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#MeToo in New Jersey: State senator forms committee to fight toxic harassment culture in politics

New Jersey politics has a toxic culture of workplace harassment. State Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg is forming a committee to make sure women can speak up.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg.Read moreMel Evans / AP

New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg is forming a committee to try to solve what she calls the “toxic climate of misogyny, harassment, and sexual assault” in state politics.

At least five women, including two political operatives, two legislative staffers, and one sexual assault advocate, will serve on the ad hoc committee. Their goal will be to recommend ways to change the harassment that women face on the campaign trail and in government, and to prevent retaliation against women who speak up about it.

It is unclear whether the committee will issue a formal report or draft proposed legislation for lawmakers to consider.

Weinberg’s announcement Monday came after the Newark Star-Ledger detailed claims by at least 20 female staffers that they were sexually harassed, assaulted, or groped as recently as last year while working in state government or political campaigns. Some incidents happened at two popular political gatherings, hosted by New Jersey’s Chamber of Commerce and the League of Municipalities.

"We clearly have made far too little progress in changing the culture of Trenton,” said Weinberg (D., Bergen).

In 2018, a special legislative committee cochaired by Weinberg held hearings after a top staffer to Gov. Phil Murphy, Katie Brennan, accused a former fellow Murphy campaign aide of raping her in 2017. The aide, Albert Alvarez, lost his job in the Murphy administration after the accusations became public.

Murphy, whose staff was criticized by the committee as not taking Brennan’s complaint seriously, has implemented sexual harassment changes. In July, he signed a law that strips politicians and public sector workers of their pensions if they are convicted of certain types of sexual offenses in the workplace.

He also signed a law limiting the use of nondisclosure agreements in settlements of sexual harassment, assault, or discrimination cases.

“Many of the problems facing women on both sides of the aisle are sadly systemic,” Murphy spokesperson Alyana Alfaro Post said. “Much deeper reforms are needed across government and politics.”

A number of state lawmakers from both parties acknowledged that problems remain in Trenton.

“Progress has been made, but it is clear that more needs to be done," said State Sen. Nellie Pou (D., Passaic). “We have to be diligent in making it clear that abusive behavior won’t be tolerated and that women are able to speak out without fear of negative consequences.”

State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union) also signaled his concern, saying a “greater focus needs to be placed on addressing the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault to protect everyone who works in New Jersey government, politics, and government affairs."

Weinberg named lobbyist Jeannine LaRue to the committee, as well as Julie Roginsky, a longtime Democratic strategist in New Jersey who two years ago settled her own sex-harassment claims against Fox News and its CEO Roger Ailes. Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, also will serve on the panel. Senate majority counsel Alison Accettola and the executive director of the Senate minority, Christine Shipley, also will be members.

The list of members will be finalized this week.