Springfield does not operate with the pride of a state capital.
It’s always been “Spring Vegas.” And it’s always been a toxic place for women.
Maybe it’s a lawmaker calling from outside a woman’s hotel room door at 1 a.m., begging for entry. Or a lawmaker dropping his pants in front of a woman in a meeting. Or a lawmaker holding court at a bar where it’s an open secret that he trades sex for access.
These types of stories are endless.
Sexual harassment is more a part of Springfield culture than Lincoln’s legacy ever was. Its intransigence is an indictment of political leadership. And years of silence on the matter has produced a powder keg on par with Weinstein’s Hollywood.
It’s set to explode. And Illinoisans saw a spark on Halloween.
Denise Rotheimer, a victims’ rights advocate, testified in a committee hearing Oct. 31 that state Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, repeatedly harassed her as he was sponsoring a bill she authored, and even withdrew his support for the bill when he thought she had a boyfriend.
“He had so much power over me,” she said.
Rotheimer says she brought her complaint to leadership a year ago. Nothing happened. Silverstein denies the allegations, but has resigned from his caucus leadership post.
It’s hard to believe Rotheimer’s testimony won’t bring more disturbing stories out from the shadows.
Around 300 men and women signed an open letter at the end of October demanding a culture shift under the dome.
“The reality is that telling the truth can still cost you your career,” the letter reads.
For decades, those in power have appeared beyond reproach – especially state lawmakers. This breeds an expectation of silence for victims and witnesses alike, particularly for those who wish to get ahead.
With startling frequency, Springfield insiders tell stories of young contract lobbyists who are expected to not only tolerate, but reciprocate lawmakers’ advances in order to advance their careers. For years, participants in the state’s legislative intern program received the following piece of advice at the start of their summers: Don’t ever get into an elevator with a lawmaker alone.
Imagine heeding such a warning as a young person seeking a career in public service.
There is one watchdog office with the authority to investigate accusations of sexual harassment or abuse against lawmakers or their staff members. It’s called the Office of the Legislative Inspector General. But it’s been vacant for years.
In a statement following Rotheimer’s testimony, Senate President John Cullerton’s office said it directed her complaint against Silverstein to that office in 2016. Some help.
Sadly, even when staffed, the office has not been an independent advocate for those lacking power. The most recent, interim legislative inspector general was a lawyer who represented House Speaker Mike Madigan in a federal probe. And he was preceded by a former Democratic House member who, while in elected office, accepted money from the lawmakers he was later meant to oversee.
This is the perverse culture at work. Those in the Springfield bubble are expected to treat each other not as professional colleagues, but as members of a select fraternity, as family.
There’s a reason other workplaces aren’t like that. There’s a reason many other state legislatures aren’t like that.
Family doesn’t snitch on family. And that’s why the culture will not be changed through a few hours of sexual harassment training, as has become the solution du jour.
In the wake of the open letter, Madigan scrambled to get his ducks in a row. His office quickly wrote and released a bill requiring new sexual harassment training for members of the General Assembly and lobbyists, among other reforms.
Lawmakers should attend training. But it won’t be enough.
For all his countless faults, Madigan is one of a few powerful legislative leaders through the years who is not the subject of cringe-worthy stories involving women. The same cannot be said of his top staff, or some of his colleagues in the General Assembly.
Unfortunately, efforts to change the culture of sexual harassment in Springfield through legislative action have been tried before, not to mention backroom bargaining to “punish” bad actors. Yet abusers in both parties remain in the Statehouse.
Just a couple trips to haunts like the Globe Tavern, Boones Saloon, D.H. Brown’s or the No Name Bar at the Statehouse Inn during legislative session are enough to witness lawmakers at their most lecherous. Not to mention certain members of the media meant to hold them to account, or lobbyists.
Witnesses remain silent. Victims remain powerless.
The open letter accomplished the essential and empowering first step of naming the problem. A second step of naming names is already sending shockwaves throughout the state.
Bystanders, including and especially men, should take note.
The culture of silence will end eventually. And when it does, it will be with a deafening roar.