects a significant loss of ground since 2014, when it ranked ninth, as other states have elected more female lawmakers while New Jersey’s percentage remained static.

“One of the ways to change this culture is to make sure there are more women in more aspects of government,” Ms. Walsh said.

“If this is a first step, with more to come, then it could be more than a moment.”

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