Our View : Time is now for Capitol culture change

Late-night, suggestive texts from a male legislator to a female staffer leading bill negotiations.

A committee chairman making a crude comment to a female staff member about her anatomy.

A top legislator who explained his “open marriage” to a female staffer over dinner and asked if she was single.

Those are just three of the incidents detailed in a blistering open letter that alleges sexual harassment is widespread in Illinois politics. The #MeToo campaign, which encourages people who have been sexually harassed or abused to speak up, may have gained traction due to the deplorable actions of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, but it’s shined a much-needed light on a culture that has done little to stop the powerful from degrading their subordinates. It is pervasive and permeates every industry.

None of these incidents described in the Springfield letter should surprise anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in the Statehouse. Most women who have worked in the Capitol halls likely have a story about how they have felt demeaned by a word, look or behavior of a man who held more sway than they in the political arena. They can describe in detail how they’ve understandably feared retaliation if they spoke up.

The letter has been signed by at least 160 women, including legislators, lobbyists, attorneys and directors of nonprofit groups. No one was named but the letter — signed “The Women Who Make Illinois Run” — details incidents that range from suggestive comments to unwanted touches to not being paid in retaliation for rebuffing sexual advances.

It’s shameful and disgusting, and this rampant behavior has been tolerated for far too long — in part because the public silence let some pretend it wasn’t happening. The letter signals its intent to change the Capitol culture with its title of ”#MeToo?​ ​It’s​ ​Time​ ​to​ ​Demand​ ​#NoMore​ ​in​ ​Illinois.” It insists that the focus should be not only on the perpetrators of these despicable actions, but also by colleagues who for decades have observed — and ignored — this appalling behavior.

Initial reaction has been swift. State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who says she signed the letter, has introduced a resolution that “urges those in government to commit to working to change the culture that breeds sexual harassment.” House Speaker Michael Madigan said his chamber will advance legislation that requires legislators, staff and lobbyists to complete annual sexual harassment training. Lobbyists will be required to develop and submit their own sexual harassment policies. Madigan also said he had directed staff to conduct a review of existing policies related to the issue and identify additional changes that should be made.

Senate President John Cullerton says he supports the legislation, as does House GOP Leader Jim Durkin. Senate GOP Leader Bill Brady’s office said he would co-sponsor the legislation in the Senate.

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