SPRINGFIELD – As the sexual misconduct wave hit Hollywood, the media and other industries last fall, an open letter circulated through the Illinois Capitol demanding an end to a culture of disrespectful treatment of women. Lawmakers have been trying to decide the best way to respond, but finding consensus has been more difficult than anticipated.
The governor eventually signed legislation requiring sexual harassment training for lawmakers and others working in the Statehouse, but the debate revealed problems in reviewing such complaints. A look at the issue in Illinois:
The letter garnered hundreds of signatures from lawmakers, lobbyists and others with political affiliations in the capital, including top names among progressives in the Legislature, including Democratic Sen. Heather Steans and Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, both of Chicago, and Democratic Reps. Robyn Gabel of Evanston and Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside.
The letter was publicly released days before Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, introduced legislation to add sexual harassment to a list of ethics violations for legislators and their staff members. The proposal also required them and lobbyists to undergo annual training.
The legislation was widely supported but quickly faced criticism because it called for complaints to be investigated by the legislative inspector general – a position that had been vacant for more than two years.
The impact of that vacancy became clear Oct. 31, when a legislative committee considered Madigan’s plan. An advocate for crime victims’ rights testified that while working on legislation in 2016, Sen. Ira Silverstein of Chicago, the Democrats’ caucus chairman, had paid her unwanted compliments, sent her inappropriate messages over social media and placed late-night calls to her.
The advocate, Denise Rotheimer, wanted to know why, after filing a complaint with the Legislative Ethics Commission a year earlier, nothing had happened.
Silverstein resigned as caucus chairman the day after Rotheimer’s testimony, forfeiting a $21,000 annual stipend. He is the only lawmaker known in recent years to have suffered any repercussions for alleged harassment. A senator since 1999, he now faces four opponents in the March 20 Democratic primary.
Democrats who control the Legislature said they repeatedly tried to fill the part-time inspector general’s post. Unflattering publicity followed, including the revelation by a state senator and ethics commission member that 27 complaints – not necessarily all harassment-related – had been filed but not acted upon during the vacancy.
The commission temporarily appointed former federal prosecutor Julie Porter on Nov. 4. She quickly pledged to address the complaints, telling The Associated Press: “I wouldn’t have accepted this appointment if I thought there was nothing I could do to get the state and the citizens out of this current situation.”
She reported in December that she had reviewed the 27 complaints and was ready to investigate several of them. Meanwhile, Rotheimer filed a fresh complaint – against the commission itself for failing to fill the inspector’s position.
When lawmakers returned to Springfield in November, emergency sexual harassment-awareness sessions were arranged. Floor debate in the House and Senate were even interrupted so legislators could attend the sessions.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the legislation Nov. 16, and the new law requires annual training. A 50-state review by The Associated Press found that about a third of state legislative chambers across the country do not require lawmakers to participate in sexual harassment training.