New Jersey’s political leaders have been scrambling to avoid sharing the blame as evidence grows of widespread abusive sexual behavior.
In a story published at the end of last month, multiple women told the Star-Ledger in Newark that they were victims of sexual misconduct while working on state political campaigns or lobbying. Three said they had been sexually assaulted, two at parties during the annual N.J. League of Municipalities conventions in Atlantic City the past five years. Others described being groped and propositioned on the annual train trip by legislators to Washington, D.C., and back.
The women’s accounts caused a sensation, ending a year that started with Katie Brennan’s sexual assault accusation against a fellow Phil Murphy campaign staffer finally getting attention in the media after being ignored for 18 months by Murphy administration officials.
The day after the Ledger story, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, announced she would create a committee to seek ways to address the climate of sexual assault, harassment and misogyny described by the women.
Senate President Steve Sweeney announced he would skip this year’s train trip and boycott the many parties held in conjunction with the League of Municipalities convention. He said that “for too long,” the events “have been marred by the harassment and abuse of women.”
The N.J. Chamber of Commerce — which sponsors the annual train trip by legislators, business representatives and lobbyists to Washington — called the behavior unacceptable and said steps would be taken to prevent it starting with the next trip on Feb. 27. These include providing more security guards, banning hard liquor (but still allowing beer and wine) and creating a hotline to report harassment.
The chamber deserves credit for these changes, which along with the publicizing of the abusive behavior might be enough to stop it on the train anyway. If not, the chamber risks losing a signature event it has hosted for more than 80 years.
The problems on the chamber train and at the League of Municipalities gathering in Atlantic City, however, are merely symptoms of the toxic, sexually abusive culture surrounding state government. The cause is New Jersey politicians — legislators, officials and staff members themselves.
As Patricia Teffenhart said, “The issue is entitled men creating toxic environments for women.” She’s executive director of the N.J. Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which will work with Weinberg’s committee.
None of the women who told NJ Advance Media their story had reported the sexual assaults or misconduct to law enforcers, fearing the retaliation that politicians would take against them and their careers.
Retaliation is just a tool to politicians who immorally put partisan loyalty above the interests of their constituents and just about anyone else. If you think getting, keeping and increasing your political party’s power is what matters more than anything, you can justify protecting yourself and abusive fellow politicians as a way to defend and preserve that power.
On Monday, Weinberg assailed Murphy for criticizing instead of signing two of the seven bills that resulted from the Senate investigation into the Brennan case — and for discouraging women from speaking out about abuse. “It is hypocritical of the governor to criticize the work of the Legislative Select Oversight Committee when he continues to refuse to release all women who worked or volunteered on his campaign from non-disclosure agreements threatening them with legal action if they speak publicly about the abuse and harassment they witnessed,” she said in a statement.
Maybe Weinberg’s new committee will find ways to steer politicians toward better personal behavior, as well as more open and effective policing of their ranks. Voters shouldn’t count on it, though. The only sure way to get officials with sounder character and greater integrity is to elect them.