Sexual harassment against female legislators must stop, West Side lawmakers say

November 23, 2017
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Next year will mark the 20th year that state Sen. Kimberly Lightford has been making and amending laws in the Illinois General Assembly. But it wasn’t until a recent Thursday that she had her first lecture on what constitutes sexual harassment.

“It was the first time since I’ve been a legislator that I’ve ever participated in a sexual harassment training,” Lightford said shortly after she completed the training held in Springfield earlier this month.

The two-hour training session provided examples of various types of sexual harassment, with explanations of how they may be interpreted by a third party, Lightford said, and it ended with a quiz to make sure participants understand the concepts, she added.

“It was a very good and beneficial training,” said Lightford, who became the Senate’s assistant majority leader in 2009.

“I think what I’ve learned today is that sexual harassment can be flirting, it can be touching, it can be verbal,” she said.

The new annual training, which is now mandatory for all state legislators, is just one of a few measures the General Assembly quickly passed in response to widespread complaints of sexual harassment in both the entertainment and news industries as well as politics.

Besides the mandated training, the anti-sexual harassment measures also include a $5,000 penalty for clearly defined violations and a stronger support system that facilitates reporting and investigations, Lightford said.

The legislature’s actions came after a heartfelt open letter written by anonymous female staffers that called out the long unaddressed climate of sexual harassment in Springfield and the resignation of a state Senate leader after a female activist publicly accused him of “unwanted comments and midnight phone calls.”

Lightford said she didn’t think she’d ever been the recipient of inappropriate touching, like “unwanted hugs,” as she “came from a happy family and hugged all the time.”

But she’s experienced sexual harassment in other ways, Lightford said.

“There’s been flirting done, comments made, there have been gestures,” she said.

“There’s been I guess the non-verbal, the looks, the glares, things being said, things like moans,” she said. “Somebody looked at you and go, ‘Ehm-eh-em’ – like ‘I can eat you up’ that kind of thing; they didn’t say it, but they reflected that.”

Until now, there had been no laws in place to protect state legislators, staffers and lobbyists from sexual harassment – an effort that is much needed, she said.

Lawmakers are putting together two task forces – one in the Illinois House and the other in the Senate – to consider stronger laws and regulations to prevent sexual harassment within the legislature, Lightford said.

The two task forces will begin meeting in December and report back to the General Assembly no later than December 2018 about their findings and proposals, she said.

“We are hoping to prepare a comprehensive recommendation that we can bring back to the General Assembly regarding harassment and how to proceed forward with identifying what to do,” she said.

Complaints filed by state legislators and staffers will be handled by the newly appointed Inspector General Julie Porter, who was hired earlier this month amid mounting pressure, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The position had been vacant the past two years, Lightford said, and the vacancy is one reason why the sexual harassment scandals “blew up like this,” she added.

“There were just cases that couldn’t be open until we had an inspector general,” she said, adding there are 27 cases awaiting investigation, although she’s not sure how many are related to sexual harassment and/or discrimination.

Registered lobbyists and other non-member of the legislature will be able to report harassment to the Illinois Secretary of State, she added.

“Sometimes victims don’t report it because they feel there are no support systems,” she said, but now “there’s direction for women to take” if they feel sexually harassed.

“If you are not sure how it made you feel, there’s a guideline to help you understand whether or not you should report,” she said, adding “reporting is important.”

Lightford said she’s hopeful the legislature’s recent action will “create a culture that clearly defines sexual harassment as unethical and that it’s not allowed.”

In recent months, the Illinois House has also proposed and passed a bill that sets standards for “what could be crossing a line as sexual harassment,” state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford said.

Ford said he had not personally seen or heard fellow lawmakers or staffers complain about being harassed, but the culture of sexual harassment in Springfield “does exist without a doubt.”

“What we have to do is to be very aware and draw boundaries to remind people to be responsible adults,” he said.

Staff training and clear guidelines will help reverse the code of silence, he said.

“What’s happening now will allow more people to feel that there’s a place to go if they are violated,” he said, adding having more conversations is key to “taking away the stigma of having victims speak out.”

“It puts people who have power over individuals in a conscious mindset that their power should not be imposed,” he said.

Although no public scandals have emerged from City Hall, Chicago lawmakers have taken “pre-emptive actions” to crack down on unethical behaviors, longtime Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said in an email interview.

The City Council unanimously passed an ordinance earlier this month that “clearly outlines the scope and nature of prohibited activities, tightening the definition of what constitutes harassment and bullying,” Mitts said, calling the ordinance “groundbreaking.”

As multiple allegations have prompted stronger anti-harassment protections in various industries, it was clearly time to address “this sensitive issue,” Mitts said, adding it’s “the right and responsive thing to do.”

The city ordinance expands the anti-harassment rules to elected officials for the first time in history, including aldermen, city clerk, treasurer other city executives such as the mayor, she noted.

The city inspector general will be able to investigate sexual harassment complaints about city council members starting Jan. 1. Officials could face fines from $1,000 to $5,000.

These actions will hopefully eliminate harassment from “inappropriate, unwelcome comments” to “suggestive advances” and “bullying encounters” female lawmakers and staffers face, Mitts said.

But the challenge will be “protecting the privacy and personal dignity of everyone involved” during investigations, she noted.

And finally, there still needs to be a “balance” while rooting out the negative behaviors, Mitts said, so that “a simple friendly morning greeting between co-workers” would not develop into “the equally unfair ‘overreaction syndrome’, where almost everything said between co-workers could fall victim to being misinterpreted and/or misconstrued into something it’s not,” she said.

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