Critics say plan to investigate NJ campaign harassment falls short
TRENTON – Plans to create an investigatory unit at the state Election Law Enforcement Commission to look into complaints of sexual harassment in political campaigns are going to be revised even before they get a formal hearing in the Legislature.
The concept was the focus of a hearing by the informal Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics, which has advocated for a range of bills that have made it into law, and was criticized from a number of angles.
The bill doesn't have a hearing date scheduled in the Senate or Assembly, which are about to go mostly on break until May except for budget committee meetings. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said she would push for a hearing after changes to the bill are considered.
Among the criticisms is that the bill exempts people who work on a campaign for fewer than four days a year from anti-harassment training that would be newly required for campaigns and political parties.
“This may be the only opportunity for particularly young men to get anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training not only in their professional careers but in their lives,” said attorney Michael Farhi. “… Make that training mandatory for everyone across the board and you’ll be helping women in ways that you don’t even know.”
“Training is a necessary step to change the culture and to create a safer, more equitable environment where harassment and sexual assault, discrimination and a boys-will-be-boys attitude are less likely to flourish,” said law clerk Elissa Frank.
Weinberg and political campaign strategist Julie Roginsky said it sounds like a good idea but would be difficult in practice, given the frequency of things like such get-out-the-vote efforts the weekend before an election in which a few hundred students go door-to-door distributing literature – their only two days with a campaign, in which they never actually walk through the office doors.
“This is a problem that doesn’t have an easy answer,” Weinberg said.
“We have to come up with a practical way of being able to provide them with some sort of training in a centrally located place, which the campaign them would also have to pay them for,” said Roginsky, who said the added cost and logistics aren’t insurmountable but need to be considered.
Tiffany Kaszuba, a former congressional candidate from Monmouth County, expressed concern over the makeup of the advisory board that would oversee the new ELEC unit. The board’s 11 members include seven appointed by the governor, Senate president and Assembly speaker.
Kaszuba called the membership “hyper-politicized,” although the bill says six of those seven public members would have to have expertise in anti-harassment and the other would come from a list of recommendations from the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“I think that should be as far removed from political appointees as is possible because we understand how political appointments work in New Jersey, right?” Kaszuba said. “That’s not a secret.”
Eatontown Councilwoman Jasmine Story, who is an attorney, said a requirement in the bill that investigations be completed in 60 days may discourage some people from coming forward immediately for fear of harming their campaign. The bill also allows for financial penalties for people who don’t cooperate with investigations.
“In my opinion, some aspects of this bill do more harm than good and further victimizes anyone who finds themselves on the receiving end of harassment during a campaign,” Story said.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.