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Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Weinberg committee may investigate culture problems in politically-connected labor, business groups

Panel’s work ‘could lead us there,’ Senate majority leader says

By Nikita Biryukov, January 23 2020 5:08 pm

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said her working group on harassment, sexual assault and misogyny in New Jersey politics may investigate the issues faced by women in politically-connected labor and business groups.

“Some of that really will depend upon what we learn from this survey, and labor and business groups, we have the vice president of the AFL-CIO — one of the biggest labor representatives in the state, if not the biggest — so it could lead us there,” Weinberg said. “I don’t know. We’re not putting out a definitive road map.”

Laurel Brennan, secretary-treasurer of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, is one of the committee’s twelve members.

The work group unveiled its first steps Thursday.

The committee is sponsoring a study by the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault to gauge the experiences of women in the state’s politics.

The panel next steps will be based on the results of that survey —NJCASA executive director Patricia Teffenhart said preliminary data would be available in mid-March — and the findings of two listening session the group plans to hold in the coming weeks.

Those hearings haven’t yet been scheduled, and much remains unclear about the broader timeline for the committee’s action.

“I’m not sure our work will ever be done. I don’t think there is a time frame of a beginning and an end,” Weinberg said. “We have laid out what our first steps are with the listening forum, with awaiting the results of the NJ CASA survey and what our next one or two meetings will be about.”

The ad hoc committee was drafted following a Star Ledger report that said harassment and misogyny still ran rampant in New Jersey politics.

So far, the report has pushed new scrutiny onto the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s Walk to Washington and the New Jersey League of Municipalities’ annual conference, which were named in the report as hotbeds for predatory behavior.

“In today’s political environment, there are defensive steps we must take in order to protect ourselves because no one else is there to help us. We check in with our colleagues at conventions and conferences. We never walk alone or accept drinks from anyone but ourselves,” said Sabeen Masih. “Our guard is constantly up, and we have to evaluate one more event, one more connection, one more part of our night is worth walking into the unknown.”

Masih, who is vice president of public affairs at the Capital Impact Group, was added to the committee last week.

Weinberg said she intends to announce additional committee members in the coming days.

The senator downplayed the possibility of her working group “solving” Trenton’s culture problem.

“I don’t believe we’re going to come out with a report that’s going to solve the problem that’s too multi-layered, multi-generational,” she said. “I think we’re just going to start.”

Even before the Ledger’s report, New Jersey politics saw no shortage of controversies related to sexual misconduct.

In October 2018, State Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency chief of staff Katie Brennan accused former Schools Development Authority chief of staff Al Alvarez of sexually assaulting her in April 2017, when he was in charge of Muslim and Latino outreach for Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign, for which Brennan would later volunteer.

Weinberg led a legislative select committee that investigated Alvarez’s hiring. That investigation eventually led to a series of bills reforming how the state handles allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

“I think we’ve come to a time where we are prepared, if women are not supported, then women are not going to continue to blindly support men who will not step up and take some leadership on this issue,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, another member of the ad hoc committee, said.

Murphy has faced fire over women’s issues on a separate front. For months, Weinberg and other lawmakers have criticized the governor for non-disclosure agreements employed by his campaign that critics said prevented women from publicly discussing a toxic work environment there.

Paul Josephson, Murphy’s campaign attorney, this week sent a letter to Julie Roginsky, another committee member and a former member of Murphy’s campaign, saying that her non-disclosure agreement with the campaign did not bar her from discussing toxic workplaces issues that took place there.

Separate incidents, like House candidate Tiffany Kaszuba dropping her bid over repeated unwanted messages from now-former Monmouth County Democratic State Committee member Bill Robinson, have caused smaller waves in political circles.

Robinson has since resigned.

“This is a warning, if you are actively intimidating, harassing and assaulting women, we will find out who you are, and there are systems to deal with that,” veteran lobbyist Jeannine LaRue said.

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