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Harding Township Democrats Chair Amanda Richardson shares personal accounts of misogyny and sexual groping on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. NorthJersey

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A panel of New Jersey women political leaders, who have spent over a year researching how to curb a "toxic culture" within politics, on Thursday recommended requiring independent investigations of harassment allegations and other reforms.

The workgroup on harassment, sexual assault and misogyny in New Jersey politics, led by Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, issued a 76-page report outlining five ways to improve the culture in Trenton.

"Changing the toxic culture requires changing the stakes and the political calculus for both abusers and the male-dominated political power structure, creating an independent investigatory mechanism outside the traditional power structure, protecting complainants against retaliation, and affirmatively changing the culture of politics through training," the report says.

The group recommended:

  • Expanding the role of the Election Law Enforcement Commission to include an independent investigator section, so complaints of harassment or assault would be handled independently instead of with party leadership. The commission is tasked with oversight of campaign finance and lobbying activities in the state.
  • Making state, county and local party organizations and campaigns adopt and post an anti-harassment policy that includes sanctions for serious or repeated offenses.
  • Requiring anti-harassment training for elected and party leaders, candidates, staff and volunteers.
  • Prohibiting practices that can silence victims, such as mandatory arbitration clauses and others. The state already prohibits non-disclosure agreements.
  • Ensuring that the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, the organizations backing the state's two biggest political events, follow through with reforms.

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The working group of 15 women held four listening sessions last year, when dozens of women shared their concerns about harassment and assault. The listening sessions and an anonymous online survey began after NJ.com published a story in late 2019 about approximately 20 women who work in state politics and told of being harassed, assaulted or raped.

The survey was completed in August and found that nearly two-thirds of women said they have experienced harassment working in New Jersey politics, from unwanted touching to sexually suggestive comments to sexual assault.

Weinberg, an advocate for women throughout her career in Trenton and who announced her retirement on Wednesday, also backed a package of eight bills meant to give victims more rights in the criminal justice process and implement better tracking of problems on a state level.

Those bills passed the state Senate in December but need votes in the Assembly before heading to Gov. Phil Murphy's desk for a signature.

The recommendations in the bills were in part developed based on testimony given by Katie Brennan, a Murphy campaign volunteer who alleged she was sexually assaulted by a staffer.

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Brennan's allegation against Al Alvarez, a top campaign staffer, prompted a legislative investigation and a legal inquiry, ordered by Murphy, into how the campaign operated and how Alvarez had gotten hired after multiple people close to Murphy were made aware of the allegation. 

Weeks of hearings produced negative attention on the campaign but no answers on who hired Alvarez as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, which was quickly embroiled in a patronage scandal connected to the Murphy administration.

The state and Murphy's campaign in May agreed to pay $1 million to settle a civil case with Brennan. Brennan directed that most of the money should go to a Hudson County nonprofit that assists economically disadvantaged people.

Stacey Barchenger is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s policymakers and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: sbarchenger@gannettnj.com 

Twitter: @sbarchenger 

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