Illinois Takes On Sexual Harassment

Apr 5, 2018

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, state lawmakers have tried to address sexual harassment in a variety of ways. We explore what's been done and what some say may be ahead.

Nearly six months have passed since more than 200 people signed a #MeToo letter asserting they've experienced or witnessed sexual harassment within Illinois state government. Since then, task forces have been assembled; some new state laws have been put into place; more bills have been introduced; and lawmakers have been trained in how to avoid problematic behavior.

Advocates and lawmakers say these are the first steps, but it will take much more time and work to change Illinois' political culture.

Kerry Lester, a former Associated Press and Daily Herald reporter, recently published "No, My Place," a book that features women in state government sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment.

"I think that the statehouse culture has been a bit of a frat house culture for many years," Lester said. "And I think that there have been some important voices coming forward talking about how harassment has happened to them."

One voice is Denise Rotheimer's. The victim's rights advocate was at the center of controversial sexual harassment claims against state Sen. Ira Silverstein of Chicago. Julie Porter, the newly appointed Legislative Inspector General, cleared Silverstein earlier this year, calling his behaviors "unbecoming of a legislator," but not sexual harassment.

Nearly two months after Rotheimer came forward, Silverstein lost his primary race to Ram Villivalam, the top vote getter in a field of four Democrats.

"We have the problem because there's no transparency or accountability of the elected officials," Rotheimer said. "They are the fox in the hen house. They do as they wish with no recourse."

Rotheimer said she was invited to a bar where she was told politicians, lobbyists and others aggressively hit on women. In Lester's book, state Rep. Theresa Mah talked about the same bar as a place where she witnessed rampant harassment.

"It was then when I experienced how gross and entitled many men can be," the book quotes Mah. "While we were having drinks, this lawmaker became very handsy. He was clearly not being professional and took the instance as a sexual opportunity. He was on the make, and it became obvious to me that this was pretty habitual for him."

Rotheimer said, in her experience, legislators of all stripes take part in the behavior:

"What I've known, is that the Republicans and Democrats are the same. People think there's a difference between the two. The reality is they're the same in the sense that they will protect each other," Rotheimer said. "They are colleagues. They have relationships with one another."

State Sen. Heather Steans says over the past several months improvements have been made. Legislation passed last year filled the vacant legislative inspector general position. This put someone in place to oversee filed claims of mistreatment. That role had been vacant for three years while more than 20 time-sensitive sexual harassment claims stacked up.

"I think there's still more work to be done, though," Steans said. "I think the inspector general needs the ability to actually publish if there's a finding. Only if there's a finding. If there's not, it shouldn't go public. But, we don't have that ability right now."

The groundswell of attention has focused some on House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan has been vocal, sponsoring the legislation for training that ultimately passed, and holding hearings. But Madigan, one of the state's most powerful leaders, also has been in the spotlight for the alleged actions of some of his staff.

Alaina Hampton, right, speaks with reporters about her sexual harassment complaint. She is with her spokeswoman Lorna Brett.
Credit CHICAGO TONIGHT / WTTW TV

Former Madigan campaign worker Alaina Hampton came forward about harassment she alleges she experienced from one of Madigan's aides, Kevin Quinn. Shortly after she spoke with the Chicago Tribune about it, Madigan announced he had fired Quinn, the brother of a Chicago alderman who had worked for Madigan for two decades.

"I was experiencing sexual harassment in the 13th ward office, the speaker's district office and I came forward about it, not once but twice, and I basically lost everything I worked for because some guy could not control himself," Hampton said in an interview with the Tribune's Ray Long.

Hampton is now suing Madigan's political organization for what she alleges was improper handling of the claims.

Madigan released a list in late February of nine harassment claims from within his office dating back to 2013 in an attempt to show transparency. He insisted does not tolerate such behavior. However, claims against lobbyists and caucus members, and those coming from within Madigan's campaign were left out. Despite calls for the speaker to resign from his leadership roles, Madigan continues to refuse.

Madigan called on some female Democratic leaders to form their own look into the party's handling of allegations. State Comptroller Susana Mendoza says the panel is working independently and won't take funding from the party.

"The goal of the Panel is to provide a set of … guidelines to be adopted by all Democratic officeholders, campaigns and nonprofit organizations to eliminate institutional protections for abusers and provide resources to help survivors continue in their careers," Mendoza said in an emailed statement.

The House and Senate Task Forces on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination have met periodically since forming in November.

The Illinois Black Legislative Caucus and other lawmakers wore black on the same date as the 2018 State of the State address to highlight the Me Too movement. State Sen. Mattie Hunter at podium.
Credit Daisy Contreras / NPR ILLINOIS

After stories of rampant abuse surfaced at Chicago's two Ford Motor Company plants, the Senate panel heard from their workers. A New York Times investigation late last year included feedback from 70 female workers about what they allege was a work environment that fostered mistreatment and mishandled claims of harassment. The company issued an apology and said it has a "zero-tolerance" policy. The women have testified to city officials and lawmakers, urging them to adopt protections to prevent the abuse from continuing.

The most recent task force meeting included testimony from representatives of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Office of Legal Counsel and the Congressional Office of Compliance. One topic addressed was the under-reporting of harassment. The panels are set to release reports on their findings by the end of the year.

Though the claims and reactions related to the #MeToo movement have already been numerous, Lester says this is just "the tip of the iceberg."

"The voices of women who have experienced this problem are getting louder and louder in Illinois, and I think we are at the point that it can't be ignored or brushed under the rug anymore," Lester said.

Efforts to address harassment and assault have reached beyond the Springfield. A new law requires Illinois police officers undergo trauma training and allows victims to have more time to report an assault. It's a change supporters like Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, hope will drive up reporting numbers.

"This groundswell, if you will, of support that is out there for victims to come forward and to say 'This happened to me,' is hugely important because then survivors don't feel alone. And when you don't feel alone, you feel empowered and emboldened," Poskin said.

Poskin and others say they are hopeful the boost in attention will result in a shift in culture and additional meaningful changes across the state.

Credit Katie Buck

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Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.