Gov. Phil Murphy tackled Trenton’s toxic culture of sexual harassment and misogyny during his state of the state address on Tuesday, but he didn’t address the issues his own campaign faced on that front.
“We all must be disgusted by the stories which women – across the entire spectrum of race, age, and experience – tell of their mistreatment by men who felt empowered, if not protected, by Trenton’s culture,” he said. “For too many years, too many people in power have turned their eyes away from behavior they knew was not only happening, but was pervasive in Trenton.”
Foremost among the controversies faced by Murphy’s 2017 campaign are the sexual assault allegations leveled at former Schools Development Authority chief of staff Al Alvarez by Katie Brennan, who is now chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.
Brennan accused Alvarez of raping her in April 2017, when he was in charge of Muslim and Latino outreach for Murphy’s campaign, for which Brennan would later volunteer.
Her allegations and their handling by Murphy’s administration and transition teams consumed Trenton for half of 2019, although the issue has barely caught the attention of rank-and-file New Jerseyans.
The work of a bicameral select committee investigating Alvarez’s hiring eventually led to a swath of bills changing how the state handles allegations of sexual harassment and assault, which Murphy has since signed into law.
“I’m glad that he recognized that there’s a toxic culture and that misogyny does exist in the state of New Jersey. Any reforms that he referenced were put in place by the legislature,” State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) said. “Both sides of the aisle came together to come up with guidelines, and I’m glad he signed our bills into law.”
Still, Corrado wants Murphy to go even further.
“However, until he addresses the situation at home, no one can take him seriously,” she said. “Until he lets the campaign workers be released from the NDAs, we’re never going to take him seriously. Actions speak louder than words, and up until now, the action’s been lacking.”
Corrado served as vice chair of the Senate panel.
Murphy’s comments on Tuesday did not address Brennan’s case, nor did they mention non-disclosure agreements used by his campaign that have been a frequent target for Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who served as co-chair of the select committee.
“I’ve made a lot of comments — the governor has heard them — that a good step forward for him is to release any of the women, consultants, who were involved in his campaign from their non-disclosure agreements,” Weinberg said Tuesday.
The senate majority leader did praise Murphy for signing the bills and mentioning the broader issues faced by New Jersey’s women.
“The governor, who was a little bit skeptical about our select committee, did sign the Katie Brennan bills, so I am assuming that although he didn’t give us credit for it, that means he think we did a pretty good job,” she said. “So obviously, in his speech he recognized what everybody else has been recognizing: We have a climate of misogyny and a whole variety of other things that we’re hopefully going to address.”
In his speech, Murphy made a call for further reforms on the issue, though he did not cite any specific policies.
“Today, I am calling for us all to work together to tear down the existing system and replace it with one that treats everyone with equal dignity and respect. I am calling on my partners in government to join me in this mission,” Murphy said. “And, I am calling on those who have stood idly by and allowed this behavior to flourish to start speaking up and speaking out whenever they witness injustice.”
The governor sought amendments that would make the legislature subject to changes made by a number of the Brennan bills, though the legislature advanced those bills — the Assembly in June and the Senate last month — without changes.
It’s not clear whether Murphy was referring to those amendments.
Two other select committee members, Senate President Pro-Tempore Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Newark), the committee chair on the Assembly side, gave Murphy’s comments a more favorable read than their colleagues.
“I just think that we don’t know exactly what he’s looking for with regards to proposals. We all sent him proposals in the previous sessions that he signed,” Pintor Marin said. “I guess we have to wait and see what he wants us to do further.”
Regardless of the jockeying that has surrounded some of the Brennan bills, Ruiz said legislators would need support from the administration to continue their fight against misogyny in the state’s politics.
“Let’s be inherently clear, what we’re talking about here, at events — this is pervasive for women in every sector of every workforce,” she said. “I’m proud of the work that we did in the legislature, of some of the issues that we did, but that’s just a beginning point. Everybody has to step up”