Rhetoric, Reality At Odds In Springfield Sexual Harassment Scandal
By Austin Berg
A crisis arises. A quick fix emerges. And the status quo remains intact.
This is a typical political life cycle for many important issues in Springfield. Illinoisans see it in the budgeting process each year. They see it in a failure to seriously address the state’s mountain of debt. And they just saw it in the toxic culture of sexual harassment, abuse and manipulation in the halls of power.
In fact, one could observe the entire wicked cycle in a single week.
On Oct. 31, victims’ rights advocate Denise Rotheimer testified in a House of Representatives committee hearing that she had been sexually harassed by Chicago Democratic state Sen. Ira Silverstein, who enjoyed a position of power as the lead sponsor of a bill for which Rotheimer was advocating.
Rotheimer’s testimony came amid a firestorm ignited by an open letter calling out the abhorrent norms of Springfield. This controversy was stoked by the fact that lawmakers allowed 27 ethics complaints against members of the General Assembly or their staff members to sit in a binder, untouched for as long as three years, as the Office of the Legislative Inspector General sat empty.
Not to worry. There was a convenient solution at hand.
First, lawmakers scrambled to fill the legislative inspector general slot. Meanwhile, House Speaker Mike Madigan’s bill would mandate sexual harassment training and add language on sexual harassment to the ethics code.
The bill quickly came up for a vote.
One by one, on Nov. 7, lawmakers rose to rail against a culture that has persisted in state politics for decades. They characterized sexual harassment as rampant in the General Assembly.
And then they voted 117-0 in favor of Madigan’s bill in the House, and 55-0 for the bill in the Senate.
That should invite skepticism.
The foxes are still guarding the henhouse. And they voted unanimously to continue to play a large role in policing themselves.
Faisal Khan currently heads up the Chicago watchdog group Project Six. He’s also the former legislative inspector general for the city of Chicago. In fact, he was the first watchdog in the history of the notoriously corrupt Chicago City Council. But his office – while dogged in its pursuits – was widely considered as having been set up to fail.
How did Chicago aldermen come up with such an idea? For the most part, they just copied the General Assembly’s language for its legislative inspector general, according to Khan.
“Chicago’s plan mirrored the state plan,” Khan said.
“Which meant a part-time position created on the false premise of few complaints, little to no resources, and an almost impossible set of obstacles and rules to navigate that clearly favored the accused.”
Even before it was vacant, Illinois’ Office of the Legislative Inspector General was toothless. The previous legislative inspector general made public just four investigations over a decade, all of which were regarding relatively small matters.
Meanwhile, bad actors continued to be dealt with behind closed doors. At worst, that meant offenders would be quietly shuffled out of their seats to some other arm of government, where their behavior would predictably continue unabated.
Powerful lawmakers are still likely to be beyond reach in the reformed system. And that’s setting aside how longtime legislative leaders such as Senate President John Cullerton have emerged unscathed in this process, despite having let serious complaints die in the dark for years.
For her part, Rotheimer is now being second-guessed.
After she testified, Rotheimer released more than 400 pages of Facebook messages between Silverstein and herself, the contents of which have led certain members of the political commentariat to characterize her responses to Silverstein as “flirting back.”
Rotheimer’s daughter responded:
“She completely made herself vulnerable, naked in front of a public armed with their comments in place of stones … on a matter they do not fully understand nor could because it would require an investigation,” she wrote.
“[S]he thought that if she did not keep up with his comments that the bill would die.”
The takeaway: Harsh skepticism can be a discouraging response for other women with stories to tell.
That chilling effect is real. And combined with a legislative fix that doesn’t actually fix much, it’s enough to save the status quo.
At least for now.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network. Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.