NEWARK – A group of elected officials, lobbyists and political operatives is taking its first step toward changing the state’s political climate for women through an online survey open to anyone works or volunteers in New Jersey politics or government.

In addition to the survey, the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics will hold public forums to hear from women about their experiences while working in the public sphere and at least one closed-door listening session for those who need to keep what they say private.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, who organized the group after an NJ.com report detailing a toxic political climate as described by 20 women, said the steps are “just a beginning” and that the challenge is ensuring women don’t fear they’d suffer retribution for coming forward.

“This is the beginning of change. And we are going to change the things or bring a spotlight onto the things we think need change,” Weinberg said.

“What we are talking about here is about a culture,” Weinberg said. “I’m old enough to know this is not going to happen in two hours or two days or two months or two years or perhaps in my lifetime or maybe even some of the lifetimes of the people up here.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said women in politics and government can no longer remain silent about the political culture, particularly to protect younger women afraid to speak out because their careers are not yet established.

“We know that we have the strength among us collectively to change the culture, and if we can’t look forward to that culture, then I think we have enough women, particularly in the state of New Jersey, to force culture change,” Oliver said.

“And I think we’ve come to a time where we are prepared if women are not supported, then women are not going to continue to blindly support men who will not step up and take some leadership on this issue,” she said.

The online survey is being administered by the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault and is available through www.njcasa.org/njpolitics. Its instructions estimate it would take 7 to 10 minutes to complete. Responses are sought by March 15.

A sample of the survey shows it contains questions asking about the perceived prevalence of sexual harassment and misogyny as well as a person’s individual experiences. It doesn’t ask for the names of the people completing the survey nor any perpetrators.

Patricia Teffenhart, NJCASA’s executive director, said the survey will provide data and that data drives policy. She said “powerful people and institutions are generally only willing to address the issue of misogyny, sexual harassment and assault when they’re forced to not look away.”

“But we’re done allowing those who have the power to make real change turn away because they’re uncomfortable,” Teffenhart said. “The only way to address the issue at hand is by continuing to shine a light on it, a light so glaring that we cannot turn away.”

The group currently consists of 12 members, though Weinberg said more will be added.

In addition to Weinberg, Oliver and Teffenhart, they include:

  • Alison Accettola, general counsel, New Jersey Senate Majority Office
  • Laurel Brennan, secretary-treasurer, New Jersey State AFL-CIO
  • Elizabeth Coulter, director of public health, Planned Parenthood Action Fund of New Jersey
  • Sonia Delgado, partner, Princeton Public Affairs Group
  • Jeannine LaRue, senior vice president, Kaufman Zita Group
  • Sabeen Masih, vice president of public affairs, Capital Impact Group
  • Lisa Randall, commissioner, Bergen County Improvement Authority
  • Julie Roginsky, co-founder, Lift Our Voices
  • Christine Shipley, executive director, New Jersey Senate Minority Office

Roginsky, a former political aide to Gov. Phil Murphy, who said his 2017 campaign was the most toxic atmosphere she's seen in politics, declined to discuss her concerns at the Thursday news conference, saying she didn't want to overshadow the panel's work. Roginsky was told earlier this week by Murphy's lawyer that a nondisclosure agreement would not apply to workplace culture concerns.

LaRue, in answer to a question, said men in Trenton should be “very, very, very nervous.”

“Yes, this is a warning,” said LaRue, who has worked in politics for around 40 years. “If you are actively intimidating, harassing and assaulting women, we will find out who you are, and there are systems to deal with that.”

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