Gov. Phil Murphy and top lawmakers showed skepticism that steps taken by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce to stymie sexual harassment incidents at its annual Walk to Washington would actually be enough to achieve that goal, as top lawmakers such as the Senate President respond by dropping out altogether.
The biggest change will be a hard alcohol ban on the Chamber Train, where according to a late-December report by The Star-Ledger, many of the incidents against female attendees have transpired.
“With all due respect, limiting hard alcohol ain’t going to get it done,” Murphy said at his monthly “Ask Governor Murphy” WBGO radio segment on Jan. 8. “They’ve got to get to a meaningfully different place, not just a little baby step, and a very big step.”
The Chamber released steps it would take to promote safety at the event on Jan. 7, including the publication of a Code of Conduct, which will be distributed to all Walk to Washington attendees.
Murphy’s often-times chief political opponent, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, agreed and said he plans to bow out of the Chamber Train and the after parties – of which there are dozens – at the annual November New Jersey League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City, which brings tens of thousands of attendees to the city for the three-day event.
In a Wednesday statement, Sweeney said he would not participate in either event “until more progress has been achieved to bring an end to the toxic environment at these gatherings.”
“The steps announced by the Chamber are not enough to bring systemic change to the pervasive culture of misogyny in New Jersey politics,” he added.
At a Thursday morning Senate committee session Sweeney doubled-down on that sentiment. “I really think we should all back away until it gets fixed,” he said. “It’s been going on for too long.”
“We are committed to making the environment at all of our events safe and welcoming for everyone, but the recent Star-Ledger article has prompted us to take additional measures beginning with the upcoming Walk to Washington,” New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Bracken said in a Jan. 7 statement.
Shifting the paradigm
The changes for the annual affair include beefed up security at events, easier access for attendees to report sexual harassment, and more intense training for chamber staff leading up to the Walk to Washington on Feb. 27 and 28.
NJ Advance Media’s Dec. 29 report detailed incidents reported by 20 female political operatives, campaign staffers, lobbyists and lawmakers at the two annual networking events — the largest in state politics – and more broadly a culture of abuse facing women in Trenton.
Murphy agreed with Sweeney’s assessment – as did Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-37th District – that putting an end to sexual assault and harassment at both events requires a “paradigm shift” in New Jersey politics.
“Let’s be clear, alcohol, whether it is beer, wine or hard liquor does not cause sexual harassment or assault, sexual predators do,” she said in a Wednesday statement. “At the end of the day, individuals who do not respect a person’s boundaries or bodily autonomy will harass and assault others because they want to, liquid courage does not change this fact.”
To that end, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, a vocal critic of how the Murphy administration handled the sexual assault allegations made by former campaign volunteer Katie Brennan, said she would form an “ad hoc” legislative committee to scrutinize the “toxic climate for women in N.J. politics.”
Weinberg was highly critical in her Dec. 30 statement of what she called ” ‘see no evil’ responses” from both organizations, and invited both of them to send representatives to serve on the committee.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, in a Wednesday letter to Weinberg, recommended 17 picks, many from within the Murphy administration, to serve on the committee. They include First Lady Tammy Murphy, State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio, New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan and Communications Workers of America New Jersey State Director Hetty Rosenstein.
“[T]he Murphy Administration stands ready to work with you to change this culture and create a safe, welcoming, and empowering workplace environment in New Jersey,” she wrote.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:51 p.m. EST on Jan. 10, 2020 to clarify that Senate President Steven Sweeney will still attend November’s League of Municipalities conference, but not its associated after-parties. It was also updated to include a response from the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.