Sexual Harassment Takes Center Stage in Springfield With Open Letter, Training Proposal

Illinois lawmakers returned to the Capitol for veto session Tuesday, and one of the issues at the forefront was a growing number of sexual harassment allegations involving everyone from elected officials to lobbyists and staffers.

After so many women spoke out about predatory behavior in Hollywood following the bombshell allegations against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement has spread to politics.

While sexual harassment is not limited to Springfield – that's where change may first take place.

Kady McFadden lobbies lawmakers for the Sierra Club and wants others to know their voice has power.

"I've had my hair pulled, I've had hands up my skirt, I've also just been laughed off,” she said.

McFadden is among the women in Illinois politics speaking out, using a Facebook group “Illinois Say No More” and an open letter that details a culture of misogynistic and even predatory behavior that signers say happens on a regular basis.

Titled “#MeToo? It’s Time to Demand #NoMore in Illinois,” the letter includes very specific allegations – without naming names – as well as a call to action to “demand better” from “The Women Who Make Illinois Run.”

"I had candidates refuse to pay me because I rejected them for dinner and dates," political fundraiser Katelynd Duncan said of her own experience with harassment.

Duncan runs her own consulting business, in which candidates hire her to raise campaign funds, and she said she’s not alone in her experiences that led her to work on the letter.

"There are hundreds of women who are not comfortable telling their story,” she added. “They do not feel safe they're afraid that they’ll be fired from their jobs or they'll be publicly shamed."

The letter and group have caught lawmakers’ attention – with state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) introducing a resolution urging the General Assembly to work on ways to change the culture, and state Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), who’s running for governor, introducing a proposal to require all legislators, staff and lobbyists to receive yearly sexual harassment training.

That proposal has garnered bipartisan support from Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan and GOP Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady.

“Sexual harassment is unacceptable in any workplace,” Madigan said in a statement promising to advance the legislation.

“We can and should do more to ensure no individual is the target of sexual harassment in the Capitol or anywhere else,” he continued, adding that he has “directed staff to conduct a thorough review of all existing policies related to this issue and to continue identifying further changes that can and should be made.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner said in a statement that he "mandated a sexual harassment-free workplace for state employees almost two years ago."

An executive order signed by Rauner in Feb. 2016 "directed the creation of the state’s first Code of Personal Conduct," she added.

"The order derives from the Governor's strong belief in an ethical, respectful and accountable workplace and from his personal conviction that sexual harassment is unacceptable in all forms. State agency employees also receive required sexual harassment prevention training," the statement concluded.

The issue isn’t just about the hazards women face in the workplace, supporters said – it’s also about the negative impact a toxic culture has on the policies that come from Springfield.

"I've devoted my life to fighting for a strong state, to fighting for a healthier planet, for healthier communities and ultimately this culture in Springfield is preventing us from having a stronger democracy," McFadden said.

"We're the ones that pass legislation and laws, and if we can't set the bar, if we can't set the standard for how to behave, then shame on us,” added Duncan.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the open letter had more than 170 signatures from lawmakers, staffers and political consultants demanding change.

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