On Tuesday, a much-awaited committee investigating misogyny and rape culture in NJ politics gaveled in for the first time up in Ft. Lee, Bergen County.
An especially memorable testimony came from Franceline Ehret, the long-time union stalwart from the Communications Workers of America. It was shocking when Ms Ehret detailed threats from New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney.
According to Ms. Ehret’s account, Sweeney “stood up, pointed his finger at me and he said, ‘If you were a man, I would take you outside right now and kick your ass,'”,” Ehret told the panel. “When a man who is much bigger than you towers over you and threatens you with violence, that is not okay. That is sexism. That is abuse of power.”
And it’s corrosive. And I’ll go on a limb and call it typical.
The encounter happened a decade ago when Sweeney joined then-Gov Chris Christie to roll back benefits for NJ’s public sector union workers. It was a furious debate and it was Sweeney, and not Ms Ehret, who lost his cool in the heat of battle.
When contacted by NJ Advance Media, Senator Sweeney at first basically called Ms Ehret a liar.
“This is someone who has organized public rallies against me, has tried to drown me out, shut me out, and shut me down,” Sweeney explained. “She’s not an honest person. In fact, she’s a very dishonest person.”
Sounds super Trump’y right?
But the following day Sweeney reversed course and did what Trump would never do in a million years.
He actually apologized.
He claimed to “not share Ms. Ehret’s recollection of this meeting 10 years ago, however I will not dispute her statement from last night. Therefore, I extend my unequivocal apology,” Sweeney told NJ Advance Media.
It’s a pretty stunning about-face that left many speechless.
Matt Friedman has covered NJ politics since the aughts.
“Notable that not a single NJ politician – Democrat or Republican – has issued a statement about this,” Mr Friedman wrote on Twitter.
I’m sure Sweeney got an earful about this privately. But Trenton lawmakers would surely never rebuff him publicly because they are scared to do so.
Levers of Coercion
Sweeney and his crew control PACs and SuperPACs so they can max out and then still fund all those “uncoordinated” independent expenditures you won’t find on NJ ELEC reports.
It’s easy to understand why lawmakers in particular are timid to cross Sweeney. They fear losing committee assignments or having their legislation shelved by a man who prizes loyalty most.
Does that sound like a healthy work environment to you?
Nevertheless, Sweeney’s abrupt 180 is compelling evidence that big, uncomfortable change is already happening since the formation of Senator Weinberg’s committee.
Additionally, a handful of women (including Ms Ehret) finally got a chance to unburden themselves in a meaningful way. I’m no expert but that feels like a milestone towards healing for those whose shared theirs stories. And also for anyone who felt empowered by other women sharing.
Ms Ehret’s testimony was especially resonant because it’s so easy to imagine Sweeney bullying a woman like that. Sweeney’s antipathy towards unions run by- or for (mostly) women has been well- chronicled.
So he’s basically spent his entire career making Ms Ehret’s story believable.
For her part, Franceline Ehret was #39 on Iast year’s InsiderNJ OUT 100 Power List, a tribute to influential LGBTs in NJ politics. I haven’t heard many enough people sticking up for Fran so let’s re-roll part of her tribute here:
“A fierce critic of Chris Christie and Steve Sweeney, Fran is one of the toughest and most skilled union negotiators in New Jersey. Fran stands out in New Jersey’s labor movement which is still dominated by straight white men.”
That sentiment feels truer and more relevant today than it did when I wrote it last October.
Ms Ehret ‘s long, uninterrupted testimony surely suggests that the women on this panel are higher above the partisan fray than it might have appeared at first blush.
Jay Lassiter is an award-winning writer, podcaster, and videographer.