Op-Ed: Coming to Terms with Women and New Jersey’s Toxic Political Culture


NJ Spotlight

Lee Keough


New Jersey’s reputation for having a toxic political culture regarding women is broadening beyond its borders. And as it ripples out, it will only add to the country’s negative perception of New Jersey as a place where politics is wholly corrupt.

The latest accusation of toxic behavior comes from the host committee of the Democratic National Convention, known as Milwaukee 2020, headed by two of the state’s political operatives, Liz Gilbert and Adam Alonso. Women working for the committee complained that Alonso bullied them and Gilbert continuously defended him.

The two were suspended by Milwaukee 2020 in advance of an internal investigation. Alonso was also dismissed from his position at the New Jersey State Democratic Committee, reportedly another point of contention in Milwaukee, since he was expected to work there full-time.

But it’s not just a matter of holding down two gigs. Alonso was one of two people named by Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky as responsible for the most toxic environment she has ever worked in during the course of 25 years — Phil Murphy’s 2017 campaign for governor of New Jersey.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered the controversy. InsiderNj.com has published the letter from the women on the Host Committee to the board of directors of Milwaukee 2020.

This latest accusation underscores what many women have been complaining about this year. Young women are still considered prey at many alcohol-fueled parties and events that are part of politics. And senior women are often dismissed or locked out of inner circles.

Misogyny — it’s nothing new

Misogynistic behavior has never been a secret to women in New Jersey’s political circles. But it took shocking reports of rape and assault for the #MeToo movement to gather steam. As a young reporter, I remember women shared information about which politicians and officials to keep your distance from. That wasn’t always possible and, if there was no physical assault, the grabs, unwanted attention and demeaning comments were considered part of life.

Misogyny may be common the world over. But in New Jersey politics the problem is acute; there is nowhere to turn for recourse, like an HR department. When I speak of political circles, I don’t simply mean government employees. I’m talking about lobbyists, activists, public relations executives, elected officials — even reporters.

I believe the extreme transactional nature of New Jersey politics underlies much of the problem. The “I do for you; you do for me” is accepted practice. That makes it all the easier for men to justify their actions, whether it is harassment and assault, or closing ranks.

The complaints about the treatment of women in the Murphy campaign began last summer, when Katie Brennan accused a co-worker of rape. She said she told senior members of Murphy’s circle about the alleged assault, but the man, Al Alvarez, was still hired for $140,000 for a job in the administration. Alvarez denied the charges. He was subsequently fired, and Murphy said he was not told of the problem at the time.

Harassment — politics as usual

The accusations are in no way limited to Murphy’s campaign. Over the holidays, the Star Ledger/NJ.com published a story in which 20 women discussed a political culture that turns a blind eye to repeated harassment and assault by men, even instances of rape. They pointed to two prominent events that are particularly dangerous for women — the annual League of Municipalities Convention in November and the “Walk to Washington” sponsored by the state Chamber of Commerce in February. Regardless of their names, these are bacchanals, with long days of drinking leading to what men might consider “high jinks.”

As a result of the stories, Murphy spent a large part of his State of the State address criticizing the state’s toxic culture, the refusal to “believe women” and calling for change.

Roginsky said the speech “made her head explode” and decided to go public with her own accusations against Murphy. Roginsky says that when she was a senior adviser to the campaign, the treatment of women was abusive and cited one instance when a woman was threatened physically when a chair was thrown.

She cited Alonso as a particular problem, and said her then-close-friend Brendan Gill, the campaign manager, closed ranks with him. After she told Murphy that lobbyists were accusing senior members of the team of “self-dealing,” she says Gill called her the “c-word.” For women, that’s like calling an African American the “n-word.” Both words seethe with contempt and dismissiveness.

Roginsky says she was fired after that. Murphy denies it, saying the matter was investigated and the conclusion was that it was a “fundamental strong disagreement between two senior principals of the campaign.” The administration says that Roginsky left the campaign of her own accord.

Taking the next steps

So what can be done?

The Chamber of Commerce announced new policies for its “Walk to Washington.” They include a ban on hard liquor — not other alcohol — on the Amtrak train it rents so state business leaders can network with politicos. The crowded train is particularly dangerous for women, as the tradition is to walk the aisles stopping to talk, forcing people to squeeze past one another. And it doesn’t end there; dinner and after-hours parties are part of the package.

The chamber has also announced it will partner with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA) to provide sexual harassment training to its members. The League of Municipalities has also announced a partnership with NJCASA.

But although these announcements are an indication that business groups are paying attention, it’s questionable how much of a dent they will be able to make on their own.

For his part, Murphy says he takes the issue “deadly seriously” and will be working with leaders and women of both parties, as well as organizations, to address the problem wherever it occurs.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg has taken the strongest action. Weinberg, the most powerful woman in New Jersey government, has also formed an alliance with NJCASA, as well as a committee of prominent women to stage public, nongovernmental, hearings around the state. The first will be held next week in Fort Lee. There will also be a private hearing just for the committee to encourage more women to come forward.

There is also a survey that can be found on NJCASA’s website.

Weinberg says the goal of the effort will be to “shine a light” on the problem and keep this issue in the forefront of people’s minds. Although she doesn’t expect to name names, unless an accuser wants to do so, she says that continual discussion of the matter should help. It also adds a “fear factor,” she adds, which should limit men from participating in such practices.

Certainly, most men do not engage in sexual harassment or predatory behavior. Acknowledgement, discussion of the issue and an attitude of zero tolerance should provide some relief. And it would most definitely help if more women were in positions of authority, as well as being invited into the inner circles and given a seat “in the room” where political decisions are made.

But Weinberg says she does not expect the problem to go away this year, next year or even in her lifetime.

I hope she’s wrong about that.


Lee Keough is a founder and former editor in chief of NJ Spotlight.

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