Weinberg’s group holds 2nd meeting to address misogyny, sexism in New Jersey

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A working group designed to identify and root out sexual harassment, sexism and misogyny in New Jersey held its second public forum on Monday.

The group is led by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg. About a dozen women from across state politics and across party lines gathered at Rowan's Burlington County campus for the meeting. It was the second of three meetings Weinberg called in the wake of an NJ Advanced Media story exposing inappropriate behavior in state politics.

One of the women who offered ideas for reform was Katie Brennan -- who previously accused Al Alvarez, a former state official, of raping her while she worked as a volunteer for Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign in 2017. Two county prosecutors failed to find enough evidence to bring charges against Alvarez. Brennan says that the system failed her.

“Sexual harassment and assault are crimes of power and control. It is precisely this that makes politics so rife with it,” Brennan said.

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Brennan is now the chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency. She says that she wants to make sure that other women do not have to go through the ordeal that she faced after she called the police in April 2017 to make a report against Alvarez.

“These are crimes that are so underreported, so under-prosecuted, so under-convicted,” Brennan said. “Now that there’s DNA, perpetrators just claim consent. So, the investigator – the detectives – aren’t investigating something that happened. They’re investigating credibility. Their approach needs to change.”

Alvarez ended up getting a state job with a six-figure salary. After several state hearings, it was never determined who approved him for the position. Alvarez quit his position after Brennan told her story to the media. But Alvarez has always denied the allegations.

MORE: Labor union leader says Sen. Sweeney threatened to ‘kick her ass’ if she were a man 
Witnesses, public gather at meeting to address misogyny in New Jersey politics 

“While we work to end harassment and assault in politics, do we just bow out of the political process?” Brennan asked. “That means no seat at the table, not being a decision-maker, no access to the people in the room where it happens.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver says that people need to be made accountable for their actions.

“Find out if they’re guilty and the victim should not feel that they have to carry that trauma the rest of their lives,” she says.

Oliver says that she is concerned that state employees who report workplace issues may feel intimidated. But she says that she and Weinberg think that the public forms are a step in the right direction.

“Although we might not change what’s in people’s hearts of minds, we can change an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to act out if there are inappropriate thoughts in their hearts and minds,” Weinberg says. “And I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ll be doing here.”

At least one more public forum is planned for next week at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. There may also be a closed-door meeting where people can come forward privately, but details about that meeting are still being worked out.

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