New Jersey to Propose Legislation Addressing Systemic Sexual Harassment within Political Campaigns  

A bipartisan team of New Jersey state legislators has announced its intention to introduce unprecedented legislation to address harassment and discrimination in New Jersey political campaigns and political parties. New Jersey is leading the push to create long-needed political campaign oversight and such legislation would be the first in the nation. The legislation comes at a time where more and more reports of rampant sexual harassment and sexual assault are brought to light in the media and in courts throughout the country.

IMG_0762-300x295The bill will create a new, independent process through which political and campaign staff and volunteers can immediately report allegations of harassment or discrimination without fear of retaliation. The proposed legislation will include clearly defined reporting processes with various reporting structures and mechanisms, codes of conduct, mandatory training, new guidelines and requirements for political campaigns and organizations, penalties for non-compliant entities and individuals, as well as oversight by at least one professional trained in supporting survivors of sexual assault.

While the new bill would create certain legal obligations specifically to campaigns concerning harassment, the dictates of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination will continue to apply to campaigns.  The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination to employees who work on the campaign and invitees of the campaign under the public accommodation provisions of the.  Invitees include persons such as volunteers, independent contractors and other persons who work on the campaign but may not be considered “employees” under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination employment sections.

The bill’s announcement comes on the heels of a recent NJ Advanced Media article that explored the pervasive environment of sexual harassment and conduct in New Jersey politics. The article recited egregious instances of sexual harassment and the permissive climate in state politics. NJ Advance Media interviewed 20 female campaign staffers, lobbyists, political operatives and lawmakers who anonymously shared their experiences. Most addressed two political gatherings as well-known hallmark occasions where such conduct occurs: the annual Chamber of Commerce “Walk to Washington” train trip and the League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City. Several women who were interviewed stated their belief that it’s best to keep quiet about allegations has been confirmed in light of Katie Brennan’s allegations of Al Alvarez raping her and the unscrupulous public scrutiny she continues to endure.

The issues of pervasive sexual harassment within political campaign organizations is not limited to New Jersey.  In November, 2019, a former campaign consultant for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan reached a $275,000 settlement in a federal lawsuit concerning sexual harassment during the campaign.  Early this week, Illinois Agriculture Director, John Sullivan, resigned after allegations that it was reported he failed to respond to an email from a lobbyist who sought leniency in a disciplinary proceeding for a state employee who allegedly kept allegations of rape incident.

The proposed legislation will establish independent reporting structures and mechanisms via the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (“ELEC”) and will further appropriate funds to ELEC to address their increased responsibility and scope of duties. New Jersey’s legislative session began January 14, 2020 and the bill’s introduction is anticipated during this session. The creation of an independent oversight board will assist individuals subjected to harassment, discrimination and other inappropriate conduct. This would be the first independent oversight board of its kind throughout the United States.

The New Jersey legislators joining arms on this effort include Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Senator Vin Gopal, Senator Kristin Corrado, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin and Assembly Minority Conference Leader Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz. All sponsors, except Gopal, served on the Legislative Select Oversight Committee that investigated the hiring of Al Alvarez by the Murphy administration despite Murphy campaigner Katie Brennan’s allegations that Alvarez had raped her.

According to Senator Weinberg, “Right now, there is no system in place in political campaigns that allows survivors to share their experiences, which leaves women under threat of retaliation if they report their harasser.”

The team of legislators advancing this bill have relied upon the expertise and advice of Patricia Teffenhart of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault in drafting the bill. “This is a significant step in the right direction and we look forward to working with the bill sponsors, legislative and executive leadership, and like-minded allies to see this legislation through to enactment.”

In announcing his involvement with the anticipated legislation, Senator Gopal stated, “We will continue meeting with leaders in local and state politics, staffers in political campaigns and organizations, and survivor support professionals to ensure that a diverse and experienced set of stakeholders have input into the bill’s language before it is introduced.”

“Ultimately, this reform is about implementing fairness – real fairness – in the workplace,” said Assemblywoman Munoz. “Volunteers and staffers enter politics because they dream of making a difference, and are willing to work hard to make that possible. They deserve to be able to pursue that passion without belittlement, retaliation, or assault.”

Our New Jersey employment lawyers will continue to closely monitor the proposed legislation and whether it becomes enacted into law.