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EDITORIAL: End rampant sexual harassment at Illinois Capitol

Illinois representatives gather on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield,

The Illinois General Assembly. | AP file photo

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford endured crude remarks about her legs from a male colleague in Springfield. She had to remind another fellow legislator that he was the same age as her grandfather to get him to stop making “inappropriate” comments about her.

“I think that when you’re just around people who are in powerful positions, men and women alike, they think they can do that,” Lightford, who is from Maywood, told Sun-Times political reporter Tina Sfondeles on Tuesday as women who work at the state Capitol spoke up about being sexually harassed by men in power.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford in 2014. | AP file photo

Galvanized by women who have gone public with allegations of harassment and sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and the ensuing #MeToo social media campaign, women in Illinois politics are talking about their own experiences. Some are telling their stories on the “Say No More” Facebook page, and more than 150 women who are elected officials, lobbyists or consultants have signed a letter describing harassment by powerful men they work with. So far, the alleged harassers have been lucky — they haven’t been named publicly.

Ironically, a state Legislature charged with writing laws about discrimination, harassment and protecting vulnerable people is under fire for fostering an environment ripe for abuse. It’s up to leaders in Springfield to transform the culture. Insiders have known forever that the Capitol can be a toxic and sleazy place. House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton as well as minority leaders Jim Durkin and Bill Brady — and all their deputies —  must make it a more decent and professional place to work. It’s what they would demand of a rogue corporation, university or public agency that mistreats people.

EDITORIAL

There are plenty of legislators, lobbyists and consultants who conduct themselves properly. But if they are silent when witnessing harassment, they are part of the problem. Stop pretending unseemly behavior doesn’t exist. And to the harassers, we say: Keep your hands and filthy comments to yourselves.

We support a bill proposed by Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston that calls for a harassment training program for state officials and employees, though we recognize it is only a baby step. Madigan is advancing similar legislation, and leaders from both parties are supportive.

State Sen. Daniel Biss, a gubernatorial candidate, has sponsored a bill that would require legislators and employees to undergo sexual harassment training. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Under Biss’ bill, the legislative inspector general would look into allegations of sexual harassment. Currently, allegations of harassment can be made to the Human Rights Commission or the Illinois Department of Human Rights. But it rarely happens. Making such a claim can be a career-ender; victims typically endure the abuse or find another job.

“I’ve had hands up my skirt,” Kady McFadden, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter, told the political website The Hill in an article published Monday. “I’ve had my hair pulled. There’s just kind of nothing you can really do.”

Women as well as men who are sexually harassed know that if they report harassment, or firmly rebuff the aggressor, they could lose their jobs. In McFadden’s case, her group helps craft and pass important legislation related to the environment. If a legislator and his pals turned against her, she could no longer effectively do her job. That’s the plight of victims of sexual harassment and abuse, whether they work for a rich, influential Hollywood mogul or with power-hungry politicians.

The bills proposed by Biss and Madigan would put offenders on notice that there would be consequences if they mistreat people. As political blogger Rich Miller wrote on his Capitol Fax website, “The excuse often heard is ‘I didn’t know my behavior was wrong or inappropriate.’ At the very least, the annual training will take away that excuse, whether it’s legitimate or not.”

In the future, when bad behavior comes to light, it’s on leaders such as Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner to move quickly to protect victims and publicly rebuke offenders. If they don’t, legislation is pointless.

Consider what Springfield 6th Ward Ald. Kristin DiCenso wrote on the “Say No More” Facebook page: “My first experience of sexual harassment in the political arena happened at age 15. I was a House page, and a (married) legislator asked me how I got that great tan. I explained that I had just returned from Spring Break. His words? ‘I’d like to see those tan lines.’ ”

Disgusting, right? For way too long, that’s been the norm.

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