One thing was certain at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s annual Walk to Washington on Thursday – turnout was down, but attendees were far more in tune with sensitive issues surrounding misogyny and sexual harassment and assault.
That feeling came in light of a December report by NJ Advance Media, that highlighted nearly two dozen reports of sexual harassment at the event, and in New Jersey politics more broadly.
In response, the Chamber ramped up many of its policies surrounding sexual harassment and assault on the train.
Tom Bracken, who heads the Chamber, pointed to the code of conduct the Chamber released, as well as a hotline that was set up for attendees to report incidents; the number was also made available on the back of everyone’s name tag so that staff on the train could immediately address the incident. Other new measures put into place included a ban on hard liquor on the train and heightened security.
Bracken acknowledged that attendance was down this year; the event would near 1,000 attendees in year’s past year but struggled to pass 700 people in 2020. Much of that likely had to do with the NJ Advance Media story, and the ensuing #MeToo focus for women in New Jersey politics, may have certainly had an impact.
“It caused us to give more attention to it,” Bracken told reporters. “It prompted us to do more. Out of adversity comes opportunity, and this is an opportunity for a lot of people to stand up and make things better.”
Mike Egenton, executive vice president of government affairs at the Chamber, reported that there had not been any incidents on the train or the after-dinner reception.
“I think it’s a different demeanor that we’re seeing from everyone,” Sabeen Masih, vice president of public affairs at Capital Impact Group, told reporters at the 83rd annual train ride down to the nations’ capital.
“It’s an initial improvement, just by the fact that there’s so much vetting and security,” she added.
Masih is one of 11 members of a working group – all women from the public and private sector – put together by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, and one of the state’s top lawmakers advocating on the #MeToo movement, to try and end the “toxic” culture of misogyny facing women in the state’s political landscape.
Over the past two years – starting with Hollywood mogul and film director Harvey Weinstein – women have come forward with stories of harassment and sexual assault that they endured at the hands of powerful men, all part of the #MeToo movement.
“The Chamber really had… the unfortunate pleasure of being the first high-profile event to come right after The Star-Ledger article,” Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told reporters on the train Thursday.
NJCASA unveiled a partnership with the Chamber to hold sexual harassment training seminars among business leaders and regional chambers of commerce so that executives can, in turn, bring those skills back to their workplaces.
“If we can do that, I think we’ll start to get to the root causes of the problem,” – individual behavior, Bracken said.
“And so I think we have an opportunity here to interact with New Jersey’s most powerful and influential people to help them to set the tone for when we’re not on the Chamber train, but whenever they are conducting business,” Teffanhart added, standing next to Masih and Lisa Randall, commissioner at the Bergen County Improvement Authority and former GOP Assemblywoman.
All three are members of the working-group Weinberg put together.
“I hope attendance goes up. It’s a great opportunity,” Randall added. “I have to say that things are markedly better… the atmosphere’s been very positive and an improvement over last year.”
Still, one female attendee, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said “I think don’t anybody was surprised” by what came out of The Star-Ledger article, but admitted that the atmosphere this year was ultimately different.
“People were not drinking. I think people were behaving professionally,” she said. “I got more work done.”
Bracken said that he hopes New Jersey’s political climate can continue evolving to reflect the nationwide #MeToo push – longer after the train drops off all its passengers in New Jersey. He rejected the notion that the 2020 policies were just to save face.
“When you have an issue this toxic, knee-jerk reactions are good because it caused us to give more attention to it,” Bracken said. “It prompted us to do more.”
Teffenhart, and many others on the committee, said they hope this new attitude is here to stay – she is almost certain it will – and does not simply fizzle out. For example, Misah questioned whether the hard liquor ban should be a permanent fixture for the event.
The progressive activist group New Jersey Citizen Action pressed for an outright end of the event, and on Thursday morning at the entrance to Newark Penn station where people boarded the train, stood outside chanting “rape” and various other statements.
“It is one example of many events at which men of power and privilege gather to exchange favors and gloat in their access to the levers of power,” a Thursday morning statement from NJCA reads. “For far too long, women have attended events like this and had to endure the humiliation of harassment for the possibility to be considered worthy of access to the men in power.”
Teffenhart decried some of the dismissive and excessive anxiety around the new attitudes.
“When someone makes a joke and says ‘oh, I’m sorry, is this a #Metoo movement or a #Metoo moment’, I think the answer is ‘I don’t think that’s funny’,” she added.
Gov. Phil Murphy, at his keynote address at the dinner reception Thursday night, threw his weight behind the push to end the “culture of Trenton” which allowed misogyny to take root.
His administration and campaign have been hit by sexual assault and harassment allegations. Many women involved with the campaign contended that they were bound by non-disclosure agreements to stay quiet about harassment they experienced during the campaign.
Julie Roginsky, who headed the campaign until her abrupt departure in 2017, was one such woman, who called his campaign the “most toxic workplace” she’s seen in decades, because of several incidents with campaign strategist Brendan Gill.
“Let’s be clear. Boorish behavior isn’t brought on by alcohol,” Murphy said in his remarks at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. “Sexual misconduct isn’t something to be dismissed as the result of someone having had one drink too many – whether on the train or at the bar here at the hotel.”e