Peg Schaffer is among Gov. Phil Murphy’s top political allies and her decision to represent an ex-Murphy staffer accused of creating a toxic workplace environment has angered some key Murphy supporters.
Elizabeth Gilbert, a top Murphy campaign aide who served as executive director of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, was fired this week from her post as president of the Milwaukee host committee for the Democratic National Convention after allegations that she created a toxic work environment.
Now Gilbert is considering a lawsuit for wrongful termination and she’s hired Schaffer, the Democratic State Committee vice chair and Somerset County Democratic chair, as her attorney.
Murphy is already battling allegations that a toxic, misogynistic workplace existed on his 2017 gubernatorial campaign, and that criticism that his transition and administration mishandled an alleged rape of a campaign volunteer by a senior member of his staff.
Now Schaffer creates another link between Murphy and the Milwaukee controversy.
Five Democratic leaders who sided with Murphy in recent internal party skirmishes, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the New Jersey Globe that Schaffer was wrong to take on Gilbert as a client.
“Phil needs to distance himself from all of this,” one Democrat said. “Peg doesn’t help him do that.”
Another key Murphy backer wants Murphy to tell Schaffer to choose between her state party post and her day job as an attorney.
“This isn’t good for the party. It’s not good for the governor,” the person said. “I get that Peg needs to earn a living, but it makes the governor look bad, considering all the other crap going on.”
Schaffer told WDJT, the CBS affiliate in Milwaukee, that the host committee’s decision has ruined Gilbert’s reputation.
“Firing someone based on unsubstantiated allegations is something that’s very difficult to digest,” Schaffer told the CBS reporter.
Schaffer told the Milwaukee Business Journal that Gilbert “vehemently denies” the accusations made by members of her staff in an anonymous complaint.
“She admits (the office) was hectic, but that’s the nature of the beast,” Shaffer told the publication. ““It was not that there was bullying or toxicity.”
Schaffer said she was on a Tuesday evening phone call when Gilbert was interviewed by an investigator hired by the host committee.
“Fifteen minutes later they fired her,” Schaffer told the Milwaukee Business Journal.
As state party vice chair, Schaffer has a seat on the Democratic National Committee, which will run the nominating convention in July. The host committee is a non-profit group that is raising money to pay for the convention. While it’s technically independent, there is considerable coordination between the two organizations.
Schaffer pushed back at questions about a potential conflict between her party post and filing a lawsuit against the host committee.
“At this juncture there is no conflict,” Schaffer told the Globe.
Schaffer became state party vice chair last year when Lizette Delgado-Polanco became engulfed in a hiring scandal at the New Jersey Schools Development Authority and was forced out of her state party post.
She has been a strong supporter of Murphy and kept her post after siding with him in last year’s fight over the state party chairmanship.
One elected Democratic leader said he was “at a loss for words at the actions by the vice chair.”
Earlier this week, Senate Republican Conference Leader Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) told the Globe that she saw a pattern of Murphy’s handling of toxic workplace issues.
Corrado pointed to a 2011 report released by the office of the State Department Inspector General that said the U.S. embassy and consulates in Germany, where Murphy was then ambassador, were not “attentive” or “proactive” in responding to claims of harassment.
Murphy has also faced criticism for poor working conditions at Sky Blue FC, the professional women’s soccer team that he co-owns.