It was just last Friday that the state announced a $1 million settlement in litigation surrounding the alleged rape of Katie Brennan by Al Alvarez, a fellow veteran of the 2017 Murphy campaign for governor.
So it was certainly fitting that a group put together by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg held a power “zoom” meeting today on sexual harassment and misogyny in New Jersey politics.
The Weinberg committee didn’t come about because of the Brennan case.
The impetus for its creation a few months ago were Star-Ledger stories about the harassment of women at two signature New Jersey political events – the League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City and the annual Chamber of Commerce train trip to Washington.
But the Brennan matter was fresh in everyone’s mind. Weinberg, in fact, said in her introductory remarks that her group plans to meet with Brennan and discuss reform ideas.
The official reason for today’s hearing was for the committee to hear details of harassment and the like from alleged victims. This was a public setting; the committee plans to hear harassment details privately tomorrow.
The overriding problem was summed up by Sheila Oliver, the lieutenant governor and a committee member. Despite this being the year 2020, Oliver said women in New Jersey are often seen as “unequal,” especially when it comes to politics.
The first speaker moved to confirm that. She was Tiffany Kaszuba who last year began a campaign for the Democratic nomination in CD-4. But Kaszuba said stalking and harassment forced her to give it up.
Other speakers related tales about being propositioned as a matter of course during political events. One woman said she was mistaken for a prostitute while at the bar at the League convention.
In response, Janice Kovach, a League vice president and mayor of Clinton, said that all exhibitors and attendees at this November’s event will be required to sign a contract pledging to adhere to a code of conduct. But she added that much of what transpires at the event is not sponsored by the League.
Jennifer Mancuso, the president of the Women’s Political Caucus of New Jersey, said sexual harassment is no surprise to any women in state politics.
Her solution was, admittedly, a familiar one. She said New Jersey needs more women in high-level political positions. And the place to start, she said, was to put more women on the state’s Reapportionment Commission.
This committee is hardly a household name, but its work has major impact – deciding the make-up of the state’s 40 legislative districts after the 2020 Census.
This is when the sausage is made and also when some lawmakers win and some lose. Surely, having women involved in this process would be a positive step.
This also goes for the state Redistricting Commission, which redraws congressional districts.
Reports of sexual harassment may be more lurid, but the committee is also about examining misogyny.
Marissa Marzano, communications director for the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, referred to the male-dominated political establishment, noting that “Power is being held over and over again by the same type of people.”
Yes, she meant men.
But she also returned to the Brennan case to bring up a problem within the problem so to speak.
Early in the series of Legislative hearing, Brennan mentioned that she, relatively speaking, had political power in New Jersey. She had a highly-paid state position and was able to bring her story straight to the governor via his personal email.
How many women can do that?
The key to the story is what happened next? Nothing much at all – even though the governor quickly acknowledged getting the email.
And that’s the point.
If an influential woman in New Jersey politics can’t be heard regarding alleged abuse, what chance do the rest have?