I don’t think I’ve ever seen House Speaker Michael Madigan move faster to get in front of a legislative issue than he did when he vowed action to address the climate of sexual harassment at the Illinois Statehouse.
The decision came the morning after an “open letter” was published on Facebook by women who work in and around the Statehouse and who claimed: “Misogyny is alive and well in this industry.” The letter has roiled Springfield in a manner that I’ve never seen before.
In case you somehow missed it, the House Speaker claimed that because harassment “thrives in silence,” the House would move forward with legislation requiring legislators, staff, and lobbyists to participate in annual sexual-harassment training. Lobbyists would also be required to develop and submit their own sexual-harassment policies to the state. Madigan said more changes could be coming after a “thorough review.” I’m told that review will be conducted by a group of legislators, staff, and lobbyists.
It’s easy to be cynical here and say that Speaker Madigan moved so quickly in order to make sure more stories don’t emerge – perhaps with actual names attached to them next time.
But really, even if that is the case, so what? After just a couple of days of public agitation by current and former elected officials, lobbyists, staff, and consultants, we now have a proposal that all four legislative leaders have signed off on and which will zoom to the governor’s desk as quickly as they can get it there.
It’s also easy to predict that Madigan’s proposal won’t really solve anything. But 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. Once the rules are defined and digested, then more concrete steps can be taken. This problem won’t be solved with a bill alone. But it’s clear that something had to be done.
Depending how they’re drafted, the rules may also ease the minds of some in the community that their past consensual behavior is going to come back to haunt them. There is, without a doubt, a “hook-up culture” in Springfield. Humans being humans, I’m not sure that it can or even should be stopped. But the problem isn’t sex. The problem, as made clear in the open letter, is the creepy stuff.
Is this just a political ploy by Madigan to jump in front of a parade? In some respects, yes. It’s not like he consulted with the other leaders before deciding on his course of action or allowed women to take the public lead on the issue. But as flawed as it may be, that’s just Madigan’s usual mode of operation. When he gets an idea in his head, he goes with it. And he has a unique ability to make things happen.
I’ve heard several complaints, including from more than a few women, about the methods of the folks behind the letter about sexual harassment that circulated last week. For instance, a whole lot of people, including reporters, are now wondering who that unnamed “chamber leader” is who allegedly propositioned a female staffer by claiming to have an open marriage. There’s worry that this will just devolve into yet another hyper-partisan, gotcha exercise of finger-pointing and anonymous recriminations.
But the letter is having an impact with or without the new rules. Some women told me last week that they’d shaken more hands with men than ever before (instead of the usual hugs). This uproar is causing pretty much all of us to think about what we’ve done, what we could’ve done better, and what we should be doing in the future. That’s not a horrible thing. It’ll take some time to work itself out, but at least it’s being addressed.
There’s simply no telling at this point where all this will lead. But almost every woman has a horror story about Statehouse life. They’ve dealt with it over the years in various ways – staying silent, setting their own boundaries, privately consulting with other women about whom to avoid, asking others to discreetly intervene. It can be utterly exhausting.
I think what the women behind this letter are demanding now is that the boundaries should no longer be set by each individual. They should be clear, universal, and fair.
That’s not too much to ask.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.