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FORT LEE – When Loretta Weinberg put together a panel to explore sexual harassment in New Jersey politics, it seemed to be about precisely that – the harassment and abuse impacting women in what is traditionally a male environment.
The launch point was a recent story in the Star Ledger about sexual abuse throughout state politics and most specifically at two marque events – the League of Municipalities Convention each November in Atlantic City and the late winter state Chamber of Commerce train trip to Washington D.C.
At a press conference a few weeks ago, the Weinberg-led committee said it would give individuals a forum – in public if they liked – to tell stories of harassment. There were vows to hold offending men responsible, albeit belatedly, for their actions.
The first such forum was Tuesday night at the town community center and one of the first to speak was Amanda Richardson, the Democratic chair in Harding Township, Morris County. She said she was relatively new to politics, but in the three years she has been involved, she spoke of being “propositioned” and “groped.” And she said that women must struggle to be taken seriously in politics when many men see them only as “fun and flirty.”
But as the discussion ensued over 90-minutes or so, the conversation shifted from sexual harassment to raw political power and its abuses. They are related, but they’re not the same. After all, political bosses exert control over both men and women.
The most prominent witness in that regard was Fran Ehret of the Communication Workers of America, an influential public union.
And the villain in her story was Senate President Stephen Sweeney, an iron worker by trade and a union man himself.
Ehret hearkened back to a political fight a decade ago over increasing employee pension and health benefit contributions. To some, the 2011 deal was one of the key accomplishments of Chris Christie’s first term as governor. Sweeney was a key ally of the governor on this issue.
Pubic unions bitterly fought the changes and that was the subject of Ehret’s remarks.
She said that at a public meeting during debate on the issue, Sweeney said he would take Ehret outside and “kick her ass” if she was a man, Later, Ehret recalls that a handful of Sweeney associates crowded around her in an elevator in what she took as an attempt to intimidate. She called it “toxic masculinity.”
Sweeney didn’t dispute the substance of what Ehret said in a conversation with the Star Ledger, but he said the union leader is a committed political opponent of his and questioned her integrity.
Also brought up was a more recent incident – the removal of Sue Altman from a Senate committee hearing last November.
The subject was tax credits awarded to Camden-area businesses connected to south Jersey political boss George Norcross. Altman, who heads the state’s Working Families Alliance, is a Norcross critic.
And with many Norcross opponents jammed into the meeting room, this was a tense atmosphere. Soon after testimony began, Sen. Bob Smith, the committee chair, objected to boos, catcalls – whatever – coming from the audience. He asked police to remove the “back row.” This was an order that lacked any specificity at all, but apparently not in the minds of the state troopers on hand that day.
They quickly and forcibly removed Altman, who was not anywhere near the “back row.”
Most who were there – me included – saw this as a completely over-the-top reaction by the police. It was also noteworthy that Smith shamefully said nothing when the police ignored his instructions to focus on the “back row.”
But as far as Weinberg’s group is concerned, was the removal of Altman misogyny or just political? There certainly can be an overlap, but would have police thrown out a male opponent of Norcross the same way they did a woman?
On one hand, that’s irrelevant. But in the context of sexual harassment in state politics, it’s not.
Weinberg’s panel, which is officially called the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics, plans future forums – some of which will be closed – in the weeks ahead.
But it seems clear from the initial public hearing that getting a handle on sexual harassment in state politics – and more importantly, doing something about it – is not going to be easy.