Witnesses, public gather to address misogyny in NJ politics

February 12, 2020 GMT

FORT LEE, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey politics needs, among other things, better sexual misconduct prevention training to stop widespread misogyny, according to nearly a dozen witnesses, speaking Tuesday at the first public meeting of a roving panel addressing the mistreatment of women.

The Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics held Tuesday in Fort Lee the first of what are expected to be at least three public meetings. The panel is chaired by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and included Democratic Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, and 11 other women from across New Jersey politics. Weinberg set the panel up after a December report on NJ.com that cited dozens of instances of misconduct, including groping, unwanted advances and even assault.

Tuesday’s hearing lasted over two hours and heard from nine women and one man. Many of the witnesses talked about the need for better training that went beyond simple online courses and instead included interactive situations to better replicate real life.

Among the witnesses was Deborah Cornavaca, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s deputy chief of staff. Cornavaca said the governor was committed to changing the culture in state politics. Murphy promised in his state of the state address last month that he would work on the issue, though he wasn’t specific.

“I think we have to acknowledge that if current sexual harassment and discrimination trainings were sufficient, we would not still be mired in decades-old problems,” Cornavaca said.

Amanda Richardson, an attorney from Harding, said she got involved in Democratic politics only recently after the election of President Donald Trump, and as a young mother found that much politicking took place at bars after official meetings, making it hard for her as a breast-feeding mother to attend. She said she was “shocked” at the in-person and online harassment toward women she encountered. She said there should be an “independent reporting mechanism” to relay misconduct to the right channels.

But it’s not always clear what those channels are, testified Melissa Grace Hallock, who said she’s been involved in local politics in Essex County for years. She said she’s seen a number of instances but expressed frustration that it was unclear whom to report what she had seen or heard, including instances of evident human trafficking.

The most emotional testimony came from a woman who said she was groped and the victim of unwanted sexual touching by a former running mate for state office. The Associated Press does not typically identify people who allege they are victims of sexual assault.

Fighting back tears, the woman said she was also berated by the man, who was not identified during the hearing, despite his public displays of support for women’s issues.

“I wonder how long we’re expected to stay silent,” she said.

Helen Archontou, the CEO of the YWCA of Bergen County, which runs a sexual violence resource center, said in addition to training, people should call out misconduct in the workplace when they see it. She called for adopting a “see something, say something” approach.

“We really have to create that culture,” she said.

One witness singled out Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney. Fran Ehret, a public-sector union official, said she was at an event with Sweeney when he stood up and told her if she were a man, they’d be settling the argument they were having “outside.”

Sweeney in a phone interview didn’t confirm or deny the claim, instead saying Ehret was the “ringleader” of heckles against him when he was calling for public worker pension and health benefit reforms and that she has “no credibility at all.”

The panel is expected to issue a report and to hold two additional public hearings, one in southern New Jersey and another in the central part of the state.

“This is just the beginning,” Weinberg said.