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Thrown chairs…slammed doors…smashed Styrofoam coffee cups…profane tirades…ear-splitting arguments.
For anyone who’s spent any time working in a campaign headquarters, it was just another day at the office.
Campaign staff is an occupation unlike any other. It brings together widely differing personalities and strong-minded individuals, tosses them into close quarters where they’ll share a pressure cooker existence for four months or so.
Work days that begin when most other people are hitting the snooze button on their alarm routinely stretch into the time when those same other people are tuning in to the eleven o’clock news. There are no weekends off.
The popular conception of a political campaign is one of a smoothly running operation, administered by individuals who spend their days discussing weighty public policy issues and developing well thought out solutions for the candidate to convey to the voting public — democracy at its finest.
The truth is, campaigns are chaotic, filled with upheavals and uproar, unforeseen pitfalls and decisions made on the fly. They are days of exhilarating highs and gut-punching lows; euphoria and despair often in equal measure.
I’ve been through three gubernatorial campaigns and countless legislative and local campaigns. The intensity differs only in degree and in direct proportion to the stakes involved.
Tempers fray and grow dangerously short; frustrations mount and boil over. Release often can be found only in throwing any inanimate object close at hand, slamming the telephone receiver back into its cradle, or kicking whatever is within range. For others, relief from the tension and pressure is found in alcohol.
Physical confrontations occur but stop short of actual violence primarily because cooler heads intervene or the would-be combatants come to their senses and realize neither is equipped to guarantee a favorable outcome.
The F word is heard more often than please and thank you and is often used in unique — if not always grammatical — ways.
Power struggles are common and, if left unresolved, fester, grow increasingly bitter and infect the rest of the staff, creating internal cliques aligned with one side or another.
The knowledge that any slip up may send the election prospects into an irreversible tailspin is always lurking in the background, affecting every decision and impacting strategy.
It is not a vocation for the easily offended, those whose egos cannot withstand repeated puncturing, or who sulk and brood upon losing an argument. The occasional apology is heard but moving on is the goal.
Life-long friendships are forged in campaigns and life-long friendships are dissolved by them.
All that being said, there are boundaries, lines that cannot ever be crossed. It is understandable and excusable that language no one would want their mother to hear is directed toward the election day opponent.
Subjecting co-workers — no matter their status in the hierarchy — to the same linguistic torment is neither understandable nor excusable.
The volunteer who spends eight hours a day stuffing envelopes is entitled to the same respect and courtesy shown to whoever occupies the campaign penthouse.
The environment is unrelentingly intense and without the presence of experienced leadership capable of dealing effectively with the pressures of command, will deteriorate into a workplace in which some are de-valued, treated as unworthy and become objects of ridicule and disdain.
A campaign leadership composed of individuals with an inflated sense of importance will invariably create a caste system, a corrosive environment which produces self-serving elites separated from those identified and treated as second-class citizens.
The accusations leveled against the top staff of Gov. Phil Murphy’s 2017 campaign reflects precisely those qualities — a toxic workplace in which female staffers were subjected not only to hostile treatment by superiors but to behavior tinged by sexual harassment.
It’s alleged that the incidents of misconduct brought to the attention of campaign leadership were either ignored or met with threats of retaliation.
Further, the same mindset carried over from the campaign to the Administration itself with some of those responsible for the perpetuating the workplace toxicity landing high level staff appointments.
Murphy and Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill, the 2017 campaign manager, have steadfastly denied the allegations, insisting that the complaints were thoroughly investigated at the time and found to be without substance.
The governor at one point attributed the controversy to a “personnel matter” — a power struggle for operational control of the campaign which culminated in the dismissal or resignation (depending on which explanation is accepted) of the campaign’s consultant.
The Administration has, however, been unable to put the issue to rest. Explanations have not always been consistent and the steadfast refusal to respond to media inquiries has produced suspicions that its strategy is to hunker down and hope the issue blows over.
The controversy over the enforcement of non-disclosure agreements which prevented some campaign staffers from speaking publicly about what they witnessed or were subjected to inflicted considerable damage on the Administration, made worse by the insistence that the agreements were necessary and were lifted only after media and political pressure became too great to resist.
The Administration was dealt another blow and the entire toxic workplace issue re-emerged with a vengeance with the dismissal of two top political operatives with close ties to both Murphy and the state Democratic Party from their positions of leadership of the committee responsible for the party’s national convention in Milwaukee in July.
The two, Adam Alonso and Liz Gilbert, were summarily fired after serious allegations came to light that they had engaged in bullying and intimidation of staffers, badly mismanaged the committee’s operation and favored their New Jersey colleagues with contracts. Both are contemplating legal action.
The Administration has been rocked back on its heels and it has handled the issue poorly, beginning with its bungling of accusations that Kate Brennan, a campaign staffer, was sexually assaulted in 2017 by co-worker Albert Alvarez who later landed a $140,000 a year job in the Administration and was kept on the payroll until the assault allegations became public. Top level governor’s office staffers clung tenaciously to the absurd notion that none of them hired Alvarez and did not know who did.
Much to the dismay of the Administration, the issue will continue to draw media and political attention, particularly with the activities of the ad hoc committee appointed by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) to investigate the allegations and hear from witnesses who presumably possess first-hand knowledge of misconduct and who are willing to share it publicly.
As Murphy enters his third year and spies his re-election prospects on the horizon, there must be concern and angst within his inner circle over whether it faces a Bridgegate moment — the kind of issue which defines his Administration and plants an indelible stain on it.
What veterans of political campaigns once casually shrugged off as just another day at the office has become an ugly and embarrassing state of affairs for Murphy.
He may have been ill-served by his campaign leadership and there’s been no suggestion that he was personally aware of either the extent of the workplace atmosphere or of specific instances of misbehavior.
He may have little choice at this point but to tough it out, re-assert his commitment to a safe and secure environment, and throw the weight of his office behind efforts — legislative or otherwise — to bring about a cultural change in public life.
It will not be easy, but it is both necessary and overdue.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.