Equality key to fighting sexual harassment

New report calls on political parties to lead by example in changing Springfield culture

 State Sen. Melinda Bush, state Rep. Carol Ammons, and Comptroller Susana Mendoza led the Anti-Harassment Equality and Access Panel. (AHEApanel.org)

State Sen. Melinda Bush, state Rep. Carol Ammons, and Comptroller Susana Mendoza led the Anti-Harassment Equality and Access Panel. (AHEApanel.org)

By Ted Cox

While the nation’s capital is in turmoil about how to handle sexual assaults, Illinois is actually doing something about it.

As much of the nation was transfixed with Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and state Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake were taking a break to talk about their role in the Illinois Anti-Harassment, Equality and Access Panel report released this week in an attempt to remove sexual harassment from politics.

What they were seeing on television wasn’t far removed from what they were dealing with in Illinois.

“I think we’re seeing today that not as much has changed since the Anita Hill hearings as we would have liked to see,” Bush said on a conference call Thursday morning.

“It’s like deja vu,” Mendoza added. “I was a kid when that happened,” when Hill charged Justice Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings in 1991, “and I’m a grown woman feeling like we’re living in the upside down.”

The AHEA Panel then is an attempt to set things right once and for all, at least in Springfield. After the state Democratic Party was rocked with a series of harassment scandals earlier this year, party Chairman Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House, appointed Mendoza, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Rock Island, and state Rep. Carol Ammons of Champaign with leading a panel to come up with solutions.

Knowing that sexual harassment wasn’t limited to Republicans or Democrats, they immediately sought to fund it independently and free the panel from any partisan bias.

“Men are going to be men, and they’re going to be disrespectful or respectful regardless of what party they’re in,” Mendoza said. “The issue of sexual harassment, and workplace safety, is an issue that crosses all parties and all professions.”

National ethics laws on independent fundraising meant Bustos had to withdraw, but Mendoza and Ammons recruited Bush, who was outspoken on the issue in the General Assembly.

In July, they embarked on a six-city tour — Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, Rockford, Edwardsville, Springfield, and Carbondale — to get testimony statewide on sexual harassment in Illinois politics.

“When we traveled to those six different cities, the people who came and spoke to us were people of all parties,” Mendoza said. “It was just really about women and these issues we have to deal with.” Those who testified were protected with anonymity to get their full stories, but Mendoza did reveal they included Republican legislators.

“We really had a representative sample of what Illinois looks like,” she added. “This report is not about the three of us as panelists. This report is a reflection of the women who came to speak to us. It is informed and driven by them.”

The report acknowledges that the problem is rampant in Springfield politics, but it really concentrates on solutions, and what’s most striking about it is that it doesn’t suggest new laws or kick the can down the road to a task force, but instead puts forth a series of policies calling on Illinois political parties to lead by example rather than impose new regulations that may or may not be enforced from place to place.

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“This report is not about the three of us as panelists. This report is a reflection of the women who came to speak to us. It is informed and driven by them.”

Comptroller Susana Mendoza

“Rather than just make it about how we can change laws — oh, we did this — no, it’s really about getting to the root of the actual problem and delivering a living, breathing document that is a really good start … on how to change the culture long-term in Illinois politics,” Mendoza said.

“It’s not a thing, it’s a culture,” she added. “We really felt that our panel should be addressing the systemic problems that this culture even exists.

“It’s always been a man’s world where the rules are made by men. If we really want to truly fix the culture and the behaviors at the root of sexual harassment, we need to do a lot more than just expose it. We need to change it. And we need to change it by being unabashedly intentional about promoting women into leadership positions throughout politics, and electing more women who then frankly will be establishing the new rules moving forward.”

The report attracted attention in the media this week mostly for pointing to alcohol as a pervasive problem, and it’s true that the report does cite that as an issue. But its main thrust concentrates on creating full equality for women in the political arena, so that once they have equal representation then they can change the laws.

If the political parties lead the way, it suggests, the rest of the society can’t help but follow. In fact, much of the society is already there waiting for the laws to catch up.

“The laws that are in place today are laws that are made by men for men,” Mendoza said. “They’ve been made many years ago. They are completely antiquated.”

At the same time, the report’s proposals are contemporary in that they allow people to be human. It doesn’t just say alcohol is a problem and should be banned from political events — an unrealistic solution — and neither does it say that the occasional campaign romance should be prohibited. Rather, it comes up with what’s called the “One Ask Rule,” in which someone is allowed to ask out a colleague once and, if rebuffed, is simply not to ask again.

“You don’t want to ruin someone’s life because they asked somebody out and they said no and then (it’s) automatically assumed that you’re a perv or something,” Mendoza said. “You want to encourage young people to get involved in the political process. And lots of young people are single, and it’s a social environment. There’s also drinking involved and long nights.

“I’m sure you’ve heard of people who met on campaigns and went on to date and get married,” she added. “You have these stories, but there’s also some really bad incidents. So at the end of the day we felt it was a fair thing to say, hey, look, you get one ask. If they say anything other than an unequivocal yes, then assume it’s a no and don’t ask again.” She called that “a very simply rule that is easy to follow.”

Again, the report ultimately calls on political parties not to dictate terms, but to lead by example. In addition to establishing training policies and a system for processing accusations without fear of retaliation, it sets “clear and non-negotiable policies that really go beyond the law,” Mendoza added. “Don’t just do things that are not illegal. Try to set the standard for what behavior and the culture should be like in this state.”

“This is why this is so important that this report doesn’t just stay on the shelf,” Bush said. “I want to see all the parties step up to do that. And we will be watching to make sure that all of these policies really are enacted. It’s really time that we make a difference and move forward.

“This culture has got to change,” she added, “and the only way we’re going to change it is by changing the rules and make sure we have more women elected to office and at the table and in leadership. This is about equality, and women are not going to step back. It’s really way past time.”

According to Bush and Mendoza, the Democratic Party has already moved to create a human-relations office to field and process charges. Mendoza called that “a huge move forward” to assure “a reporting mechanism and some accountability.” They also expect parties to enforce the reforms by shutting off funds to candidates and campaigns unless they comply.

Mendoza said they have not yet received a formal response from Republican leadership and other parties on the proposed reforms, “which is unfortunate, (but) the report just came out (Wednesday), and I think people are going to need time to digest it and think about it before they perhaps reach out to us.”

Without committing to adopt the proposals, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Timothy Schneider issued a favorable statement Friday, saying: “Sexual harassment and intimidation are not and never will be tolerated in the Illinois Republican Party or in our campaigns. We are glad this important issue is getting the attention it deserves.”

“Illinois will strive to be different because we’re already seeing it,” Mendoza added, “at least the Democratic Party is already implementing some of these recommendations. But I really, truly hope that the Republican Party does too and the Libertarian and the Green Party and just anybody who’s running for office. You don’t have to wait for the parties to tell you what the new rules are. You can lead by creating new rules that are better than anybody else’s out there already.

“It’s not an end-all,” Mendoza said. “It’s just the beginning.”