I will never forget walking into a Springfield bar late one night as a young reporter in the early 1980s and being startled to find my best friend’s wife dancing with a state senator.
She was a lobbyist. He was a Democrat from the west suburbs.
I never said anything to my friend. After all, I figured, she and the legislator were just dancing. It occurred to me that in her job she was probably under pressure to flirt with guys like him or at least manage his advances without hurting her client.
I filed it under the category of None of My Business. The marriage collapsed on its own anyway soon afterward.
That was the culture in Springfield in those days with legislators constantly on the make, and many of them keeping girlfriends in the Capitol on their payroll.
Women legislators were few and far between at that time, women lobbyists even scarcer. It was a boys’ club, and after hours, the boys liked to play.
With the increased professionalization of politics and an increase of women in the business, I might have thought that culture had changed for the better.
If so, apparently not nearly enough, according to an open letter circulating around the Capitol this week alleging widespread sexual harassment in Illinois politics. The letter has opened a new front for the #MeToo campaign that began in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations out of Hollywood.
The Illinois letter didn’t name names, just described scenarios. But the truth was evident to anyone who has spent much time on the political scene, especially in Springfield.
I was just a 22-year-old kid in grad school when I was first introduced to the Statehouse culture as a Sun-Times’ intern, years before the incident with my friend’s wife.
I remember some of my female classmates talking about the untoward advances of a certain North Side state representative with a reputation as a reformer. They shrugged it off. But to this day, it’s always in the back of my mind when I see him.
Even today, when the current crop of Springfield journalism interns pays a visit to the Sun-Times before beginning a semester covering the Legislature, I try to remember to include some sort of warning to be careful about fraternizing with legislators.
It’s an awkward discussion, especially coming from a guy, because I know that some of the best insights and story tips can emerge from those after-hours conversations in Springfield’s bars and restaurants. And women shouldn’t have to exclude themselves just because men fail to recognize appropriate boundaries.
These are certainly not problems unique to politics, although I think there is something about the nature of politics that probably makes it more prevalent. I’ve always figured it was the combination of egos and power.
In Springfield, throw in what can be a convention-like atmosphere with people being away from home with too much free time on their hands.
Still, I don’t imagine there are many men of conscience, no matter their line of work, who in recent weeks haven’t replayed scenes from their adult lives and wondered if they acted appropriately — or knew that they hadn’t.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, introduced a resolution calling for the General Assembly to “work to find solutions and ways to change the culture of sexual harassment in Springfield and throughout politics in Illinois.”
She asked those supporting the resolution to commit to saying #IWILL do better.
Legislators aren’t the only ones who need to make such a commitment.
I will do better.