Over the course of my 20 years as a New Jersey state legislator, it never occurred to me to disclose what’s to follow. I was too afraid of being stigmatized and destroying my career in public service. So I didn’t speak up after I was elected as the first female Senate majority leader. Not after I had the honor of serving as the first woman to chair the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. Even after running as the first female Democratic Party candidate for governor in 2013, my secrets remained unspoken.
Starting out as an idealistic — some might even say naive — female politician, I approached my job with the expectation I’d be treated as a co-equal partner by male colleagues. I took comfort in believing all of the carefully honed grit and tenacity that landed me in office would overcome — or at the very least, keep in check — any sexist behavior. I figured it would be easier navigating it now than it had been as a teenager new to my first paying job as a waitress. That was the first and last time I quit my job because I felt denigrated and threatened by a man.
Little did I know how outmatched I was.
I was not prepared to deal with predatory behavior ranging from overt assault to casual verbal misogyny. So I kept quiet. I put my head down and charged ahead, bobbing and weaving as I went. I became an expert at deflecting and pretending outrageous behavior had not just occurred.
While fear and embarrassment kept me from speaking out in real time, after reading the most recent accounts by New Jersey women ― many of whom I know and deeply respect ― exposing the ongoing toxic workplace culture of sexual harassment and assault in the body politic, I feel compelled to raise my voice now. I regret remaining silent this long.
Hostility toward strong female leaders is endemic to the New Jersey political establishment. Today it might surprise some that in 2012 I was met with a collective gasp after invoking the term “misogynist” to call out a reporter who criticized me as “too ambitious” to run for governor. As women, we knew even just acknowledging gender discrimination would be treated as a sign of weakness. Invoking misogyny would be used by our detractors as proof that women must resort to concocting excuses for not succeeding.
Photo Courtesy of Barbara Buono Swimming with the sharks. The art of compromise and high-stakes brinkmanship at work as a bipartisan gaggle of senators huddle on the Senate floor in search of votes to pass a new school funding formula. It took three hours on Jan. 8, 2008, to successfully break the stalemate and pass my legislation. I’m standing in the middle of the group of about 17 senators.
What follows are just three instances of sexual improprieties I experienced during my 20-year tenure in New Jersey politics. This list is not exhaustive — not by any means.
Let’s start in 1994, when I was a new member of the New Jersey General Assembly. The state had elected its first female governor, Christine Todd Whitman, but as I quickly learned, Trenton remained an all-boys club. It was the kind of place where a male colleague felt free to tell me to bend further over the desk where I was standing one day in our caucus room. New to the legislature and alone with him, I was mortified. His lewd comments haunt me to this day.
Fast forward years later to a county fair, where another elected official, my running mate who has since passed away, smacked my behind. We were in public. We both were attending in an official capacity. He didn’t care. When I turned around looking shocked and upset, he met my gaze with an arrogant glare, daring me to say something. I felt angry but utterly powerless.
I’m years removed from New Jersey politics but not from the memories of one powerful Democratic Party county chairman’s aggressive behavior. He used the guise of meeting about policy and political strategy — the work I was elected to do as a legislator — to lure me into one-on-one meetings where he repeatedly propositioned me. Out of desperation, I resorted to enlisting help from another powerful Democratic leader. The behavior stopped only when that male ally spoke to him on my behalf. My initial relief was short-lived as I felt the crushing defeat of needing to ask one Democratic Party boss to rescue me from the clutches of another even more toxic juggernaut. Again, I kept it to myself.
Photo Courtesy of Barbara Buono Practicing the politics of persuasion. I’m on the Senate floor trying to wrangle a yes vote on the school funding bill from Republican Sen. Joseph A. Palaia, with Senate President Dick Codey looking on. In the end Sen. Palaia switched his no vote to a yes.
The overt, sexually charged behavior diminished as I rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party to assume powerful positions as the first woman to serve both as Senate majority leader and chair of the Senate Budget Committee as well as chair of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee. After my many years in the legislature, the power dynamic had changed. But as the saying goes, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
By the time I ran for governor in 2013, the sexism I experienced was recalibrated in remarks to intimidate, humiliate and handicap me to ensure this would be the last time I ran for the highest office in our state. At one point, former Gov. Tom Kean (R) called me “a nice lady” who was “unqualified” to run for governor.
I’ll never forget walking onto the set of ”Hardball with Chris Matthews” when I was running for governor in 2013, ready to talk about the issues affecting New Jersey’s families. After years of watching Gov. Chris Christie (R) pursue policies that set the state’s residents back, I looked forward to letting viewers know how I’d be a different kind of leader. But right before the interview began, Matthews asked if he could call me “attractive.” When the cameras started rolling, I had to pretend I hadn’t just traveled to Washington, D.C., to experience the same objectification that was all too familiar to me at home in New Jersey.
During the time I was involved in politics, beginning in the ’90s until the mid-teens of the 21st century, it was rare to see women publicly come to the collective defense of one another. If any thought at all was given to it, the conventional wisdom was that it was all just too risky and yielded no benefits.
But the political climate has shifted dramatically where more and more women no longer feel the need to tolerate or even excuse behavior ranging from sexual assault and harassment to casual misogyny. Ultimately, I decided to write about my own experience, because refusal to do so would render me complicit in a system rooted in and perpetuated by misogyny. Remaining silent would be acceptance of a set of unspoken rules designed to keep women in their place resulting in systemic discrimination where overwhelmingly white men monopolize the most important, powerful positions. And they want to keep it that way. Why wouldn’t they?
By standing in solidarity with one another, we are putting others on notice that we will no longer hesitate to call out predatory behavior. Equally important though is that we refuse to be intimidated into not running for office and we must fight to achieve positions of power within the current framework.
Only by persevering and staying in the game do we have a real shot at reshaping history for women by transforming this toxic system that belongs to men. And in declaring this to the world, we simultaneously are reminding ourselves that together we are a force to be reckoned with.