Senator Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake) spent more than a year holding hearings and overseeing negotiations which eventually produced SB1829 – a massive omnibus bill on sexual harassment.
The proposal would do everything from limiting non-disclosure agreements that could prohibit disclosure of sexual harassment, to preventing unions from representing both an accuser and an alleged harasser in disciplinary proceedings, to protecting contract employees from sexual harassment for the first time in state history, to forcing employers to allow victims of sexual harassment to take leaves of absence from work to "seek medical help, legal assistance, counseling, safety planning and other assistance."
Despite all this, the historically conservative Illinois Chamber Employment Law Council supported the bill and it passed the Senate last week without opposition. A Chamber representative even attended a press conference with Senator Bush to tout the bill's success.
Almost immediately, however, House Majority Leader Greg Harris, Assistant Majority Leader Natalie Manley, and Majority Conference Chair Kathleen Willis released a joint statement that basically said Bush's measure would be placed under review in the chamber and stuck in a special study-policy panel that's charged with coming up with the House's own omnibus bill.
The statement didn't contain so much as a thank you to the sponsor or a hint of praise for the massive bill. Indeed, the language used in the release made it seem as though the legislation was inadequate to the task at hand and was no big deal.
"Senator Bush's legislation contains many elements which will be reviewed and evaluated alongside ethics and human-rights issues proposed by members of the House in our effort to develop the most comprehensive legislation possible," the statement read in part.
Senator Bush served on the Democratic Party of Illinois' Anti-Harassment, Equality, and Access Panel (and intervened to have Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough kicked off the panel because she was too closely aligned with House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is also the state party chairman). She also co-chaired the Senate's bipartisan Task Force on Sexual Discrimination and Harassment Awareness and Prevention. This is a life mission for her.
Bush has personally poured hundreds of hours into her bill, so to watch the House Democrats blithely shrug while tossing it on a pile with a bunch of other, lesser bills was simply too much to take. She was also furious that Representative Willis had snatched up sponsorship of her proposal in the House without her consent and then refused to relinquish control.
House members say Bush confronted Leader Harris and others on the House floor last week to strenuously object to their press release and to question their intentions. She reportedly pledged to hold a press conference to angrily call them all out if they allowed her proposal to die.
It didn't work. The chamber's top Democrats stood by their decision.
Some House members have also complained about their bills being dumped into the informal sexual harassment and ethics study panel and have also been rebuffed by Harris, Manley, and Willis every time they've asked to move their bills separately from the rest. But the senior Democrats are determined to put their own bill together and that's that.
The legislative process is often compared to sausage-making for good reason. But Speaker Madigan and the House Democrats have had some, um, issues with this particular topic for the past couple of years, leaving some folks suspicious about his actual intent.
Madigan's own chief of staff had to resign after he was accused of sexual harassment. Madigan's political operation is being sued for retaliation after a former worker complained of sexual harassment by the brother of Madigan's alderman. A former staffer lost his lobbying job after allegations of misconduct while on staff. Another former staffer was accused of misconduct while running some Madigan campaigns.
"We haven't done enough. I take responsibility for that," Madigan wrote to his members in February of last year after one incident.
"I didn't do enough," Madigan then wrote in September of last year. "I have made it a personal mission to take this issue head-on and correct past mistakes," he added in his Chicago Tribune op-ed.
So maybe the House will craft a tough new law. Maybe they just figured that since the Chamber enthusiastically supported it, Bush's bill wasn't strict enough. I guess we'll find out by May 31, which is the scheduled end of the spring legislative session.
But that final product had better be pretty strong and comprehensive or there will be heck to pay. Senator Bush will make sure of that.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.