Toxic masculinity? Top employment lawyer says campaigns are so male-dominated that noncompliance with law is widely accepted … and that must change

By Anjalee Khemlani
Montclair | Jan 9, 2019 at 10:31 am

Prominent employment lawyer Nancy Erika Smith doesn’t believe campaigns can play by different rules.

That campaigns are temporary and high-pressure workplaces, or that campaigns are different than businesses, are not an excuse for lack of oversight of a sexual allegation, she said.

Smith, in a phone interview with ROI-NJ on Tuesday, said campaigns must follow all workplace rules.

“I don’t buy into the idea that this is the nature of campaigns,” the attorney with Smith Mullin in Montclair said.

It may just be a gender thing, she said.

“It may be the nature of campaigns when men are running, and they surround themselves primarily with men,” she said. “But I don’t think the recent campaigns of all the women who were just elected to Congress had these problems.

“I don’t believe that we can just say campaigns are different. No, they are not. Campaigns are employers and they have to abide by the law. And the idea that they think they don’t have to or that they have been so male-dominated for so long that we have accepted that they don’t comply with the law has to change.”

Smith offered her insights after the latest hearing involving how Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign handled sexual assault allegations by former volunteer Katie Brennan against former staffer Albert Alvarez. Alvarez has never been charged in connection with the incident.

Smith said the campaign should have responded to the charges as any business would, refusing to allow a suggestion that campaigns are different than businesses because of the high-pressure nature of the campaign.

“I don’t think people on Wall Street feel that way,” Smith said. “They live in a high-pressure, high-paced environment. Lawyers who are on trial are in a high-pressure, high-paced environment. Wall Street is getting sued all the time, so they are introducing policies and procedures.”

Smith said the roles of those running the campaign need to be addressed.

She pointed to Jonathan Berkon, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who represented Murphy ‘s campaign and has also represented Murphy and other organizations of Murphy’s.

Berkon played a role in speaking to Brennan and letting her know Alvarez was supposed to be leaving his post. He also testified Tuesday that he discussed Alvarez being fired with Murphy’s chief counsel, Matt Platkin.

“You heard Berkon say he’s not really an employment lawyer,” she said. “Of course, they should have an employment counsel. Every campaign should have an employment counsel. They are employing people. (Victims) should know who to complain to and that they are free from retaliation.

“Maybe the problem is that campaigns don’t generally get sued like Wall Street does, because it’s a temporary job and women, especially, feel like they’ll be blackballed. That happens in every industry, too.”

Campaigns, she said, must recognize the issue.

“Campaigns shouldn’t feel that, because they are a temporary entity, that they are above the law and that women are disposable and don’t have to be protected, and that employment laws don’t apply — because they do,” she said.

“Sexism and discrimination are everywhere. But we certainly shouldn’t allow them to say (that) it’s a campaign, so it’s different.”

Smith, who represented Gretchen Carlson in her suit against former Fox News head Roger Ailes in what is now a watershed moment for the #MeToo movement, said it’s another example of sexual harassment in the workplace coming to light.

“One of the wonderful things about this legislative committee is it is exposing it,” she said. “Because only through journalism do we have the #MeToo movement.

“Letting the public know about what women have put up with for … centuries, is really what’s really going to change things. That’s an important element of what’s happening here.”

Read more from ROI-NJ:

Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem